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?

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