Tuesday, October 8, 1996

Interfaith Dialogue At A Crossroads (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, October 18, 1996

It was supposed to be a simple Yom Kippur sermon about the need for Jewish-Christian dialogue, in advance of a major international conference that will bring distinguished clergy and laity to Stamford at the end of October. Since I'm president of the local Council of Churches and Synagogues, the workshop's main sponsor, I felt a need to promote the big event.

All I wanted to do was explain why dialogue is so essential and that Jews and Christians get along so well now that our clergy are doing Volkswagen commercials together (incredible chutzpah by Hitler's automaker, but a true reflection of growing interfaith congeniality). I figured I'd briefly touch on some of the stickier problems, like abortion, anti-Semitism and missionaries.

All went according to plan in my preparations - until I got to missionaries.

I began that section by alluding to the college students, our best and brightest, who had recently been taken in by the missionaries' duplicity. I then added pertinent information about the Southern Baptists and their millennium-inspired conversion frenzy. Suddenly I was the one in a frenzy, and my parenthetical paragraph was expanding rapidly. I wrote of how an estimated 200,000 Jews in North America have converted to Christianity over the past 20 years, more Jews than had voluntarily become apostates over the previous 2,000.

And then I inserted a tidbit that had been told to me only hours before Yom Kippur: that a missionary had been harassing worshipers at our Rosh HaShanah services the week before. It was time to reach into that secret compartment on the reader's lectern - the place where I store the fire and brimstone.

"And to the missionary who was here last week and who I suspect is here today," I cried out that morning, "hear this! Any person on earth is most welcome here to pray, but if your intent is to delegitimize our faith and destroy our people, you are not welcome. We love you, but we will pursue you, and we will delegitimize you, and you will fail, and maybe, when you die, God will forgive you."

Dead silence.

I later found out that the perpetrator left 10 minutes after the sermon, in a huff. But the 1,800 others in attendance didn't know this, and there was a pervasive feeling of having been violated in one's sanctuary. As the anger grew, palpably, the missionaries became in their minds Amalekites, attacking our weakest, our elderly and our students, our hospital patients and immigrants.

Consciously nurturing this bogeyman image, I was able to convey the dangers of Jewish illiteracy and assimilation with an effectiveness that would not have been possible had the sermon been about that most untouchable subject: intermarriage. In fact, many congregants with intermarriages in their families, usually the most defensive when interfaith matters are raised, were among the first to congratulate me for standing up to the missionaries.

I realized that I was on to something.

The Southern Baptists might singlehandedly have saved the Jewish people from extinction, because they gave us a common enemy (Did someone say "scapegoat?") just at the time we were beginning to turn on our own. In throwing down the gauntlet, they just handed Jewish youth groups, camps, day and supplementary schools and Hillels an early Chanukah present, and Jewish federations the campaign theme for their next emergency appeal.

And it's not as if this bogeyman hasn't earned the distinction. With the millennium approaching, and with Jews continuing to defiantly stand in the way of the Second Coming, proselytizing efforts have been increasing dramatically, and will continue to do so. The method of choice will not be Christian hate, as it has been for most of the past 2,000 years, but Christian love combined with an increase in the efforts of the fake Jews to perpetrate their poppycock claims that it is possible to have a foot in both theological camps. Already more than 200 so-called Hebrew Christian "synagogues" exist, and more are on the way.

I've learned that some Yellow Pages listings for places to worship include "Synagogues: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and Messiaic."

I propose that we boycott any telephone directory that perpetuates the ruse that a person who believes that Jesus is the messiah can possibly be a Jew. Such a person is not a Jew. He or she is an apostate, who can always return to Judaism but will likely have to undergo a ritual re-conversion to do so. This boycott should extend to any media outlet that allows advertising directed at converting unwitting Jews, and any university that allows "Hebrew" Christians to prey freely on our youth.

The work of missionaries is systematic, theologically driven and degrades our heritage. It threatens our survival, takes advantage of our weakest and is dishonest. And it threatens to paralyze Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Which brings me back to this month's workshop. I will gladly sit down with Christians and discuss why Jews believe Isaiah couldn't possibly have been alluding to virgin birth. I will gladly engage in spirited discussion over the differences between Catholic and Jewish theology regarding abortion. I'll dialogue about political matters anytime. But when spiritual genocide is going on, openly, I cannot engage in dialogue with any group that refuses to condemn it and does not try to stop it. We must take the offensive against these modern Amalekites.

In the end, it is in our spiritual self-interest for dialogue to prosper. Love our neighbor we must, because it will enable us to love ourselves. Jewish-Christian dialogue is essential primarily because it will help us to become better Jews and them better Christians. The vast majority of Christians do condemn this form of theological guerrilla warfare being waged by evangelicals, and we need to join forces to break the power of fundamentalism that threatens us all.

As for those otherwise-friendly mainline churches that give financial support to groups like Jews for Jesus, we must let them know how much pain they are causing in the Lord's name. In many cases they know not what they've done.

I'll talk to my colleagues anywhere, any time, but the brave new world of interfaith co-operation is still as fragile as the Israeli-Palestinian accords. Until the missionary issue is resolved, I don't think I'm quite ready to pile into that Volkswagen.

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