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Missionaries Impossible
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Jews for Jesus," perhaps the best known of an assortment of Christian missionary groups that target Jews for conversion efforts, has adopted a creative new advertising campaign. It has enlisted a Holocaust survivor to convince Jews to consider accepting the Christian messiah.

The group, possessed no doubt of deep convictions and apparently of deep pockets, has purchased space in a number of national media to feature a close-up of the kindly face of a Jewish woman of a certain age who spent part of the war years in a concentration camp. "Before you judge my belief, listen to my story," she implores the reader, and then proceeds to tell of her personal adoption of Christianity. The ad offers a video featuring footage of cattle-car trains and corpses with voices-over of Holocaust survivors who embraced Christianity. Verses from the Jewish Bible appear on the screen, and the viewer is told to say a prayer in acceptance of Jesus. The words "Mazel Tov" then flash on the screen.

The Jewish community's encounter with the Christian one has a long and largely inglorious history. From the harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric of early Church fathers (the apostle John claimed Jews are born of "their father the devil"; Chrysostom of Antioch, that they "murder their own offspring to worship the avenging devils") and Protestant leaders (like Martin Luther, who asserted that the devil "through the Jews his saints... mocks and curses God and man") down to the pogroms, blood libels and "Christian Identity"-genre internet hate-sites of more recent years, the Prince of Peace has all too often been invoked to provide Jewish people anything but peace.

Jews, as a noted basketball player/theologian recently reminded us, are stubborn folks, and one of our adamant stances is our refusal to divest ourselves of our religious heritage, including the conviction that the Messiah, at present writing, still tarries - a belief that, while it threatens to harm no one, has resulted over the centuries in untold hatred and violence on the part of countless Christians. The Holocaust itself can be traced in part to the religion-based Jew-hatred that was so endemic and deeply rooted in European lands.

To be sure, here on this side of Vatican II and the Lieberman candidacy, relations between Christians and Jews are much improved. Both the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches have straightforwardly rejected anti-Semitism, and that is deeply appreciated by all Jews. But the past cannot but continue to inform the present.

Jews have suffered beyond belief at Christian hands. And Judaism, in the end, remains a faith entirely apart from Christianity.

With its new ad campaign, Jews for Jesus cynically overlooks the former fact in an effort to deny the latter one. For Jewishly-conscious Jews, nothing could be more outrageous or insulting.

The contemporary Jewish religious world is famously fractious. There are deep ideological and theological differences among Jews today. But one belief that Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews share entirely in common is that the assertion that the Messiah has arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is simply incompatible with Judaism.

Which is why the claim of missionary groups that one can be a good Jew by accepting the fundamental belief of Christianity - indeed that one can be a "fulfilled" one only by embracing Jesus as Messiah - is anathema to the broad Jewish community.

As members of a faith that eschews the proselytizing of others and counsels "outreach" only in the sense of helping our own brothers and sisters come closer to our religious heritage, most of us Jews are irked when others target our coreligionists for conversion efforts. And the irk turns to irritation, even outrage, when misleading tactics are employed, when "sharing the good news" becomes "suckering the uninformed," when groups like Jews for Jesus adopt, as they do, Jewish holidays, symbols and trappings like prayer shawls and phylacteries in an effort to convince Jews that being a good Jew can include, indeed requires, adopting Christianity.

And when they go further still in their attempts to lure Jews from their ancestral heritage, and seek to enlist the Holocaust - a horrific happening that fed heartily on the fecund medium of a Europe steeped in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism - their efforts creep, slowly but unmistakably, beyond the bounds of even outrage, and enter the realm of the grotesque.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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