In an unprecedented public display of unity, the leaders of America’s four major Jewish seminaries signed a letter of protest to the head of the Southern Baptist Convention decrying its new support of "deceptive" tactics to convert Jews.
The three-page letter to the Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in nation, states that the Jewish community is "deeply offended" that leaders of the 16 million-member Christian movement "has formally embraced a strategy that attempts to deceive Jews into believing that one can be both a Jews and a Christian.Specifically, the letter, composed under the direction of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, objects to the use of Jewish symbols such as yarmulkes and tallises by Christians to lure vulnerable Jews and convert them.
"Deception is a harsh word, but we have chosen it carefully," said the letter dated Nov. 8 and signed by the seminary heads, Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University; Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi Zimmerman said the letters marks the first time he has ever signed a document with his counterparts, and signifies the gravity of the threat to American Jews.
"The danger here is clear," said Rabbi Zimmerman, who knows and has debated Patterson, whom he calls a bright and able man.
"What they are doing is they are clothing themselves in Jewish ritual to attract people," said Rabbi Zimmerman during a phone interview from Israel Tuesday. "Very clearly it’s a way of obfuscating what their intent is: to grab Jews wherever they can to hasten their redemptive view of history, and it doesn’t matter that they are using trickery."
Most vulnerable, he said, are people ignorant of their Jewish background, such as Russian Jews or disenfranchised American Jews.
Rabbi Zimmerman said that Patterson represents the fundamentalist wing of the SBC, and "what makes it dangerous is that he’s very smart. He knows exactly what he’s doing. They are saying that the old style of not stepping on [Jew’s] toes is going away, that they are taking off the gloves," in proselytizing Jews.
JCRC executive vice president Michael Miller said the group was spurred to take action after a September conference jointly held by the SBC and Hebrew-Christian groups in New York.
"The catalyst was the conference at Calvary Baptist Church. It was the first time that we have witnessed a public embracing of Hebrew Christianity by any mainstream church," Miller said.
Philip Abramowitz, director of JCRC’s Task force on Missionaries and Cults, exchanged letters with Patterson that did not satisfy the JCRC, a coalition of 60 New York Jewish groups.After drafting the letter, Miller said it was determined that the document would be stronger if the four seminary heads signed on. "We consider this to be somewhat historic," he said.
In fact, the SBC, in a highly controversial action, voted to redouble its missionizing efforts to Jews and other faiths two years ago, but "never until now has there been this public embrace of Hebrew Christianity to this level," Miller noted.
As an example of the "deceitful" tactics, Abramowitz said a Southern Baptist congregation in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn uses Friday-night Sabbath services to attract Jews.
In a published report, Patterson said he did not believe Hebrew Christians, also called messianic Jews, were being deceptive in employing Jewish rituals with their belief in Jesus.Miller countered that JCRC stands by its definition of deception. "The activity that he describes in his response is clearly deception."
The JCRC has adopted a policy statement declaring that Hebrew Christians are completely separate and disassociated from the Jewish community. The statement notes the differing views of the Messiah, and the final break between Christianity and Judaism 2,000 years ago.
"According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will not be divine or change the Jewish obligation to observe the Torah," the statement says. "In the Christian view, belief in this divine Messiah, whose coming abrogated the need for Torah observance, is essential to one’s redemption."
The statement, formulated by New York University Judaic studies head Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, states that "Hebrew Christians have crossed an unbreachable chasm by accepting another religion. Despite this, they continue to attempt to convert their former co-religionists.
"Our history has clearly shown that when confronted with a group of Jews which has adopted another faith and seeks to convert others, we must stand firm."
Rabbi Zimmerman said he hoped the letter would get Patterson’s attention, but added that he doubted it.