Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, died last month.
His group, often referred to as Messianic Judaism, attempts to merge Jewish and Christian beliefs by convincing Jews to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ while still remaining Jewish. The group is an inauthentic bastardization of the original. (To use a modern metaphor, it's like the new, critically-panned Sex and City sequel.)
And so it's unfortunate that I feel a bizarre connection to them. You see, there have been many days that people thought I was a Jew for Jesus. I can understand their confusion. After all, I'm the son of an Orthodox rabbi who spent a year visiting 52 churches. Fascinated by Christians' zeal for their religion, I was envious. Not of their savior, but of their passion for him. I wanted to find out why they were so pumped about Jesus so that I could take those lessons and get jazzed about my own Judaism.
The resulting memoir, My Jesus Year, told my story. When the book was first published, many Jewish groups were turned off. At first blush, they assumed I was a Jew for Jesus, coming to convert their children. When they eventually realized my message was the opposite -- that the grass is not greener at the church across the street -- I was welcomed into synagogues and Jewish community centers with open arms.
Which brings me back to Moishe Rosen and his Jews for Jesus organization. At just about every stop on my whirlwind book tour, I was always asked the same probing question: "You visited so many different denominations. Why didn't you visit the Jews for Jesus?"
My pat response was as follows: Living in the Bible Belt, we are blessed to have at least two churches on every street corner. I could spend "My Jesus Decade" and still not get to every place. But the real reason I didn't walk into a Jews for Jesus sanctuary was subconscious. I knew that they, more than any other group I visited, wanted my soul.
As much as some Christians want to convert Jews to their religion, it's not the sole reason for their existence. It may be part of their doctrine, but it is not the sum of all its parts. And what missionary efforts they do have are geared towards all non-Christians, not just Jews. On the other hand, Jews for Jesus' sole mission is to get Jews (and Jews alone) to accept Jesus as their savior.
Most Jews are offended by their very existence. It's one thing for a Jew to leave his faith completely and become a practicing Christian. But to retain your Judaism while at the same time accepting Jesus as the Messiah is the religious equivalent of hyphenating your last name. Just man up and choose a religion.
True religion means staying true to your religion. The question then becomes: What does that mean? How much can you change your religion, veering off its original path, before you enter into a completely new religion?
While there's been huge disagreement about what it means to be Jewish (Reform Jews, for example, will vastly disagree with Hasidic Jews on the topic), just about everyone (including Christians) agree that being Jewish means not accepting Jesus. Indeed, tell a Christian that you have accepted Jesus into your heart, and they'll be adding you to their rosters in an instant. Conversion completed.
But the Jews for Jesus organization sees it quite differently. Born Jewish, accept Jesus, and now you're one of them. They're not a halfway house on the way to full-blown Christianity. They view themselves as your final destination.
In essence, they've co-opted belief in Jesus from the Christian community.
Thankfully, Jews for Jesus have been marginalized since their inception as a cultish fringe group and are rarely taken with any meaningful regard. So who knows what the death of Moishe Rosen means for the organization? Will it mean the end of an era? Or will it signal a renewed effort to proselytize his twisted vision?
Only time will tell.
Follow Benyamin Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/myjesusyear