Friday, September 26, 2008

The Unlikely Allies

In 2005, Gilbert Morris wrote another "love story" with Jews and evangelical Christians as protagonists. The Unlikely Allies, published by Bethany House, includes events from 1938-1940 amidst the Nazi invasion of Norway.

Rachel Mindel is the primary character, a young Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia, and the plot has her falling in love with a German soldier who she meets in Paris. At one point says to him, "My parents will be surprised when I bring home a goy." The author must want his readers to know that prejudice is an equal opportunity employer, because the soldier, Derek Gruber, has a somewhat negative reaction from his father when he tells him about his new girlfriend (but we don't hear any pejorative language equivalent to goy).

Derek is heartbroken when Rachel is sent away (along with her parents) to a concentration camp. Meanwhile, the main character of the book, Mallory Winslow, is serving as a missionary to the Lapps of Norway (but also secretly working with the Resistance). She takes into her house Abraham and Leah Goldstein, along with their children Thora and Abigail, and tries to sneak them into Sweden, where they will be safe from the Nazis. At night Mallory reads Bible stories (from the Old Testament) to the girls. Abraham says to her one night, "I've been waiting for you to tell our girls stories about Jesus. I know you are a Christian missionary." "[Mallory answers] "I've wanted to, but it wouldn't be right. It would be taking advantage."

WJ: Yes, it would.

Abraham says that "I can't reconcile the love that I see in people like you and so many of the Norwegians and the hatred I see in some others. So many of you are risking your lives, but there are others who are killing our people by the thousands, and yet they call themselves Christians. Carefully, Mallory said, "Not everyone who calls himself a Christian is actually a follower of Jesus."

Wandering Jude comments: Again we have the standard response to what we might call "the Crusades argument." The argument is that Christianity must not be true because so many "Christians" have persecuted Jews. The response to this argument, which Mallory efficiently articulates in 13 words, is that a Christian is not always a Christian. Which is true, sort of. But it's also false. WJ would say that a Christian is always a Christian, but a Christian is not always a good Christian. Nevertheless, Christianity cannot disinherit its bad Christians, just as Judaism cannot disavow its bad Jews. There may be something deep in the bowels of the Christian religion that sometimes leads Christians to become bad Christians. Ya think? (Like, maybe, "blood on your hands," "crucify him!" "synagogue of Satan," "den of thieves," hypocritical Pharisees, and other parts of the New Testament that seem anti-Jewish today, regardless of what the original intent was).

"Goldstein stared at her. "Tell me how you feel about Jesus." She was uneasy about coming on too strong about her faith in Christ, for this man was a devout Jew, but she knew the time had come for her to share her faith with him." [She quotes Isaiah chapter fifty-three to him, a standard missionary practice.] Abraham responds that Judaism teaches that there will be two Messiahs, one a suffering servant and one a conquering hero.

Wandering Jude wearies of all these debates about how many Messiahs, who is the Messiah, where is the Messiah, why the Messiah, etc.. WJ refers the gentle reader to
Robert Levine's book on the topic. And let's leave it at that.

Our erstwhile German soldier, Derek, catches Mallory and others trying to help the Goldsteins escape to Sweden. In a very un-Nazi-like manner (he's one of the heroes of the book, after all!) he allows them to go free. Later, he meets a woman who knew Rachel Mindel in Dachau, and this woman shares how she led Rachel to Christ in the camp. She states, "God was with me throughout the years at Dachau. He set me free. But while I was there, I was able to share Christ with Rachel. She accepted Jesus as her Messiah and knew such joy!" The woman gives Derek a letter to him from Rachel, which states: "I have only loved one man, and that is you, my dear Derek. And now I go to meet God, and I treasure the time we had. God bless you, my dear. Serve Jesus and love Him."
Wandering Jude points out that not only is this sequence of events offensive to most Jews, but also that it's extremely unlikely. In this case, fiction is stranger than fact. There is only one thing worse to us Jews than the depiction of a deathbed conversion to Christianity, and that is a deathbed conversion in a Nazi concentration camp.
Later, Derek is given orders to arrest Mallory, because the Nazis have learned that her father was Jewish. All of these events converge to lead Derek to become a true believer in Jesus. Later, Mallory says to Derek (speaking of Rachel), "I'm glad she came to know Jesus, Derek. That should be a comfort to you. You can be sure she's in heaven now."

Wandering Jude wants to make a few final comments:

(1) Mallory Winslow in the daughter of American missionaries and ostensibly has an American passport. And the Nazis didn't generally arrest American Jews and do bad things to them, for a variety of reasons. So it really doesn't make any sense for the Nazis to arrest Mallory because her father was Jewish. But WJ supposes that it could happen....

(2) Derek becomes a "true believer." OK, nothing wrong with that, I guess. Anything that turns him away from the Third Reich is OK by me. (But it's unfortunate that Derek gives up his "racial" intolerance for a mild form of religious intolerance).

(3) Rachel is dead, but it is somehow a comfort to Derek and Mallory that she is "in heaven now." Again, evangelicalism promotes its attraction to "otherworldliness" and its distance from the importance of life here on earth; the sweet by and by versus the here and now. But how do they know for sure that there's a heaven up there, and that it is ruled by the God of the evangelicals? Doesn't seem likely to Wandering Jude.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Beloved Enemy

Prolific author Gilbert Morris, who likes to write historical fiction, penned this novel in 2003 (and published by Bethany House) about a young Jewish woman who works in a New York City sweatshop during the Depression. The protagonist is Kefira Reis; her mother is Rachel, and her brother (serving time in prison) is Chaim.

Fairly early on we learn that Kefira's mother is dying. "The rabbi stayed for over an hour. He sat beside the dying woman and held her hand.... he had large beautiful eyes that reflected the kindness in him.... "I will be back. At times like this we must look to the Eternal One for strength." ... She knew that Gentiles were much firmer in their beliefs about the afterlife than Jews. She had once asked the former rabbi, who was an old man, if she would see her father again. He had been evasive and had given her little comfort. He had clothed his own doubt with words she did not understand and left her feeling more miserable than she had been before asking the question."

Wandering Jude has a few comments on the narrator's explicit differentiation between Christianity and Judaism and their respective views on the afterlife. WJ notes that, of course, religious understandings of the "world to come" were never monolithic in either Judaism or Christianity. But let's just suppose for a minute that Christians do believe in heaven and Jews don't. Does that mean that rabbis will always fail at comforting bereaved families? The narrator assumes that this is the case, but WJ wonders if maybe, just maybe, there is more spiritual nourishment to be given to the bereaved than just "pie in the sky."

As Kefira's mother is dying, her last words to her daughter are: "You have been a good daughter. Learn to love God for He loves you."

The first part of this deathbed exhortation sounds Jewish (compare it to the Vayahafta: "And you shall love the LORD your God...."). But the second part sounds Christian ("God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"). Then again, who is Wandering Jude to question this vaguely religious sentiment? Perhaps the author meant it as a sort of harbinger of things to come....

Kefira says to her new Christian friend Josh: "It's my name. I don't often tell a goy what it means." "What's a goy?" "Somebody that's not a Jew." "Bubee? What's that?" "That's what Jews call people they like very much." "How do you spell it? Booby?" "No, bubee." .... She had persuaded Missouri to let her cook a Jewish supper... Kefira knew mostly Jewish recipes and was not sure how the family would like them." Later Kefira teaches the family some Yiddish expressions.

"She had never seen a family any closer than the Winslows, and their Christianity puzzled her. She had been afraid of Christians for years, but she had seen nothing but kindness and goodness in these people. I wonder if all Christians are like that. No, they're not all that way, because I've seen some that are cruel."

The narrator is setting us up for a "love them into the Kingdom" scenario. Just wait.

"Kefira was both intrigued and troubled by the casual yet fervent way Missouri Ann and the other family members spoke of Jesus. She had been raised among people who despised Jesus Christ, so much that some of them simply refused to say the name. The best friend of her father had turned crimson when he spoke of the Christian faith and insisted on calling Jesus "that man."

The logic here is: Jews hate Jesus. But Jesus was a good man. Therefore, Jews are wrong in rejecting the messianic claims of Jesus (and his followers). In other words, illogical.

After a church "testimony service," Kefira says: "They all believe so much in God." "Well, of course they do!" Missouri Ann said. "That's what a church is. Do you have anything like that in your synagogue?" "Not really," Kefira said slowly. "I've never seen anything like that."

Wandering Jude points out the implicit message here: Jews who attend synagogue services have no substantive spirituality, especially when compared to Christians who attend church.

Kefira and Chaim realize that at the same time that Missouri Ann had come into Kefira's room (at 2 am) to pray for Chaim, that was the same time that Chaim's almost-fatal fever had broken. Chaim says, "I knew God was in it, but I've never heard of anything like this before.... I've doubted God ever since I've been here... But now I don't think I can do that anymore."

Sounds like a coincidence to me, but who is Wandering Jude to doubt a miracle?

After reading parts of the New Testament, Kefira "wondered, How could a man love those who had beaten him with a whip? I couldn't do that! She read the story again, and the question came to her, Can it be true? Can a person be saved and have his sins forgiven? All she knew of faith was from her Jewish background -- there was nothing like this in her imagination.... She continued to read the New Testament, shocked at how hungry for it she was finding herself to be. She was fascinated by the character of Jesus of Nazareth. He was nothing like she had imagined. She loved the stories of Jesus when He met those who were ill and simply touched them and they were healed. She read over and over again about the prostitute He had forgiven, and how Jesus loved people no matter how bad they were."

Again, the reader is led on a path toward an anti-Judaism polemic. Nothing spiritual can come out of the Jewish tradition, we seem to be told.

"Josh had been very careful to put no pressure on Kefira, but now after sitting silently for a moment, he said, "I don't want to offend you, Kefira, but one of my prayers is that one day you'll know Jesus." ... "Why would you want me to be a Christian?" "Because I think everyone needs Jesus..... Jesus is all that held me together, Kefira. If it hadn't been for Him, I don't know where I'd be."

Josh is a good closer (in the salesman's lingo). He doesn't put much pressure on at first, but when the time is right....

Kefira says, "I've been reading about Jesus. There's nobody else like Him in all of history, but have I been wrong all my life? My whole family is Jewish. None of them believe in Jesus."

"Her Jewish heritage ran deep and the thought of forsaking it, which had occurred to her of late, gave her a pain in her heart."

After reading about Jesus' attitude toward women in the New Testament, Kefira is struck by the contrast (in her mind) between Jesus and other ancient and even modern Jews. She remembered that her father had told her "that some Jews, when they said their prayers, always added the phrase, "And thank you, God, for not making me a woman." He had shaken his head and told her this was wrong, but Kefira had never forgotten it."

It would take too long for Wandering Jude to respond to this canard, but suffice it to say that yes, there is such a prayer in the Orthodox prayer book, but it is culturally based, not misogynist. (And all the progressive movements in Judaism today have removed or changed this prayer). What the narrator fails to point out is that Jesus and Paul and all the other early Jewish Christians probably prayed this very same prayer each morning.

"Closing the New Testament, Kefira clasped it in both hands.... How she must have felt, Kefira thought wout a burst of emotion, when He said, "Thy sins are forgiven." And when He said, "Thy faith hath saved thee." ... She felt also a great void within her own heart, for she had hardness there against men and even against God for allowing her life to be so difficult. Now, however as she read of Jesus and His loving spirit and His generosity and kindness toward a sinful woman, she whispered, "How can I hate a man who does such things as this?"

Kefira makes a good point (about not hating Jesus), but she confuses embracing Jesus as a good man and as a fellow Jew with embracing his Messiahship. Two very different things.

"Oh, Jesus, if this is the kind of a man you are, I cannot hate you any longer." She did not know how to pray, for she had prayed mostly in formal patterns, but now out of her heart came the prayer. "Show me the way, O almighty and eternal God. If this Jesus is your son, make me to know it. That I too may fall before Him and weep as another sinful woman once did."

After several twists and turns of the plot, Kefira gets lost in the desert. "As the time passed, she felt the lostness of her spirit, and then she thought of death itself -- and what came on the other side of death. The Jewish religion had little to say about it, but she knew that Christians were very positive about heaven, believing that the moment they ended this life they would step into the presence of a holy God and a living savior."

"Oh, Jesus, I am no better than that woman. I'm worse than she is! I'm just a sinner. But I'm afraid, and I need you. I need you to help me. I believe that you forgave that woman's sins, and I bring my sins to you, and I ask you to forgive me. That's all I know how to do, Jesus." ... "I don't know how to become a Christian," she sobbed, "but I will do anything, Lord Jesus. Forgive my sins and take me to yourself." .... "Is that you, Lord Jesus?" she whispered, and then in the silence she heard no voice. But in her heart there was a peaceful certainty she had never experienced before, and she knew that she had found her Messiah."

Kefira says to Josh, "I've found the Messiah!" Josh stared at her for a moment, and tears came to his eyes. "You accepted Jesus?" "Yes, He came to me, and He gave me peace. And He brought you to me, my dear."

Thus ends this romantic love story, but Wandering Jude is not sure if the romance is between Kefira and Josh or between Kefira and Jesus!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Divided Loyalties

Divided Loyalties, by L.K. Malone (published in 2001), is a novel of suspence, espionage, and romance. It concerns a terrorist organization that appears to be Muslim but in reality is made up of radical Jews (mostly Israelis) who are posing as Muslims.

The two main characters in the book are Giselle Hardy and Raz Chayil; Giselle is a nominal Catholic and Raz is a Jew born in America to Israeli parents. Is Raz a spy, a double agent, or something even more sinister? I won't give that away. But I will tell you that by the end of the novel, Giselle becomes a born again Christian. Raz appears open to Christianity but it is unclear if he has made any decision in this regard.

Early in the book, the Navy chaplain (and evangelical Christian) Samuel Gilchrist tries to explain Jews to Giselle: "Jewish people aren't so very different from anyone else." Giselle responds: "But Jewish people believe differently than Christians do, don't they? I mean they don't believe in Jesus -- not as the Son of God, anyway.... Does that mean they go to hell when they die? Or that they think that we go to hell?"

Wandering Jude notes: It's kind of strange that Giselle, a Roman Catholic, would go to Chaplain Gilchrist, a Protestant clergyman, for spiritual advice. After all, there are generally plenty of Catholic military chaplains around. But it does serve a useful plot device; it sets the scene for Gilchrist to become the hero of the book. He seems like a moderate at first ("Jews are basically the same as everyone else"), but later his fundamentalist tendencies come through. As the reader will discover.

Giselle continues to learn about the Jews from Gilchrist, who appears to be something of an expert on these things (he says with tongue firmly planted in cheek):""But doesn't God love the Jews too?" Giselle asked. "Didn't he give them their religion too?" Samuel's heart ached; he wanted so much to see the light dawn in her eyes. "Yes, Giselle, of course he loves them too. In fact, Jesus came to the Jewish people first, and he perfectly fulfilled the law that God gave them through his sinless life, his sacrificial death, and his victory over the grave through resurrection. The first people who believed in Jesus were all Jewish, did you know that? Did you know that Peter, the man the Catholic church names as the first pope, was Jewish? Most of the New Testament was written by Jewish followers of Jesus. These men did not reject their Jewishness. In fact, the book of Acts shows that they continued to worship in the synagogues and in the temple, that they were zealous for their Torah, viewing Jesus as the completion of their faith." She stared at him. "Then why don't the Jewish people believe in him today?" "There are a lot of things that come into it, Giselle. For many centuries, Gentiles who called themselves Christians attacked and persecuted the Jewish people. A lot of Jewish people died horrible deaths with a cross being the last thing they saw. Jewish people look at that history and believe that the New Testament must teach hatred for the Jew, and that the Christian Lord Jesus could not have been their Messiah." "I don't blame them," she remarked."

So far, so good. Gilchrist seems like a fair-minded guy, with respect for all people and religions. He seems to know his Jewish history too. But wait! Gilchrist also knows that Giselle is the daughter of a high ranking admiral, and he must be discreet and move slowly if he is to win her over to his way of thinking.

Giselle asks: "Would God send a righteous Jew to hell just because he was taught all his life not to believe in Jesus?"

Gilchrist never directly answers this question, curiously enough.

"You're saying that I should try to convert him?" Samuel shook his head. "God is the one who changes people, Giselle. It's not your responsibility. I'm just saying that you might find this friendship gives you an opportunity to share Jesus with your Jewish friend."

Wandering Jude wants to point out that this is an essential doctrine of the Calvinist strain of Christianity: People don't convert people; God converts people. So just wait for the "opportunity" to share Christ with your friends, and God will do the rest.

Giselle asks Raz: "Do you really thank God every morning that you weren't born a woman?"

Now why would Giselle think that Raz, not an observant Jew in the least, would say this daily prayer that only hard core Orthodox Jews pray? Or perhaps it's just a subtle way for the author to diss Judaism? Nah! Couldn't be....

Admiral Hardy says to Raz: ""You're Jewish yourself, aren't you?" "I am." Offcially, anyway. In truth, he wasn't particularly religious. It was hard to believe in a God who could allow his people to suffer so much."

We hear you, man.

""You're Jewish, then," Mrs. Hardy deduced, frowning. "Our family is Catholic, you know." ... [Raz answers]: "I'm aware of that, Mrs. Hardy. Giselle and I have discussed the issue, and frankly, we don't think it's a problem." ... "What about your family?" Dolores asked. "how will they feel about your involvement with a Christian girl?" "I'm sure some of them will be unhappy," Raz admitted. "But my mother and brother won't object, and they're the ones who matter." "you won't expect our daughter to convert if things get serious?" He shook his head. "Nor would I be willing to convert, in case you were wondering. I can tell you what my ancestors were doing four thousand years ago, Mrs. Hardy. I've always been proud of my heritage. I won't turn my back on it.""

Way to go, Raz! You the man!

Near the end of the book, Giselle and Raz get married in a "non-denominational Christian ceremony."

Um, Raz! What happened to your Jewish backbone? Doesn't a Christian ceremony imply.....?? Oh, never mind!

Their first argument as a married couple is over Giselle putting up a crucifix in their apartment. ""If you can put up your mezuzah, why can't I put up my crucifix?" ... "the mezuzah isn't incompatible with your faith," he retorted, his voice tight with anger. "It isn't the last thing your ancestors saw before their throats were cut by Crusaders." She stared at him. What was wrong with him? He was usually very open-minded about her religion. He'd even attended Mass with her last Sunday."

Another character (Mared) says to Giselle: "Jerusalem is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. They both lay claim to the same block of land. The religious Jews dream of a day when they can rebuild their temple. The Muslims riot every time they try. How are they going to coexist peacefully?" "But why should it be so hard? Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, don't they?" she protested. "Do they?" he asked. "Take a look in the Qur'an sometime. You'll find that Allah bears little resemblance to the biblical God." "Isn't it possible that God manifests himself in different ways to different people? Isn't it possible that he wants us all to live in peace, despite our differences?"

Wandering Jude answers this question with a resounding "Yes!", but unfortunately that's not the author's intent nor the point of the book. But WJ is glad that someone asked the question, anyway. [It does sound a bit like Rodney King, doesn't it? Can't we all just get along? I like that guy, despite his many brushes with the law. There's something ... sympathetic about him. Or maybe just pathetic. But I digress....]

Raz comes close to the gates of Christianity by reading the messianic prophecies that Chaplain Gilchrist had given to Giselle. After reading through these for only a relatively short time, he prays: "Jesus, I don't know if you're who Giselle thinks you are. But if you are, I'll pray to you, too."

And thus ends our little tale of Jew meets nominal Christian and both become evangelical believers, or at least one does and the other comes close.

Wandering Jude ends with these thoughts:
(1) An evangelist who seems moderate, thoughtful, and open minded is still an evangelist. S/he is still trying to change your religion. For better or for worse, that's what an evangelist does.
(2) For their families, is it worse for a nominal Catholic to become a committed Protestant or for a secular Jew to become a Christian? One might argue that at least they are living "spiritual" lives now. So there is a positive side to it, yes. But the negative part is, at least from a Jewish perspective, that their kids may or may not identify as Jews, and their grandkids most certainly will not identify as Jews. Say goodbye to Jewish continuity.
(3) There has been a lot of news lately about evangelical Christians evangelizing too much in the military. Free speech versus the rights of the minority not to be harassed or proselytized. This book sort of deals with those issues, in a roundabout kind of way. But in the end, free speech wins out. And Jews get proselytized. And so it goes.

Monday, June 30, 2008

An Israeli Love Story

Zola Levitt, who died in 2006, was a prolific writer of non fiction (mostly books about “biblical prophecy”). An Israeli Love Story, published by Moody Press in 1978, is his only work of fiction. (Though it’s debatable whether books on “biblical prophecy” aren’t also fiction as well!).

The back cover of the book (remember that it was published in 1978) describes the author as a "converted Jew" who "is presently a speaker and evangelist for the American Board of Missions to the Jews." In the 1980s and 1990s, Levitt started his own organization, Zola Levitt Ministries, Inc., based in Texas, and still in operation even after his death.

In a nutshell, here is the plot of the story: Isaac is an American Jewish immigrant to Israel. Rebecca is the daughter of a rabbi. They meet an Israeli "Hebrew Christian" (or “Jewish Christian” -- these terms are interchanged in the novel) missionary named Joshua who shares the gospel with them. Spoiler alert: By the end of the novel both Isaac and Rebecca are converted to Christianity and marry each other.

Here’s a description of Isaac early in the novel:

"Isaac had been raised in a Jewish neighborhood among Jewish people who lived out their Jewishness to a degree where it became a strange conceit. At a very tender age he realized that his family considered themselves to be the best of all possible races of people, but sometimes he wondered. His uncles almost boasted of their own emigration from Europe -- how they had been smart enough to leave before Hitler's rise to power, and how they had found the society and commerce of the New World hardly even a challenge. They were all very successful in business and the professions, and they almost swaggered in their collective accomplishments."

"There was a Jewish way to grow up in Isaac's community, and he followed it to the letter, all the while wondering if there were not other plausible ways to grow up. He joined the AZA, a boys' club of Jewish teenagers vaguely dedicated to Israel and the Jewish ideals; and he played a lot of basketball with curly headed, dark-skinned Jewish athletes who whipped any other ethnic group hands down, despite their lack of height."

Wandering Jude wonders if maybe, just maybe, Isaac is really Zola Levitt?

"When Isaac graduated from high school he looked like a "nice Jewish boy." Of ordinary height and build, with dark curly hair and deep-set brown eyes, he was the type of young Jew who faded into any Jewish crowd but would stand out embarrassingly at a Gentile country club. He had that slightly foreign look that Jews possess in every country, including modern Israel."

Wandering Jude makes a mental note that no blond or blue eyed Jews need apply to Zola Levitt’s Jewish country club!

Here’s a conversation between Isaac and Joshua, our missionary-hero:

"It's hard to believe," Isaac pressed on, "that getting into this Kingdom of God is so easy. Don't you know how hard our Orthodox people strive to please God? When did it become so simple?" "When the Messiah died," Joshua replied with brevity. "Oh, stop that Messiah business and call Him Jesus! You sound like a public relations man." .... "Well, I'm not the first to call Jesus the Messiah, Isaac. Our prophets did that long ago. He fulfilled our prophecy, you know. That would be very easy to show you." "Well, if he fulfilled our prophecy, why don't our learned men know it?" Isaac almost sneered. "Our learned men don't read our prophecy," Joshua explained, never losing the note of patience and sincerity in his voice. "If you decide to spend your life reading the works of men --the laws, the poetry, the traditions -- instead of the book of God, you can make mistakes. I mean our scholars no disrespect, and I know their intentions are good. But personally, when I read prophecy about the mission of the Messiah and His character, and then I read the life of Jesus, I see that they fit together, and that's all there is to that. Anyone will find the same thing.”

That’s all there is to that. Yes indeed.

We learn more about our Israeli heroine Rebecca:

“Rebecca's father, a rabbi, kept every Passover and said the mourner's kaddish every morning and every night, even during World War II. After he and his wife moved to Israel, his daughter was born. "In the next two years the rabbi maintained a real prayer life and communed daily with the Lord. He read deeply in the Law, and he studied the role of fatherhood from the depth of perspective of the Jewish sages."

The rabbi kept every Passover? Imagine that!

Levitt treats us to some interesting descriptions (fictional, of course) of Israeli society. First, we learn about Orthodox women:

"Wives of the strictly Orthodox Jews shaved their heads as an act of submission to their husbands, and they wore short, curly wigs and fancy hats in the streets. Rebecca had once been told that this custom prevented the Orthodox women from ever running off with another man -- the would-be adulterer would be turned off by the bald head."

Then we have a description of orthodox Jews in Jerusalem:

"They were proud men, each outdoing the other in the splendidness of the robes he wore and the piety with which he approached the God of Israel. But Rebecca was glad that her father, whose sincerity toward God was exceeded by no one else's as far as she could discern, had not opted for such holy trappings. He chose simple clothing, usually black, that more or less reflected his commitment without being overbearing."

Next, a description of Sabra (native Israeli) women:

"Far from wearing wigs, the Sabra girls let their black hair hang long and free. They were beautiful and graceful, thought Rebecca, who as an adolescent had been envious of their dark-eyed good looks. Her own more European-like features --soft brown hair, light complexion, less prominent cheekbones -- had always seemed somehow inferior, even less godly, against these more pure women of the land."

Wandering Jude wonders if poor Rebecca might not get into Zola Levitt’s Jewish country club. Apparently she’s not “Jewish looking” enough. But those Sabra girls. Wow. They really set Zola on fire, apparently.

But we’ve been distracted by these realistic accounts of Israelis, secular and religious. Let’s get back to the main point of the story, which is conversion.

"Any true follower of Jesus Christ loves Israel," Joshua answered quietly. "My Lord said that He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."" .... "Jesus was certainly the Jewish Messiah," Joshua answered. "And the Messiah of everyone else as well."

That Joshua, he is certainly sure of himself. It reminds Wandering Jude of the old axiom, that if you say something often enough and loudly enough, it becomes true (for you).

""I have read the New Testament," the inspector said quietly. "I find no fault with Jesus." "Then why don't you come to Him?" Why don't you believe in Him?" Joshua asked with excitement in his voice. Was this Israeli actually going to confess Christ right here and now? Would he be saved, sitting in a police station? "I could never become a Gentile. That's something I could never do. I could never become one of them," the inspector quietly assured the evangelist. "But you don't become a Gentile when you believe in Jesus," Joshua told him, urging him to think deeply. "All of Jesus' followers were Jews. All His disciples and all the apostles came from our people. We founded the first church! We wrote the Bible! How could you possibly become a Gentile by following the Jewish Messiah."" The inspector responds: "I realize that the first Christians were Jews. But now the Gentiles have overtaken Christianity, and they have ruined it. ... I could never be comfortable with Gentiles.... Gentiles kill Jews. They hate us, and they have always hated us." ... Joshua responds: "You could worship with Jewish followers of Jesus right here in Israel.... You certainly don't have to become a Gentile to be a Christian.""

This exchange between the missionary Joshua and the Israeli police inspector goes to the core of why one missionary organization calls itself Jews for Jesus and why many converted Jews call themselves Messianic Jews. These people feel a fond connection to their Jewish heritage. They don’t want to feel that they have betrayed their people. They want to continue to be Jews, albeit with a twist. And it’s of course undeniable that Jews who convert to Christianity remain Jewish in an ethnic sense, as well as a cultural sense. Whether they continue to be Jewish in a religious sense is where the debate rages. Wandering Jude will not weigh in on this debate here, except to say that the consensus continues to be (in the Jewish community) that Jews who convert to Christianity cannot continue to practice normative Judaism. This is not to say that Messianic Jews cannot use the symbols and rituals of Judaism in their private and public worship. But it is very difficult for Wandering Jude to conceive of Messianic Judaism as the 5th movement in Judaism today (after Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist). Perhaps it's akin to Humanistic Judaism, which also has a marginal status among mainstream Jewish adherents. And perhaps it's also analogous (in some ways) to the messianic Lubavitchers (or "Chabadniks"), who see the Rebbe Schneerson as the Messiah. But mainstream? Not a chance. In reality it's a syncretistic religious movement that deserves respect insofar as it's adherents and leaders appear to be quite sincere, but cannot ever hope to be accepted by rabbis and synagogue members as a legitimate Jewish group due to a multitude of factors, not least of which is the sad history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Back to the story. Joshua the missionary appears to be making inroads into his proselytizing efforts with Isaac:

"Joshua had the secret knowledge that God's Spirit was working in Isaac's life and that this was the young man's real reason for consulting him. Joshua perceived that their interview had been arranged by God Himself; Isaac was being called to faith in the Messiah."

Wandering Jude wants to know what this “secret knowledge” is that Joshua seems to have. Sounds almost Gnostic.

"Joshua was unlike the rabbis Isaac had known in his youth. They had been remote, busy men, carrying themselves with the bearing of deeply learned scholars. Some were sensitive, kind men, it could be easily seen; but others were hypocrites, Isaac knew."

Yes, Isaac, rabbis are just like everyone else. Ministers, priests, etc., the clergy are made up of some wonderful people, and some hypocrites, but mostly those who could go either way depending on the temptation that faces them. Jews are like everyone else, only more so.

As the reader might have suspected, we now come to the part of the book where our missionary must explain to his potential proselyte about all the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. But he must do it slowly, so as not to push too hard, too fast. He must not rush the Holy Spirit or the potential convert.

"He could see that Isaac had been moved by the portion of the message he had heard so far, and that his heart was opening like a flower. But he would not pounce on Isaac, as if he were the opponent in a debate. People came to the Lord ever so slowly, ever so gently -- particularly Jewish people. Joshua could sense that Isaac was ready, but his moment of salvation was up to Isaac and the Lord. Joshua would merely continue to teach the Word of God."

The missionary describes his frustrations:
""Rebecca, Rebecca.... How stubborn you are! what a true daughter of Israel you are! Stiff-necked, arrogant... I have spent my life doing this, Rebecca. Arguing with my own people for their own salvation. It's not as if I'm paid for this or that I enjoy it so much, believe me. They practically spit at me in the streets. ... "Day and night I watch our peopel suffer, as we have suffered for so long. And I have the solution -- I have the Messiah! But will anyone appreciate what I have? Do they ever give thanks to God for coming here and being nailed to a cross? No, they want to be Jews without meeting any of the requirements for being Jews. They have no Messiah and they have no sacrifices and they have no Temple and they have no faith!" ... "And for centuries we have been punished -- for almost two thousand years we have been punished -- for this terrible mistake, for rejecting our loving God and His suffering Messiah, and it still never occurs to any of us, in our magnificent pride, that something is wrong! Well, that's not what God wants! That's not what we were chosen for! We are a long way from God, and we are paying for it."

So the story ends, as promised, with two conversions and a marriage. Ah, the "truth" wins out again in yet another conversionary tale. So why does Wandering Jude feel so sad?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Retribution, the third installment in Randall Ingermanson's time travel trilogy, finds Messianic Jew Rivka, along with her husband, regular Jew Ari, still stuck in 1st century Israel. Ari continues to be resentful toward Christianity:

"Ari reached into his belt and drew out the small olive-wood cross and felt the old familiar rage well up in his heart. "This is precisely the difference between Christians and the Jew down the long centuries. Each believes HaShem has called him to his way of life. The Jew respects the right of the Christian to follow after HaShem as he has heard. But the Christian does not respect the right of the Jew to follow after HaShem as he has heard. The Jew allows for the possibility that the Christian may be a true follower of HaShem. The Christian insists that both cannot be right, and shoves his cross down the throat of the Jew." Ari slammed the little cross on the stone table in front of Rivka. "Yes, Rivka? This makes sense to you?" Rivka picked up the small cross and clutched it to her heart. "Ari, Yeshua sacrificed his life for you. Doesn't that mean anything to you?" "And what if I do not accept this sacrifice?" Ari glowered at her. "Moshe did not accept this sacrifice. King David did not. The prophet Eliyahu did not. Will they burn in hell for this failure? If not, then why would HaShem send me to hell for following him in the same way as these righteous men?"

In this interaction between Ari and Rivka, Ingermanson has aptly described the great divide between evangelical Christianity and Judaism. Jews long for pluralism and tolerance. Evangelicals seek salvation for all and only see one path. With apologies to Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

But later in the book, Ari finally sees the light:

"The cross. For all Ari's life, the cross had been a sign of rage. Christian rage against all Jews, Christ-killers, Jewish rage against all Christians, Jew-killers. The cross was the blood curse and the blood curse was the cross. The cross was retribution. But no more. Ari could never again see the cross as a curse. The cross was Baruch, giving himself freely for his friend, dying in despair because his sacrifice was refused, changing the hearts of all who saw, ascending in glory to the World to Come. The cross was life, not death. A blessing, not a curse. Victory, not defeat. Reconciliation, not retribution." "Deep shame welled up in [Ari's] heart. "Rivkaleh, I too have focused my rage on one man -- a good man who never caused the blood curse. I was wrong to blame him." Rivka's eyes sparkled. "You mean..." "I will think on the matter." Rivka threw her arms around him and wept."

To his credit, Ingermanson does not end the book (and the series) with an explicit conversion to Christianity. He leaves just enough ambiguity to allow readers of all faiths to be satisfied. Christians will be happy that Ari no longer denigrates faith in Christ and no longer hates Jesus. Jews will breathe a sigh of relief that Ari, though apparently now open to believing the Christian message, at least has not taken the plunge of full blown adherence to Christian doctrine. Of course, it's implied that he will believe in Christ someday, but that's left to the reader's imagination. And this is a Christian novel, so it would probably be unfair to require Ari to completely reject Jesus. Nevertheless, unlike many conversionary works of fiction, this one ends without an explicit conversion, which is satisfying on a literary level as well as a spiritual one.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Randall Ingermanson has written a trilogy of "messianic Jewish" novels that are set in the first century. The first, which won a Christy award for best Christian futuristic fiction, is entitled Transgression, and was published by Harvest House in 2000.

A summary: Rivka Meyers is an American Messianic Jewish archaeology student. Ari Kazan is an Israeli scientist and somewhat anti-religious. Both travel back in time and meet various characters from the 1st century, including the Apostle Paul.

Throughout the book, Ari and Rivka have extended conversations about Judaism and Christianity. ""Yeshua!" Ari's face darkened. "That is a fraud. Why not call him by his true name, which is Jesus? You put a Jewish veneer on a Gentile concept. Perhaps you can sell it to American Jews who know nothing of thier heritage, but not to Israeli Jews."" Ari later says, "It is a lie to call a church a synagogue. It is a lie to call a Christian a Jew. Messianic Jews are an oxymoron."

Another interaction: Ari exclaims, ""You have heard of Constantine and his forced conversions? You have heard of the slaughter of Jews during the Crusades? You have heard of the torture of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition? You have heard of the strange love for Jews displayed by Martin Luther? You know about Chmielnicki and his pogroms? You think the Holocaust was an aberration?""

"Rivka ... had studied the history of Christian dealings with Jews, and it was ugly. Unforgivably ugly. And yes, there was reason to think that the Holocaust was the natural fruit of that history. But it had been sixteen centuries of persecution, not twenty, and long stretches in the middle had been marked by peace between Jew and Christian. Anyway, it was over now, wasn't it? Mostly over. The pope had even declared back in the sixties that Jews weren't responsible for the crucifixion. Evangelicals had gotten interested in the Jewish roots of their faith . The mainline Protestant churches were increasingly tolerant. Only fringe right-wing groups still called Jews Christ-killers. Things had changed. Mostly."

It all boils down to this: Rivka states: ""I'm a Jew who believes that the Messiah has come, and His name is --" "Wrong!" Ari shouted. "If you believe in That Man, then you are not a Jew.""

The novel is well written and believable (well, if you can believe in time travel). But there are a few minor inconsistencies. For example, Ari hates the Haredim but he prays to God and calls him "Hashem." Why would a secular Israeli pray to God and call him Hashem? And Wandering Jude has some questions about language too. Yes, Ari is an Israeli who speaks fluent modern Hebrew. And yes, Rifka knows some Hebrew and Aramaic from her academic studies. But will they really be able to communicate in ancient Aramaic with their newfound friends in 1st century Palestine? Doubtful. But, after all, this is science fiction, so we'll cut Ingermanson some slack in this area.

By the end of the novel, Ari has become more open to Christianity, but he has not yet converted. Oh, and not to give away the plot or anything, but both Ari and Rivka are now stuck in the 1st century without any way to travel forward in time to get back to the 21st century.

To be continued....

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Sign of the Cross

David Horton's sequel to Legion of Honor, entitled The Sign of the Cross: a Novel, was published by Victor Books in 1997. Our heroine is again Isabelle Karmazin, a French Jew in 1943 who has fled the Nazis and is now in Switzerland. Other Jewish characters also appear in this book, including the Levy children and a Catholic nun at the convent "Our Lady of Zion," Sister Marie-Moises. (In fact all of the nuns that work in this convent were born Jewish but converted to Catholicism).

Here is the publisher's blurb:

"In prison for his resistance activities in World War II France, Marcel Boussant longs for freedom and Isabelle Karmazin, the woman he loves. Meanwhile, Isabelle is denied entry to America. When she meets Michael Dreyfus, a Swiss Jew, she readily agrees to his dangerous scheme . . . to whisk her off to U.S. controlled territory in North Africa. What she dared not hope for, however, is that Marcel would one day return for her. Historically accurate, this rousing adventure/romance tale demonstrates that true refuge is found only in Christ."

We meet a new character, Michael Dreyfus, who was born in Switzerland but grew up in America. "As a Jew, he felt a special affinity -- even a responsibility -- for those whose fate was linked solely to their race, his race. It was more than a general need to stand against anti-Semitism. Now that he had witnessed the evil firsthand, it had suddenly begun to feel personal. One day it might be him or someone he loved."

Malfaire, an evil character (you'd guess that by his name), says to his son:
"Jews aren't like us, Dede. They're dishonest, they're greedy, and they don't even believe in God -- not the real God, anyway."

As in the previous book, Isabelle again agonizes over how a righteous and all-powerful God can allow so much evil in the world:

"For years, ever since her mother died, [Isabelle] had refused to believe that the God she had often heard about -- this powerful yet benevolent supreme being -- could actually exist. If He was so good, then why did He allow her mother to die? And why all the pain? Why didn't He just heal her -- especially if He was so all-powerful? If He did exist, what kind of God could He be, anyway? Her father certainly hadn't encouraged any such belief. Superstition, he called it. Unscientific. A crutch for the weak and uneducated. Even her husband, Adam, was disdainful, especially of orthodox Jews. He simply could not understand blind adherence to some rigid set of arcane rituals. And Isabelle's own skepticism had been reinforced with each new tragedy in her life."

Oh, did we forget to mention that Isabelle is a widow?

Isabelle is influenced in a positive way by the Boussant family, who are French Protestant Christians. Even in the face of tragedy "their faith in a loving God remained firm. In fact, it had been that faith that had driven them to give her shelter, in spite of the danger. They spoke of their God -- and to Him -- as if He were some kind of all-wise friend. And it seemed so natural for them. How she had wished it were that easy for her." Isabelle is also influenced by the de Rocher family, who are Swiss Protestant Christians.

Michael Dreyfus'
"parents had seen to it that he and his sister, Beatrice, were ""raised Jewish," as his mom always said, but their circle of friends and acquaintances was by no means limited to the Jewish community. Nor was their life defined by strict religious observance. They attended synagogue on many major holidays, though not necessarily all of them. And of course, Michael's bar mitzvah at age thirteen had been a day to remember. But when Bea decided to marry a Gentile, the Dreyfuses, proud of their open-mindedness, agreed to the match, provided the children would be "raised Jewish." Michael himself had dated several Gentile girls while at Columbia University. And though his parents had never raised an outright objection, his mother more than once had offered to introduce him to "a nice Jewish girl."

Marcel tells Isabelle that it is not surprising to find her in church because, he says,
"I say a prayer for you every day.... Sometimes more than once." "Don't you think God will get tired of hearing about me?"... "You're just as important to Him as anyone." "I want to believe that," she said, "but it sure isn't easy.... I still have a million unanswered questions." ... [Marcel says], "But if you're like most people, you'll always have more questions than answers. Faith is more about acting on what you know than what you don't know.""

Theo says to Sister Marie-Moises, "I wish you wouldn't make it seem so, well, so nice to be a nun.... You said you wouldn't try to make us into Christians. You promised." "And you're afraid Lea might want to become one?"... I made a promise to God to give shelter to any Jewish children He brings our way. And I promised the rabbis that if they trusted me with their children, I would trust their souls to God. I have never tried to make anyone into a Christian, as you call it." (p. 258). ... "Besides," she continued, "you can't force anyone to become a Christian. It's strictly voluntary. "Well, Lea's a Jew just like Victor and me," Theo said, as emphatically as he could manage, "and we don't want to be anything else." "I respect that," she said, as she turned to go. "In fact, I used to think the very same way myself.""

Justine de Rocher gently but firmly proselytizes Isabelle several times throughout the book. She tells Isabelle that only Christ can solve her problems. At one point she says to Isabelle:

"A nation, no matter what its flag, can offer you nothing more than temporary peace and external freedoms, and even then its power is limited." "What are you saying?" [asks Isabelle]. "That I think you want the kind of peace that lasts. You want a freedom that inhabits your very being, that doesn't depend on circumstances. And it's no wonder you've been disappointed. The Swiss cross is all well and good. But it's a very pale image of the cross that stood on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. Perhaps you've been looking to the wrong one for help."

At the end of the book, Isabelle converts to Christianity, symbolized by her wearing a small gold cross around her neck. "Isabelle, noticing that [Marcel] was staring at it, took the cross in her fingers and carefully touched it to her lips. "A gift from Justine," she murmured, "to commemorate something else I decided." And then she smiled. "It's why I'm not running away anymore."

She also decides to marry Marcel, a French Protestant Christian, as opposed to the other man who had shown an interest in her, Michael Dreyfus.

Wandering Jude speaks:

This is not a bad novel. Just sort of mediocre. Wandering Jude is not angered by the characterizations of Jews in this book, although as usual, he is disappointed that in yet another Christian novel the Jew converts to Christianity. It's so ... predictable. Even Michael Dreyfus' rejection of Christianity is predictable, since everyone knows that not all Jews will accept Christ, just the good ones. The evil Catholic named Malfaire is also a recurring character in Christian fiction featuring Jewish characters. There always has to be a villain, and in these kinds of books the villain is often a "false Christian" who can be contrasted with the "good Christians." The only surprise in this book is that there are some good Catholics (the nuns), but they are different than most Catholics like Malfaire since they are really converted Jews. And of course the real heroes in the story are the Protestant Christians who lead our heroine to Christ.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Legion of Honor

The heroine of A Legion of Honor (written by David Horton and published by Victor Books in 1995), Isabelle Karmazin, is a secular French Jew in 1942 who is fleeing the Nazis (which is what one would expect of a French Jew in 1942). One of the French women hiding Isabelle, Tante Marthe, says to her early in the book:

"God has been good to us, and the very least we can do in return is to offer a small kindness to one of Abraham's daughters."

In response, Isabelle thinks to herself,

"And as for God -- well, even if He existed, He hadn't seemed particularly good to her lately. He was apparently more interested in people like Ginette and her family. They weren't suffering much.... No, Isabelle decided, if a good God were paying attention, her husband and her father -- perhaps even her mother -- would still be alive.... During her detention at Venissieux, she had heard plenty of talk about God: from guards who cursed the Jews as "Christ killers," to fellow Jews who suddenly rediscovered religious rites they had spent a lifetime ignoring. She found it pathetic, mostly, and so hypocritical."

Wandering Jew says: Isabelle's cynicism is understandable, to say the least. The Holocaust, today and yesterday, leaves many with the feeling that a personal God, if he exists, was "off duty" to allow such horrors. So most of us who read this book ,whether we are Jews or Christians or atheists, will feel sympathy for Isabelle's character and not judge her for her skepticism in matters religious and otherwise.

A few pages later we get a further glimpse into Isabelle's psyche:

"Since her father had not attended synagogue to speak of, nor had he compelled her to go, Isabelle freely admitted that there was a whole dimension -- the religious side -- of her Jewishness that she did not understand. ... It wasn't that she was ashamed of her heritage, though she had sometimes found it socially inconvenient. She had simply adopted her father's view that there was no place in a scientific world for anything that wasn't, well, scientific. She glanced quickly around the room, expecting to see a crucifix or a smiling likeness of Jesus or Mary -- or both -- as she had seen in other Gentiles' homes. ... She had never understood how people could revere a symbol of torture and death. Or why they insisted on treating as alive a person who had supposedly lived and died centuries ago. Jews might have their weaknesses, she mused, but Gentiles were a study in contradiction."

We meet various French and German characters who espouse anti-Semitic beliefs throughout the book. (And, to be fair, we should mention that some characters espouse pro-Jewish beliefs).

Isabelle is a secular Jew, but she's also somewhat anti-religious. She has an interesting dialog with one of her Christian rescuers:
"I have seen far too much suffering to put much faith in Christian charity. Especially when there are some who use religion to justify their hatred." Madame Boussaint responds: "I won't deny that what you say is true. But not everyone who is religious is a Christian. We all have to answer for our own sins."

Wandering Jude notes that Madame Boussaint's response to Isabelle, while somewhat compelling, is also a stock answer to skeptics from Christian apologists. "Not everyone who is religious is a Christian." Of course, what she really means is "Not everyone who is religious is a good Christian." On its face this seems obvious to the average evangelical Christian believer, but from a Jewish perspective it's a cop-out. One can't absolve Christianity for the sins of its adherents by simply saying, "Oh, that person really wasn't a Christian. He just said he was a Christian." This answer is too easy and it doesn't convince most of us.

More thoughts from Isabelle as she listens to the Christian rescuers pray and read the Scriptures:

"Isabelle had to admit that it made her very uncomfortable. It wasn't so much the Scripture reading. She had heard something similar before -- one of the ancient Hebrew prophets, she guessed -- on one of the rare occasions when she had accompanied Papa to the synagogue. But when she overheard the family's matter-of-fact prayers for her protection and well-being, she felt confused and embarrassed: confused as to why they would ask for the protection they were in face providing; embarrassed at the thought that, having just met, they already cared for her."

At the end of the book, Isabelle does not become a Christian, but she develops a new appreciation for the religious faith of the Christians who took care of her before she escaped into Switzerland. But reader beware: there is a sequel coming that Wandering Jude will address in the next few days.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Chalice of Israel

The Chalice of Israel: Four Novellas Bound by Love, Enchantment, and Tradition, published in 2001 by Barbour Publishing, contains two stories (the third and fourth novellas) which are conversion narratives. In "Cup of Honor," Holocaust survivors Leah and Reuven Shapira emigrate to Israel in 1948. While this love story clearly becomes proselytizing toward the end of the novella, there are few hints of this in the main body of the story. The epilogue to this novella states that Joshua Ben Ami (Leah's husband) "came to believe the Messiah had come. Jesus had poured out His blood for them as the cup's inscription said. Joshua gave his heart to Christ, and Leah soon followed him. They believed the Son of God would come again and bring peace to the land of Israel." (p. 250).

The fourth novella in this book, "Cup of Praise," follows several Jewish characters in Jerusalem, including Sarah Reuben and Michael Van Gelder. Michael tells Sarah how he came to believe in Jesus: "It's all there. And history supports the fact that Yeshua fulfilled all the prophecies. All of them! There's no way to doubt that He was and is God's Son, our Messiah." (p. 271).

Wandering Jude would like to make a friendly neighborhood public service reminder: "It's not all there. History does not support this assertion that Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies. Not all of them. Not even close. And yes, there are plenty of ways to doubt his being the son of God."

Sarah's response to Michael: ""You're not a Jew anymore." His betrayal of his family and his people rocked her to the core. "I could never have imagined you'd do such a thing! I could forgive you most anything, but this is far beyond a crime. You've denied everything we are!" Michael responds: "Please don't think that way. Let me tell you why I am now a completed Jew." (p. 272).

Michael states that "Yeshua was a Jewish rabbi." (p. 290).

WJ: Um, maybe a proto-rabbi. More probably an itinerant preacher.

Sarah states, "Michael, everyone knows that our Messiah will come and be King." "That's right. He'll be coming again as King. Burt first He had to be our pesach, our Passover Lamb." (p. 296).

During a Passover seder, "Sarah found it very significant that the middle matzah was the one broken, hidden away, and finally redeemed and distributed. Michael said it was at this point in Yeshua's last Passover with His disciples that He had said, "This is my body which is given for you." She looked closely at it before she ate with the rest of the family. It was pierced, as Yeshua was. She was sure the stripes and lack of leaven all had meaning too... As a sacrifice lamb, Yeshua had poured out His blood for her." (p. 331).

Sarah says to Michael, "I believe Yeshua is Messiah and want to know what I have to do next. ... Looking into her beautiful blue eyes, he said, "Let's kneel." They did, and he led her in prayer, confessing her doubts and sins and asking Yeshua to come into her heart." (p. 333).

Final Thoughts

Wandering Jude doesn't have much to say about The Chalice of Israel, except that the characters are one dimensional, the theological arguments are simplistic, and the dialogue is trite. Plus, Jews don't kneel when they pray. When Sarah and Michael kneel to say the "sinner's prayer," they reveal the author's ignorance of Judaism and their own rejection of Jewish tradition.

Oh, one more thing. The reference to the stripes on the matzah as being a symbolic allusion to Jesus ("by his stripes we are healed") is a canard repeated by many missionaries but rejected by all biblical scholars, even evangelical scholars.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

They Shall See God

Athol Dickson, an architect-turned-novelist, wrote They Shall See God in 2002 (published by Tyndale House, a reliably evangelical publishing house). This novel, a love story but really more of a suspense thriller, has several Jewish characters, including two rabbis, one of whom is a major character in the book. Rabbi Ruth Gold's character is nuanced and complex. Though the novel is a suspenseful story of a serial murderer, underneath the author deals with various religious and social issues, including interfaith understanding, conversion to a different religion, and loyalty to one's own religion. While Jews are not stereotyped in this novel, nevertheless they do not fare well. One commits suicide. Four are killed (one is shot, one is poisoned, one is mauled by a tiger and then drowned, and one is burned to death by boiling tar). Two are shot at (in separate scenes) and one of these two almost dies. Another is stabbed but survives. Two die of fatal diseases. One appears to have a mental disorder. Three Jews convert to Christianity (two of these three are already dead by the time the book begins, but are introduced in flashbacks. The third is a secret convert who is not revealed to be so until the end of the book).

Some of the Jews and Christians in the novel are involved in interfaith (dating or marriage) relationships. Most of the characters in the book are good, decent people, albeit with flaws. No one has all the answers. Both Christians and Jews in the book are portrayed from their own religious point of view. I don't think the book has as its intention to convert anyone, just to promote interfaith understanding and to provide a good suspenseful read. A nice change of pace from your typical evangelical novel with Jewish characters.

The plot as it unfolds reveals three characters in the book who were born Jewish and then convert to Christianity, though these conversions happen chronologically before the events of the book take place. On the other hand, there are no converts to Judaism in the book. (Not that this is a surprise. Evangelical novels rarely depict Christians converting to Judaism, and if they do, the results are not pretty).

Sometimes the dialog between Jewish characters seems a bit pretentious. Witness Rabbi Ruth Gold, who early in the book says to her boyfriend, Steve: "Instead of rounding up a minyan to say kaddish, I was wondering if you'd come to Mama's grave to light a yahrzeit candle with me, and say shehecheyanu?" (p. 3). Hmm. How about a little lox with that shmear?

The author, through some of his Christian characters, makes clear his philo-semitic intentions: "The Last Supper was a Passover celebration led by Jesus, who was called rabbi at that table in the upper room," said the minister. "Jesus was a Jew, of course, as were all of his apostles and most of those who believed in him. Yet we often make the mistake of blaming his crucifixion on the Jewish people, as if they were of one mind in the matter." (p. 34).

Reverend Cahill, one of the few unambiguously good characters in They Shall See God, goes on with his sermon:

"The Roman soldiers in Pilate's Jerusalem garrison were from many countries around the Mediterranean. It might have been Spanish hands that drove the spikes through Jesus' wrists, or Greek. If God had wanted us to believe that Jews are guilty of Jesus' death in a special way, why not allow them to stone our Lord to death in the Jewish fashion? It is no accident that God chose the Roman cross instead, as a reminder that all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, has an equal share in the guilt of sin." ... "So when our Bibles speak of 'the Jews' condemning Jesus, we must remember that term is a kind of literary shorthand for 'the Jewish leaders.' And we must remember that not even all the Jewish leaders opposed Christ. Our Bibles describe some Pharisees and even temple priests accepting Jesus as their Messiah and their God."" (p. 35).

A member of his congregation, obviously a bit deranged, responds to Reverend Cahill by screaming out, "The Jews rejected Christ! They killed him! They killed Stephen! They stoned Paul! And God has abandoned them to their sin!" ... "Read your Bibles! Read Acts! The Jews were a curse on the first Christians! A curse!" (p. 36).

More Jewish rituals from our rabbi protagonist:

Rabbi Gold lit a yahrzeit candle, placed it on her parents' tombstone, and said the shehecheyanu: "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higianu lazman hazeh. Amen." "She felt a peace creep into her heart. It was the comfort of tradition, of belonging, of knowing she was merely a link in the chain that stretched from Abraham and Sarah to the Messiah, may he quickly come." (p. 41).

Wandering Jude is interested in this Reform rabbi's wish for the coming of the Messiah. Ah, perhaps it's only metaphorical....

"Benny Rothstein sat in a circle of light, enjoying Rashi's commentary on the Talmud. He licked his thumb and turned the page. Such wonderfully simple and straightforward insights, yet so filled with deeper meaning. Such a perfect way to close this Rosh Hashanah evening. Morton preferred Ibn Ezra, but Benny thought he was difficult to follow sometimes, even on the third or fourth reading. Benny was of the opinion that complex writing concealed incomplete thoughts. It took tremendous wisdom and clarity of mind to explain the great truths of Torah in ways that anyone could understand, and for clarity, you just couldn't beat Rashi. But of course, it only made sense that Morton would be wrong. How could he know anything? He was a man who worked on Erev Rosh Hashanah when he should be home or at temple busying himself with Torah." (p. 57).

While Wandering Jude can be cynical at times, he must admit that Dickson does a nice job of getting into the minds of his Jewish characters without patronizing them or telegraphing his character development intentions. If only more Christian novelists could reach these heights.

The villain of the book, Rev. Orvis Smith (sort of a mix between Jerry Falwell and Adolf Hitler), thinks to himself about "the godless Jews." ... "Apostle to the Hebrews in this day and age? It took the patience of Job. Yet, after everything the Jews did to the Savior, after the terrible persecutions they had inflicted on Christians and all those centuries of denying Jesus, God still chose to reach out to this children with the message of salvation." (p. 66).

Well, Dickson's villain is not very nuanced, but perhaps that's what really goes on in the minds of anti-Semites.

"Normally [Ruth Gold] didn't eat nonkosher meats, but like many Reform Jews, she wasn't rigid about keeping kosher, and today, the catfish was a small gesture of acrimonious defiance against a God who allowed murderers to go free and good men to die and anti-Semitism to endure for centuries." (p. 74).

Rabbi Gold is described several times in the book as being an "exotically attractive woman" who had "olive skin, short black hair, and huge, dark brown eyes." (p. 80). Oh my. Wandering Jude knows many individuals who would like to meet Rabbi Gold.

Kate (a lapsed Christian) and Ruth have a conversation after meeting for the first time in 25 years: Kate says, "My husband was raised Conservative." He was Jewish?" "uh-huh." Ruth looked at Kate appraisingly. "Did you convert?" Kate met her eyes. "No. He did." Ruth looked away. Kate said, "I mean, he had already converted when I met him in our singles group at church." "I see," said Ruth, still looking away. .... "So. You're a rabbi. Who would've guessed? "My dad, for one." "He was a rabbi too, remember?" "I don't think I ever knew that." "Yes. If there's a single reason for my choice, I guess that'd be it. He raised me to love Judaism." So if your father was a rabbi, I guess that means rabbis can get married?" "Of course. There's no vow of celibacy. That's a Christian thing." ... "But John, my husband, didn't have any Jewish friends and didn't talk much about his backgroun. And I haven't met very many Jews, except for him and his parents." ... "Actually, when John became a Christian they had a falling out. And they didn't like him marrying me. That pretty much shut down all communication until the kids came along. Then they thawed out a little, but we're still not real friendly, you know?" (p. 82).

Ruth asks Kate if she is raising her children as Christians or as Jews. "They're Christians. I mean, that's what I am, and like I said, John was Jewish, but he was a Christian too." Ruth smiled slightly. "That's like saying your car was a Ford, but it was a Chrysler." "Well, you know what I mean." The rabbi nodded. "I suppose." (p. 84).

The reader gets a glimpse into Kate's mind:

"The moment Ruth had mentioned coming to her temple, an unreasoning terror of the unknown had seized Kate's mind. She remembered the bitter baricade of mistrust and anger that had once stood between John and his parents. They had lashed out sometimes, actually calling him a traitor. They had accused the church of brainwashing him, as if it were some sort of cult. They had accused Kate herself of playing a role in the "indoctrination" of their son, ignoring the fact that he had chosen the Christian faith long before they met. John had done his best to help Kate understand their animosity. He had spoken of evils in the Dark Ages and of anti-Semitic affronts in the present. Still, as she considered Ruth's invitation, such hostility was hard to forget. What if I say the wrong thing? I don't even know how to dress. Should I take my Bible, or will the New Testament offend them? What if they say something bad about Jesus? Should I speak up? If I do, will they throw me out?" (p. 133).

Ruth thinks: "What had Katy said? Oh, yes: "I think God wants me to be there." Ruth gritted her teeth. She knew what that meant. Asking Katy to come to temple had been a mistake. Deep down, Christians were all the same. No different than those obnoxious ones who stood out by the parking lot with their cardboard Jesus signs." (p. 138).

"As sunset approached, Ruth labored at a large table in the temple library, surrounded by open volumes of Talmud and Torah commentaries. Preparing for the Shabbes Torah study was usually the high point of her week, an opportunity to immerse herself in texts and commentaries, to walk Herod's Temple with Hillel and Shammai, to dialogue with Maimonides and Ibn Ezra, to reflect upon the mind of God, and in one sense perhaps, to see his face and live." (p. 140-141).

Helen Blumenthal, a Jewish psychiatrist, thinks: "Tonight, the rabbi had spoken of the need to credit God with who we are. Helen wondered where God had been when her father lost his home to the Nazis at the age of thirteen. Where was God when an eighteen year old girl inherited the duties of her dead parents, raising her sisters without help? Where was God while she slaved on the graveyard shift in an all-night diner for fifty-cent tips, and endured the pompous abuse of professors all day? God certainly seemed to have little mercy for the never-ending stream of lost and dispossessed patients passing through her office week after week, each one a walking example of the futility of faith." (pp. 150-151).

Rebecca Betterton, a middle aged Jewish woman, thinks deep thoughts to which the reader becomes privy:

"[She] tried to imagine what it would be like to be dead. There seemed to be three possibilities. Either nothing happened and you just stopped, or you went to heaven or hell. She didn't believe she might come back in another life. Not for a minute. That was just silly. And if this world is all there is, why then, what difference does it make? When you're dead, you're not going to care anymore, right?" But what if there was a heaven and a hell?.... To tell the truth, she wasn't sure where she'd end up. Her parents had done their best to teach her about the Jewish faith. ... Neither of them cared much for the Orthodox ways of their youth, so they had joined the Reform temple over near the park and raised Rebecca to believe it was her right to choose which parts of her heritage made the most sense. When she was sixteen, she quit going to temple. They tried to force her, but she turned their own logic back on them, saying she had a right to choose which parts of her faith to observe, and she chose to have nothing more to do with it." (pp. 164-165).

"Suddenly, [Rebecca's first husband] was nailing a mezuzah to the doorframe and running around town wearing his yarmulke in public. "What are you doing?" she had asked, afraid she'd be seeing the fringes of a prayer shawl dangling from under his shirt any day. "My duty as a father," he had replied. Sidney had tried to get her to join an Orthodox synagogue, but she wasn't about to sit behind the mechitza, screened off from the men like some inferior person. She had told her husband he would wait a lifetime before he got her to worship God Almighty from the back of the shul behind a curtain.... After a couple of weeks of the silent treatment, Sidney had proposed a compromise. That was how Rebecca had found herself rejoining Temple Brit Yisrael after almost ten years. She and Sidney had paid their dues and attended services almost every Shabbat. Aaron grew up playing at the Northside Jewish Community Center on Saturday afternoons after temple, and going to the children's classes on Sunday mornings. When it was time for his Bar Mitzvah, Rebecca had been so proud to see him standing on the bima in his yarmulke and talit, reading Hebrew like a little rabbi." (pp. 165-166).

Kate begins a romantic relationship with a Jewish man, Jake Singer, but she has misgivings and "conflicted emotions. No good can come of this, she thought. He's a Jew and I'm a Christian. What am I doing?" (p. 189).

Ruth remembers a conversation with her brother ten years earlier. Ruth asks Isaac why he still wants to go to high holiday services even though he has made a profession of faith in Christ. "What kind of question is that? I'm still part of this family! I'm still a Jew!" "No, you're not, Isaac. You threw that away." His head jerked back but his shoulders remained motionless. It was an odd reaction, as if she had struck a physical blow. For a moment they stood still, staring at teach other, and then Isaac turned and left without another word." (p. 193).

Ruth and Kate have a conversation about proselytizing:

"All I'm saying is, sometimes honest conviction looks like arrogance to outsiders. If you really believed you had something that could make everyone's life better, not just here and now but for all eternity, wouldn't you want to share that good news with the world?" "I wouldn't try to cram it down people's throats!" But wouldn't you want to share something like that? I mean, if it was true, wouldn't sharing it be the only right thing to do?" Ruth erupted. "How would you feel if we showed up outside your church next Easter with signs that said 'The Messiah hasn't come yet,' or 'Trust Moses'?" ... "I'm not defending what they're doing. I'm just saying ---" "I know what you're saying, and I'm not buying it. If those people really cared so much about us, they'd give us some respect and behave with common decency."

Rabbi Ruth Gold goes to a cemetery to visit her parents' graves. "[Ruth] believed Hashem in his mercy protected her here. Some rabbis avoided cemeteries because they were tref -- unclean -- but like most Reform rabbis, Ruth ignored that particular bit of biblical law. In the best liberal tradition, she chose to observe the traditions that seemed to fit her life as Hashem had created her, and she respectfully declined to be bound by the others." (pp. 243-244).

"The Torah did not speak of a life after death, at least not clearly. There was much rabbinic debate in the Talmud on the subject, and of course the references in the prophets and writings were well known, but one had to stretch the text very thinly to arrive at a teaching of afterlife in the five books of Moses. When pressed by an instructor at Hebrew Union College several years ago, she had taken the position that this life was all we could expect. If heaven wasn't in Torah, it probably didn't exist. Several times since her ordination, congregants and fellow rabbis had challenged her on that. She always returned to the Scriptures to defend her position, and yet, as Ruth stared at the carved names of her mother and father, her heart filled with an undeniable longing. ... a vague and inexpressible desire, like hunger for a particular kind of food that she had never eaten.... " (p. 244).

Rabbi Ruth prays:

"Hashem, I know Judaism is about making a difference here and now, but you have also filled me with a need to be rid of this world, to enter into something better. As Abraham and Moses rested with their fathers, I want to see my parents again. But I'm afraid. What if this is nothing but selfishness or egotism? What if I only feel this way because of my troubles? She sighed. Hashem, please show me the truth. Opening her eyes, she blinked against the sunshine and ... awaited God's answer. .... it would be nice to believe in a world to come. Maybe later she could find something in the Torah to offer reassurance. Ruth Gold believed all of the answers were there, if only she could understand." (p. 245).

"Jews bury their dead quickly because they do not embalm the bodies. It is a tradition handed down through the centuries, grounded in the hope that the resurrection will find the Jewish dead ready and waiting their bodies whole, including the blood..... Since Ruth did not believe in resurrection, she did not care one way or the other, except, perhaps, for the fact that the money saved by not embalming the body could be given to the poor." (pp. 255-256).

Kate is talking to her romantic interest, Jake Singer. "He [Kate's deceased husband] converted when he was eighteen. About two years before I met him." "Converted to Judaism?" "No, to Christianity." She paused. "His parents didn't speak to him for years. "Not at all?" "No." Jake shook his head. "Some of us are so suspicious of your faith that we do some pretty mean things." "Mean doesn't begin to cover it, Jake. And it wasn't just his family. Even some of his friends quit talking to him. He tried everything he could think of to get them to ... to take him back, I guess you'd say. But a lot of them -- friends and family both -- acted like he'd doen something criminal. They broke John's heart." ... [Jake responded]: I'll bet they said it was John breaking their heart." (p. 269).

Reverend Orvis Smith, the villain of the book thinks to himself: "The Day of Atonement. What hypocrisy! As if a few chants, an apology, and a toot on the horn of a dead animal could make up for a lifetime of miserable failure." (p. 305).

An evangelist says to Jews entering the Reform temple on Yom Kippur: "There's no atonement in that building! Open your Torahs! Read Leviticus! 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls. For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.' Where is the blood in this Day of Atonement of yours?" ... "You have no temple in Jerusalem for your sacrifices because only one offering is pleasing to God now, only the crucifixion of Jesus Christ! Trust in your Messiah! Believe in his sacrifice for your sake and you will be saved!" (p. 306).

As the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur: "Tekia, shevarim - terua, tekia. Tekia, dhevarim, tekia. Tekia, terua, tekia. For a moment, in the midst of the impossibly beautiful sounds, Ruth saw an unbroken string of notes -- pearls hanging from a golden thread, rubies woven through time itself to connect her and this day with Moshe blowing the first shofar on Mt. Sinai. That first time, the purpose of the blasts had been to warn Israel not to repeat their sin with the golden calf while Moshe remained high above, receiving Torah. Now, the shofar called them to account for the sins they had already committed. Ruth closed her eyes as the last of the notes echoed in her heart. For a moment, she saw the path to repentance just ahead. She longed to set foot upon it. She longed for teshuva -- to return." (p. 317).

Ruth is talking to Kate about the many horrors of Jewish history at the hands of Christians. "I didn't tell you those things to make you feel guilty, Katy. I mean, it's not like I think any of it's your fault. But if we're gonna be getting to know each other again after all these years, it's important for you to understand some things about me." "I think I do. You grew up in a culture that sees my faith as the enemy." "No, that's overstating it. Most of us don't think of Christians as enemies, and that's not what I meant, anyway. I'm talking about you and me.".... "I mean, imagine how we hate to tell our children these things. It's much more delicate than the birds and the bees ... having to deliberately begin the end of your child's innocence in order to protect her." (p. 377).

Kate says to Ruth: "But I believe [Jesus] was also God, who became one of us, one of the least of us, so that nobodies like me could know he really understands our pain, and believe in him, and be saved from just the kind of thing you're--" "You're preaching to a rabbi," snapped Ruth. "Don't try to convert me. It's insulting." (p. 379).

Ruth thinks she is about to die. She "covered her head with her hands and rocked back and forth, whispering, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohim Adonai echad. Shema Yisrael Adonai." (p. 404).

At a Jewish funeral, "many of the older women wore black lace veils. Most of the men wore yarmulkes. ... A group of ten men stood in a circle around the grave, chanting in unison, rocking back and forth slightly. Kate did not understand the Hebrew words, but the grief that rose with each syllable cast its bitter shadow upon her. Rabbi Samuel Gottlieb stood at the foot of the plot, leading the ceremony. Unlike his dress at most religious services, the rabbi did not wear his simple black robe with the gleaming shite strip of fabric draped across his shoulders, something Kate had learned to call a talit. .... She had come to understand that many of the trappings of Christian worship had their roots in the Jewish culture. A bishop's skull cap and robe, a minister's prayer shawl, the Christmas candles, the Lord's Supper, and a new believer's baptism -- all of these icons of her faith had been borrowed from the Jews." (p. 421).

Solomon Cantor reveals that he is a Christian. He "knelt before the simple wooden cross upon the wall. He clasped his hands together and bowed his head." (p. 423).

Solomon Cantor says "I told Gabby I still believe Adonai is one. I'm still a Jew. I am. But I believe in Jesus, too. I believe God is one, and I believe he's three. It makes no sense, but who am I to understand? I mean, he's God Almighty. You don't understand God. You just believe." (p. 425).

"Gabrielle Cantor had sacrificed son and husband to an ancient fear, and now Ruth could no longer flee the haunting memory of a very young woman, a foolish, untested rabbi who once did much the same. She whispered, "Are you saying all these evil things have happened because Gabby was angry when you converted?" ... "And in her mind, Ruth Gold saw the pitiful form of her brother Isaac on his deathbed." ... "Adonai, she prayed. Forgive me! And finally , she thought to push instead of pull, and the door flew open, and a brilliant white light came flooding in." (p. 428).

Concluding Thoughts:

Wandering Jude must admit that this novel, despite its minor flaws, is an engaging story filled with smart yet ambivalent characters. It tells the Christian story like it should be told, with sin and grace and repentance and mercy. Yes, there are some Jewish conversions to Christianity (though none occur during the events of the novel; all are told in flashback or some other kind of past tense literary device). But the conversions seem real, not forced. And the Jew we most of all expect to convert does not, though she changes in subtle yet life-changing ways. The rabbi remains a rabbi who does not believe in Jesus, yet she becomes more aware of Christianity's potential power and she finally forgives her brother for his conversion. The anti-semitic villain is sharply drawn; there is nothing good about him, despite his theological orthodoxy. His biblical allusions are empty and powerless, and ultimately violent, yet we feel pity for him. He is a pathetic figure, who knows the words of the Bible yet cannot grasp their meaning. In the end, his violent perversion of the Bible is contrasted with the life-affirming meaning found by both Jewish and Christian characters.

Athol Dickson, the author of this fine novel, is an evangelical Christian who, we are sure, desires the salvation of his Jewish friends. Yet he has written this book in such a way that (on some level) it's OK for Jews not to convert to Christianity. And that is probably the most we can hope for from the evangelicals among us. It certainly is a better alternative to the blatant proselytizing that occurs in so many books of this genre.