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.

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