The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, by Andrew Klavan. Thomas Nelson 2016.
As it happens, I graduated from the same high school you did. Your brother Ross was my classmate, and already a talented writer; I remember clearly a short story he published in our school literary magazine. Like you, I grew up in a secular family, and like you, I went through a pro forma Bar Mitzvah ritual before abandoning religion altogether. None of this had anything to do with Judaism; we grew knowing as much about Judaism as we did about the dark side of the Moon. I eventually found my way into Jewish observance, and it was quite different from anything I encountered back in Great Neck.
From what you’ve written and what I know about the secular environment in which we were raised, I am afraid that I simply cannot accept your statement of Christian conversion as presented. I say this with no hostility towards Christianity; I have many Christian friends and almost no secular Jewish friends. I do not question your right to convert, but it is not clear to me that you have actually done so.
It isn’t so simple for a Jew to convert to Christianity. We were called to be God’s people at Mount Sinai some 3,400 years ago. You were there, even if you don’t remember it. This is something that Christians also believe, for they read the same Bible as the Jews. We Jews accepted a divine mission, and by “we,” I mean all of our generations, including yours.
The great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) decided to convert to Christianity. But he knew that to undergo conversion, he could only do so as a Jew. Raised secular, Rosenzweig had never practiced Judaism, so he attended the Day of Atonement services at a small synagogue in Berlin frequented by religious Eastern European Jews. After he saw for the first time what Judaism actually was, he decided to stick with it after all. There have been of course observant Jews who converted to Christianity in full knowledge of the implications; an example is the wartime chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli. He was saved from the Nazis from the Vatican while most of his congregation perished, and was ostracized by the Jewish community after the war.
To be a convert is to convert from one thing to something else. And a competent choice presumes knowledge of what one is converting from as well as knowledge of what one is converting to. Rosenzweig understood this, and learned Judaism as a prerequisite for a Christian conversion that he abandoned.
I presume that you have never observed a full Shabbat—welcoming the Sabbath Queen in synagogue, blessing the candles and the wine and the bread at home, standing for a personal audience with God during the Eighteen Benedictions at morning services and hearing the weekly Torah portion, returning to the Sabbath meal with its blessings of bread and wine and its concluding grace, and, finally, ushering out the Sabbath with wine, fire and fragrance. No mechanical contrivances are permitted, for Shabbat itself is a sojourn in the World to Come that is disrupted by any human action upon nature. And I presume that you have never observed the pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish calendar: reliving the Exodus at Passover, the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, the recreation of the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Days of Awe from the New Year to the Day of Atonement, followed by the Rejoicing of the Torah. To be a Jew is to recreate the life of Abraham. To know Judaism is to practice it.
One can no more explain what it is like to be Jewish to someone who has not actually done Judaism than one can explain to someone who knows no music what it is like to play a Bach fugue on the piano. Here I speak from bitter experience. Not until eight years ago did I work up the nerve to walk into an Orthodox synagogue. At that point I had something of a conversion experience. It was borne in upon me that the “Conservative” Judaism I had practiced for the preceding twenty years was no more than a variant of mainline Protestantism, a sort of Methodism with a yarmulke. Brought up in the prevailing Christian culture, I was a cultural Christian all along–until I began Jewish practice.
The late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, said it was wrong to think of “secular” or “progressive” Jews as apostates or heretics. Instead, he taught that we were the equivalent of kidnapped children under Jewish law. We weren’t to be blamed for rejecting Jewish observance because no-one had ever shown us what observance was. I do not mean to suggest that Christians have kidnapped you, of course, or exercised undue influence of any sort. R. Schneerson referred rather to the grip of the ambient culture on Jews who never learned what it is to be Jewish.
What is the difference between Christianity and Judaism? It isn’t love versus law, or works versus faith; those are canards. It isn’t Incarnation as such; my late teacher Michael Wyschogrod showed that Incarnation is a Jewish idea, specifically that God’s presence (Shekhinah) dwells in the flesh and blood of the people Israel (Christians, he quipped, concentrate that into one single Jew). It isn’t even the different persons of God in the Trinity. Judaism teaches different attributes of God, particularly the Attribute of Justice and the Attribute of Mercy, although we do not of course regard them as different “persons.”
The great gulf fixed between Jews and Christians is the notion of unmerited grace. Unmerited grace is meaningless in the Jewish context. It isn’t that YHWH is a more demanding deity than Jesus of Nazareth. Jews are expected to be God’s partners, and Imitatio Dei for Jews means participating in the continuing work of creation. We do not wait for the Kingdom of Heaven; we build heaven into the minutia of daily life. Performance of the mitzvoth (commandments) is not a means to accumulate sufficient points to win a place in heaven; it is the construction of heaven on earth. The Sabbath is a foretaste of the World to Come, a portion of eternity separated from quotidian time.
Judaism isn’t a doctrine that one assents to, or a set of rules that one follows, but a labor of construction. Rosenzweig noted here the rabbinic word-play between “ba’nim” (children) and “bo’nim” (builders). Judaism is less a consolation than a challenge to raise ourselves to partnership with God. That is why we worry less than Christians about free will vs. Predestination. Freedom in Judaism is creativity, something to be attained by becoming God’s partners in the continuing work of Creation. We do not ask unmerited grace from God. Christians seem to think that the problem with Jews is that we do not believe in Jesus. Belief is really not that important; we do not wish to be saved by anyone, because we do not understand the need for it. To be “saved” in Gentile understanding is to be eternal, that is, to be adopted into the family of Abraham via belief. Yet we (and you) already are of the family of Abraham.
Like it or not, the Bible that Jews and Christians read declares that God chose a particularly family—the family of Abraham and Sarah—to be his instrument on earth. The obligations we accepted at Mount Sinai devolved upon all generations of that family. To be a believing Christian, you must believe that what the Bible says about your family is true and that it still is true today as per Romans 11:29. The gift is irrevocable. That means you can’t give it away.
The threshold is high, to be sure. To partner with God in the work of Creation presumes an impassioned commitment and a high degree of learning. God never said it was easy, only that it was not too hard for us (Deuteronomy 30:11). He gave us the Torah as the constitution of the created world, and to know Torah is to absorb the contributions of more than a hundred generations. Learning Torah is the quintessential Jewish activity for it opens to us the mind of God. On this I recommend an essay by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, “Torah and Incarnation.”
For a Jew to convert to Christianity raises a number of problems that you do not appear to have considered. Are Jewish Christians obligated to perform the mitzvoth, to keep the Sabbath and to keep kosher? The Jewish Christians of the early Church surely did. Wyschogrod answered in the affirmative, in a famous open letter to Cardinal Lustiger. Whether or not you feel called to Christ in the Spirit, you are still chosen in the flesh, and because Jewish flesh is holy—it is the vessel for God’s Indwelling on earth—it must be given the appropriate sanctity, for example kashrut.
Here is the paradox: You cannot be a Christian unless you also accept your Election as a Jew, but you have never lived as a Jew, and do not know what it is to be a Jew. Unless you first learn to be a Jew, you cannot convert—change from one state to another—because you never actually have been in the first state. I am not saying that you shouldn’t convert, but rather that Jews have a unique path to conversion. In my experience, conversions among observant Jews are extremely rare; it is non-observant Jews who have no real knowledge of Judaism who choose to convert. The Day of Atonement is approaching; you might consider emulating Franz Rosenzweig, and spend the day fasting and praying with Jews who believe that Hashem gave us this day to make us whole from our sins. Be a Jew for the first time, for just twenty-five hours.