Many years ago, while a rabbi in Atlanta, I answered a knock on my door one Shabbat afternoon. Standing in front of me was a fine-looking couple - obviously non-Jewish.
"Shabbat Shalom, rabbi," they said, and asked to have a word with me.
I sensed that they were missionaries and asked them what the subject was. They replied that they wanted to talk to me about the "Son of God."
I suggested that while I respected their personal beliefs, in Judaism there is no such thing as a son or mother of God, that ours is a very strict monotheistic faith, and that our God is one, not two, and not three. I added that before attempting to convert Jews, they should consider converting Christians to Christian teachings, because throughout history, Jews had seen very little of Christian love and of turning the other cheek.
End of conversation.
WELL, AT least they were honest. Today, missionaries are much more subtle.
For one thing, they often pose as Jews themselves. And, most significantly, they do not initially ask Jews to accept Jesus as the son of God, nor mention that in Christianity, Jesus is worshipped as a divine being.
Contemporary missionaries realize that Jews - even secular, non-religious Jews - have a visceral revulsion at the idea of a human being as divine. They also realize that, for Jews, the figure of Jesus symbolizes a church that has for millennia condemned Jews to purgatory and eternal damnation; that the church, in the name of Christian love, has been responsible for oceans of Jewish blood because of the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as a divine being; and for the belief that Jews deserve to suffer because of this refusal.
Aware of all this, many contemporary missionaries have apparently altered their strategy. They are now appealing to Jews from a pseudo-Jewish perspective. In order to entrap Jews, in other words, much missionary activity has been Judaized. Jesus is no longer Jesus; he is now "Yeshua," a nice, Jewish-sounding name - as seen in recent missionary ad campaigns on Jerusalem's buses.
A close reading of some of today's missionary material shows that the central belief in the divinity of Jesus and his role as "lord and savior" is hardly mentioned. Today's emphasis is on his supposed role as messiah. Further, many missionaries themselves now refer to themselves not as Christians but as "messianic Jews." They wear yarmulkes, don a tallit, and even have their own "rabbis."
The State of Israel is a crucial target for such missionaries, and many so-called messianic Jews are actually born Christians who have given themselves Jewish names and moved to Israel for one reason: to proselytize Jews.
THIS NEW strategy is illustrated by several recent media articles. The Washington Post ran a news article on June 21, picked up from the Associated Press, about "messianic Jews" who claim that they are discriminated against in Israel - a questionable accusation. The article's description of messianic Jews made not a single reference to the divinity of Jesus. It slavishly followed the news release of the missionary group that issued it - which was careful not to mention the fact that so-called messianic Jews believe Jesus is the son of God.
Even The Jerusalem Post made no mention of the divinity of Jesus in its article last Thursday about the three-day messianic conference taking place that weekend.
An innocent reader comes away from such articles with the impression that "messianic Jews" are simply another group within Judaism. There are Orthodox Jews, hassidic Jews, haredi Jews, and there are messianic Jews - all part of one big, happy Jewish family.
WHAT WE see here, in effect, is a renewed assault on the fundamentals of Judaism - not the traditional frontal assault, but, in a shift in tactics, one that attempts to infiltrate through indirect means by blurring the Jesus-as-God aspect of Christianity and stressing the Jesus-as-messiah aspect. Many missionaries feel this roundabout approach is less threatening to Jews, more "Jewish-friendly."
In view of this renewed offensive against the basic beliefs of Judaism, some obvious truths must be reiterated:
First and foremost is the cornerstone belief of Judaism: God is a pure and unadulterated One. He is singular, the unity of all unities, alone, unique, and indivisible. He cannot be transformed into two or into three - and certainly not into statues or figures. He is not and never was human, and he has no physicality, no father or mother.
Millions of Jews have gone to their deaths proclaiming Shema Yisrael - Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Over and over again the Hebrew Bible prophetically warns against the inevitable attempts to dilute and distort this unity (see Deut. 13).
Further truths follow from this cardinal principle:
1. It is a distortion to claim that one can be a Jew and at the same time believe in Jesus as a god or as a messiah, or a prophet or savior.
2. It follows, therefore, that terms such as "Jews for Jesus," or "Jewish Christians" are grotesque perversions. Such terms are misleading, misguided, misconceived, and ultimately a miscarriage of truth - for no Jew can believe in any divinity other than the One God, and no Jew can view Jesus as anything other than a teacher of another faith system.
AS FOR the true identity of the Messiah, we have no specific knowledge, as Maimonides states in his Code, in Hilchot Melachim. In Judaism, the Messiah will not be a divine creature but a man born of a man and woman; he will inaugurate an era of universal peace, spirituality and enlightenment, and will gather in all Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, as outlined in Isaiah 11.
Jesus has not fulfilled any of these prophecies. Furthermore, he is worshipped as a deity by another faith. For converts to Christianity to claim that they are "messianic Jews" is thus another pathetic distortion.
Having said this, it is important to state that Judaism has no quarrel with those who choose not to follow the pure monotheism of our faith.
We are not a missionary religion, and the benevolent behavior of the modern State of Israel toward non-Jewish religious minorities demonstrates Jewish magnanimity to those who do not follow Jewish ways. We have only respect for those who wish to worship their own deity in their own way, and to live ethically and lovingly with all people. We condemn those who would demean or use violence against believers of another religion.
AT THE same time, missionaries should know that Judaism disdains those who would entrap unlettered Jews through deception and falsehoods. To try to persuade innocent Jews that there is no real difference between Judaism and Christianity - even when these attempts stem from "love and friendship" for the Jewish people - is an example of such deception.
We welcome genuine evangelical love and friendship and cherish evangelical support for the State of Israel. But evangelicals must realize that words like "love and friendship" are very hollow when they come at the price of apostasy and betrayal of the millennia-old faith of the Jewish people.
Jews understand that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity is a central tenet of many Christian sects. We know that missionary societies around the world budget many millions of dollars annually in order to "save" Jews. If this is a basic teaching of evangelicals, so be it. But Jews can learn from them. We too should be budgeting millions to save fellow Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, from ignorance and Jewish illiteracy.
The old secular Zionist order, in its haste to be accepted by the outside world, deprived entire generations of Israeli Jews of even elementary knowledge of our Jewish heritage - with the result that too many Jews have no idea of what Judaism stands for, or of the deep chasms that separate Judaism from Christianity.
We must become missionaries to ourselves. It is long past time for us to deliver serious Jewish learning to our people. This is particularly needed for newcomers to Israel from lands like Russia and Ethiopia, who are particularly vulnerable to the artful blandishments of clever missionaries. They, together with all Jews, need to know how to reply when the doorbell rings.