Proselytism. Now there is a word that will quickly overheat the emotional systems of multitudes of Jewish people. It was the culprit instrumental in putting the much misunderstood “Anti-Missionary Law” on the books in Israel. This word has been the subject of countless articles, books and addresses heaping scathing denunciation, repudiation and accusation upon those organizations and individuals accused of the practice. One word of suspicion that a person is a proselytizer will make him a pariah among former Jewish friends. Indeed, some conservative Christian organizations have become so sensitive to the controversial nature of the term that they are printing disclaimers saying in one way or another, “No proselytizing practiced here.”
Given a little historical background, one can readily understand why the word brings a degree of anguish to Jewish minds. Professed Christians, Muslims, cuitists and pagans have been guilty of instigating campaigns designed to force, bribe or delude Jews into embracing other religious persuasions. Thus proselytizing, which is commonly understood simply as the attempt to convert or evangelize, has become anathema to Jewish people. (I have traced some of the agonies of Jewry in this regard in the book, IT IS NO DREAM, Chapter 3, “The Long, Lonely Road”.) But before we are tempted to reach a verdict in favor of pursuing no further missionary activity, it will be well for us to consider several pertinent factors.
Judaism and Proselytism
“Judaism from its birth has been a missionary religion, maintains Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, an organization which represents 750 Reform Temples in North America. “Abraham was a missionary. We ought to resume our time-honored tradition.” Rabbi Schindler’s statement, quoted in Newsweek, August 13, 1979, reflects a new mood of spiritual militancy now being promoted by segments of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Jewish missionary efforts are being aimed at three primary targets: (1) the 57 percent of Jewish Americans inactive in synagogues; (2) Gentiles who marry Jews; (3) sixty-one million Americans who have no religious affiliation. Among other things, storefront “information centers” are being planned to propagate the beliefs of Judaism. Conservative Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, also quoted in Newsweek, said, “I think the Jewish people have the moral obligation to testify to the truths, values and lifestyles that Judaism uniquely provides.”
The fact is, the “new mood” is not new to Judaism. There is firm evidence that proselytizing was a well established practice among the Jewish people from ancient times. The Midrash refers to the statement about the “souls that they had gotten in Haran” (Gen. 12:5) as converts Abraham had made while in that land. The observation concludes with the comment that every proselyte was to be viewed as if a soul had been created. The Midrash further contends that when Israel is obedient to the will of God, He brings in as converts to Judaism all the just of the nations — Jethro, Rahab and Ruth are cited as examples. The Greeks who came to Jesus (Jn. 12:20) were proselytes to Judaism, And we well remember Christ’s commentary on the zeal of the Pharisees. “.. . Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte …” (Mt. 23:15}. We even find one case of forced conversion in the history of Judaism. This occurred when John Hyrcanus imposed mass conversion on the Edomites whom he had conquered. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that in his day Greek and barbarian cities evidenced a great zeal for the truths of Judaism. Ancient rabbis document Josephus’ contention with an extensive list of prominent GentHes who converted to Judaism.
Among the laws of conversion which brought a proselyte “under the wings of the Divine Presence were circumcision and immersion. He is not a proselyte,” argued the rabbis, “unless he has both been circumcised and has immersed himself. Proselytes terminated all former family ties upon conversion and were considered “a newly born child”.
The negative attitude toward seeking converts which developed among Jewry was influenced by several considerations. Among the Jews who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel were large numbers of Gentile proselytes. This, of course, was not viewed kindly by the leaders of Israel. Another factor was that in times of national distress, such as war, proselytes were counted unreliable and subject to the temptation of renouncing their confession in favor of refuge among Israel’s enemies. Josephus, who had himself deserted to the Romans, referred to a proselyte’s desertion as “a return to his evil ways”. During the Bar Kochba revolt, 132-135 A..D., untrustworthy proselytes were accused of “impeding the arrival of the Messiah”. The most significant factor in the decline of Jewish evangelism must be ascribed to marauding anti-Semitism, which plagued Jewry during the long night of the dispersion. There were periods when the papacy regarded leaving the Roman church as a capital offense and established strictures against proselytizing and the adoption of Jewish religious customs. The rise of Islam placed severe restraints on Jews inclined to seek converts in Moslim countries. Jews could, however, proselyte among Christians in Muslim areas and did so with some success.
But even during those periods when evangelism among Gentiles was a feeble enterprise, many Jewish scholars held to the principle of seeking converts for Judaism. Some, in fact, believed that the purpose behind Israel s dispersion among the nations was to gain proselytes from the Gentiles of the world. This attitude is a reflection of the biblical directive to Israel, “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servants whom I have chosen …” (Isa. 43:10).
Proselytizing experienced a modest resurgence In the poststatehood days of Israel. Although rabbinical courts were quite reluctant to certify proselytes from 1948 through 1968 ~~ only 2,288 proselytes were accepted out of 4,010 applicants — the 70’s brought a marked change in attitude. This was brought about by ammendments to the Law of the Return. In 1971 the Ministry of Religious Affairs, for the first time, established schools for prospective proselytes in Israel. Two kibbutzim were designated as teaching centers offering intensive courses in Judaism for would-be converts.
Nineteen Hundred and Forty-four witnessed the establishment of the first incorporated Jewish missionary society in modern times, when the United Israel World Union was founded in New York City. Today, proselytes from this organization have congregations in Michigan and West Virginia. In 1955 a group calling themselves the World Union for the Propagation of Judaism was formed by Jews who believed it was time to undertake missionary activity. Another mission agency, the Jewish Information Society of America, came into being in Chicago in 1962. As a basic premise. Reform Judaism in the United States supports the belief that Jewish people have an obligation to make their religion known to mankind and attempt to attract Gentiles into the Jewish community. There are, of course, varying degrees of resistance to these efforts among the religious communities of Judaism. But the fact remains, proselytizing has had a significant place in the history of Judaism and is apparently on the rise once again.
Action And Reaction
As we have concluded from the considerations above, seeking converts is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon — it never has been. Neither can it be construed as an insensitive and diabolical plot designed to decimate the ranks of the world’s religious innocents. The dissemination of what one believes to be God’s truth is both rational and imperative. And, the fact of the matter is, truth, once confronted, demands a decision.
There are, assuredly, reactions in the historic Jewish/Christian confrontation which are justified and must be faced objectively. Forced conversions, for example, while being extracted from time to time by professed followers of Christ, are as abhorrent to biblically literate Christians as they are to Jews. One might observe further that the hard sell, superficial techniques of evangelism which are designed to produce quick “decisions” are largely counterproductive. Two reactions to this type of activity are fostered among Jews and Christians. (1) Jewish people accuse the Christian perpetrators of being more concerned with “hanging another Jewish scalp on their belts” than they are with the true spiritual welfare of Jewish people. Regrettably, too frequently inflated statistics from such efforts are exploited for promotional purposes, thus adding another distasteful dimension to the misunderstanding already created. (2) Many evangelical Christians, in an attempt to show love and disassociate themselves from the aforementioned excesses, become silent about their faith, vague in their witness, or make confusing statements like, “We are aggressively evangelical Christians, but we do not believe in evangelism that will convert Jews to Christ.” While we understand perfectly well the need for sensitivity, certainly Jewish people cannot fail to see the self-contradiction in such statements. If Christians are evangelical, they believe that all men, Jew and Gentile, need Christ, and as a consequence have an obligation to share the knowledge of their faith.
Another reaction has been voiced by prominent rabbis and other leaders of Jewish communities who raise objections to Christians operating behind a facade of Judaism. These people, the Jewish leaders contend, “bootleg” their Gospel under the garb of traditional Judaism. While one must reply that Hebrew Christians have every right to maintain their cultural ties with Jewry, and, yes, Jews who accept Jesus as their Messiah do remain Jewish, we must be equally candid in saying that Christianity is no more an extension of traditional Judaism than it is of traditional Gentilism. And, frankly, serious questions can be raised regarding the practice of robing Christianity in the trappings of traditional Judaism in order to create a simulated environment in which Jewish people will ostensibly feel more comfortable than they do in a church.
What Should Be Done?
What then, one might ask, can be done biblically, ethically and without apology in the communication of our message to Jewish people? There are several suggestions at hand.
Acquire a clear understanding of the issues. The central issue is not convincing a person to change religions — this is, by the way, what most Jewish people understand conversion to be. And whether one chooses to say, “Yeshua”, “Mashiach”, “Son of David”, “Messiah of Israel”, or whatever, in an attempt to soften the impact the issue is still clearly the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Whatever arguments are raised to the contrary, the fact remains that the messianic predictions of the Old Testament are explicit in the extreme in announcing that the coming Messiah would be both God and Man. One example will suffice to make the point. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
Jesus of Nazareth, Jewish people are confronted by One who
Was a Jew,
Is the greatest Jew who ever lived,
Is without question the greatest man who ever lived,
Is One who claimed to be the Messiah of Israel,
Climatically asserted His deity and directed all men to acknowledge Him as God, Saviour, Lord and King.
Evangelism is quite simply making Him known and inviting men and women to receive Him. The word Gospel means “Good News”. When it becomes good news to the Jewish hearer, he will make a personal response to his promised Messiah and Savior. That decision must be his own. The Christian witness is charged to provide a credible testimony upon which the hearer can base an intelligent spiritual response. Only the Holy Spirit can take the seed of testimony and bring forth fruit.
In my dealings with Jewish friends, the one thing that stands out in my mind most vividly is the fact that most Jewish people have never heard a clearly biblical presentation of the claims of Christ. Nor have the vast majority had contact with a vibrant demonstration, through the life of a believer, of the transforming power of the Gospel.
Develop a sensitivity to Jewish problems. We must honestly admit that many of us do not understand Jewish people. Because we do not, we tend to say the wrong things, say nothing at all, or sulk inwardly at the recalcitrance of “those hardhearted Jews”. Jewish people, you will find, are not as hardhearted as they are defensive because of past treatment by Christians and Gentile anti-Semites. Take some time to learn something about the whys and wherefores of the problems Jewish people have in understanding biblical Christianity.
Have a genuine concern for Jewish people. Jesus was genuinely concerned for Jewry. “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they were faint, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). When He prayed from the cross, “Father forgive them,” He most certainly knew that the vast majority of those for whom He prayed would never ask for forgiveness. Nonetheless, this did not alter His heart compulsion to to love them still. Paul, who suffered intensely at the hands of some of his own people, suffered even more acutely over his desire to see Israel saved. “… I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart [for Israel]” (Rom. 9:2). He was aware of the fact that most of those over whom he agonized would not believe his message. Still he burned with a passion to see his brethren after the flesh reconciled to God, and was willing to do whatever he could to stand by them with a winsome witness. You see, there is a sense in which attitude is everything when you are dealing with Jewish people. It cannot be forced or feigned. Jews are perceptive and can detect fawning shallowness very quickly. Ours must be an attitude which reflects a genuine, consistent desire to “love them to life”.
Pray for an opportunity to lovingly, tactfully and biblically share your faith with Jewish people. Perhaps our most serious transgression against our Jewish friends and neighbors is that of living and working beside them day in and day out without once giving them a word for our Savior. After all, He commands us to do so. Beyond this, we are spiritual ingrates if we accept what God has brought to us through the Jewish people and in return deprive them of the message that has given us eternal life.
This is not traditional proselytizing; it is biblical evangelizing!