Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Danzig Passage

One of the most prolific Christian writers of our time is Bodie Thoene. Mrs. Thoene has a special concern for Jews and Israel, and many of her books are filled with Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity. We'll start our "study" of Thoene's writings with Danzig Passage, published by the Minneapolis-based Bethany House in 1991.

Many Jews are represented in this book, both Israeli Jews and European Jews. This Holocaust-era novel is part of the Zion Covenant Series.

A representative passage comes on page 276 when Samuel Orde, a gentile Christian, says to Moshe Sachar:

"Your Messiah came through the root of Israel. He says His Covenant is with you forever, for a thousand generations.... I am so grateful for His love and kindness. I really believe that He considers the people of the Covenant His own dear children. Satan desires that the promises God made to the Jewish people be broken, that you also be slaughtered like lambs. No Jews. No Israel. Because then God would be a liar. Should I not be willing then to die for His beloved people?"

Wandering Jude will not comment on this passage except to say that while Orde's commitment to and love for the Jewish people is commendable, and his willingness to die for Jews remarkable, his logic leaves something to be desired. For example, Orde (Thoene) wishes us to believe that:

(1) God (all powerful in Christian theology) made promises to the Jewish people. (WJ points out that actually it wasn't the Jewish people but Abraham who God made promises to, but let's not quibble).
(2) Satan (not all powerful) wants God to break his promises.
(3) Satan (not all powerful) wants to kill the Jews, thereby forcing God to break his promises.

It is clear to anyone with a mind that if God is all powerful and Satan is not, then God will win the war. But the fictional Mr. Orde believes that it might be necessary for him to lose his life (for the purpose of saving Jews) to keep God from losing face with Satan. Somehow WJ thinks there might be a better way.... (but nevertheless still wants to praise Mr. Orde for his love for the Jewish people. There are enough anti-Semites out there that we need some more Jew lovers).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Servant Caleb: A Jewish Boy, a Gentile Girl, a World at War

In the 19th century, most conversionist novels were published in Great Britain. In the 20th century, most were published in the United States. Today Wandering Jude looks at a 21st century book published in the U.K., which still pales in comparison (in terms of publishing output of stories where Jews convert to Christianity) to its American cousins.

In My Servant Caleb: A Jewish Boy, a Gentile Girl, a World at War, published by Monarch Books in 2004, Kerstin Sheldrake has written the story of a Jewish man (Caleb Levine) and a Christian woman (Lady Celia) who fall in love in England during World War II. In the forward, the author describes the book to be "what [she] believes to be one of the first completely Messianic Jewish novels ever written." According to the blurb on the back cover of this book, Sheldrake is a native of Germany and the wife of a Messianic Rabbi in England.

We are told by the narrator that at some point in the past "Caleb's parents and sisters had converted to Christianity." Caleb remains an observant Jew but bitter toward (though not estranged from) his parents and the Jewish community that ostracized him and his family. Early on in the novel Caleb observes:

"I'm a Jew; I've been brought up in the presence of God; and there has never been any doubt that God exists. Our knowledge of God is hereditary. If it weren't for God's eternal covenant with us and His protection, we would have ceased to exist long ago."

Caleb goes on to say:

"I was the great Rabbi Mendel Levine's favourite grandson, the best loved of nine boys. I could recite the Sh'ma, our holiest declaration of faith, almost before I could say 'Mama' and 'Papa'. I was top of the cheder class and my grasp of Torah was excellent, if I say so myself. Everyone expected me to become a student at a religious school and to prepare for the Rabbinate; that is, to become a Rabbi."

"... the worst crime a Jew can commit is to become a Christian. It means denying our faith, our heritage, our traditions, our people, in fact, our very God... It happened six months before my formal rite of passage to manhood, my Bar Mitzvah. My parents told the family that they had accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah of Israel, that they had converted to Christianity. You can't imagine the explosion it caused." They ended up being excommunicated from not only the rest of the family, but also from the Jewish community in that town, even with a mock funeral."

There is a great deal of British anti-Semitism described in the book, along with German anti-Jewishness that leads to the Holocaust. After many adventures, including marital problems, persecution by British fascists and German Nazis, and fighting in the War of Independence in Palestine, Caleb finally becomes a Christian:

"He asked God to forgive all his sins and shortcomings because of the sacrifical death and blood shed by Yeshua HaMashiach. He acknowledged that he found it unspeakably hard to make this confession, because he had always mocked Yeshua, blasphemed Him, fought Him, referred to Him as his worst personal enemy, and the enemy of all Jews. Then the tears started to stream, endless tears of shame, grief, remorse, and contrition. And his soul crawled to the feet of the One he had once hated and despised.... A lost sheep of the House of Israel had recognized his Shepherd at last."

Wandering Jude speaks: This is not a badly written book, although Caleb's conversion at the end of the story is fairly predictable. It is reminscent in many ways of Bodie Thoene's series of historical fiction, although WJ must admit that there is more emphasis on "remaining a Jew" after conversion than Thoene usually allows. Still, the end of the saga will be disappointing to anyone who wants Caleb to avoid becoming a "Messianic Jew." In this way it is no different than the vast majority of books in this genre.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Leah Wolfe: The Converted Jewess

Wandering Jude returns to the 19th century this month to revisit an author we've encountered already: Elizabeth Wheeler, known by her nom de plume of "E.W." In 1894 she published Leah Wolfe: The Converted Jewess, one of three Jewish conversionist novels by this writer (WJ has already examined the other two in previous postings: The Jewish Converts and The Great Beyond).

The eponymous Leah is the granddaughter of a wealthy German Jewish merchant, Hyam Wolfe, and his wife Sarah. Leah's parents, Rebekah and Benjamin Wolfe, both figure prominently in the novel as well. The basic story is quite simple, really. Benjamin and Rebekah leave Germany for London to open a branch of the family business. While living in London, both Benjamin and Rebekah become Christians (separately), and they are disowned by Hyam Wolfe and kicked out of the family business. This "persecution" for their newfound faith means they must downsize their standard of living and that Benjamin must find a new line of work (which he does, by the good graces of a kindly Christian businessman, a familiar trope in Wheeler's novels).

Daughter Leah (who appears to be in her late teens) also becomes a Christian, and the three Wolfes in London are happy as kosher clams. (They have fortunately found a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church to attend, with lots of good Christians for fellowship). But old Hyam is having a rough time of it. Not only has his son apostasized, but his daughter in law too, and also his beloved granddaughter. And now he is antsy in retirement, so he foolishly decides to go on a gambling spree (another Wheeler motif) and loses everything (including his estate). Hyam and his wife decide to move to London, where Hyam (at age 70 no less) ekes out a meager living selling jewelry.

By chance one day Hyam and his son Benjamin meet on the road and are reconciled. Three generations of the Wolfe family reunite, and Benjamin, now a successful businessman, provides the means for his parents to live out their days in relative comfort. But Hyam, foolish and stubborn as ever, refuses to accept the Gospel message. He even insists on fasting on Yom Kippur as he lays dying, which of course pushes him into "eternity" that much more quickly. But Benjamin holds out hope that perhaps Hyam might have accepted the Savior in his dying moments.

Benjamin and Rebekah have a son, whose name is George, but they also give him the name "Christian" at the behest of the local Bishop. As time goes by, the grandmother Sarah Wolfe allows her hardened heart to be melted, and she becomes a Christian along with the rest of her family. When she dies a few years later, the author remarks that her burial was a Christian one (not Jewish) and contained no Jewish rituals.

Wandering Jude does not have much to say about this book other than (1) it largely speaks for itself, and (2) it is much like Wheeler's other conversionary novels, which contain large blocks of text devoted to the lyrics of Christian hymns and the theological rants of a Christian evangelist. It's an historical curiosity but not much of a novel if one expects from a novel things like plot and character development. And of course, like most other conversionary stories (especially those written in the 19th century), this one is fairly disrespectful of Jewish tradition, Jewish religion, and Jews in general.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Vienna Passage

Our latest installment on Jewish conversionary novels (with a hint of romance) was written by David Porter and published by Crossway Books in 1995. The Vienna Passage is a “coming of age” story featuring protagonist Toby Burgate, a young man who is British but goes to Vienna to teach English in 1912. He encounters a different world and different cultures, with many Jewish acquaintances but also a great deal of anti-Semitism.

In the opening chapter, an older Jewish scholar named Solomon Meshrach is acosted and beaten by anti-Semitic ruffians. As is almost always the case in the evangelical novels with Jewish characters, we feel great sympathy for this particular victim of anti-Semitism (and on the other side of the coin, the reader will probably feel disdain for the anti-Semites).

Another Jewish character appears. Lev Beikelman is a Dutch friend of Toby's who is a music student (and who Toby later discovers is Jewish when Toby observes Lev saying the ha-motzi before his meal).

And then we meet yet another Jew: Rachel Guntersheim is a Jewish friend of Frau Onkel, the matriarch of the family who Toby is staying with (which is part of a strict Calvinist sect). At Rachel's home, Frau Onkel:

"let her gaze wander round, picking out the Jewish items; a nine-branched Hanukkah candlestick on the bookshelf, a few ornaments, a star of David embroidered on a wall hanging, and on the door the mezuzah -- the tiny cylinder that held, Rachel had once explained to her, the verses of the Shema Yisrael, the ancient Old Testament prayer to the one God.... After all, Onkel knew all about the Old Testament. It was Onkel who talked knowledgeably to visiting Saints. It was Onkel, indeed, who had recently spoken eloquently at one of the meetings at the Hall on the subject of God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people, now to be inherited by all the Lord's People who Sought to Do His Will... But then Onkel ... did not hate Jews; he simply could not escape the clear scriptural teaching of their complicity in the death of Christ."

But this is Herr Onkel, clearly the villain of the book. Frau Onkel, on the other hand, does not believe this about the Jewish people. She is our heroine to Herr Onkel’s poor, deluded Calvinist anti-Semite.

Our anti-hero Herr Onkel tells Toby that "the Jews, having crucified Christ, were doomed to suffer and be rejected for ever." Just swell, says Wandering Jude.

As Toby meets more Jews, he begins to reevaluate his attitudes toward them, which had been cultivated during his younger years in England. He had always thought of them as chosen by God but also as inferior since they had "crucified Christ."

"... they bore the blood-guilt of the Saviour's death; his blood was on their hands; they had been given a great privilege, and had thrown it away.... Jews were a people with a special need to be saved, who had sinned in a way that other races had not, and were therefore different." "This was an opportunity to witness to an Unbelieving Friend.... He should engage Lev in theological discussion, confront him with the consequences of his halfhearted faith, and lead him to the point where he could make his own Decision for Christ. Lev, Toby knew, needed to be saved, and he, Toby, was the only person around to show him how. And yet there was a simple piety in Lev's voice that stopped him. There was a dimension to Lev's experience of God, even though it fitted no categories that Toby possessed, which Toby could not match. Comparing Lev's straightforward gratitude and rudimentary theology with his own array of biblical learning, devotional vocabulary and mainly secondhand views and opinions, he felt curiously depressed; especially when he realised that his background and spiritual history meant that he belonged in Onkel's camp rather than Lev's. And yet... and yet. He knew, and was not yet prepared to abandon the knowledge, that more was required of Lev than mere gratitude of a benevolent God. He knew that the road to God was narrow, that few found it...."

Toby tries to explain to Herr Onkel why he loves the music of Arnold Schoenberg. But Onkel responds:

"'You are saying that this music talked to your spirit, that it moved your heart.' 'Yes, yes!' he agreed. 'It is a spiritual matter.' ... 'So you are receiving spiritual instructions from a Jew,' he said with loathing, 'Opening your soul to one whose people rejected the Messiah.'"

Herr Onkel turns out to be not just an anti-Semite but a hooligan and vandal, smashing Jews' windows at night and other kinds of terroristic activity. But through it all he was not really a hypocrite because he truly believed he was doing the Lord's work. He ends up being killed by Hans Braun, a Jew who had disguised himself as a Christian and who took part in Onkel's vandalism but later revealed himself to Onkel and murdered him.

The true hero of the story is Sally, Toby's American friend (who he has a crush on), who turns out to be an evangelical but a more moderate one than Toby is used to.

Interesting to note that some real life Viennese Jews inhabit this book, including Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. There are no conversions in this book, except for perhaps Toby who learns much about life and realizes that life is much broader than the strict religious sect that he had grown up in. Unlike most conversionary novels that Wandering Jude discusses in these pages, The Vienna Passage gets a “thumbs up.” While trying hard not to lecture his Christian friends, Wandering Jude wishes that more evangelical works of fiction were as nuanced and tolerant as this one.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Rose Remembered

The third installment in the "Secret of the Rose" trilogy, A Rose Remembered was published by Tyndale in 1994. This novel takes place primarily in 1961-1962, and involves (among other things) a supposed "Jewish underground" movement in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. The book paints a picture of a "second" secret Holocaust (or "silent Holocaust") undertaken by the Soviets (led by Stalin, who else?) and their allies to exterminate the Jews of eastern Europe and Russia. Part of the "Secret of the Rose" series, this book is a continuation of the author's The Eleventh Hour. The bad guys (former Nazis, now KGB and East German secret police, the Stasi) are still after the "Old Testament relics" (Urim and Thummim) that were in "Rabbi Wissen's holy box." (Rabbi Wissen is a primary character in this book as well the previous two books of the trilogy).

Continuing character Sabina is told by her mother: "You know I was raised with the traditions of the Torah. So many of the old Jewish ways are still good, even for Christian Jews." .... "You are one of the chosen, Sabina," she said. "Not because the Hebrew blood of our father Abraham flows in your veins, but because you are a child of almighty God. You are a Jew in the full and truest sense of the word, and a Christian because you are a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, our Messiah and the world's Messiah."

Wandering Jude asks: Why does all of the dialogue in this book (indeed, in the entire series) sound like speeches? "the Hebrew blood of our father Abraham flows in your veins?" It just sounds so.... pretentious.

A character named Korsch (part of the secret police) "had his own informers in Stalinist Russia keeping track of Jewish affairs and relics. His personal passion against the Jews found fertile soil in which to grow. He had developed his own department within the KGB to track the movements of important Jewish figures, and he became an important figure in the silent Stalinist purge of Abraham's sons and daughters."

It is true, Wandering Jude admits, that Stalin was an anti-Semite. He killed a lot of Jews. He also killed a lot of other people. WJ doesn't think there is evidence of a massive Stalinist "final solution." But who knows? It's possible that deep within his paranoid brain, Stalin really wanted to wipe out "the Jews." We'll never know for sure.

Re: escaping from the Soviet bloc. "But those of Abraham's lineage had not been destined to an easy time of it, not since Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia had risen up against the people of Moses, David, and Daniel. The purge of Joseph Stalin against them, though quieter and kept from the world's eyes, continued what his archenemy Adolf Hitler had begun and proved equally horrific in its result. Jews, therefore, were all the more desperate to escape, yet had to measure their moves with the greatest care and caution. Identities still were kept close track of. Danger still lurked in unseen corners... Spiritual famine continued to enslave the land, and the sons of Jacob sought refuge, both in the West and in their own newly created homeland of Israel."

"Where they had come from, where they had been for the better part of two millennia, only the Father of Moses and the prophets could know. That two of their twelve tribes had survived as a recognizable people among the world's races for all that time was a miracle of clear supernatural intent.... Their persecutors numbered legion. Yet the children of the ancient Hebrew God survived, flourished, and outlived them all. Titus was dead. Hitler was dead. Stalin was dead. But the people of Judah and the Levites lived, in the land now known as Palestine. The four-thousand year old covenant given to Abraham once more had visual substance and reality in a place called Israel."

This is sort of a melodramatic way to talk about Jewish history, but yes, even WJ will confess that the story of the Hebrews/Jews/Israelis is pretty amazing.

Sabina says: "[One of Rabbi Wissen's daughters] and I lived with one another for a while [in the 1950s]. We had many lengthy talks about God, and especially about Judaism and Christianity. She eventually came to accept Jesus as the true Messiah, became a Christian, and became involved with us in the Network of the Rose." [the secret underground movement].

Conversion to Christianity is, of course, the final solution to the Jewish problem, as almost all evangelical conversionary novels will testify.

Sabina states: "We have been chiefly concerned with Jews, because of Rabbi Wissen, of course, and my own Jewish blood. Our mission, besides helping Jews in trouble, has been to get information to the free world about the plight of our people in the Soviet Union."

Like Wandering Jude pointed out in the other novels written by Michael Phillips in this trilogy, the author seems to have an obsession about "Jewish blood." WJ's response is this: "If you prick me, do I not bleed? And will my blood not be as red as anyone else's, no more, no less?" The focus on "Jewish blood" and the "Jewish race" cannot be healthy, even if one is ostensibly a Philo-Semite. First, the enemies of the Jewish people will use it against us. Second, there is no scientific evidence for "Jewish blood." And third, there has been a fair amount of intermarriage, conversion (to Judaism), and so forth, throughout the ages, that any talk of the Jewish race should have been put to rest a long time ago. Just look at how different Askenazi Jews look as compared to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. We're a people and a civilization, not a race. Let's encourage the enrichment of our "gene pool" through adoption, intermarriage, and completely voluntary conversion to Judaism. If a celebration of the "Jewish race" leads to anything, it leads to racism, anti-Semitism, and Tay Sachs disease.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Escape to Freedom

Michael Phillips published his second installment of "The Secret of the Rose" trilogy in 1994, entitled Escape to Freedom. Most of this adventure and suspense-filled book takes place in 1961-1962. Several Jewish characters are included in this novel. Like the other books in this series, this novel imagines a secret network of Jews (and some Christians) called "The Rose" and also a secret plot by Communists in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe (including East Germany) to kill Jews and Christians.

There are many mentions of "Jewish blood" throughout the book: one character (Stoidovich, who is apparently both Jewish and a Christian) "had changed his name" but "nothing could change his [Jewish] blood." There's another reference too: "... whose wife shared the rabbi's Jewish blood." And still another: "... Jewish blood flowing through his veins"; "He was not a Russian -- he was a Pole, a Jew, with a proud heritage. The blood of the ancients flowed through him." And yet still another: The character Joseph thinks of himself as "a Jew by blood."

Wandering Jude thinks that maybe "Jewish blood" is important to the author, yes? Perhaps he has some flowing through his veins (and therefore feels the need to emphasize this idea of Jewish blood in the novel)? In any event, WJ wants to make it clear that the concept of Jewish blood is bad form these days. Smacks of Hitler and his minions. And besides, there are so many conversions to Judaism today that talking about Jewish blood is misleading at best, and demeaning at worst.

"A certain Heziah Wissen, faithful husband, father, rabbi, and Jewish man of God, now found himself chosen the unwitting, though no less diligent and resourceful , protector of the ancient spoil from the Most Holy Place of Jerusalem." [the ancient relics called "Urim and Thummim"].

Like Hitler himself, some of these Jewish conversionary narratives have an obsession with ancient Israelite relics and their supposed magical powers. Strange....

One chapter is entitled "A Son of Jacob," referring to a character named Joseph ben Eleazar (also known as Joseph Aviz-Rabin, also known as Leon Tsankov. Lots of false names and intrigues in this series of books).

Another chapter is entitled "A Daughter of Israel," referring to a character named Ursula Wissen. Ursula Wissen "was a Christian now, it was true. Yet her Jewish heritage and upbringing remained a vital part of her life and would always be an intrinsic part of everything she was as a person."

"His father had wanted him to marry the rabbi's daughter from the time he was ten or twelve. He had never been told the exact day or year when the two men had arranged it. .... It was not the way of all Jews during the changing times .... But it was the way of his family, for his father Eleazar was a Hasidic Jew, of the tribe of Judah -- Hasidic and orthodox in family matters, as was the rabbi."

"Unfortunately, after the war Stalin's persecution took over where Hitler's had ended. Out of the multitude of races in Russia, only the Jews were singled out for such brutal persecution. Only the Jews were required to have their race printed on thier identity cards. The Hebrew language was banned. While other churches were allowed to remain open, synagogues were shut down. Thirty to forty thousand of the best intellects in the Russian Jewish community -- poets, scholars, professors, writers, rabbis -- were eliminated in the first wave of Stalin's silent postwar holocaust.... Millions of his fellow Jews [were killed by Stalin]. Happily, after Stalin's death in 1953 the persecution gradually lessened, though it continued still."

"Joseph was silent. The great dividing wall of difference between himself as a Jew and the others as Christians had at last been spoken. Palacki sensed what he was thinking. "When I called you brother earlier," the young pastor said, "I truly meant it. You and I have the same Father -- Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. That we differ on the status of our mutual brother Jesus -- I call him the Christ; you call him rabbi -- that excludes neither of us from God's family; it only means that we are brothers who are in disagreement." "A rather serious disagreement, would you not admit?" asked Joseph. "Perhaps. I cannot be the judge of that. Then again, perhaps not such a serious disagereement. Only God knows. In any even, perhaps our mutual father has sent you to us so that you may come to know Jesus not merely as rabbi, but as the Christ, as we know him. "I think I have been sent here so that you could help me get to Berlin," remarked Joseph, not with sarcasm but with wit."

"I have been the subject once or twice," Joseph resumed, "of what I believe some of your people call witnessing. It has always been a most unpleasant experience." "An unfortunate Americanized version of evangelism that has spread even to our part of the world in spite of Communism. Yes, I know what you mean." "I feel more the object of condemnation and judgment than the love which they say is their motive." "Speaking for myself," replied Palacki, "I have no desire to convert any man to my or any way of thinking. You cannot imagine a man less desirious of proselytizing than I."

Somehow, Wandering Jude doubts Pastor Palacki's expressed intentions here.

Pastor Palacki goes on to explain that he only wants to share his ideas about freedom from bondage, which only comes through knowing Christ. Anything else is only "a religion rather than a personal experience in growth toward intimacy with God" or "ultimate truth." "That is where your own people have erred. Not erred, as I said before, by deception, but erred from incompleteness. Jesus was sent by God, to you, to the nation and children of Israel. To be a full and complete Jew requires entering into the intimacy with God as your Father that Jesus came to bring the world. Without that intimacy, God remains but the Old Testament judge and lawgiver.... Yours remains, therefore, an incomplete relationship with him." "Jews must be Christians ... in order to be complete and fulfilled Jews." ...

Ah, thinks Wandering Jude, the truth comes out. Jews are "incomplete" without Jesus, says Pastor Palacki. And unfulfilled. A pity.

"Don't you see," Palacki went on excitedly, "you have an opportunity that a physical Gentile like myself will never have -- the opportunity to be a full Jew and a full Christian both, a fulfilled and complete man of God in every way."

"... the Old Testment Scriptures offer only a faint and distant portrait." Joseph thinks to himself: "What if Christianity was true after all!"

Self-doubt always strikes the unbelieving Jew in these novels before the light shines into their hearts. As we shall see.

"Slowly Joseph slipped ... to his knees on the floor.... He had been taught to pray as a child. He knew all the formulas, all the words of rote memory. "Joseph admitted to himself that Jesus was the Christ." "As I have thought of myself till now as a son of Jacob and Judah, make me now your son, and teach me to call you Father."

Joseph asks his new friends, "Was there some ritual to perform, some rite, some prayer? He knew about baptism, he said, but obviously he could not be baptized here and now.... "In short, I want to bring fulfillment to the faith of my fathers. I want to become a complete Jew, an acknowledged believer in the Messiah that God sent."

"Joseph had seen with his own eyes evidence of a 2nd Holocaust in the Soviet Union, perhaps on a smaller scale than Hitler's Holocaust but still just as deadly. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Jews were killed under Stalin. Joseph had even seen a photograph that indicted a young Nikita Khrushchev as one of the ones responsible for killing Jews."

In the end, Ursula and Joseph (who had been betrothed to each other for many years) were reunited after Joseph escaped from East Berlin (along with others) through a hidden tunnel. Ursula and Joseph were married in a ceremony by a minister and a rabbi (Ursula's father, who had also become a Christian) in a Jewish ceremony. In addition, Matthew and Sabina were also married after being reunited. Thus, this is a love story as well as an adventure story and a Holocaust narrative.

Wandering Jude has some final words. First, it's unlikely that a rabbi would perform an interfaith marriage in 1962. Possible, but unlikely. Second, despite its "uncovering" of Stalin's plot (aided by a young Khrushchev) to kill the Jews, this novel is anything but philosemitic. As is usual for conversionary stories, this novel treats Jews as unfulfilled in their religion and branded by their bloodline. The author needs to rethink his views of Judaism (vis-a-vis evangelical Christianity), and he needs to read The Myth of the Jewish Race by Raphael Patai. Judaism (or Jewishness) is not a bloodline. It is, to quote Mordechai Kaplan, an evolving religious civilization.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Eleventh Hour

Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher Tyndale House published Michael Phillips' The Eleventh Hour in 1993. Part of the "Secret of the Rose" series, this Holocaust era book contains several Jewish characters, including Rabbi Heziah Wissen and Jakob Kropf and their families, all on the run from the Nazis, hidden and assisted by Christians in an underground network. The rabbi is carrying with him priceless jewels said to be from the ancient Urim and Thummim used by the Israelites, and other ancient artifacts from Jerusalem (although the rabbi doubts the authenticity of the jewels at least as far as the claim that they are from the Urim and Thummim).

Most of the interesting Jewish-Christian "interfaith dialogue" takes place late in the book. For example, one of the Christian rescuers, a baron, differentiates between Christianity and Judaism in his discussion with the rabbi:

"So you see, Heziah," concluded Dortmann, "we are engaged in a life of discovery, not the following of a religion at all. Our foundational prayer, the sole objective of life for us, is to discover who God is and then to do what he would have us to -- to obey him once we know him." "Everything you've said, Baron," said the rabbi, "is nothing I would take exception to as a practicing Jew. In fact, from listening to you talk, you could be a Jew -- and a devout one at that!"Baron von Dortmann laughed. "I will take that as a high honor," he said. "To be truthful, I have always considered myself a Jew -- in the spiritual sense." "I for one would not dispute your claim. There is nothing in what you have told me that precludes a Jew -- even though we do not believe Jesus is the Christ as you do -- from an equal partiticpation in that fatherhood you speak of." "It's a delight to hear you, Rabbi. God is our Father -- yours as well as mine. I believe we have a elder Brother, whose name is Jesus, who came to help us know our mutual Father better. The fact that you do not consider him your elder Brother certainly does not make the Father any less your Father than he is mine." "It is not common to hear Christians express such an equable, open-armed view of God's family." "I happen to believe in a wider reach of the Father's embrace than most Christians," agreed the baron. ... "I am convinced that God's arms stretch to infinties of inclusion our feeble brains cannot begin to grasp."

"[T]he difference between Christianity and Judaism ... is Jesus, whom we believe to be the Son of God....." "So at root, you do believe Judaism is wrong." [the rabbi queried]. ... "Oh, by no means!" rejoined the baron. "Forgive me if I conveyed anything of the kind." ..... "Then does it not follow that if I, a practicing Jewish rabbi, say that I do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, you would reply that you think I am in error?" "Perhaps, if we isolated our discussion to the question of whether Jesus is the Son of God, then yes, I might say I think you to be in error on that point. But it does not follow that I consider Judaism wrong as an entire system of belief. I see no profit to be gained by splitting semantical hairs. Judaism is the father of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew, Paul was a Jew, the entire fabric upon which our beliefs are based is Jewish. Most of our Scriptures we share with you. I do not view Judaism as 'wrong,' only incomplete. Jesus didn't bring a new system of belief; he brought completion to Judaism."

And later on, the friendly debate continues:

"Christianity is the most practical of all religions, Rabbi. Even ... more practical than your Judaism."

It turns out that Marion von Dortmann, the baron's wife, is herself a Jewish convert to Christianity.

The baron says to all in his house, including several hidden Jews: "I want, therefore, to take these final minutes we have together to share with you, my family and friends, in the most sacred and holy observance that we as Christians experience together. It is appropriate and fitting to do so, in the manner in which our Savior similarly shared with his friends on the night before he was crucified. For Jews and Christians to come together in one accord at such a time as this, to mutually participate in Communion and Passover, is perhaps unprecedented. I have not heard of such a gathering in my life. But I ask you all, of both faiths, to put aside differences of doctrine and belief for this brief season, and to open yourselves this night to one another, to our common Hebrew heritage, and to our common God -- Yahweh, the Lord -- our Father in heaven. We are all, at this moment, common pilgrims in the Egypt of a dreadful exile. ... Therefore, we invite you, Jews among us, friends whom we love, though you perhaps cannot share in the symbols of our sacrament, we yet ask you to join us in heart, to join us in prayer, and to join us in worship of our common God. We will be privileged to likewise join with you."

The rabbi explains the basics of the Passover seder. Then the baron explains the rite of Christian communion. Then, together the Jews and Christians celebrate both Passover and Communion by eating the bread and drinking the wine. Then the baron and the rabbi wash each other's feet, and then wash the feet of all those present.

When the Nazis finally come, the baron gives up his life to save the lives of his family and his Jewish friends.

"The profundity of the [baron's] Christian faith spoke louder and more forcefully to teach with every passing day. The rabbi had never been able to forget the words from the baron's mouth about Christianity completing and bringing to fulfillment what the law of Judaism had begun. The words had struck him at the time. When combined with the growing significance of the baron's action within his memory, a deep truth began to break through upon the learned rabbi: The baron's very life validated his conviction as to the truth of his Christian testimony."

"... the truth [of Chrsitianity] was suddenly authenticated more powerfully than anything he had seen come out of the Jewish law in all his years. Sacrifice of a technical sort was intrinsic to the Jewish system. But not the willing sacrifice of one laying himself down for another. What the baron had done was unheard of. The rabbi had never seen anything like it..... Suddenly everything he had heard and thought he believed, everything he had read and written and spoken about the man Jesus whom Christians called the Christ -- every word had to be seen in an altogether changed light! He had seen a man live the very servanthood of which Jesus spoke, to the very point of laying down his life for his friends."

"If the baron then could example -- in a small earthly way, for a handful of people -- the principle of a willing sacrifice giving life, then what might the death of Jesus mean to all of mankind ... if what the Christians had always been saying might possibly be true: that he was indeed the Son of God! How could a Jewish rabbi be thinking such thoughts? Heziah could not deny that all of a sudden everything had to be examined anew!"

And here the book ends. The rabbi obviously is reconsidering the claims of Christianity. But no explicit conversion takes place. Not yet.

Wandering Jude speaks:

The whole episode of the joint Communion service / Passover seder is very strange. Very strange indeed! Even under the major stressors of hiding from the Nazis, I doubt that any rabbi worth his salt would engage in such an event. (although maybe the rabbi felt vulnerable and pressured into participating). And the feet washing! What's up with that?

But the worst thing of all, in WJ's opinion, is the baron's sacrificing his life (to save others) leading the rabbi to re-think his views of Christianity. Surely the rabbi had heard of others in history (even Jews! yes, even them) laying down their lives to save others. I mean, it practically happens all the time, especially in wartime. It's a special thing when it happens, but it's not unique in the annals of history. WJ isn't suggesting that we all start doing this. It takes a certain kind of ... situation for it to be the appropriate thing to do. But enough of that philosophizing. The author of this book makes a huge leap and says that since the baron's act of self-sacrifice was so noble and inspiring, we should consider becoming Christians because Jesus was the ultimate in self-sacrifice. Wandering Jude has only one thing to say to this proselytizing message: It's fine for you Christians to believe this, but don't push it on the rest of the world. If someone wants to join your group, fine. But if someone is perfectly happy with their religious affiliation (or non-affiliation, as the case may be), please leave them alone. Philosophical conversations are one thing, but if someone ends the conversation with "no thanks," please move on to the next guy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Valentine

This book, written by Tracie J. Peterson in 1997, concerns a 20 year old Jewish heroine named Darlene Lewy. It's a Christian romance novel set in the year 1835 in New York City, so the outcome is never in doubt. Lots of Hebrew prayers and Yiddish expressions pepper this book, naturally. Two Christians, Dennison Blackwell and his son Pierce Blackwell, come into contact with Darlene and her father Abraham early on in the novel. They have conversations of a theological nature from the very beginning. The Lewy family is Orthodox in their observance, observing Shabbat and kashrut and all the other strict religious traditions of Judaism.

Early on Pierce says to Darlene: "My father and your father have been discussing the Christian faith for some time now.... I'd be happy to enlighten you..." "I won't hear such blasphemy!" Darlene interrupted. "I won't be meshummad to my people."

Dennison says to his son: "You are a Christian, Pierce. You accepted Christ as your Savior at an early age and you've accepted the Bible as God's Holy Word. Darlene doesn't believe like you do, nor will she turn away from the faith of her fathers easily. Marrying a woman who is not of your faith is clearly a mistake. The Bible says to not be unequally yoked with nonbelievers."

Pierce's Aunt Eugenia is more concerned about social standing than theology. Pierce says to her: "I will marry for love, respect, admiration, and attraction, be that woman of Jewish heritage or not. I realize the importance of marrying a woman who loves God as I do, and if that woman should turn out to be a Jewess who embraces Christianity and recognizes Christ as the true Messiah, I shan't give her social standing or bank account a single thought."

Abraham Lewy's conversations with Dennison have caused controversy in the Jewish community. Darlene's friend Esther says: "I've heard it said that he's talking matters of God with the goyim.... [and] that there are talks of why the Christians believe we are wrong in not accepting their Messiah.... So has Avrom betrayed the faith of his fathers?"

Abraham starts to think that perhaps he should consider the claims of Jesus, and he begins attending church on Sundays (while also maintaining his synagogue attendance). He also shares his fear of death with Darlene and how that fear would be abated if he converted to Christianity and had the certainty of life eternal. Darlene speaks with the local cantor (Mr. Singer) about the matter, and he says to her: "He is a traitor to his people if he believes that Jesus is Messiah. He will be forsaken and there will be no fellowship with him. He will become as one dead to us and you will be as one orphaned.... He will surely perish if he turns from God. As will you. Will you become meshummad -- traitor to your faith and people? Will you trample under foot the traditions of your ancestors and break the heart of your dear, departed mother?" ... "Christians have sought to destroy us. They treat us as less than human and disregard us, malign us, and even kill our people, all in the name of Christiantiy. Can you find acceptability in such a faith?"

Abraham invites the Blackwells to share in their Passover Seder. At the end of the evening, Dennison and Pierce point out the similarities between Passover and Easter, and how Jesus was similar to a Passover lamb in his death. It is around this time period that Abraham comes to a strong faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He says to Darlene, "Today, I will accept Jesus into my heart.... These long months I have searched for answers to questions that have eluded me all of my life. The knowledge given to me through the Tanakh and the New Testament has answered these questions... It filled my longing and took away my emptiness."

Abraham says to Darlene: "I believe that Jesus came to save all people. I believe the faith of my fathers is valid and important, but falls short of a complete understanding of God's love and mercy. You must understand, Darlene, I do not throw away my Jewish heritage to take up on of Christianty. I am a Jew, but I also believe in Jesus. Darlene shook her head. "I don't see how this can be so. I've been taught since I can first remember that you cannot be both Jewish and Christian. I've been taught that Jesus is not the Messiah we seek, for if Jesus was Messiah why did He not set up his Mesianic Kingdom and restore Jerusalem?"

Darlene slowly begins to realize the truth of Christianity. Finally she makes the decision to believe in Jesus. One day she touched her mezuzah and "in that moment, it became more than an empty habit. In that moment, Darlene was filled with a sense of longing to know all of God's Words for His people. She glanced back at her father and felt a warmth of love for him and the Messiah she had finally come to recognize. "Jesus," she whispered the name and smiled."

Abraham dies in a tragic fire, and Darlene, rejected by the Jewish community for her newfound faith, is taken in by the Blackwell family. Despite rude treatment by Aunt Eugenia, Darlene comes to love Pierce (who had been struggled with being in love with Darlene almost the entire book, and who had been praying for her salvation, and who had been warned by his father not to marry out of the faith). Darlene and Pierce get married and live happily ever after.

Wandering Jude says: Par for the course when it comes to books of this genre. Oh, for some originality of plot, character development, and so forth!