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!

No comments: