Together, Rabbi James Rudin, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews, have been involved in dialogue with evangelical Christians for over 30 years. They have met with evangelical educators from institutions such as Wheaton, Gordon, Ashland, and Trinity. They have talked to local church congregations and Sunday school classes. They have listened to evangelicals talk about Christian theology. And they have described for evangelical ears what contemporary Judaism is like from the inside. But until recently, there was one group they had not met with—representatives of evangelistic organizations that single out Jews as their target audience.

The Christianity Today Institute invited Rabbis Rudin and Eckstein to meet with Michael Rydelnik, Long Island director of Chosen People Ministries and pastor of the Plainview, New York, Olive Tree Congregation; and with Susan Perlman, a missionary with Jews for Jesus.

Such organizations have been the focus of much criticism from both the Jewish and Christian communities. They have been accused of using deceptive and high-pressure techniques; of alienating Jewish people from their families; of turning away from Christianity many more Jews than they convert; of exploiting their own rejection by the Jewish community to raise money in the evangelical community; of presenting an inaccurate and incomplete picture of Judaism to evangelical churches. (Rabbis Eckstein and Rudin in turn have been accused of devoting themselves to “antimissionary activity.”)

These criticisms are difficult to investigate: What seems “deceptive” to some is merely “contextualized communication” to another. And what is “antimissionary activity” to some is “bridge building” and “dialogue” to others.

A meeting seemed to be called for. In addition to the representatives of contemporary mainstream Judaism and evangelistic organizations that focus exclusively on Jews, the CT Institute invited Alan Johnson, professor of biblical studies and ethics at Wheaton College, who has participated in formal evangelical-Jewish dialogues.

Here is a summary of the (often heated) discussion:

Why do Jews object to evangelism?

Rabbi Eckstein offered two major objections:

First, it’s because of the historical baggage we carry around after 2,000 years of Christian witnessing to the Jewish people—it was so “loving” that we were loved to death. Our entire being responds to that one act of proselytizing in 1988 with 2,000 years of history behind us.

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Second, survival is the Jewish mandate. There is a clash between the evangelical great commission and the Jews’ primary raison d’être. The Great Commission is to preach the gospel. The “Jewish great commission,” especially after the Holocaust, is survival. Philosophers today talk about survival being the 614th commandment (traditionally there were 613).

So, anyone or anything that will enhance the Jewish raison d’être will be welcome. And anyone or anything that detracts from this primary Jewish objective will be fought.

After the meeting, Perlman pointed out that Jews who believe in Jesus are indeed committed to the survival of the Jewish people. “If we weren’t,” she said, “I would not call attention to the fact that we are Jews. I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew, but that does not preclude my being a Christian as well.”

Can one be both a Jew and a Christian?

In the Jewish community, there is a difference of opinion on this: Eckstein cited the highly publicized Brother Daniel case from the early fifties in which a Jewish person not only accepted Christianity but became a brother. Brother Daniel then went to Israel and applied for automatic citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any returning Jew. The rabbinic courts said this person remains a Jew. But the political courts said no, he has accepted something quite distinct from Judaism. This person may have been born into this community, but he has given up the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and obligations of this community by accepting another system. Therefore, he has to live by that system.

“But it goes even further on a gut level,” said Eckstein. “It’s an act of betrayal, an act of treason to the people. When a Jew accepts Jesus, he has accepted idolatry. And when that person then comes back into the Jewish community—not just going off quietly into some church, but having it as his or her life mission to come back into the Jewish community to try to teach them to accept a system that for Jews is idolatry (for Gentiles it’s not)—that is a different story.”

When Eckstein referred to Rydelnik and Perlman as “two former Jews,” both responded vociferously. But Rudin also followed the “Brother Daniel thesis.” “I consider them former Jews and not members of the authentic Jewish community,” he said.

Rydelnik looked to another source for defining whether or not he is a Jew:

I respect the Israeli courts. However, I don’t think they are the last word on this issue. The New Testament says that a Jew who believes in Jesus is still a Jew: Paul wrote that he was a Jew. The New Testament says I’m a Jew.

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And so does my heritage. The suffering in my family was as Jews. My mother believed in Jesus and still went to the concentration camp. The Nazis did not make the distinction.

Now, I identify as a Jew: this is what my heritage is, what my destiny is, and what my Messiah teaches.

Rydelnik tried out a syllogism: If Jewishness is peoplehood; and if “a Jew remains a Jew” even when he is nonobservant; and if Christianity is an act of faith, “something people must decide for themselves”; and if “Jewishness is not an act of faith,” but “something we’re born into in which we have no choice”; then, “when we make a faith decision to accept Jesus, it does not affect our Jewishness, we’re still part of that people.”

The response was sharp. Eckstein said Rydelnik was trying to define peoplehood as opposed to religion, something that violated Jewish self-definition.

And Rudin accused Rydelnik of “using Christian terminology to refute Rabbi Ecksteir.” To talk about Jews who “abandon the Jewish religion” doesn’t make sense in Judaism, said Rudin. “To talk about Jews as abandoning the Jewish religion or saying they’re unchurched, or they are not an observing Jew—this is using Christian categories. We’re not a confessional group,” said Rudin, as he brought the discussion back to the mandate for survival: “Is it good or bad for the Jews? It’s clear to me, after nearly 2,000 years of Christian attempts to move Jews into the Christian community, that proselytizing is obviously bad for the Jews.”

Do Hebrew Christian groups use unethical techniques?

Both rabbis expressed strong reservations about certain evangelistic approaches and their results:

Undermining relationship with family or religious institutions. Rudin recounted the story of a University of Illinois student who was subjected to severe mental distress because Christian evangelists told him his mother was going to hell and that he should break ties with her.

Rydelnik affirmed his ministry’s efforts to encourage people to maintain family ties. And Perlman stated her own experience—that the labeling by Jewish leaders of groups like Jews for Jesus as “cults” creates an atmosphere in the Jewish community that immediately produces family problems. Perlman continued: “Over a period of time, when that person has continued in devotion to their family, there still may be great disagreement over whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah, but the family has healed, and the relationship goes on.”

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Advertising Hebrew Christian congregations under the “Jewish” heading in the classified ads. This practice continues in Chicago where the headings read: “Jewish, Conservative; Jewish, Messianic; Jewish, Orthodox; Jewish, Reformed.”

Distributing “Jewish art calendars with prophecies of Messiah.” Rydelnik’s ministry advertises a Jewish art calendar complete with dates for the various Jewish holidays and the beginning and ending of each weekly Sabbath. Rudin objects. This kind of calendar is essentially Jewish (a label he won’t apply to Rydelnik’s group). Thus, for Hebrew Christians to advertise it seems “deceptive.”

Of course, Rydelnik says he is fully Jewish and has a right to use a Jewish liturgical calendar. In addition, he makes it clear to whoever calls in response to the ad that his organization believes that Jesus is the Messiah. “Do you still want the calendar?” he asks. The sign outside his congregation also makes it clear that his group believes in Jesus. “We’re very up-front,” he says.

Simultaneously claiming to be the evangelistic arm of the church and claiming to be Jews. In a Jews for Jesus “confidential report” marked “not to be distributed to non-Christians,” the organization says they are “an arm of the local church” and “primarily evangelists.”

“What’s this about being Jews?” Rudin asked. And why the cloak of secrecy—“confidential report … not to be distributed to non-Christians”?

Perlman explained the “confidential” label: Jews for Jesus has had trouble with Christians sharing with Jewish friends publications that were aimed at evangelicals as if the materials were evangelistic tracts. But there was certainly nothing secret about a report of which 250,000 copies had been printed. And she explained that calling the organization “fundamentalist evangelical” and “Jewish” at the same time posed no problem for her. She herself belongs to both a messianic congregation (that worships on Friday nights) and a Conservative Baptist church (that worships on Sunday mornings). She is comfortable in both places.

Do evangelicals get an incomplete picture of Judaism from Hebrew Christians?

How would evangelicals feel, Eckstein asked, if an ex-evangelical who turned Mormon went about explaining evangelical Christianity to Mormons, allowing Mormons to derive their view of Christianity from someone who rejects the traditional mainstream approach of the Christian community. He compared this with Messianic Jewish groups talking to evangelical churches about Judaism. Rudin offered another analogy:

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You can talk to divorced people about marriage, but that doesn’t give you a complete picture of marriage. You talk to other people: those who have never married, those who are currently married, and those who are divorced.

So to talk to Jews for Jesus or Chosen People Ministries as if they are the only experts about Jews does not exhaust authentic knowledge. They really don’t present a full and very serious picture, in the sense of people who are committed to the continuity of the Jewish people.

Is it valid to target missions at Jews?

“I have no problem with someone who holds the Great Commission, who welcomes all those who wish voluntarily to come,” says Rudin. “What I object to is people who make their life’s work campaigning as Jews to bring specifically Jews to the Christian belief system. It is as if Jews were two-dimensional cardboard cutouts whose only role is to be a candidate for conversion. That doesn’t exhaust Jewish life.”

Johnson responded by noting the long tradition in Christian missions of focusing on specific ethnic and cultural groups in the proclamation of the gospel: for example, mission organizations that focus on Chinese or Slavic peoples. “It isn’t just the Jews who are ‘targeted’,” said Johnson. He continued:

Because of ethnicity and other dimensions, it seems perfectly legitimate from the Christian standpoint to focus on a particular group’s way of understanding truth.

It has to do with communication of the message. And communication has to be contextually oriented. We learn by the paradigm of the New Testament itself. Each of the four Gospels has a different ethnic contextualization. And as the gospel went out of the Palestinian Jewish culture into other parts of the world, certain kinds of terminology were dropped because they did not have any coinage in those communities.

Rydelnik also pointed to the New Testament: “Paul rejects unethical means, but he does not reject contextualization. He says that to the Jew he became as a Jew that he might win Jews.”

Is the alienation of many Jews reason to abandon targeted missions?

Both Rudin and Eckstein said they believed that many more Jews are alienated permanently by Hebrew Christian missions than are won. The implication: such missions are ineffective and ought to be abandoned.

But Johnson pointed to the history of Christian mission: How Adoniram Judson went seven years without a convert in Burma, yet his sending agency continued support. Johnson said that in the evangelical community, even if it could be shown that there are diminishing returns from Hebrew Christian evangelistic organizations, many would continue to support a witness to this segment of the population.

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“The fact that the message alienates is not something that is foreign to the New Testament,” said Rydelnik. “Paul’s message probably alienated many more than it won.”

Rydelnik felt that in asking Hebrew Christian organizations (with their allegedly offensive techniques) to desist in order to improve Christian-Jewish relations, that one was really asking for a Christian witness that didn’t communicate at all.

At the end of the day’s discussion, Alan Johnson concluded:

I would like to say to the more mainline evangelical constituency that we should continue to support the efforts of Hebrew Christian groups such as are represented here, because we believe they are theologically compatible with our understanding of Christianity. And we base that compatibility on the parallels we find in the New Testament.

But we know there is a long history that has intervened between New Testament times and the present that we cannot ignore. We nevertheless get our authoritative base on the paradigms of the New Testament itself, where we find wholly Jewish churches, as well as mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, and wholly gentile churches. And, they were seen as being compatible and mutually edifying.

At the same time, I would emphasize that we cannot as non-Jewish believers in Jesus be insensitive to the alleged abuses that such groups may be accused of within the Jewish communities that do not believe in Jesus.

How should Christians witness to Jews?

Rudin discussed various terms: witness, proselytize, proclamation, mission, conversion, teshua (turning). Witness was seen to be a positive word (as was teshua). Proselytize was clearly negative (as was mission). Asked about proclamation, Rudin responded:

You can proclaim all you want, but you have to make us jealous. So far in my life of over a half-century, I haven’t seen much in Christian life to make me jealous to be one.

We live in a society where words have been distorted and basically good words have been abused. Instead, you judge by deeds, by actions, and by the quality of life. When I look at an evangelical family in my apartment house, I am very proud that they’re my neighbors. Their quality of life, their exemplary prayer life, the care with which they are raising their children to certain moral values—that to me is witnessing; that I applaud.

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“It’s okay for Christians to witness,” said Eckstein. “The question is how it’s done.”

Eckstein went on to discuss “some of those ways in which Christians can sensitively share with the Jewish people while affirming, not compromising, their Christian identity in the process”:

First, through dialogue and through building the trusting relationship which dialogue enhances.

Second, sharing with unconditional love. Do not just love Jewish people because they can potentially become Christians or in order that they become Christians, but demonstrate genuine unconditional love. Love us as we want and need to be loved, not as you selfishly want to love us.

Finally be a blessing unto us as Genesis 12:3 urges, not just by preaching and talking about blessing, but by being a blessing. And let’s agree to leave it up to God to bring about any conversions.

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