January 3, 2011

Why is it Difficult for a Jew to Become a Christian?

According to Cecil Hook (Honor the Emperor):

The Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah because they were looking for a physical king and a physical kingdom.

Historically, Israel had been ruled in a combined political-religious system administered by prophets, priests, Levites and, later, kings. During the time of Christ's ministry, they were subjugated to Rome, which was a galling situation.

The Jews expected a Messiah who would deliver them from Rome. When they heard John the Baptist proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” they interpreted it as, “The restoration of David’s earthly throne is at hand” and that they would be freed from Rome.

Jesus gave no encouragement to that. He selected no army to defend or empower Himself. All along, Jesus stressed the spiritual nature of His reign. In veiled figures, His parables were emphasizing the spiritual character of the kingdom of heaven, yet Israel's earthly expectations were so strong as to survive His death and resurrection.

How sad it is that even today many believers expect Him to return and reign over an earthly kingdom.

According to the Zionism & Israel Information Center (Converting to Judaism):

Members of the Jewish faith believe that there is one God, who is omnipotent and indivisible, and with whom the Jews have a covenant, a special relationship of ethical and moral obligations and of protection.

The Jewish God, unlike the Christian trinity, has no distinct parts. The "spirit of God" mentioned in the Bible is understood metaphorically.

Jews allow no pictures or images of God. The orthodox Jew undertakes, in addition to 613 commandments, dietary proscriptions, daily prayers, refraining from travel and work on the Sabbath, and numerous other obligations.

Jews can view Jesus as a wise Jewish teacher, but Jews do not believe in the divinity or resurrection of Jesus.

The afterlife, resurrection at the end of days, heaven and hell, have become a part of Jewish theology and different Jewish traditions, though they did not apparently constitute part of the beliefs of Mosaic Judaism.
Conversion and Converts in Judaism

In addition to a long period of study, conversion to Judaism requires a ceremony of immersion in a ritual bath, and for males, circumcision. Converted Jews often change their family name to "ben Avraham," the son of Abraham. Those who become Jewish are adopted into the family of Abraham as though they were his actual descendants, and are initiated into the covenant of Abraham, as commanded to all Jews. Therefore, males who wish to convert to Judaism must undergo circumcision in Conservative and Orthodox rites. If they are already circumcised, there is a symbolic ceremony that takes the place of circumcision. At least some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will apparently perform conversion without circumcision. However, Reform Judaism also have a Berit Milah (circumcision) program.

Jews who convert to Christianity or to "Messianic Judaism" are no longer considered part of the Jewish community by Jewish religious authorities and by most other Jews.

Jewish religious thought holds seemingly contradictory views of conversion and converts. For example, consider these different quotes:

The only reason God exiled the Jews among the nations was so that converts could be added. (Pesachim 87b)

Continuous evil comes to those who accept converts. (Yevamot 109b)

Converts are as difficult for Israel like a nasty sore. (Yevamot 109b)

'The Souls they made in Charan.' These are the converts which Avraham and Sarah converted. This teaches us that whoever brings a gentile close and converts him it is as if he created that person. (Bereshit Rabah 39)

The names of Gerim are as dear to me as idolatrous wine poured on the altar. (Vayikra Rabah 1)

Even a gentile who converted and busies himself with Torah is considered as if he were the chief priest (Cohen Gadol). (Bamidbar Rabah 8)

Come and see how beloved converts are to God... (Ruth Rabah 2)
The major fear engendered by converts is that they would be insincere or ignorant and would introduce non-Jewish and unacceptable customs into the Jewish community, such as polytheism and idolatry. In the first centuries of the exile, however, Judaism was apparently an active and very successful proselytizing religion.

As much as ten percent of the population of the ancient Roman world were probably Jewish at one time and, in addition, there are many whose grave inscription reads "Yereh Elohim" (God fearing); meaning that while they had not converted to Judaism, they had accepted monotheism and many tenets of Judaism.

Conversion activity stopped because it was outlawed by Christianity and Islam. At least some streams of Judaism, however, are actively reaching out for converts today.

Judaism and Zionism

We believe that Israel and Zionism hold a central place in Judaism. Zion and the holy land certainly hold a central place in the Jewish faith and prayers. However, it is not necessary to be a Jew to support Israel or the right of the Jews for a state, and support for Israel or Zionism is not a requirement for conversion to Judaism.

Is It Hard to Become a Jew?

It is much more difficult to become a Jew than it is to become Christian or a Muslim. Becoming a Jew means joining a people as well as a faith, assuming a new ethnic identity, and joining a worldwide community centered on Israel, on the Jewish history and the Jewish faith. Therefore, conversion to Judaism entails a long period of study, learning and preparation.

Different Types of Jews

The foundations of the Jewish faith are given in the the Old Testament Bible and in the later law books, particularly the Mishna, the Talmud and the Shulhan Aruch. These are variously interpreted by different streams and factions and rabbis.

There are four main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

Orthodox Jews are the strictest and, unfortunately, may not recognize the conversions performed by other rabbis. While there is no recognized central authority for the Jewish religion, if the Israeli chief rabbinate and rabbinical accepts a conversion or decides that a person is Jewish according to Halachic (Jewish religious) law, that decision is honored by all other streams. However, the reverse is not true.

A person may be accepted as a Jew according to the law of return by the Israeli government, but that does not mean that they are recognized as a Jew for purposes of marriage by the chief rabbinate.

According to David Novak (Edith Stein, Apostate Saint):

The recent canonization of Edith Stein as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by the Roman Catholic Church poses a number of very serious challenges to living Jews, we who are still members of the people to whom Edith Stein believed she also belonged, even at her death in Auschwitz.

Theologically speaking, Edith Stein was arguably the most significant Jewish convert to Christianity of this century. In general, Jewish tradition regards such persons as apostates who have removed themselves from the normative Jewish community in a radical way, even if they still consider themselves part of the body of the Jewish people, as Stein did.

Judaism in fact also regards such persons as part of the body of the Jewish people. "A Jew who has sinned is still a Jew" is an important talmudic principle. Nevertheless, an apostate is an apostate, even when a person of extraordinary intellectual and moral virtues. Our reactions in such cases, however great or small the person before us is, range from anger to sorrow. We cannot very well be indifferent.

In the case of Edith Stein, though, it seems we Jews must be more precise in giving reasons why we cannot celebrate with Catholics the life and death of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. We need to give theologically cogent reasons for why we would have had to distance ourselves from her in life (as her pious Jewish mother did), and why we would have joined that segment of her family who chose not to attend her beatification by Pope John Paul II in Cologne in 1987.

Stein's case is not an easy one for us. Jews have been able to dismiss most modern Jewish converts to Christianity as people motivated by social or professional ambition, self-hatred, ignorance, or mental imbalance. But anyone who knew Edith Stein, or who knows anything about her life, would have to admit that none of these categories applies to her. Indeed, Edith Stein comes across as sui generis.

She might be the most uniquely problematic Jew for us since Saul of Tarsus.

The easiest way to deal with the problem is to accept the liberal assumption that one's religious convictions are a matter of individual choice, and that everyone must respect the choice of everyone else to believe whatever they want and practice any religion or no religion, as they choose.

On this view, Edith Stein had a right to become a Catholic and change her name to Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, just as the Catholic priest Father Kenneth Cox had a right to become a Jew and change his name to Abraham Carmel.

At the political level, most Jews and most Catholics have accepted the liberal idea of religious freedom. Some see it as a necessary part of the social contract that enables us to participate in civil society. Others see it as being in the best interest of faith itself, which cannot legitimately be coerced. Pragmatically, we realize that our religious communities are probably better off without people who have found a spiritual home elsewhere and do not want to be with us anymore. All this is how we talk and have to talk in the public square. But while that talk is not disingenuous, it is secondary to the primary commitments of both Jews and Christians.

The most fruitful dialogue between Jews and Catholics (and other Christians as well) has been about our relations in the public realm, where we have discovered significant common ground on such issues as public morality and religious liberty.

Nevertheless, the discovery of such commonality, beneficial as it is, does not change the fact that, at the deepest level of our existence, Jews and Christians are making not only different communal claims, but rival communal claims. The best way to God, the one that ought not be exchanged for something less, is either by the Torah and the Jewish tradition or by Christ and the Church. The choice is unavoidable. One cannot accept Christ and still be part of the normative Jewish community; one cannot live by Torah and still be part of the Church.

Early in our common history, indeed almost simultaneously, Jewish authorities ruled against the practice of Christianity by Jews, and the Church ruled against the practice of Judaism by Christians ("judaization"), even by Christians born as Jews. Our acceptance of the liberal order of civil society has, for the most part, enabled us to make these rival communal claims civilly, and without fear of political repercussions. But that accommodation should not make us slide into the superficiality of civil religion or the disorientation of religious syncretism. Sometimes Jews and Christians have to speak to each other without the mediation of the secular public realm, as we must when speaking about Edith Stein.

Because Judaism and Christianity are both covenantal religions, the relationship of the individual Jew or Christian to God is always within covenanted community. Stein, even when physically alone in her nun's cell, was still existentially part of the community. The community in which one hears the voice of God structures how one hears that voice and interprets what it says.

There is no universal revelation until the end of history, which is why election is the doctrine of identity for both Christians and Jews. God chooses us; we do not choose God, at least originally. That election is either by natural birth or by the rebirth of conversion, which is very much like adoption. We only can accept or reject the community into which, as one former Christian philosopher put it, we have "been thrown."

Based on these covenantal assumptions, it follows that both Judaism and Christianity assert what liberals can only regard as an unfair asymmetry: One can check into the covenant, but one cannot check out of it. A convert is "born again," which also means that from God's perspective he or she has retroactively always been in the community. An apostate, conversely, does not quit the community existentially; he or she is only absent without leave. Excommunication bars a sinful Catholic from receiving the sacraments, not from the Church herself, just as herem, the ban of ostracism, does not mean that a Jew is no longer a Jew.

So Jews regard Edith Stein as a Jewish apostate, but always a Jew nonetheless. And she agreed with us about her Jewish identity; it is about her apostasy that she obviously had a different opinion. We cannot avoid the question of apostasy because it brings us face to face with the rival truth claims our two communities make, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.

Judaism and Christianity alike present themselves as the fullest truth of God's relationship with the world, but both can recognize more limited forms of truth elsewhere. Confirmation in one's covenant does not imply having a monopoly on God. As the prophet Amos (9:7) put it to the overly proud people of Israel, "Are you not for me like the Ethiopians?" This view enables us to live with other people in good faith and to have genuine respect for them and their traditions.

This approach, common in form but different in substance for us, might be summarized in the talmudic principle that "one is to rise, not descend, in holiness." To illustrate, let me set up four possible situations and suggest the Jewish answer to each of them. (A Christian answer would be substantively different in two of the scenarios, but I think the Christian logic would have to be the same as Jewish logic in all of them.) The four situations are:
  • a pagan wanting to convert to Christianity instead of Judaism;
  • a pagan wanting to convert to Judaism instead of Christianity;
  • a Christian wanting to convert to Judaism;
  • a Jew wanting to convert to Christianity.
By "pagan," I mean someone who neither by birth nor by the rebirth of conversion has ever been a Jew or a Christian.

The Jew would regard the pagan's conversion to Christianity as a good choice inasmuch as Christianity is a valid gentile relationship with the Lord God, maker of heaven and earth, elector of Israel, giver of the Torah, and redeemer of the world. Of course, he would regard the pagan's conversion to Judaism as the best choice possible. A Christian wanting to convert to Judaism has not only made the best choice but is well prepared for it by having been a Christian and, therefore, knowing, however partially, the Lord God of Israel. The final option, the Jew wanting to convert to Christianity, is of course the option of Edith Stein.

Edith Stein accepted what Christians have always had to say to Jews; namely, that Christianity solves the problems of Judaism better than Judaism does because Christianity provides the savior to whom Jews have always looked. She therefore did not consider herself a runaway from Judaism (however rudimentary her own Judaism was) but rather a Jew whose Judaism brought her into the Church. Her logic was clearly supersessionist. How could it have been otherwise? Indeed, had it been otherwise, Edith Stein would have had to have said what Franz Rosenzweig said when he rejected Christian supersessionist claims: "I therefore remain a Jew!" (Rosenzweig, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Stein, whom many consider the greatest Jewish theologian of this century, himself almost converted to Christianity.)

Supersessionism is the subject of deep theological debate today. Many Jews have seen it as the core of Christian anti-Judaism. Many Christians are embarrassed by it, seeing it as part of the anti-Judaism that was so easily appropriated by modern anti-Semitism.

Yet, Christian supersessionism need not denigrate Judaism. It can look to the Jewish origins of Christianity happily and still learn of those origins from living Jews, whom Pope John Paul II likes to call "elder brothers."

Christian supersessionism can still affirm that God has not annulled his everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, neither past nor present nor future. Jews can expect no more than that from Christians, and Christians probably cannot concede any more to Judaism. For if Christianity does not regard itself as going beyond Judaism, why should Christians not become Jews? And, conversely, any Jew who believes Christianity supersedes Judaism can only in good faith become a Christian, as Edith Stein did.

Fruitful conversations of late between Jews and Christians have largely bracketed this critical issue for good reasons. It is, nevertheless, the crucial question that leaves the two communities at an impasse. All attempts to get beyond it--be they political, exegetical, or philosophical--have been failures. After all, it is the question of truth, and truth is what we are both all about. To bracket this question is quite different from either suppressing it altogether or reducing all discussion to it.

Edith Stein represents our impasse. She cannot be a bridge between Jews and Catholics because, in this world, one cannot be simultaneously both a faithful Jew and a faithful Catholic. Since the Jewish and Catholic communities are mutually exclusive, and both Jews and Catholics derive their identities from God's covenant with their communities, no member of one community can also be a member in good standing of the other. Moreover, one cannot expect the approval of the covenanted community one has left. As with Abraham our father, the answer to God's call always involves leaving some earlier household in one way or another, and that household does not and cannot provide one with a warm farewell.

In this world, Jews and Christians do have much to say to each other and much to do together. But our more important task of waiting for God we must do separately. The agenda of dialogue must be kept distant from the agenda of conversion. Dialogue is more about this world; conversion is more about the world-to-come.

Until the end time, it is not for us to judge matters of identity, except in the most mundane cases involving communal rights and penalties. Because of that, while we Jews can empathize with Catholics who have found yet another saint, another exemplary holy life, it is not something we can feel (the original meaning of "sympathy") with Catholics any more than we could celebrate the Eucharist with them. At this deepest level we are still strangers to each other. So it seems that we shall remain until the end, when we hope to be the lasting friends of God, and thus of each other.

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