Thursday, September 27, 2007

Proselytes of the Ghetto

Amos I. Dushaw was an American pastor, novelist, and Jewish convert to Christianity in the early 20th century. Dushaw wrote two novels about Jews converting to Christianity, but both books were unpredictable in plot and thoughtful in tone (and at times even cynical). In fact, I hesitate to call these works "conversionist" because they seem to be more art than religious rhetoric. Dushaw certainly had an agenda (what novelist doesn't?), but I'm not so sure that his agenda was to preach Jesus as the only way.

The first of his novels that Wandering Jude will look at, Proselytes of the Ghetto, was published in 1909. (The title seems to be an allusion to Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto). The narrator of the story writes that those "Russian Jews" who read the New Testament discover that "God's love is wider than petty creeds have represented, and that the life and teachings of the Nazarene have been caricatured by many of his followers. Here he discovers that the New Testament is not anti-Semitic and that Jesus was a loyal son of Israel, who came to break down the barriers which separated man from man" (p. 11).

The protagonist is "Felix," a Russian Jew who has accepted Christianity. He becomes a minister, but resigns his post because some of the congregants have a problem with his theology. (Later he is described as "denying the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures," which is -- as anyone at all familiar with evangelicalism will know -- a big No No, especially for a pastor). At one point Felix cries out to God, "What am I, Christian, Jew, or neither?" (p. 14). He decides to become a missionary, apparently due in part to this existential crisis (or perhaps his crisis was more vocational than anything else).

The narrator describes a missionary (to the Jews) convention, mostly made up of Jewish converts to Christianity. "The two Polish Jews could never work together. They had tried it and made a wretched failure of it, because one was trying to cheat the other. They then separated, and one tried to outdo the other in the fleecing of the Christian public. They both posed as wonderful scholars" (p. 16).

Felix is asked to address the convention, and he gives a speech that disturbs some of the attendees: "A proper appreciation of the Jewish Hope would doubtless reveal to many that ... the Israelites are not all Shylocks, and that the most civilized races have their quota of Shylocks as well. It follows from this that it is the mission of the proselytes to stand as mediators between the church and the synagogue" (p. 21) Felix goes on to criticize the church because "it therefore created an unchristian theology and an unchristian institution in the place of the personality of Jesus Christ, and concealed him behind a lot of ecclesiastical rubbish. The church ... needs as much to be converted as the synagogue" (p. 22).

Felix says to Dora and Grace (two Gentile Christians): "When I accepted Christianity I repudiated many of my former views. When I united with the church I thought I joined the society of those who possessed the truth, and who lived up to it. What did I find? I found that envy, fear of death, and love of mammon filled the souls of many who prided themselves on their wonderful and saving theologies. I failed to find the bond of brotherhood amongst them. We had more of it in our revolutionary circles in Russia. I found in the American church a decidedly undemocratic spirit and an unkind feelng towards the Jew" (p. 35).

Felix and his friend Marx get together. (Marx is a former missionary but now is a doctor and a publisher, who stills holds to faith in Christ, albeit in a more tentative way). Marx informs Felix that his recent article (which criticized missionary fraud) has aroused the ire of other missionaries, who say he is a heretic and a meddler. Marx tells Felix his story:

"Accidentally a New Testament was placed in my hands, and after a careful study of it I accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. All my Jewish friends deserted me, and I lost my position and became an outcast. Imagine my feelings when I discovered that I was received everywhere with suspicion. I was known everywhere as the 'converted Jew'" (p. 50). ... "A Hebrew Christian, especially one who becomes a missionary to his own people, is the leper of modern society.... The humanity of the Church is not superior to the synagogue, and the conduct of the average Christian is not superior to that of the average Jew. But, alas! the Jew who accepts Christianity and unites with the church discovers this fact too late..... In the course of time Christians took me up and sent me to a missionary training school. What mental agony I experienced there! How little the teachers and pupils appreciated liberty and democracy! They all knew more about heaven and hell than about the wretched poor who lived a few blocks away" (p. 51).

Marx struggles throughout the book with his mother in law, who is hates Christianity and fears that her grandchildren will be raised as Christians (which is indeed what happens). He continues his story:

"When I was graduated from the training school I was appointed to carry on mission work among the people of the lower East Side. My church gave me forty dollars a month. This was not sufficient.... By and by many complained that I was not doing effective work, and that I was not succeeding in increasing the membership of the church. I was too honest to bribe Jews to join the church. I was alone.... I toiled on until I became a physical wreck. I then resigned and accepted a position in business, saved some money and studied medicine" (p. 52).

Felix learns that he has been excommunicated from the Hebrew Christian association because of theological reasons. One of the leaders of the group who kicked him out is Levi, who turns out to be a fraud.

Rabbi Cohen, a liberal rabbi who is at first completely aghast at the notion of Jews believing in Jesus, ends up converting to Christianity (based on conversations that he has with Felix; his attempts at winning back Felix to Judaism backfire and the Rabbi hinmself becomes a Christian). One Sabbath he announces this to his congregation. The congregation reacts in a positive (albeit unlikely) manner: "Rabbi, we will stand by you, and follow the Nazarene, too" (p. 91). The news of this mass conversion spreads quickly. Many churches are interested in affiliating with this new convert (because of the wealth of his congregation), even those who wanted nothing to do with an impoverished former rabbi (and now Christian) named Mendel.

Rabbi Cohen tells his story: "I had looked upon all converts as perverts. But the enthusiasm and self-sacrificing spirit of Brother Felix convinced me that here was a genuine convert. I listened to his argument and took him for a dreamer; but his emphasis upon the Personality of the Nazarene gave me no peace until I had reinvestigated the subject. I reread the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament.... I was up until the early hours of the morning crying, 'O Jehovah, if Jesus is the Messiah, reveal it to me. Thou knowest I want to know the truth.' I was in agony; -- when, lo! before me stood the Nazarene, saying, 'Follow Me!' I then fell into a swoon... I felt a peace in my soul which I knew nothing of before" (p. 125).

In the end, the sincere Hebrew Christian missionaries (including the former rabbis Cohen and Mendel) and some like minded Gentile Christians join together to form a new society of believers who will be less theologically focused and more focused on following Christ. Wandering Jude imagines that this was Amos Dushaw's vision, if not his reality. In the final analysis, we all have feet of clay, Jew and Christian alike. While it might seem to be unrealistic to propose a version of the Christian religion less focused on theology and more focused on Jesus, one can always dream. (And if Dushaw had pushed the envelope just a little further, he might have become a Unitarian, a "Christian" religion mostly devoid of theology where more than a few Jews have found a home).

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