Religious self-identity #4
I remember hearing the phrase “Jews for Jesus” long before I actually met my first one. She handed me one of the group’s fliers as I crossed a downtown Phoenix street near Symphony Hall one afternoon. I smiled inwardly and thought, 'Far out!'
It’s hard to misconstrue their denomination, dressed as they always are in tee-shirts that explicitly read “Jews for Jesus.”
I’ve met and have had some interesting conversations with a handful of them over the years. One such conversation ended abruptly when I asked the messianic (another term they are known by) why, in his opinion, Paul had failed so badly in the synagogues, which were always his first port of call in any new town he came to.
—“Failed? —Paul failed?!?,” my friend asked incredulously, quietly shaking his head, a decathecting glaze forming like a cataract over his eyes.
I had meant no harm or insult, I just really think it’s a good question.
Today I remembered that once during a lecture Amy-Jill Levine referred to an experience that she had had with a Jews for Jesus group who had taken to celebrating Passover Seder ceremonies (a yearly Jewish festival that commemorates the tenth plague on Pharaoh and the escape from Egyptian bondage c.f. Exodus 12) as a kind of public service. Her opinion was that they reinterpret the ritual through a Christian lens, and she admonished their misreading of the Jewish symbolism in this way. Her lecture came to my mind because I watched a video on YouTube that features a high-ranking advocate of the Jews for Jesus organization who purports to introduce the assembled congregation to the beauty of their version of the Seder. I suspect that it might have been this guy whom Ms. Levine had seen preach on the Seder, and if so, I see why it bothered her. All of the symbols and gestures and accoutrements of a Passover Seder are there: the kittle (ritual apron garment), the miter (ritual cap), the candles, the apportioned dishes, the emphasis on tradition. He doesn‘t miss a thing (I‘ll interject when it is appropriate to point out anomalies between this and an actual Seder—in gold):
Bedikat Chametz = ‘the search for leaven’ —an introductory pre-ritual involving a general spring cleaning of the entire house by the woman. When she is done, she leaves some crumbs of bread in one spot in the house, which her husband finds and ritually sweeps with a feather and covers with a piece of linen and then takes out of the house, which he now proclaims ritually clean. . . . . The Christian lens comes into play when the preacher implies that this is what Paul is talking about in 1st Cor 5: 6–8 . . . which is, of course, half-true (the other half dealing with the castigation of the local Christian pervert is not mentioned—context please!!)
Birkat ha Ner = ‘lighting the festival candle’ —Once the house is declared ritually clean, the woman lights the candle while a prayer from the Haggadah (Hebrew for “the story’, the book containing all the proscribed prayers and rituals used in festivals) is read aloud at the table: . . . . X-stian lens: The apologist thinks that it is right for the woman to be the one who lights the candles as it was a woman who brought forth the light of the world . . . “Behold, a virgin shall conceive a son . . . Immanuel, etc” (never mind that that particular "prophecy" has nothing to do with Jesus) . . . . Slyly, the Messianic blessing over the candles is changed to: “Blessed are thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctifies us through Yeshua, the Messiah, the light of the world.” (The actual prayer in the Haggadah is supposed to read: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe who sanctifies us by His commandments and commends us to kindle the festival lights.”) What’s wrong with this picture?
I don’t intend this blogpost to be a lesson in contemporary Judaism, so I’ll refrain from making the descriptions of the symbolic Passover foods too detailed, but it's unavoidable to list these in order to make my point:
- Karpas = greens (parsley or whatnot) . . . Greens represent life, the rabbis tell us. Salt water represents the tears of life. We dip the carpis into the salt water, reminding us that during our time in Egypt, our lives were immersed in tears. “A life without redemption is a life immersed in tears.” We eat the greens to remind us that life is redeemed from tears, from bondage.
- Maror =horseradish . . . The “bitter herb” described in the Passover story in exodus 12. Reminds us of bitterness and toil that our ancestors endured in Egypt. . . Etc we take some of the matzoh and say a blessing over it, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread.” Dip the bread (it’s all very detailed . . . Very methodical) in the horseradish, scooping up a good bit of it, and eat . . . This inevitably causes tears to flow which are a great reminder of the tears shed by the ancestors in Egypt. The apologist brings up that Jesus then said “One of you is going to betray me.” “Next to dip in the sop.” Implying what—that Jesus was doing a Seder in this scene?
- Charoset = chopped apples, nuts honey, raisins, cinnamon. It’s delicious, but it represents the mortar that we used to make bricks for Pharaoh in Egypt. . . It kinda looks like mortar. Why is it sweet? Ah, because the bitterness and toil was sweet when we knew that our redemption drew near. You dip the matzoh in this and eat . . . And the sweetness erases the previous bitterness, which in turn is symbolic of the hope gained from the expectation of redemption.
- Chazeret= bitter root (a horseradish root or an onion). Reminds us that the root of life itself . . . is bitter.
- Chagigah = a brown egg that has been hard-boiled. The same name as the sacrifice made at the temple at the Passover. So the egg represents that sacrifice. Peel the egg, slice it, dip into the salt water (tears) because we are mourning the fact that —this is a memorial to a sacrifice that is no longer occurring. This is one of the two items not present at the Passover Jesus celebrated. (Huh?)
- Z’roah = shank bone from a Passover lamb. Reminds us of the Passover lamb that was so essential to that first Passover. The lamb had to be without blemish , without broken bones etc . . . . hey! . . . Whaddaya know? That reminds him of Jesus! They didn’t break his bones either, and therefore a prophecy is being fulfilled here! . . .
Regarding the use of cups during the Seder, once again, he uses all the right nomenclature and symbolism:
First cup . . . Kiddush - sanctification . . . . . “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth fruit from the vine.”
The preacher calls attention to the messianic parallel. "And then Jesus said, “I will not drink this cup anew until . . . Etc” . . ." — implying that Jesus meant the Kiddush by these words. I mean, he IS the fruit of the vine, right?
Second cup . . . . . the cup of plagues . . . . "We don’t drink from this cup right away, but instead dip our finger in it and let a single drop drop on the plate for each of the ten plagues that God visited on Egypt."
The preacher thinks he has some profound insight: “Some have remarked that the people made the sign of the cross when painting the “top lintel and the two side posts" with lamb's blood . . . . —This is so ludicrous that I'll just shoosh and let it sink in for a moment.
The preacher continues, "Now because I have Jesus as my Messiah, and because I have by faith applied the blood of his sacrifice to the doorposts of my heart. . . . etc. . . " Well, dude, you might be entitled to such a rogue midrashic interpretation, I suppose—that is, if you were in fact Jewish!
After the meal comes the third cup, signifying redemption.
The eldest son usually reads a series of questions from the Haggadah: Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread. Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?
One particularly notable twist in the messianic theological representation has to do with what is traditionally ther "fun" part of the Seder for kids.
Matzothas = matzah bag . . . . A cloth bag with three compartments, one for each of three matzahs. Signyinfying unity . . . Three in one . . . hmmm. . .
Which unity does the matzoth represent?
One rabbi in the haggadic texts says it's the unity of the patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Another rabbi says, no no . . . the matzoh tosh represents the unity of worship, Priests, Levites and the People of Israel
The apologist... well, he has a better idea: “I believe that the matzoh tosh represents a unity also. The unity of our triune god."
At the ceremony the father takes the second piece out of the bag and leaves the first and third untouched.
Why? The rabbis answer . . . We don’t know.
Aha! . . . you have no explanation other than “it’s traditional” . . . Hmm . . . . well . . . then I guess it’s okay to invent a reason.
The fact that it’s the second piece happens to neatly play into their hand rhetorically (the Son —second person of the trinity et al). The matzoh even resembles Jesus physically, according to this preacher— "striped and pierced". "Pierced for our transgressions, as Isaiah foretold"—I'm not making this up. I wish I was.
He then takes this single matzoh piece . . . breaks it. . . . . and places one piece of that in a linen cloth. This is called the Afikoman ('He who is to come'—perhaps a messianic reference). He then takes this piece, carries it outside the room, and hides it for the time being. . . . Buried, if you will . . . (See where he’s goin’ with this yet?)
This is a very important aspect of the festival—that second piece of matzoh—the preacher stresses.
At the end of the meal the father tells all the children to go look for the afikumen . . . . Like I said before, it's the fun part of the ritual; the child who finds it gets a prize. After this bit of hide and seek, the father breaks the bread and passes it out to people to eat . . . Sound familiar?
I think I have have adequately demonstrated how this preacher has misrepresented the religious ritual of an ancient people without regard for their cultural sovereignty. This misrepresentation is enough for me to convict them as "non-Jewish" at the very least. In all honesty, I detect subterfuge in their method. It's not bigotry that moves me to say this. If they wish to continue worshiping Jesus, then by all means, go for it—they are not the first to do so—but don't call it Judaism. It's like calling Kenny G 'jazz.'
It's bad enough to pretend to be engaging in Jewish liturgy (in fact, it could be seen as a kind of cannibalistic sacrilege) but the way they also try to entice others into this error, into this sacrilegious practice, is a little unnerving to me.
I have a couple of direct questions for these people:
- Do they really think that using the "correct" symbolism and iconography of Passover is enough to make their facsimile a genuine or even valid one?
- By what authority do they feel justified in changing the words of the Haggadah (a sacred text) to fit their ends?
Apparently, this has been unnerving to many Jews as well.
In 1993 the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRCNY) issued a statement which has been endorsed by the four major Jewish denominations: Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Reconstructionist Judaism, as well as national Jewish organizations. Based on this statement, the Spiritual Deception Prevention Project at the JCRCNY stated:
"On several occasions leaders of the four major Jewish movements have signed on to joint statements opposing Hebrew-Christian theology and tactics. In part they said:
"Though Hebrew Christianity claims to be a form of Judaism, it is not ... It deceptively uses the sacred symbols of Jewish observance ... as a cover to convert Jews to Christianity, a belief system antithetical to Judaism ... Hebrew Christians are in radical conflict with the communal interests and the destiny of the Jewish people. They have crossed an unbridgeable chasm by accepting another religion. Despite this separation, they continue to attempt to convert their former co-religionists.""
That's what it looks like to me too.
Interestingly, out of about 70,000 fliers sent to the homes of elderly Jews in just one mailing (according to this preacher) they converted seven people to Christianity via this method. That's a success ratio of .0001%.
Keep up the good work, guys!
Anyway, in closing, I'd like to point out just how utterly absurd this enterprise truly is by calling attention to one little thing they overlooked in their messianic zeal.
The patient reader may be wondering why I marked a few things in red above.
It is because those points reveal a gross anachronism (above and beyond the heinous cooption of Jewish symbols, which is bad enough).
Which is, in brief: the Passover Seder was introduced into the Jewish liturgical practice AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem in the First Jewish Revolt as a substitute for the Passover sacrifice. Any implication that Jesus was rehearsing the Seder in the Last Supper scene is so much wishful thinking, and just plain laughable.
Are Jews for Jesus Jewish?
The Jews all say "no."
I think they are evangelical Christians in disguise.
What do you think?