Judaism and the messianists (National Post, Oct. 08, 2003)

MONTREAL - Recently the oxymoronically named Jews for Jesus trolled Toronto waters for converts to messianism, then left Canada. So what's Montreal -- chopped liver?

Actually JFJ mini-blitzed Montreal some years ago, but were largely ignored. Montreal Jews are more securely rooted and culturally robust than other North American communities.

The United States, where Judaism is in greater crisis, provides more propitious terrain for the messianists. The dilution process has been under way since the '60s. Thanks to counter-culture values (whatever works for memememememe and the worship of multiculturalism), what used to be a "network TV" situation -- Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform -- is now a kaleidoscopic 500-channel cosmos.

There are secular Jews, BuJus (Buddhist Jews -- Jews are a disproportionate percentage of non-Asian Buddhists), Sufi Jews, sweat lodge Jews and Vision Questing Jews (whatever that is). Jewish women are over-represented in witches' covens (!).Vast numbers of Jews have abandoned Judaism altogether. Several hundred thousands have converted to other faiths.

But the single most transformative factor is ever-escalating rates of inter-marriage. Alan Dershowitz says in The Vanishing American Jew: "[the] primary threat today is coming not from anti-Semites but from those who would 'kill us with kindness -- by assimilating us, marrying us, and merging with us out of respect, admiration and even love.' "

Modern Jews are vulnerable, most having a poor grip on their history, traditions and core beliefs. Catholicism and normative Protestant denominations respectfully backed off from Jewish proselytism after the Holocaust. But zealotry abhors a vacuum. These marginal Jews are low-hanging fruit for the messianists. There are only 70 affiliated congregations in the United States, Canada and Israel, but the messianists are rich in seductive strategies. They present themselves as Jewish, because ignorant and spiritually impoverished young Jews find enticing the prospect of guilt-free "salvation" within a perceived Jewish embrace

A religious expert who follows the movement says that in the past decade the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations has progressed from mostly Christian services with a smattering of Hebrew to what would be, if it weren't for the worship of 'Yeshua" (sounds so much more Jewish than Jesus), mostly Hebrew ritual Torah services, complete with head coverings and prayer shawls.

Jews are disturbed by what they interpret as spiritual kidnapping. Rabbi Ed Elkin of Toronto's First Nureyever Synagogue believes the JFJ provokes anxiety because Judaism's defining characteristics rest on the repudiation of false or "Second Coming" messiahs -- that is, "messiahs" who don't fulfill the prophecies the first time around -- and "our adamant rejection of any intermediary between the individual and God." Elkin says "[JFJ] represent a blurring of a very important boundary marker for us."

But is it all messianism Jews reject -- or only specifically Christian messianism?

Because, ironically, the JFJ offensive may end as a trifling distraction compared to a weirdly parallel internal threat from the ultra-Orthodox world that has been largely ignored by mainstream Jews. A substantial majority of the widely recognized Lubavitch (or Chabad), Hasidism who do popular outreach and reclaim disaffected Jews, insists that their beloved "rebbe," the brilliant and charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died with no heir or appointed successor in 1994, initiated "the" authentic messianic mission and will soon return to complete it.

In other words, not Christians but a very influential body of Jews is saying that their leader is the Messiah. For Christian evangelists, Lubavitch messianism and its effective legitimation by the combined rabbinates of normative Judaism who have yet to publicly, officially and vociferously denounce such apostasy, is an unexpected validation of their own mandate.

David Berger, author of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, says, "what we have here is a striking case study in the transformation of religions, in the persistence of millenarian convictions, and in the power of social forces to overwhelm belief systems that have survived generations of untold pressures." He cites millenarian fears generated by AIDS, global anti-Semitism, Mideast war and terrorism as provocations to irrational and dangerous proxy worship.

It is an intriguing paradox: on the one hand spontaneous widespread hostility to Christian messianism, on the other the insouciance of ordinary Jews regarding the momentous challenge to their ancient faith posed by internal messianists. Berger says: "Believing a human being is pure divinity should be no less disturbing to Conservative and Reform Jews than to the Orthodox." And even if you don't believe in the messianic prophecy in general, "it should not matter whether the messiah in whom you do not believe is Jesus of Nazareth."

To sum up then:

In the year 2003 C.E.: Jews for Jesus; Jews for "Moshiach" (Schneerson); Jews and fundamentalist Christians for Zionism.

In 70 C.E.: Pharisees (Jews for Judaism); neo-Platonists (Jews for Hellenism); Nazarenes (Jews for Jesus):

Conclusion: "Everything old is new again."


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