A new era of relations between Jews and Christians is just beginning, but an unexpected obstacle has arisen. Christians coming to investigate their Jewish roots are facing pressure to leave their Messianic beliefs behind.
Spiritual mavericks crossing boundaries that have been sacrosanct for a millennium, the Bnei Yosef are on a spiritual journey that has led them out of the church in a search for their Jewish roots and a Jewish Jesus. Looking for affirmation that they are part of Israel, they are especially sensitive to any efforts to influence their beliefs. As canaries in the interfaith coal-mine, they feel they have encountered a religious ethnocentric arrogance in Judaism that makes it difficult to connect.
When connecting with Christians, Jews are quick to point out the red line of ‘no missionizing’, citing a long history of repression and overt Christian pressure for Jews to convert. “We are coming to understand how great an offense it is to Jews to seek to convert them to Christianity, or even to embrace Yeshua as Messiah,” Albert McCarn, Executive Director of the Bnei Yosef Congress of North America, told Breaking Israel News.
He continued, “It is just as great an offense to us when our Jewish brethren seek to convert our people to Judaism, or to persuade them that Yeshua is not the Messiah.”
The Bnei Yosef view themselves as the beginnings of a new nation with roots in Judaism. They have taken on many Jewish practices but retain a belief in Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus. Though they seek a connection with Jews as brethren, they have no desire to convert.
“The Jews who try to persuade us that are good, well-meaning people, mind you, all motivated by love and a desire to see Hashem’s (God’s) Kingdom restored, but there is a tendency to see that restoration only through the lens of their spiritual upbringing,” said McCarn. “That, I believe, is why Isaiah wrote regarding Messiah, ‘He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.’”
Objectively, Christian fears of being converted are not statistically justified. Israel’s Religious Services Ministry reports only about 1,400 converts every year. Yet the subject is clearly so sensitive to both sides that it is a major obstacle to reconciliation. Though the Bnei Yosef are far from mainstream, as more Christians seek a connection with Israel, politically, personally and spiritually, it is imperative that this phenomenon be scrutinized.
Gidon Ariel is the founder and CEO of Root Source, an online educational program in which Orthodox Israeli Jews teach Christians around the world about the Torah, or Hebrew Bible. Breaking Israel News asked him about the fine line he is walking between education and proselytizing.
For him, the difference is clear. “Our goal is to help people feel better and know more about their own self-identity. I teach them Torah to help them be better Christians. That is really the mission of the Jews: to help spread the knowledge of God to the world. That doesn’t mean to stop them from being who they were.”
David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, believes that in the present framework of interfaith relations, each side must be free to present itself authentically with no expectations from the other side to change.
“Many Jews, who have not read the New Testament and continue to have a medieval understanding of Christianity coupled with the notion that most Christians are Catholics, do not know what to make or how to relate to this development. [They think] anyone wishing to ‘attach themselves to Judaism’ must convert to Judaism and renounce Jesus,” he explained to Breaking Israel News.
“Jews need to respect Bnei Yosef and Christians for who they are, with all of their beliefs intact, as long as they don’t try to convert us. We need to develop a real working relationship with full knowledge the discussion will arrive at basic irreconcilable differences. This requires us to build on commonalities: the beginning and the end.”
Nekrutman said that the two groups were united in their common origins – the Hebrew Bible. “The dialogue begins with the scripture that anchors all of us,” he noted.
The second commonality, he continued, is the spiritual redemption that all eagerly anticipate. “In the end, we both believe there will be an ultimate acknowledgement of God and want to work to bring that. But what that means is very different for each group.
“We will need to cope with that then, but in the meantime, we need to learn how to work together.”