Contrary to claims in your article “Messianic challenge” (Sept 26) that Jews for Judaism is an Orthodox Jewish group, we are a nondenominational Jewish group, opposed to the deceptive proselytizing of Jews by evangelical Christians and the Messianic Jews whom they finance and support. Our organization has had presidents from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches of Judaism, and we work with all Jewish denominations to foster better awareness and acceptance of our traditions and beliefs among vulnerable populations — teens, young adults, intermarried couples, Russian immigrants, and others without strong Jewish anchors and backgrounds.
We are also concerned about how the issues concerning the Messianic challenge to authentic Judaism were presented in this article, which takes a neutral position between the Messianic and authentic Judaism and leaves the reader to determine the relative value of each. This is a surprising position for a major Jewish voice in the nation’s capital to take. Moreover, it does not adequately explain either the significant differences in theology between the two or the threat to authentic Judaism posed by the Messianic Jewish movement.
Authentic Judaism affirms the singularity of God as expressed in the Sh’ma and the humanity of Jesus as a historical, religious figure towards the end of the Second Temple period; rejects Jesus as the Jewish Messiah based on an accurate translation of the Hebrew, and traditional explanation of, key passages in the Books of Isaiah and Daniel; and affirms the position of the Jews as the Chosen People of God to bring his message to the entire world, as delineated in the Bible. With its acceptance of Christian dogma, Messianic Judaism — a.k.a. Hebrew Christianity — generally accepts: the concept of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus; Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; and the concept that believers in Jesus as the Messiah will ultimately supplant authentic Jews as God’s chosen people. The article does not clearly articulate these differences.
Furthermore, the statements by some of the Jewish communal professionals interviewed for this article appear to significantly underestimate the effectiveness of Hebrew Christian outreach activities, the impact of attitudinal changes regarding religious affinity and identity that have occurred within the Jewish community and the risks to Jewish continuity posed by both.
Some of those interviewed for the article suggested that Hebrew Christian outreach activities (tables at college campuses or greeters on the street) didn’t seem to have much effect on Jewish college youth. Based on a recent Pew study, an objective look at Jewish attitudes and affinities during the past 10-15 years, 34 percent of Jews think it is OK for Jews to believe in Jesus, a statistic unimaginable in previous generations. In our view, the Pew findings suggest that Hebrew Christian communications and community outreach have succeeded in desensitizing the Jewish community to the idea that Jesus might be the Jewish Messiah and reducing the stigma of Jews believing in Christian concepts.
But communal outreach is only a part of their strategy for preaching conversion to the Jews. The primary tool is one-on-one proselytizing — approaching Jewish friends, inviting them for “Shabbos dinner,” and using the opening to expose them to Christian evangelical concepts. The recent Pew study suggests that this part of the strategy may be yielding significant results, as well. The overall intermarriage rate among Jews is currently about 58 percent. While this is a relatively high number, it should be understood that the rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews is much higher — 71 percent.
As the intermarriage rate continues to rise, a larger pool of young intermarried and/or unaffiliated couples with young children will be open to approaches from Messianic Jewish congregations. Many of these couples will be enticed to join because no formal conversions are required. In subsequent generations, the children are far more likely to marry Christian spouses because of their extended exposure to Christian religious, social, and moral values, and assimilation rates will skyrocket even further.
Even among the Orthodox, though the rate of retention in the denomination from generation to generation has improved recently, the overall rate of retention within the denomination is only 70 percent. Thus, although the pace of assimilation in Orthodoxy is much slower than in other denominations, it is still discernible.
One is reminded of an interpretation of the story of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah as depicting the slide over several generations from knowledge and acceptance of the Torah into complete ignorance and total assimilation; hence, the need to reiterate the message of redemption and renewal of Jewish identity and faith annually from one generation to the next in a close, familial setting.
As the article suggests, it is certainly true that all denominations of Judaism need to do a better job of increasing the affinity of vulnerable and/or unaffiliated Jewish people for our faith. Approaches should be positive and welcoming, rather than authoritative, judgmental and exclusionary. In essence, we Jews need to do a better job of marketing our religion to the vulnerable Jewish populations, particularly to our youth who represent the future of our faith. But, an essential requirement for good marketing is differentiating our product from all others. Thus, we need to make the strongest case possible that authentic Jewish belief — in developing ourselves as righteous and caring people, repairing the world by acts of moral courage and loving-kindness, and bringing God’s message of Torah to all peoples as a way of sustaining and enhancing life — obviates the need to look elsewhere for religious inspiration and personal fulfillment.
Stephen W. Greenfield is a board member of Jews for Judaism East Coast.