In Jews-for-Jesus Heaven

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the founder of Jews for Judaism, sounds forth on Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, who died last week. Rabbi Kravitz, as my mother used to say, gives Rosen gut gesucht.

He believed … that unless you believe in Jesus, you will burn in hell. This included the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Rosen aggressively targeted Jews for conversion and is responsible for the loss of many young Jews and the destruction of numerous Jewish families. His most deceptive tactic promoted the notion that a Jew can be Jewish and Christian at the same time. However, he simultaneously condemned Judaism as a “false religion.”

All of the parents of baby boomers grieved when their children joined weird, coercive cults—Scientology, Moonies, ISKCON, the Family of God. But I suspect that post-holocaust Jewish parents grieved even harder when their children became Jews for Jesus. They might not have believed in Judaism themselves, but after Hitler they would never deny who they were. By converting their children and then brainwashing them into believing that they were still Jewish, Rosen accomplished as intimate an act of spiritual subversion as could be imagined.

Rosen was not the first Jewish convert who sought to undo Judaism. In Barcelona in 1263, a Dominican friar known as Pablo Christiani, a converted Jew, debated the great Jewish philosopher Nachmanides on the question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, drawing on the Tanakh and the Talmud for his proofs (the contest was judged by King James I of Aragon). Two accounts of the debate have come down to us. In the one that’s written in Latin, the rabbi admits that some Talmudic texts acknowledge Jesus’s divinity but lamely dismisses them as mere “sermons in which their teachers often lied”; he slinks away in disgrace and defeat. In the Hebrew account, written by Nachmanides himself, he mercilessly eviscerates his adversary. If “the sages of the Talmud believed in Jesus as the messiah,” he asks, “Why did they not convert and turn to the faith of Jesus … as Friar Paul, who understands their teachings better than they themselves do?” The Ramban had a point. Twenty-three years earlier in Paris, Nicholas Donin, an excommunicated Jew who’d joined the Franciscans, had put the Talmud on trial for its supposed immorality and insults to Christianity. The rabbis Yechiel of Paris, Moses of Coucy, Judah of Melun, and Samuel ben Solomon of Château-Thierry defended it in vain; twenty-four cartloads of the books were seized and publicly burned.

Successionist theology, the idea that Christianity supplanted and nullified Judaism, is an inevitable corollary of Paul’s teachings—it is, after all, why the Gospels came to be called the “New” Testament. But after two thousand years of pogroms, inquisitions, and organized and spontaneous persecutions culminating in the Shoah, most mainstream Christians have adopted a more ecumenical approach to Judaism. They are willing to allow a statute of limitations on the Jewish people’s alleged complicity in the crucifixion; they concede that Jews worship the same God as they do. After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church pretty much affirmed the Jewish tradition as a valid way of worship; many mainline Protestants presume that some Jews at least have been (or will be) granted special dispensation. But saved is saved, and Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike believe that salvation—divinely-ordained remission from damnation—can only be achieved through Jesus Christ or the church.

The rise of Millennialist Protestantism in the late nineteenth century, when Israel and the Jews took on an essential role in a variety of End Times scenarios, blurred this absolute distinction between the two faiths. Jesus’s Jewishness became an important issue for Seventh-day Adventists, particularly those who followed Herbert W. Armstrong into the Worldwide Church of God. So-called Messianic Jews are Christians who take up Jewish dietary and ritual practices (and of course some former Jews who maintain their old rituals after their conversions). But while a Christian can experiment with Jewish identity without suffering too much cognitive dissonance, a Jew cannot accept Jesus’s divinity without abandoning and betraying his or her essential Jewishness. Even non-believing Jews know this in their bones.

Moishe Rosen left a posthumous message on the Jews for Jesus website that made his own stance crystal clear.

I hope I can count on you to show love and respect for the Jewish people, but Jewishness never saved anybody. Judaism never saved anybody no matter how sincere. Romans 10:9 & 10 make it clear that we must believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus in order to be saved. There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way. Within Judaism today, there is no salvation because Christ has no place within Judaism.

As a non-practicing, non-believing, non-Zionist Jew, my own stance on Rosen is ambivalent. On the one hand, I can understand how a Jewish convert to the sort of Fundamentalist, born again Protestantism that Rosen adopted would have wanted to bring his brethren out of the wilderness and back into the grace of God. On the other—and this is an instinctual, limbic reaction, not exactly thought through, and what an anti-Semite might term “a call of the blood”—I feel that he is a quisling of the most despicable kind.

So here’s my bottom line: I don’t believe in “being saved.” To me, the born again doctrine of the “surety of salvation” is appallingly presumptuous and wrong-headed—a Buddha, if there ever was one, that needs to be killed. But if Moishe Rosen’s example helps teach that lesson, then perhaps he’ll have earned a measure of redemption after all.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.