A Letter to Andrew Klavan: For a Jew to Become a Christian, He First Must be a Jew

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, by Andrew Klavan. Thomas Nelson 2016.

Dear Andrew,

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.