Moishe Rosen, Jews for Jesus, and interfaith identities

BC_JewishChristianDifferenceandModernJewishIdentity_1It was with great personal interest that I read Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity by Shalom Goldman: a collection of mini-biographies about seven 20th-century converts from Judaism to Christianity, and vice versa. Of the seven, only one name was familiar to me besides the biblical Ruth: Moishe Rosen, the controversial founder of Jews for Jesus, the largest messianic Jewish organization in the world.

Rosen’s story in particular implicitly asks the reader: what makes someone Jewish, or not Jewish? This question becomes more pertinent as an increasing number of American Jews embrace a secular brand of Judaism, allowing them to take part in a cultural narrative and embrace a lineage without partaking in religious tradition, while other Jews embrace Rosen’s “Jew for Jesus” brand.

Reading this book, and the chapter on Rosen in particular, resulted in mixed emotional reactions. Because I was born to Jewish parents, even unobservant ones, that is enough to make me Jewish by most standards. While I never chose to practice the Jewish religion, Judaism nonetheless became the filter through which I saw the world, even as I began to realize that my understanding of God aligned more with Christian theology.

I was born into a tradition that encourages asking questions and welcomes theological debate. It is Judaism – or Jewish culture, perhaps – that I blame for my unrest when I heard in church that God provides for all our needs. My mind immediately shifted to the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust: what about their need to be rescued? And, furthermore, what about the needs of people in present day who need food, water, and money with which to pay their bills? It is my Jewish background that is also the source of my discomfort when correct belief is emphasized over action, or what Judaism calls tikkun olam: “mending the world.”

Not surprisingly, I find myself at odds with many of my Christian acquaintances for raising questions and doubts that likely never would have surfaced if I hadn’t said anything. It’s in those moments of unintentionally making others uncomfortable that I almost resent my heritage. After all, I didn’t ask to exist; I didn’t get to choose my place and circumstances of birth. Throughout my young adulthood, I resented being Jewish because of how hard it was to fit in at any church I attended, even though I was just as enamored with the idea of a God Incarnate as everyone else.

It’s taken a long time, but today I accept being Jewish as something about myself that just is. I accept it the same way I accept my curly hair, my right-handedness, my Polish and Russian ancestry. It’s not all I am, but still integral to my identity.

The older I get, the more it becomes clear that religion is as complex as humanity itself, and spiritual identities even more so. I have no issue with checking off the “Christian” box on a Pew Forum, but I have to mark “Ashkenazi Jewish” at the doctor’s office for a complete assessment of my medical history; to be made aware of precautions I must take against certain cancers that people of this gene pool are vulnerable to. I breathed a sigh of relief when I married a gentile, realizing that this greatly decreases our chances of having a child with Tay Sachs, a fatal degenerative disorder that is almost uniquely found among the Ashkenazi faction.

I had hoped to see more of this internal-external dynamic explored in Goldman’s book, which I feel is one of its weaknesses. Goldman’s subjects wrestled with Jewish and Christian theological differences, which are certainly important, but do not show a complete picture. For many converts, conversion is not so much a one-time event, but a daily renewal. We don’t necessarily choose our beliefs, but lineage chooses us, and I wish that Goldman had included chapters about individuals learning to thrive despite constant tension between the two.

Still, anyone interested in religious identity will find this book thought-provoking and worthy of discussion. Read other reviews from the Patheos Book Club.


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8 thoughts on “Moishe Rosen, Jews for Jesus, and interfaith identities”

  1. Very informative post. I’ve always known of the tensions but I actually didn’t know of the different cancer issues you mentioned.



  2. Thought provoking post Beth! I think questions are the only way you learn. The only reason people hate them, is because they don’t have answers – and they hate it when people so call, “stir the pot”. But I think “pot stirrers” are needed, because THEY challenge us to think and seek out those answers. It’s great when we’re all allowed to embrace our heritages without feeling like an outsider. But even greater is Romans 10:12! Thanks for sharing Beth! Stopping by from “Christian Women Bloggers Unite.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It may sound a little strange but I relate with your post because the Igbo ethnic group to which I belong to in Nigeria are seen as the Jews in that part of the world. I don’t believe there’s any racial connection but their industry, questioning spirit, republicanism and what some anthropologists called achievement orientation is at odds with many other ethnic groups and attracts them hatred and persecution to the point of nearly suffering genocide in a civil war a few decades ago. Still they thrive educationally, financially, etc. in the face of oppressive and discriminatory policies. We look to the Jews for inspiration and Christian or not, we see them as God’s chosen people. We pray for Israel even though it is now a secular state. In line with Biblical prophecy, we believe the Jews will come to accept Jesus in greater numbers in these last days.
    Pardon me if I’ve sounded sentimental and have gone off topic but I can’t help it when the subject has to do with the Jews whether those in diaspora or in Israel.

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  4. This is a fascinating post. I never understood the tension that exists between Jewish people and Christians. I myself still view Jewish people as God’s chosen people who will one day come to the full knowledge of our Lord. Romans and Hebrews talks about this in great lengths. Anyone is allowed to ask questions about beliefs, doubts, religion. I just know that the only answers worth seeking are in His word.


    1. In many ways I think Judaism set me up to be a terrible Christian, because I do not, and cannot, view the Bible as one consecutive book. The Old Testament and New read like different volumes to me, not one continuous story. I highly recommend the Old and New Testament Jewish study bibles for more insight on this. It’s really fascinating research even if you don’t agree with their conclusions (and if you’re an academic nerd):


  5. I appreciated this writing. This is something I think of often. I write ashkenazi jewish too because of the health implications. I was raised christian but my father’s family is jewish. I love some of the jewish ways and feel very out of place in church and yet i feel very connected to jesus. My lineage chose me in one way but my family raised me in another. There was no open discussion about religion and what I felt drawn to or interested in. I have felt torn many a day on religion. The only way I feel settled is to not name a religion but to go with a feeling and spiritual connection that makes me feel at peace. Hopefully that makes sense. Anyway, thank you for writing this thought provoking piece.

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