Many people have scratched their heads upon finding out about my intention to convert to Judaism, wondering why I would do such a thing. The puzzled looks come from former Christian friends and family, new non-Christian friends, as well as Jews themselves. I usually give the short answers—because I connect with G-d that way, or because I believe in the G-d of Abraham, or even because it is my destiny—but these brief responses satisfy few. The real answer takes much longer to give, so here I hope to delineate precisely my reasoning and the meanderings of my heart and soul that led me to declare my intention to identify with a people and a religion that is not usually chosen by one who comes from my background.
To answer the question about why I am choosing Judaism, you first have to understand something of my religious upbringing—you need to know why I was a Christian. Both of my parents were raised Catholic to various degrees, and they got married in the Catholic Church and sent me to a Catholic school. I don’t remember too much religion in my house in the early years before grade four. We didn’t regularly go to church, but we would go more often than just Christmas or Easter. I did my first communion, and then confirmation, and when I was married in my twenties I got married in the Catholic Church.
At some point when I was in elementary school my mother became a born again Christian, and thereafter my religious upbringing became a mix of Catholic and Christian Fundamentalist belief. My dad never talked about religion, having very little use for it, so most of the instruction came from my mother, who attended bible studies in various people’s homes, and who read voraciously. I remember wanting to use my rosary and mom telling me that was okay—however, I should skip the prayers to Mary, substituting instead my own prayers; in short, she encouraged talking to G-d personally. There were no Fundamentalist churches in the small town where we lived, so we’d still occasionally go to the Catholic church, with my mother reminding us what beliefs were acceptable Christian ones and which ones—the well-known Catholic ones—were suspect. We did not grow up seeing the Catholic Church as detrimental to having a relationship with Jesus Christ, as some Fundamentalist children do; rather, we were taught that Christ was there too, but that some people, and some traditions, were not conducive to connecting with him.
This made sense to me as a child, and I don’t recall having any religious angst about this mix of Catholic/Fundamentalist doctrine. In grade five, when the Gideon people came to my class to distribute their little red New Testaments, I dutifully, and solemnly, filled out the page at the back where you agree with the Sinner’s Prayer and pledge to follow Jesus. Throughout junior high, this pledge was something that was still very much a part of me. I was one of the early adopters of Christian rock music—with my mom’s encouragement and selective purchases—listening to such bands as Petra, Rez Band, Servant, Degarmo and Key, Whiteheart, and artists like Amy Grant, Steve Green, and Connie Scott, before this branch of the music industry became acceptable and almost cool. I wrote my own Christian songs and encouraged my friends to listen to this music as well.
In high school, my interest in religion waned somewhat, and I became less interested in Fundamentalist Christianity, although G-d was still a big part of my life. I still wrote my Christian songs, still tried more so than some of my peers to follow Jesus, and nightly prayers were still a part of my regular routine. In grade 12 I got involved with a Catholic youth organization heavily influenced by the Charismatic movement, which I found exciting, and very spiritually invigorating. My mother continued to deepen her involvement in Fundamentalist Christianity as did several cousins, aunts and my one grandmother. I was regularly exposed to full-gospel services, talking in tongues, laying on of hands, and Spirit-filled ministries. These things usually frightened me, or at the very least made me feel uncomfortable, and I never was able to feel in the core of my being a connection to G-d through these services and spiritual practices.
When I began university though, and then soon found myself living with my eventual partner, G-d gradually faded in my list of priorities. Occasionally, we would attend mass, finding comfort in the universality of the rituals, in the shared nostalgia and mystical associations of the local parish, but it was a diminishing part of our lives.
When marital crisis hit in my mid-twenties, and my marriage (and other) problems seemed to be too big for a mere human like myself to deal with, I found myself sitting in the office of a Fundamentalist pastor my cousin had recommended, being encouraged to “turn back to Christ” and “accept him as Lord and Saviour”. Despite my built-in reservations about an involvement in Fundamentalist Christianity beyond Christian music, I found myself taking his lead, praying the Sinner’s Prayer, and inviting Jesus into my heart. Here was someone promising a way out of the mess that I found myself in, and I thought I had nothing to lose. I had what is known in those circles as a “born-again” experience.
I have to say that I did feel a sense of peace, a connection to G-d, and a tremendous weight lifting off my back. Things were in His hands now. I had done what He wanted. I was made pure, set right with G-d, and starting over after having made a mess of my life. It was a kind of euphoria that I was taught came from the Spirit of G-d entering me and Jesus forgiving me my sins. Of course, I see this experience differently now. There is amazing psychological power in believing that you have done the one major thing G-d requires of you, in seeing the world in black and white terms with a religious system there to reinforce it, and in relinquishing control of one’s life to an external force. There is also much transforming power in realizing how much G-d loves you.
Thereafter followed six years of involvement in a Fundamentalist church, much of that spent as a drummer on the music (“worship”) team. I saw some truly beautiful things in my time along with some pretty terrible things. Our humanity, both the grandness and baseness of it, still reveals itself in a place of worship. Over the years, I had the opportunity to play with Christian recording artists and even with a “miracle healing ministry”. I was bothered by a seemingly staged spirituality and rarely connected to ecstatic so-called Spirit-filled patterns of worship. It just seemed so forced, and so easily faked; or, when it was good, it seemed that it was more the music than anything particularly G-dly that was behind it. People would think, for example, that the musicians were being led by the Holy Spirit, but often we were just noodling on our instruments until an appropriate length of time went by. I’ve experienced the same thing in secular bands.
After about a year I found that I wasn’t even getting anything out of the sermons—I had heard them all before. Bible study seemed to require a relinquishing of the intellect that I had difficulty forfeiting. Try as I might, I could never fully accept a strict literal reading of the bible and the kind of theology that produced. Eventually it became clear that Fundamentalist Christianity was not for me, the realization of which coincided with my move to a new home outside the city where commuting to my old church became too difficult.
At that time I was living in a small town where there were limited choices as far as church options. After checking out the United church, the Alliance church, a local non-denominational church, I began attending a tiny Anglican congregation. The pastor was someone I could relate to who had a desire for outreach but an intellect that was not excommunicated from his sermons nor his theology. Plus, the congregation was friendly and non-judgmental. That was my beloved church home for almost two years, but then another change of residence prompted my search for a new place of worship.
I was back in the city again. In looking for another church it was important for me to get as far back to the roots of Christianity as I could. Fundamentalism had claimed to be bible-based, to be the closest to the way the early Christians had operated, but my own reading in history led me to conclude that this was not so. The early Christians were Jews who followed this Jew, Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah. They observed the Sabbath, worshipped at the Temple, kept the Law, none of which modern Christians do, let alone the Fundamentalists. I considered the Catholic Church based on its claims to be linked directly to St Peter, supposedly the first pope, and one of the first Christians. The claim had weight for me, but there were serious problems with it too. Any student of the history of the church will quickly see that there were a lot of changes introduced in the “received faith” of this institution. These changes took it away from the pure, early Christianity I was looking for.
After doing a lot of research on the internet, I learned about the Messianic movement. One website in particular was instrumental in my thinking: www.jewsforjesus.com. Messianics call themselves Hebrew Christians or, more commonly, Messianic Jews. They observe a lot of modified Jewish rituals and customs in their synagogues, which are often sponsoring Baptist or Pentecostal congregations who give them space on Saturdays or Friday nights, the times when they conduct their services. In their view, they are simply Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah. To an outsider it may seem that way as well, since they use a lot of Hebrew—in their songs, in some of their prayers, and to refer to almost everything in Christianity, from the New Testament (“Brit Chadisha”) to the name of Jesus himself (“Yeshua”).
I tried to imagine if I was a Jew at the time that Jesus lived, and I had decided to follow him, what my faith and actions might look like. I decided it might look a lot like what the Messianics were modeling. Intrigued, I attended a Messianic congregation for about a month and half, and continued to read about the movement on the internet. Services were interesting and spiritually uplifting for me—I loved hearing the Hebrew, listening to Jewish music, imagining what it would have been like to be an early Jew rejoicing at the arrival of this messiah. But then I began to discover things on the internet that disturbed me.
One was the fact that this movement was primarily aimed at converting Jews to Christianity. As a Christian at the time, I didn’t have a problem with this per se, but it was the deceiving way in which this was done that bothered me. A common tactic was to suggest to born Jews, many of whom were severely lacking in their own religious education, that the most natural and most Jewish thing in the world would be to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah. With the Jewish trappings of the service, and the loving welcoming atmosphere, a Jew who had been reared in a dull, lifeless synagogue, may have accepted that without realizing the next step is acknowledging that this messiah, Jesus, is G-d incarnate, something that is most definitely NOT a Jewish thing to do. The unity of G-d, the fact that He can never take on fleshly form, that He is not some mysterious member of a hard to grasp Trinity, are central ideas in Judaism. It seemed a dishonest approach for the Messianics to take: one can either be a Jew or a Christian, but one cannot be both.
In my meanderings on the internet I came across a lot of Jewish reaction to the deceitful tactics of some members of the messianic movement. One site stood out as being a good source of this Jewish viewpoint: www.jewsforjudaism.com. I began to read their counter-missionary material aimed at providing a reasoned, scriptural basis for rejecting Christianity’s various claims, particularly the deity of Jesus, his status as Messiah, and the Pauline rejection of the Law.
Reading non-Christian material was nothing new to me. My bookshelves contain material from Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, and New-Agers. My minor during one of my undergraduate degrees was Religious Studies. I’ve always enjoyed reading other religious perspectives, out of a desire to see how others see, and to learn how far from my Christian “truth” they were. But what happened when I read the Jewish responses surprised me. Instead of it reaffirming my own faith, my own belief in the superiority of Christian apologetics, it was weakening my certainties. The Jews were providing very good reasons for rejecting Christianity that I found very hard to deal with.
What followed was months of reading material on both websites, bible passages, and as much of the outside material I could get to which they referred. Jews For Jesus and Jews For Judaism were in my courtroom and I was judge. Again and again, I was struck by the depth, by the wisdom, by the consistently scriptural responses the Jews gave to Christian missionary claims. Conversely, I was struck by the blatant faulty logic of those missionaries, the kind of thing that would have been blown out of the water easily in any Philosophy class in Informal Logic—the kind I had taken my first semester in college. But I was still a Christian, still trying to find some loophole in their arguments, some way to keep the faith I felt about to slip away from me. After a few months I knew that it was no use. I had learned the truth, and there was no unlearning it. I was no longer a Christian. All that was left was to admit it.
The realization was devastating at first. I cried. I mourned. There are many wonderful, comforting things about Christianity, and those things would never bring me wonder or comfort again. I was losing my extended family. My whole world view crumbled. It was like Neo in The Matrix taking that pill, seeing the matrix of his life as it really is, seeing the futility of so much that had seemed so important before.
Through it all I was confronting a tough question: why is anyone a Christian? And, more personally, why was I one? There are many reasons people are Christians: they were born into it, raised that way, they are spiritually nourished by it, they have had some intense personal experience with something they recognize as Jesus, they like its moral teachings, they have a sense of needing to start over or be forgiven, or they feel afraid that they will go to Hell if they are not. While at certain times in my life some of those would have applied to me, in the last days of my Christian faith, none of those were my anchors. My reasons were the same, I suspect, as most Christians who actually took the time to think about it: I believed the bible was inspired by G-d and it demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah indicated by prophecy, that he was the only way for me to escape a sure trip to Hell on account of my sinful nature, and that he was, in fact, G-d as well.
Let me now share with you what I learned. I warn you it will only be a very quick overview. For an in-depth understanding, you will need to go to your own bible and read thoroughly, as well as read through the Jews For Judaism website or another good Jewish source of information.
I learned that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah. The Jewish scriptures (called the Tanach), and by them I mean what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, indicate very specific criteria for identifying the Messiah. The Messiah will be a special Anointed One, or leader, of Israel, who will rule at a time of a restored third Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-28), of world peace (Isaiah 2:4), when there will be universal knowledge of G-d (Isaiah 11:9, Jer 31:33). He will also be instrumental in all Jews being brought back to Israel. (Isaiah 43:5-6). Clearly, a brief look at the world today shows that these things have not been fulfilled—by Jesus or any other person who has claimed to be the Messiah over the years. There is no third Temple, no world peace, no universal acknowledgement of G-d, and the Jews have not all been restored to the land of Israel.
This was the beginning of the end of my faith in Jesus. His Messiahship was the anchor without which I could not sustain a belief in the rest of the tenets of Christianity. But I tried mightily to find a way to locate that anchor and secure it again, through the Jews For Jesus site, various Christian apologetics books that I own, and other related sites.
The apologists admitted, as they must given the evidence, that the above four criteria were indeed not met by Jesus, but they insisted they would when he returned. There are two problems with accepting this though. One, is that there is no prophecy of the Messiah dying and then coming again to fulfill his mandate, and two is that it doesn’t prove Jesus is the Messiah any more than any other figure who wants to invoke the doctrine of the Second Coming. Rabbi Joe Schmoe might be the Messiah by that criteria, because when he comes back again he will fulfill the things that will prove he is. It is a classic case of faulty reasoning. The question is why should we recognize him as the Messiah before he’s actually fulfilled the things the Messiah is to do? Furthermore, nothing in the scriptures prophesizes a need to simply “have faith” in a Messiah claimant, either before or even after he has done what the Messiah is supposed to do.
I desperately tried to hold on to a belief in Jesus as Messiah by other means, but every investigative path I chose led me to the same conclusion. It really was quite simple and clear, although I had to go through the process of exhausting other options before I could see that. There are supposedly hundreds of prophecies in the Tanach which point to Jesus; however, when you read them for yourself (which I never really did as a Christian) you discover that they are used out of context, are the result of mistranslations, or are simply invented by New Testament writers. I don’t have space to outline everything here, nor could I do it as well as other writers have, so I will only mention a few of the problems and leave you to read some of the other fine material at the Jews For Judaism website.
Perhaps, I thought, it really wasn’t important that Jesus hadn’t fulfilled the main prophecies of the Messiah if he had at least fulfilled some of the others. I started to go through the prophecies outlined in Matthew, who, as a Jewish writer keenly interested in establishing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, relied heavily on these prophecies. But I didn’t get far into the book before I realized that it was hopeless. In Matthew 2:23 (Revised Standard Version—all other references also from this translation) it says that Jesus “went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'” This would certainly seem to point toward Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no prophecy in the Tanach about him being a Nazarene—this quotation is completely made up! Even if I could forgive the gospel writer this indiscretion, his misuse of the scriptures in other places is even more disturbing. He writes that the reason Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt was “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son'” (Matthew 2:15). However, when you read this quotation in its original context in Hosea 11:1, you see that the verse doesn’t refer to the Messiah; rather, it refers to Israel. Matthew is using it as if it predicts something about the Messiah, but it was never seen that way before—hardly a fulfilled prophecy.
Not only did these two uses of the scriptures cause me to seriously question the veracity of the New Testament, they led to explore all of the other supposedly fulfilled prophecies, and to see that they were equally dissatisfying. I was grasping at straws and I knew it, for none of them mattered anyway, if even the basic criteria of the Messiah had not been fulfilled. For instance, there was a prophecy that Elijah would appear in advance of the Messiah and reconcile families (Malachi 4:6). Elijah does not appear in the New Testament, but Christian apologists claim that John the Baptist came “in the spirit” of Elijah, even though John the Baptist explicitly denied this (John 1:19-21). Besides, John the Baptist certainly didn’t reconcile families, and the prophecy seems to be pretty plain that Elijah himself will appear—not someone similar or in the same spirit as he.
A broader look at the New Testament wasn’t any more helpful. It spoke about how the Law was a burden, but the Tanach spoke about how it was a life-giving delight. (See Psalm 119.) The New Testament claimed that there was Original Sin for which we were all condemned, but I could find no evidence of that in the Tanach. The gospel writers stated that there was no forgiveness of sins without a blood sacrifice, but there clearly was in the Tanach—through prayer and repentance with no intermediary required. Christianity asserted there was eternal hell for those who rejected the Messiah; the Tanach made no such claim, either about the existence of hell or of the necessity of belief in “a personal Lord and Saviour” in order to avoid it. The Tanach, again and again, drove home the point that the Law was forever and that G-d was one, not mysteriously three, or ever incarnated as a man. The New Testament wrote about a god-man whose followers said the Law was no longer binding, and was only for a time. The New Testament put great stock in the miracles and wonders that Jesus performed, as evidence of who he was, but the Tanach clearly warned that miracles were not to be trusted—-only G-d’s Law. It was very apparent that the New Testament was not consistent with what G-d seemed to be teaching so repetitively in the Tanach. In the absence of proof that Jesus was the Messiah, there could be no reason to accept any of it as being the inspired Word of G-d any more than I should accept what Mohammed, Mary Baker Eddy, or Joseph Smith wrote.
So, I let Jesus go. Not without a fight, not without investigating all of the prophecies, not without reading McDowell’s arguments, and not without one final look at the evidence in the persons of modern day witnesses of Christ. I know many Christians who make the claim that they have Jesus in their hearts, or who say they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and that their life testifies along with their spirit to the reality of a risen Christ. Unfortunately, I do not know a lot of them who demonstrate this when faced with situations that truly challenge them. When I compare their track record of demonstrating the so-called love of Christ to those who are non-Christian, or even atheist, I can see no marked difference. About an equal number are loving and self-less in both categories. About an equal number are not. Therefore, the final mystical-personal-experience test failed as well, even though, it is important to remember, this would be no clear reason to believe Jesus was the Messiah or actually G-d, since those four initial criteria were not met, and since there is no prophecy that the Messiah will be G-d himself.
So, why Judaism? Why not gnostism? Why not atheism? Well, there were a couple of things about the Jews that held my attention and caused me to still see the Tanach—the “Old Testament”—as something divinely revealed. One was the fact that they even existed. Jews as a people had survived terrible persecution in countries throughout the world for almost two thousand years, without their own homeland. Nowhere in history has this been replicated. It was as if G-d Himself were protecting them as a testament to Himself. Another was the fact that out of all the religions in the world, only Judaism was founded on the basis of a national revelation. All the Jews were present at Sinai when G-d revealed the Law and the Jews agreed to be His chosen people. It wasn’t a group of disciples or some prophet somewhere who transmitted a revelation from G-d. It was everyone bearing witness to the event—-something that, if it didn’t happen, would be hard to lie about. Everyone accepted it because they heard G-d as well; it wasn’t Moses convincing the people. If this religion had been made up, then one would hardly expect the creator of it to claim that everyone had been there as witnesses—-there would be too many people to deny it. Finally, the Jews attribute their survival to G-d and the Torah that He gave them (the first five books of the Tanach is called the Torah)—to me, this makes the Jewish scriptures very important sources for how I live my life. It says in Zechariah 8:23: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.’” It seemed to me that G-d was with the Jews and I wanted to go with them.
The final step I took was to actually start attending synagogue services. What I discovered surprised me. Despite the fact that most of the proceedings were in Hebrew, a language I did not understand, and despite the fact that I was unfamiliar with the customs and rituals, I felt a sense of belonging, a connection to G-d, and a deep spirituality that was every bit as nourishing as my previous Christian experiences. The more I read about Judaism, and the more I began to incorporate Jewish practices in my life, the more I felt at home, at peace, like I had found something I had been looking for my entire life. It was so refreshing to have some puzzling things makes sense, to not have to engage in mental gymnastics to reconcile notions of, for example, a loving merciful G-d and good people going to hell. I did not have to turn off my intellect or my emotions.
I realize many of you reading this are Christians who are wondering what exactly I believe now, as a Jew-in-progress. If you are like I was, you are accustomed to looking for creeds—for statements of belief. Judaism is not a creedal religion, so you won’t find much of that sort of thing, as there are a lot of things that Jews disagree on that you would think would have to be fundamental. (Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles comes closest, perhaps, to being a Jewish creed. See http://www.mesora.org/13principles.html) However, I think most of us have our personal creeds, even if we don’t usually articulate them. Here’s what mine might look like right now:
- I believe in the G-d of Israel, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
- I believe G-d is One.
- I believe He entered into a covenant with the Jewish people whereby He would be our G-d and we would agree to keep His commandments.
- I believe there was a national revelation at Sinai.
- I believe the Tanach to be divinely inspired.
- I believe the mitzvot apply to our lives today, and that we should be informed by the rabbis and by our own consciences in applying them.
- I believe that all righteous people of all faiths will be in the world to come with G-d.
- I believe G-d forgives our sins against Him when we pray for forgiveness and repent.
- I believe sins against others can only be forgiven by them.
- I believe that G-d will reward people fairly in heaven, or whatever is the world to come—that those most righteous will have a greater reward than those less righteous.
- I believe that we will have to atone in some way for unforgiven sins before we enjoy our reward in heaven.
- I believe that Gentiles do not have to become Jews and that they are only bound to follow the Noahide laws. (Don’t deny G-d, don’t blaspheme Him, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery or incest, don’t steal, don’t be cruel to animals, and do set up courts to deal with the application of the laws.)
- I believe the Messiah is to come.
- I believe that we are created with the capacity to choose either good or evil, but we are born without the condemnation of Original Sin.
- I believe I can pray directly to G-d and that He hears and answers prayer.
- I believe community worship is a required and vital part of spirituality.
- I believe it is possible that G-d may judge some to be truly too evil for reward in Heaven and that these people may be destroyed—but will not suffer torment for eternity.
- I believe G-d is a G-d of love, justice, mercy, wisdom, omnipotence, omniscience, and creativity who has always existed and always will, who created all things and continually sustains creation.
- I believe in loving G-d, loving others, and loving life.
by Angela Dekort