Judaism in Crisis
“American Jewry is in the midst of a spiritual holocaust, one it has unleashed upon itself,” says syndicated columnist Sheldon Engelmayer. Engelmayer’s sentiment is being echoed by the Jewish religious community on many fronts these days.
Intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles is viewed as a major problem. According to a Council of Jewish Federations national Jewish population study conducted in 1990, “Since 1985 52% of all marriages involving Jews have been interfaith; in 1964 only 9% were interfaith marriages.” The study also showed that 41% of children from interfaith marriages are being raised in other religions, usually Christian, and 31% are being raised with no religion.
Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald sees intermarriage as a threat to the very existence of Judaism. For him, it is the “death knell.” “There’s never been a community of Jews that has abandoned ritual and survived.”
Newsweek (July 22, 1991) summarizes: “Most American Jews try to get through life with no more knowledge of Judaism than what a 13-year old can master for his bar mitzvah. In today’s America, that apparently is not enough wisdom or commitment to maintain a durable identity as a Jew.”
Coupled with the intermarriage dilemma is the disquieting fact that most American Jews do not profess belief in “an active and personal God.” Only 26% of those polled by the American Jewish Committee described religion as “very important” in their lives.
In Israel, friction between secular and religious Jews has become increasingly volatile. Recently the severed head of a pig was found at the entrance to Bnei Brak’s Great Synagogue. This revolting act of desecration, although decried by many segments of Israel’s secular and religious communities, is emblematic of the tension between religious and secular elements, which is rapidly approaching the breaking point.
Street-level issues, such as permitting Sabbath opening of roads, restaurants, theaters, museums, and sporting events, are fanning the flame. Another problem is the favoritism granted religious yeshiva boys, who are exempted from compulsory military service.
Secular Israelis are frank in expressing their hope that electoral reform will break the lock that ultra-orthodox religious parties have had on Israel’s coalition government structure.
Immigrants are also presenting a formidable problem for Judaism. As reported by The Jerusalem Post (August 3, 1991), a survey shows that only 3% of new Soviet immigrants classify themselves as religious. Of the remaining 97%, 18% say they are traditional and 79% call themselves secular. The survey further reveals that only 11% of the newcomers want to learn about Judaism; 85% are interested in studying about Judaism from an historic perspective.
Many of the Russian immigrants express indignation over rabbinical efforts to impose their religious opinions. Communists, they complain, told them what to believe all of their lives. Newfound freedom should, they insist, allow them to make up their own minds.
Ethiopian immigrants, too, wish a freer hand in charting their course for a new life in their new land. A recent decision adopted by the Jewish Agency Assembly (funding source for immigrant education) now allows Ethiopian immigrants to choose the schools their children will attend. Ethiopian offspring will no longer be automatically directed to religious institutions.
In the United States, where up to 40,000 Soviet Jews will be allowed to emigrate this year, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York laments that the Russian Jews are “very vulnerable to proselytizing.”
The phenomenon is attributed to the fact that in the Soviet Union, where Christians were also a persecuted minority, Christians are not automatically viewed as the “enemy.”
Michael Kleiner, head of the Israeli Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee, sees the openness of the Russian immigrants as a problem that is contributing, in his words, to a situation in which Israeli churches are “exploding” with Soviet immigrants. Consequently, Kleiner plans to present a bill to the Knesset that is designed to narrow the Law of Return and restrict the number of “Non-Jewish” Soviets entering the country.
Kleiner’s “Non-Jewish” application of the Law of Return raises the age-old “Who’s a Jew?” question. Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen, who conducted a study for the American Jewish Committee, said that “in order to identify a Jew, ‘you can do almost anything. I can simply say that I’m a Jew, and the only thing that could raise a question is if you had actively participated in a Christian religious community.’ Why this exception? Because of the long historic conflict between Christianity and Judaism, Jews in general are suspicious of people who in a sense join the other side … Christianity and Judaism in their relationship have identified themselves as exclusive” (National and International Report, July 15, 1991).
The question leaping immediately to the minds of Jewish believers in Jesus is Why? Why can one “do [or believe] almost anything” and still be considered a Jew? Why, for example, will rabbis tolerate an atheist, or an agnostic, as a Jew while refusing to accept a believer in Jesus who is fervently loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
A good friend of mine in Israel, a believer who fought valiantly in all of Israel’s wars until Lebanon, wryly says of his orthodox neighbors, “The only time I’m allowed to be a Jew in my neighborhood is when someone finds a bomb and needs me to help defuse it.”
This man, who lost all of his family to the Nazis in Germany and the death camps in Poland, raises an important issue for Judaism and, particularly, for Israel.
Facing the Fact
The intimidating issue of the Holocaust and historic “Christian” persecution of the Jewish people is often cited as the reason why Jews should not “join the other side.” Evangelical Christians would be the first to join the Jewish people in lamenting “Christian” persecution. However, history is replete with the names of evangelical Christians who contradict the notion that belief in Jesus is synonymous with anti-Semitic activity—a walk down the “Street of Righteous Gentiles” at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, will attest to it.
More importantly, every Jewish person who has ever embraced Jesus as Messiah and personal Savior can testify to the fact that Jesus and His followers, Jews or Gentiles by birth, are not “enemies” of the Jewish people.
The irrefutable fact is that there is a reality to be faced: Growing numbers of Jewish people are turning to Christ.
If, as Michael Kleiner says, churches are “exploding” with Soviet immigrants, it only certifies two propositions.
- The Israeli church is a reality that cannot be wished away or intimidated out of existence. Whether some religious elements in Israeli society like it or not, massive waves of immigration, such as the influx of Soviet Jews, will most certainly impact religious demographics in Israel. And while the possibility seems remote at the moment, who can predict whether anti-Semitism, such as is being experienced by Jews in Argentina, will bring more surges of Jewish immigrants who will bring a mixed bag of religious and secular sentiments with them. Under developing conditions, it seems probable that somewhere along the line Israel will be forced to take a look at her citizenry with an eye unjaundiced by ultra-orthodox prejudices. When and if this occurs, the nation will discover a group of faithful believers in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel who, as blood-related sons and daughters of Abraham, serve their beloved country with common loyalty and distinction in all walks of life. Under such circumstances, modern Israel would do well to heed the counsel of a revered rabbi of another era who wrestled with the question of whether Jews who believed in Jesus belonged in Israel. “Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, held in reputation among all the people … And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men [the apostles] … Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing. But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” (Acts 5:34–39).
- Russian Jews, who have been spiritually deprived for decades, are searching for spiritual reality. To argue that mainline evangelicals, Jews, or Gentiles are soul-snatching marauders who major in subterfuge and deception in their quest for innocent Jewish dupes distorts the facts and misses entirely the point at issue. Viewing the figures from Jewish sources reflecting Judaism’s current crisis only verifies what has become abundantly obvious. We are living in a world of spiritual and physical refugees. Whatever the reasons, the people represented in these percentages feel alienated and estranged. They also come from a generation of people who find it difficult to accept anything without exercising a personal choice. Consequently, many are searching. This condition is not confined to Jewry; it is a ubiquitous global condition. Responsible evangelical churches and agencies are committed to the mandate given by Christ 2,000 years ago: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15)—Jew and Gentile. It is indisputably the mission of all believers, call them missionary or whatever you wish, who are truly committed to Christ.
Ironically, the very fact that evangelicals evangelize and, in the process, reap a remnant of Jewish people does more to strengthen the situation for Jewry than to diminish it. It is invariably true that the entrance of one Jewish person into a largely Gentile congregation does more to promote sensitivity for Jewry and love for Israel than a thousand position papers on anti-Semitism and prophetic revelation concerning Israel’s legitimate rights in the Middle East. Thus, while strong adherents to Judaism will assuredly take exception to the view, what Judaism considers a loss is Jewry’s ultimate gain. And when one considers the fact that responsible evangelicals do not use subterfuge, intimidation, or inducements to convince Jews or Gentiles to consider the claims of Christ, who can legitimately object when a person makes a choice based on his or her own will?
Friends of Israel
Those who seek to share the love of Christ with Jewish people are frequently projected by elements of Judaism as underhanded types who profess friendship to Israel and Jews only as a cover for their true mission—to hang more Jewish souls on their belts. Rank and file Jewry should be apprised of the fact that such is not the case. Do evangelicals seek to give their gospel to Jewish people? That question has already been answered in the affirmative. Why, then, play games by feigning love and loyalty to the Jew and his nation? Credible evangelicals are not undercover agents for Jesus; they are open and ethical people. No, their motives run much deeper.
First and foremost is the unflinching commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. Woven into the fabric of these Scriptures is God’s literal, historical, unalterable plan for Israel and the Jewish people. The preservation of the Jews against all odds, coupled with the miracle of their return to the land of Abraham, confronts humanity with an affirmation of the inerrancy of Scriptures.
Many in Israel of late have come to terms with the fact that evangelical Christians represent the most committed constituency Israel has on the planet. That conclusion is well founded. Consequently, the accusation is sometimes made by anti-Semites and their fellow travelers that such Christians are Neanderthal types duped into being tools of “the Zionist conspiracy.” On the contrary, evangelicals who give Israel and Jewry their proper place of respect and love do so out of a larger loyalty to the precepts of the Word of God.
Undergirding all is the profound sense of gratitude stemming from personal relationships to the Jewish Messiah who condescended to send His message of redemption beyond the borders of the Promised Land to those who, as Gentiles, were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Those who have been privileged to meet a Jew who altered their destiny will not take lightly those He calls His Chosen People.