When is a "Rabbi" not a Rabbi? When he's an evangelical Christian trying to deceive Jews into converting to Christianity.
How old is this gambit? Pretty old. So-called "Messianic Jews" or "Hebrew Christians" (or at least movements encouraging the cultivation of such oxymorons) have been around for well over a century. The first formal American Hebrew Christian Church was founded in 1934, in Chicago, by Presbyterians, although informal organizations along those lines had existed quietly in this country since the early 1900s. In the 70s, under the catchy banner of "Jews for Jesus," the movement became both more visible and more aggressive, especially on college campuses, where secular Jewish kids with minimal Jewish education were particularly vulnerable.
The mass conversion of the Jews is seen by some Christians as a necessary prerequisite for the "Second Coming." The method by which it's accomplished is largely unimportant. This brand of Christian missionary long ago figured out that, partly due to centuries of persecution and gruesome tales of forced conversions, Jews tend to react badly to evangelical overtures. The solution: strip both "c" words out of the pitch. You need neither convert nor become a Christian. In fact, you can stay "Jewish," pray in a "synagogue," celebrate Passover, even have a Bar Mitzvah, so long as you realize that your ultimate destiny as a Jew is to accept Jesus as your messiah.
The pitch is a scam. Think of "Messianic Judaism" as a half-way house. A rehab treatment facility for the theologically misdirected. A crutch to enable us Jews to get over our irrational phobia of Conversion to Christianity. It's a sort of phased plan or "plan of stages" to eliminate the unbelievers. Yes, the ultimate goal is to return us to our Jewish roots, i.e., the roots of that small segment of the Jewish community that, two thousand years ago, chose to abandon the faith of their ancestors and look elsewhere for their salvation. The first Christians.
They've gotten good. They've gotten very good. Here's an exemplary JTA article from back in March, 2000.
Missionaries dupe Jewish newspapers across country
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
NEW YORK -- An advertisement that appeared in 80 American Jewish newspapers last week looks fairly innocuous.
The title of a film, "The Rabbi," appears in Hebrew-style lettering, above a close-up shot of a bearded man in a yarmulke praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
"The unforgettable story of an Israeli rabbi and his struggles in modern society," the ad says. "The drama of this family relationship will move and inspire you."
What it does not mention is that "The Rabbi," a one-hour made-for-television film broadcast on stations throughout the country last weekend, is about a self-described "Messianic Jew" who gradually convinces his Orthodox family that he did not abandon Judaism when he took "Yeshua" into his heart -- the name Messianic Jews use for Jesus.
Also omitted from the advertisement is the fact that "The Rabbi" was produced by Morris Cerullo, a San Diego-based Christian missionary who describes himself as a "servant of God."
With this misleading ad and a Jewish-owned firm as his unwitting accomplice, Cerullo managed to infiltrate a world generally beyond the grips of Messianics and missionaries: the Jewish press, including the Jewish Bulletin. Jewish newspapers do not promote Messianic activities or print advertisements from these groups.
"It's outrageous to deceive a group of religious newspapers -- to use deception to further their cause," said Nora Contini, Bulletin associate publisher.
Cerullo did not return phone calls from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The promoters of this film got a lot of traction from its title: "The Rabbi." It operated as it was intended to, to circumvent suspicion, deflect questions, instill trust and acceptance. It was part of a sneaky and insidious campaign with a deliberately disguised mission.
"It's very much a Trojan horse," said Richard Friedman, executive vice president of the Syracuse, N.Y., Jewish Federation, the first community to notify Joseph Jacobs about the movie.
"You come into our community and advertise this, but what you're really looking to do is destroy our community.
"If you truly believe in your message of Christianity, then why aren't you open and above board?" Friedman asked.
[ . . . ]
How could a Christian missionary, whose Web site includes "Jewish" as part of his "Seven Point Master Plan for World Evangelism," so easily dupe so many at once?
"This was stealthy and well thought out, and lots of knowledge of the Jewish world went into it," said Friedman. "The Jewish newspapers have been dealing with Joseph Jacobs forever, so everyone trusts the person they got it from."
Also stealthy and well thought out, with the same goals in mind, is the practice of calling leaders of these "messianic" congregations "Rabbi." Even more disturbing is that fact that the title is now being carelessly repeated by journalists, bloggers and casual speakers who don't know any better or just don't think it matters.
When is a "Rabbi" not a Rabbi? The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and the Messianic Bureau International (MBI) now both have programs that purport to train and ordain "messianic rabbis." So does the PPNC Bible College and Seminary. The problem is, their graduates aren't Rabbis. They're phonys. Fakes. Missionaries in disguise. Is this merely a semantic argument? No, it's not, though to those with no personal interest, it may seem petty or "esoteric." "Tangential," even. Not to us.
We Jews have been fighting this battle for nigh on two thousand years. Christians have been trying to explain to us where and how we went wrong since the dawn of Christianity. Whether it's the threat of eternal damnation or death by the sword, the noose, the bullet or the gas chamber, whether it's physical violence or gentle persuasion, we've been there and done that. We have all the tee shirts. Those of us with any historical education at all are way too familiar with these ploys to fall for them. Unfortunately, we live in an age when too many of us lack that education. Jews today are generally smarter about everything else and (except, perhaps, in Israel) stupider about Judaism than they've ever been. So we're ripe for the picking. And, with a little help from their friends, the missionaries are eagerly anticipating the harvest.
When is a "Rabbi" not a Rabbi? What does the title actually mean, after all? The early rabbis were interpreters of the Torah. They were the repositories of Jewish law, faith and tradition in the sudden void created by the destruction of the Temple. The priests, with their prime venue gone, were on their way to becoming mere figureheads and the community came to depend on those whose skills centered on memory and scholarship.
The rabbis committed the Oral Law to writing and then, in a remarkably democratic but nonetheless strictly defined environment, interpreted it and recorded their interpretations. Later generations of rabbis interpreted and embellished upon the interpretations. Eventually, that creative process was codified and the role of rabbis became more to instruct and explain than to embellish and expand. But throughout this process, the role of the rabbi remained the preservation and transmittal of mainstream Jewish law and tradition from one generation to the next.
Even the more liberal movements of Judaism have continued to take this role seriously, although they've delegated to themselves substantially greater powers of interpretation and innovation than their more conservative counterparts will sanction. But there is, as hard as it may be to identify precisely, a consensus within the Jewish community as to certain lines that define the boundaries of what may be considered "Jewish." "Messianic" Judaism is, without question, beyond those boundaries. "Messianic" rabbis are, without question, no more Jewish rabbis than they are Buddhist monks or Catholic priests.
If these folks want to call themselves rabbis (or monks or priests), I suppose that the First Amendment allows them to do that, within certain limits. But journalists, bloggers and everyone else who claims to be reporting facts to the general public ought to be careful not to blindly adopt such misleading and inaccurate titles in their reports. It hurts their credibility and it shows a callous disregard and disrespect for the wide spectrum of beliefs, practices and individuals that actuaaly make up the Jewish community.
If the right to determine who speaks for us, who leads us and who defines our spiritual existence truly lies today with disinterested or even hostile third parties, then the work of the Nazis and the Inquisition has, belatedly, come to fruition. I'm not willing to accept that. If you want to call that bigotry, if you want to call that intolerance, if you want to call a Christian missionary a rabbi, that is, of course, your right.
Just don't ask me to quit telling you you're wrong.
(cross-posted at The Jewish View)
Update: Once more, with humor.