A remarkable spiritual development is the growing number of Messianic Jews. Although many Jewish believers are high school and university teenagers, the number of adults is equally impressive. In Philadelphia alone, Jews who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Old Testament promise—even now alive and accessible to his disciples—number between 200 and nearly 1,000, depending upon whether one speaks only of the inner city or of Greater Philadelphia.

The flock is multiplying in other parts of the nation also. On the East Coast and West Coast alike, some rabbis are distressed by synagogue-attending worshipers who insist that Jesus is Messiah. Some high school Bible-study groups are now attended by as many young Jews as Gentiles.

This phenomenon has evoked extreme, even reactionary statements by some Jewish spokesmen against evangelical Christians, including efforts to discredit Key 73 as anti-Semitic even before the nationwide evangelistic venture got underway. In a calculated attack, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, inter-religious-affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, scathed Key 73—a cooperative effort of 140 denominations and agencies—as an opening for anti-Semitic feeling, “an assault on the honor, dignity, and truth of Judaism.”

Reference to evangelicals in the same context with Hitler and anti-Semitism so shocked numbers of evangelical leaders that Jewish-evangelical understanding may have been impaired. Many evangelicals felt that a wolf-cry of anti-Semitism was being sounded forth in an effort to disarm and discredit legitimate evangelism; some felt that what the Jewish Defense League identifies as instances of anti-Semitism will henceforth be regarded with initial skepticism. The most negative reading was that while the JDL properly keeps alive the idea of the wickedness of anti-Semitism, piggybacking Key 73 to do so was opportunistic at a time when tensions abroad had eased, and that it ran the risk of defaming evangelicals.

But the issues were not that simple. Although evangelicals were disconcerted by propagandistic attacks they feared would not be quickly undone, many were grateful that Tanenbaum had made evangelical interest in Jewry a national issue. Tanenbaum counseled Christians to “cultivate your own garden before undermining a garden cultivated by others.” The fact is, however, that evangelical Christians wholly approve any JDL effort that would restore American Jewry to Judaism as a return to the Old Testament revelation. Many young Jews have become believers because they find no element of promise in Judaism apart from Messiah, and see the current emphasis on Jewish identity and uniqueness as a program of cultural renewal that eclipses central spiritual concerns. In the absence of vital family, cultural, and religious ties, many teenage Jews and Gentiles alike have drifted into drugs.

The charge by Jewish rabbis that conversions are destructive of Jewish heritage and culture (Messianic Jews are called meshumeds or traitors) prompts two comments. While it is true that some Jewish believers write off their own heritage and forsake the marks of Hebrew culture, including observance of Jewish holidays, most Jews who have found Messiah have also come to a new awareness of their own heritage. Where a severance occurs, it is sometimes unfortunately stimulated by Christian workers insensitive to Jewish traditions and unaware of how to approach Jews as Jews. In one Texas church, congregational leaders counseled a Jewish convert to give up both Jewish food and his Jewish accent!

JDL reaction to the erosion of Hebrew traditions is understandable. Problems faced by the rabbis are not eased, however, when Messianic Jews insist that their full belief in the Old Testament promises should ensure their ongoing affiliation with the temple. Unless the rabbis object to Jesus Christ, they cannot have it both ways—they cannot criticize Jewish believers for forsaking their heritage, and deplore them for staying with it.

No one can overlook the fact that the history of relations between Jews and Christians—this side of the Book of Acts, that is—still colors their interreligious dialogue. In The History ofthe Jews, Solomon Grayzel reminds us that church history as seen through Jewish eyes could be written in blood and punctuated by violence. However legitimate the distinction between Gentiles and nominal Christians on the one hand, and authentic Christians on the other, Christianity has paid a high price for the Crusades, pogroms, and Nazi atrocities; no Jew can be expected ever to forget these things.

Yet when Jewish spokesmen today imply that evangelical Christians are bent on coercing Jews into becoming Christians, they are so far wrong as to be comical. Rabbi Solomon S. Bernards resorted to an anti-evangelical journal (The Christian Century, Jan. 3, 1973) to proclaim that Key 73 promotes “a stifling, suppressive” climate, intrudes on the privacy of Jews, plans their “quick liquidation and extinction,” and shelters among its agencies a “crypto anti-Semitism.” Liberal Protestants given to syncretism and universalism, or uncommitted to the global mandate of the Great Commission, or promotive of political engagement as the essence of evangelism, may understandably join such a diatribe as a way of rationalizing their non-engagement in the requirement of the new birth (which Jesus initially addressed to a Hebrew rabbi).

Bernards associates Key 73 with Jews’ being “compelled to listen to sermons,” “forced to hold ‘debates,’ ” and “converted to Christianity under threat of death or expulation from the country,” and with “unmistakable attack” on Jews and Judaism. If there is anywhere a Jewish believer who has experienced any of this, the rabbi should adduce the facts. Otherwise he appears to be indulging in fantasy.

The fact is that many Jews are now voluntarily examining the New Testament, and harassment of them exists but does not at all proceed from Christian sources. Both Gentile Christians witnessing to Jews and Jewish believers have faced harassment and coercive pressures—threats, bombing of homes, and, in the case of young Messianic Jews, eviction from their homes.

High school and university students with a growing curiosity about Jesus and the New Testament find little if any of an anti-Semitic mentality among fellow students who want to be known as Christians by their love; they smile at bureaucratic complaints that Christians are coercing Jews to believe, and consider it academically untenable to seal off full discussion of Christ’s identity in advance. Jewish sectors in large American cities now often have a “hidden matzah” or its equivalent, a home where Jewish believers study the Bible and talk with Jews interested in the Messiah.

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