From “Messianic Jew” to Counter-Missionary: The Story of Julius Ciss © 1992 Jews for Judaism
Julius Ciss’ riveting story of his five-year involvement in the “Hebrew Christian” movement is a unique “insider’s” perspective on a process that has ensnared thousands of Jews. Julius recounts his discovery of why Judaism rejects the missionary message, and describes the return to his own faith, ultimately leading him to establish the Canadian branch of Jew for Judaism.
My name is Julius Ciss, and I am a “counter-missionary”. I work to educate the Jewish community about the problem of deceptive Christian missionaries who target Jews for conversion. I also try to bring those Jews whom they have “converted” back to authentic Judaism.
Being a counter-missionary was hardly a goal towards which I had strived: rather, it was the almost inevitable outcome of a series of circumstances in my life.
I grew up in a traditional Jewish home. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. They had received a very limited Jewish education; but with the little knowledge of tradition that they had, they tried their best to provide a Jewish upbringing for me and my two brothers in our home in Toronto.
My parents attended an “Orthodox” synagogue, thus leading me to believe in my younger years that I was an “Orthodox” Jew. While they did keep a semblance of Shabbat, attended the synagogue on the High Holidays, and conducted a Passover Seder, religion was not a vibrant entity in our home.
As a result of my scant religious education, I had never had much understanding of the essentials of Judaism. I did not understand the concepts of Jewish prayer, spirituality, G-d, or the meaning of the holidays. All I knew were the few basics that I had gleaned from my six years in afternoon Hebrew school, or “cheder”; and, unfortunately, even that did not prove very spiritually satisfying.
Consequently, I found little reason to maintain a strong Jewish identity. I did have a sense of being Jewish, but I lacked any kind of vital commitment to this identity, either religiously or socially. It wasn’t difficult to make the decision in my adolescent years to begin dating non-Jewish girls. In my fourth year at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art, I met a woman named Mary Beth. We immediately felt an intense mutual attraction. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and a relationship blossomed. There was only one problem: she informed me on our second date that she was a “born-again” Christian. However, I didn’t care; I was already deeply emotionally involved with her.
As Mary Beth and I continued to date, our relationship very quickly evolved into that between a missionary and the potential convert. Mary Beth tried by various means to convince me that Jesus Christ was my personal saviour. Needless to say, I had strong objections to such claims and we frequently engaged in heated discussions about G-d, Israel, and the Bible. She alluded to many spiritual issues of which I had no understanding. All I knew was that I was a Jew; I was born a Jew, I would die a Jew, and Jews didn’t believe in Jesus. Time and again, she confounded me with various passages from the Bible, a Bible that I really knew nothing about. My only response was the constant refrain that Jews don’t believe in Jesus.
She finally got the best of me when she demanded, pointblank, “Well, if Jews don’t believe in Jesus, what do they believe in? What do you believe in?’
I didn’t know. I knew we believed in one G-d, but I honestly didn’t know much else. At afternoon Hebrew school, I had learned very little about G-d, Torah and Israel. I had “survived” six years of Hebrew school without acquiring much Jewish knowledge, and, after my Bar Mitzvah. I quit. That was the end of my formal Jewish education. Unfortunately, many Jews to whom I have spoken in North America have had a similar experience. My ignorance about Judaism and my inability to answer Mary Beth’s questions compelled me to start looking through the Torah and the rest of the Tenach in a desperate attempt to prove her assertions wrong.
My ignorance embarrassed me. I was unable to defend Judaism, and I didn’t know where to begin to learn. I decided to start reading the Jewish Bible (the Torah, and the Prophets). Some of what I encountered was fascinating, and some of it I found quite confusing. To help me better comprehend the Bible, Mary Beth supplied me with some literature written by Jews who had converted to Christianity. These “Hebrew Christian” books and pamphlets appeared to have been expressly designed to convince the spiritually ignorant secular Jew of the validity of Christianity’s central claims.
The books intrigued me. As I ventured more deeply into their various “Messianic” claims and allegations, I attempted, using the Christian Bible that Mary Beth had given me, to find the answers to disprove her arguments. But gradually, inexorably, I became confounded by this literature. Many of its arguments appeared to make sense.
On several occasions, Mary Beth had asked me to go to church with her. I finally consented. However, once I was in the church, everything in me screamed out that I was in the wrong place. The entire setting was utterly foreign: gentiles worshipping a foreign “god” with strange hymns. Being there made me feel like a traitor to my people. At the conclusion of the service, I defiantly stalked out of the church and informed Mary Beth, “I’m never going back there again. I was born a Jew and I’m going to die a Jew.”
She was now desperate to find a way to get me to accept Christian religious belief. She discovered a congregation of predominantly Jewish people in Toronto who believed in Jesus. She arranged for a private telephone conversation with a member of this group. After speaking to him, I agreed to attend a Friday night “Erev Shabbat” service.
As a 25-year-old Jew, I was about to attend my first organized religious experience since my Bar Mitzvah. In that 12-year period, I had never seriously questioned who G-d was or the nature of my Jewish spiritual roots. Now, not knowing what to expect, I walked into the meeting hall and sat down. The congregation was addressed by a very pleasant man with a large nose and a face as Jewish as the map of Israel. He wore a yarmulke (skull cap) on his bald head, and a tallit (prayer shawl). Many of the male congregants that evening were also wearing yarmulkes and tallitot. Some of the women wore head coverings, and one lit Sabbath candles while reciting a Hebrew blessing. This was followed by the recitation of Kiddush blessings over a cup of wine and HaMotzi over a challah; but each blessing ended with the expression “B’shem Yeshua HaMashiach” (“in the name of Jesus the Messiah”). I clearly remember a guitar player and a violinist. They were singing some wonderfully vibrant Jewish songs I had never heard before, but which I would soon learn were traditional Jewish melodies: “Od Yeshama” and “Hinei Ma Tov”. The atmosphere felt very Jewish, and I found the environment more stimulating than any synagogue experience I could remember.
The synagogue of my youth had struck me as nothing so much as a fashion show, with lots of noise and conversation, and services conducted in a language that I didn’t understand. Here, however, everything was in English. The music, accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping, was both emotionally and spiritually inspiring, and altogether enjoyable. I decided to give this group a chance, and that I would listen to what they had to say. It was very reassuring to meet other Jews who believed in this new form of “Christian Jewish” expression. The environment was not at all offensive; on the contrary, its Jewish flavour was quite appealing. I didn’t feel like the traitor I had been when attending Mary Beth’s church. I felt comfortable and wanted to return for more of these “Oneg Shabbat” meetings.
In this milieu, basic gospel messages were presented with a distinctly Jewish flavour. The man leading the services who looked so Jewish was, in fact, a Jewish-born Baptist minister. He was a gifted speaker, passionate and convincing, and I was extremely moved by his sermons.
It was in the environment of this “Hebrew Christian” church, or “Messianic Jewish Synagogue”, as its leaders preferred to call it, that my interest in my Jewish identity was rekindled. I began to go once every three or four weeks, and soon found myself attending meetings every week.
The evangelical techniques used by this congregation lulled me into feeling more comfortable with the idea of accepting Christianity. Their symbols were clearly Jewish rather than Christian. At the front of the meeting room, a large Jewish star hung on the wall, as did two tablets with the Ten Commandments written in abbreviated Hebrew letters (no doubt originally part of an Aron HaKodesh, or cabinet containing the Torah scrolls). Ritual articles of clothing (yarmulkes and tallitot) were worn, and Hebrew terminology was used liberally. The congregation almost never spoke the name “Jesus Christ” to identify the individual in whom they believed; instead, he was referred to as ‘”Yeshua HaMashiach.” The New Testament was called the “Brit Chadasha”, or “New Covenant”. After having been exposed to my girlfriend’s Christian jargon, I found this “Jewish” environment and terminology much less abrasive to my ears and conscience. The more I listened, the more Jewish belief in Jesus seemed possible to me.
Through my weekly Bible study group, I was drawn still deeper into serious consideration of the belief system offered me by these people because of their ability to use the Old Testament, or as they called it, the “Tanach”, to “prove” repeatedly that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. “If the Jewish Bible prophesied a Messiah, and if Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, mustn’t he, then, be the Messiah?” they challenged. When I expressed concern at being unable to read the cited prophecies myself, in the original Hebrew, I was assured that the translations in their Bible were irreproachable, the work of great scholars.
As a result of this congregation’s pervasive use of Jewish symbols, terminology, music, ritual and liturgy, and their distorted celebration of Jewish holidays, I soon began to feel that I had never been more Jewish in my life. The minister preached that if Jesus were the Jewish Messiah, what could be more Jewish than to believe in him? Judaism claims that it awaits the coming of the Messiah, so if Jesus were that Messiah, then I would be complete as a Jew if I accepted him as my Messiah. In accepting Jesus, I would be a “completed Jew”, a “fulfilled Jew”, and a “Messianic Jew”. My religion wouldn’t be Christianity but “Messianic Judaism”.
What could be more natural?
When questioning how I became involved in Christianity, many people over the years have suggested that there may have been something “wrong” with me at the time: perhaps I was undergoing some kind of emotional trauma, or was a victim of depression, so that my need for an emotional “crutch” made me susceptible to such religious arguments.
Yet my only emotional distress at the time arose from the fact that I was romantically involved with a Christian woman who had introduced me to these religious issues. The initial impetus for my involvement in Christianity had been my desire to prove her assertions wrong. I had a very satisfying social life outside the “Messianic Jewish” group with which I had begun to associate, and was enjoying tremendous success as a magazine illustrator. There was no crisis in my life to precipitate this spiritual quest, no intense emotional drive for ultimate truth. Very simply, I had a beautiful girlfriend who happened to be Christian, and we were very much in love. If I could find a way to affect a compromise between my Jewishness and her Christianity, perhaps we could get married. At one point, a congregant of Melech Yisrael had suggested that we could even get married under a chuppah (traditional Jewish wedding canopy)!
What influenced me to consider Christianity? The sermons promising a personal relationship with G-d were delivered in English, in easily comprehensible terms. The ambience was warm and familiar. The members of the congregation were overwhelmingly loving and friendly. My ignorance of Judaism and my profound emotional involvement with my Christian girlfriend most certainly had an effect. Lastly, I rationalized, “How can hundreds of millions of Christians be wrong?”
I thought, “How could it be so wrong for a Jew to believe that Jesus is the Messiah?” Nonetheless, I was concerned that I might be making a mistake, and decided to speak to a rabbi. I made an appointment and went to see him. The rabbi was not available at the appointed time, and I was obliged to wait a while for him. When he did finally have time to see me, it was for no more than a few minutes. He spent these few minutes chastising me for even considering such a “silly belief system.” He recommended that I go to Yeshiva and start learning about Judaism, and sent me away. As I left, I considered the attitude of this rabbi, who ostensibly represented Judaism, and asked myself, “Was he from G-d? What did I experience from him that would draw me closer to G-d?” The man had no time or patience for me; he didn’t appear to be offering me anything that the Christians were offering: love, hospitality, endless hours of discussion, and tireless encouragement to believe in what they believed. In marked contrast, the rabbi did not seem to have a sincere interest in what was troubling me.
I couldn’t help but compare the rabbi’s attitude towards me to that of the “Hebrew Christians”. I rationalized, “If one were a representative of G-d, surely it must be the ‘Hebrew Christians”‘. Consequently, I plunged myself even further into exploring the “truths” of Christianity.
It was at a Messianic “Rosh Hashanah” service in the fall of 1976 that I formally committed myself to Christianity. At this service, the “Messianic rabbi” (as their pastors often call themselves) had preached a message of atonement, stressing the need for us to be forgiven for our sins through the blood of Jesus. Many aspects of his sermon were quite moving. I was overwhelmed by a sense that everything he preached was true. I was overcome by guilt for my sins. The opportunity to be forgiven these “sins” and to secure for myself a place in heaven was irresistible. The pastor announced that refusing to atone carried with it as a consequence an eternity of burning in hell. I couldn’t afford the risk of not “atoning”. I decided to come forward and make my statement of faith: that I believed Jesus was the Messiah, and that he had died as an eternal sacrifice for my sins.
After I had stood up in front of this congregation and confessed my belief in Jesus, the “Messianic” leader asked me to recite a prayer inviting Yeshua into my heart and requesting that he forgive me for my sins. After a tearful prayer, he then addressed both the entire congregation and me. “Julius, it is G-d who has guided you on this incredible journey through your unique education and through the people whom you have met, to bring you to this point today, where you have finally discovered the truth of Yeshua being the Messiah. Do you believe this?”
I replied, ‘Yes, of course!”
“And do you believe that G-d wants more than anything for you to have eternal life and to enjoy the eternal pleasures of heaven with Him?”
I said,'”Yes, I believe that.”
“G-d wants you to repent and be forgiven for your sins and to not sin anymore. Does that make sense to you?”
‘Yes, I believe that, too.”
“Good”, he responded. “Then be prepared, when doubts enter into your mind that would cause you even to entertain the possibility that Yeshua was not the Messiah, to realize that those thoughts are not from G-d. G-d doesn’t want you to doubt Him. Does that make sense to you, Julius?”
And I answered, ‘Yes, of course it makes perfect sense.”
“Understand,” he continued, “that when doubts regarding Jesus’ salvation enter your mind, such thoughts are not from G-d; they are, in fact, from Satan. And you must know that, from the moment you walk out of here, Satan is going to pursue you and cause you to doubt. When that happens, you have to cling close to your saviour. Now that G-d has shown you the truth, that Jesus is your Messiah, the Devil is going to want you to doubt, more than ever. And if you start thinking that Jesus is not the Messiah, you must recognize that those thoughts come from the Devil himself. That’s when you have to pray even harder that Jesus should protect you with his blood.”
I was stunned and terrified. It seemed to me that I had accepted two belief systems instead of one that day, or two opposing gods: Jesus and the Devil. The Devil isn’t a god in the sense that Christians worship him, but they attribute so much power to him that it is almost as though he is an evil deity in contradistinction to Jesus. In some Christian circles, the Devil seems to be as much a spiritual focus as Jesus.
After receiving this admonition, I walked away from the meeting extremely troubled. After all, what nice Jewish boy who had just converted to Christianity wouldn’t have some qualms that maybe he was making a big mistake? Needless to say, I was having doubts from the moment I walked out of there, wondering, “What have I done?” Yet I could not allow myself to brood about these doubts, because I had been infected with this new “doctrine of the Devil”.
After about a year of involvement with Christianity, I discovered how much emphasis the Torah places on the importance of a Jew’s not marrying a gentile. Although I believed in Jesus, I also still believed in the Jewish Bible; I didn’t want to violate that prohibition. Because of this, I decided that I could not marry Mary Beth, even though it was she who had led me to belief in Jesus.
Throughout this time, I had the sense that G-d had shown me something that very few Jews in the history of the world had ever known: that Jesus was the Messiah. It was crucial that I learn as much as I could to prove Jesus’ “true” identity, so that I could be G-d’s instrument in bringing many Jewish people to a saving knowledge of “Yeshua HaMashiach”. With this motivation, I started diligently attending various Bible study programs as well as studying daily on my own, reading through the Bible and listening to Christian radio programs.
In the summer of 1977, I attended my first Messiah conference, in Pennsylvania, an ingathering of about 1,000 “Messianic Jews” from around the world. No longer did I feel isolated as a Jew in my belief in Jesus. Instead of the handful of “Hebrew Christians” with whom I was acquainted in Toronto, I now had the opportunity to meet literally hundreds of friendly Jews for Jesus. To me, this experience seemed to be corroboration that I was part of a growing religious movement. For eight full days, I attended intensive workshops, Bible study sessions and seminars. I underwent the ceremony of “Mikveh-Bris”, or baptism, immersing myself in the river that flowed through the Conference grounds. That week was the most spiritually motivating experience I’d ever had. I absorbed a great deal of Christian teaching and made many contacts with Messianic leaders and missionaries. I was later to work for many of these individuals. I returned to Toronto “on fire for the Lord”; ready to do whatever I could to reach Toronto’s Jewish community for “Yeshua HaMashiach”.
Soon afterwards, I was given the responsibility of leading my “Messianic” congregation’s choir. Our choir visited various churches, where we sometimes gave our personal “testimony” (a short emotional account of how we converted to Christianity), and often quoted passages from the New Testament, which urged congregants to reach out to convert Jews.
In time, I was elevated to Public Relations Director for the congregation, and was in charge of community relations.
I was excited by the momentum of my spiritual growth and by the active role I was taking in the congregation. As I had never been familiar with the content of the Jewish Bible and had never had an appreciation for prayer, it was through my involvement with “Hebrew Christianity” that I became aware of the Bible’s profundity and of one’s potential for a personal relationship with G-d.
In my zeal to spread the “good news”, I was a featured guest on various “Hebrew Christian” radio and television programs across North America. Listeners to these talk shows would often write to the station to express how inspirational the program had been, and would send generous donations. I also helped to design and illustrate brochures, pamphlets, record album covers and book jackets for many prominent “Hebrew Christian” missionary organizations. My talents were so much sought after that Jews for Jesus, one of the largest missionary organizations of its kind, asked me to consider moving to San Francisco and working at their headquarters.
I was so committed that I actively tried to convert many of my friends and family members to Christianity. A few of those friends are still involved in Christian belief to this day, and refuse to speak to me.
However, as time wore on – and despite feeling good about belonging to a congregation of Jews who believed in Jesus – I sensed that something was terribly wrong. I noticed that almost all of the Jewish people who shared my Christian beliefs came from backgrounds, which were clearly devoid of any substantial Jewish content. I felt that my background had been characterized by more religious observance than theirs. Even the little acquaintance with Jewish practice that I had acquired was more than most of these people had ever had; Jewish content and education were sorely lacking in their lives.
What disturbed me most about their obvious lack of Jewish background was beginning to crystallize: the only Jews who appeared to accept Jesus as the Messiah were Jews who were ignorant of Judaism. This observation was confirmed time and again. None of us had enough previous Jewish knowledge or understanding to enable us to determine who was truly the Jewish Messiah. None of us even came from homes in which there were any serious observance of Shabbat or Jewish holidays. We had all grown up in an environment in which Judaism was lox and bagels and meaningless ritual, but did not denote a belief and a lifestyle. This was our most readily apparent common denominator. Nevertheless, when attempting to convert Jews, many of us would claim to have been dedicated, observant Jews ourselves, or that our grandparents had been Orthodox. (This latter assertion, in fact, may well have been true.) An honest appraisal would usually expose the first claim as a lie, or, at the very least, as a “well-meaning” exaggeration. Our collective vacuum troubled me, but I rationalized that there must be a reason for it.
As a result of this awareness, a process of questioning, doubting and probing had begun. I started to take mental note of issues I found troubling.
One such issue was the question of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. According to the New Testament, the only way a Jew (or non-Jew) could be forgiven for his or her sins was to accept Jesus as saviour, and to believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose from the dead. This, according to my Christian understanding, was the only formula by which a Jew could gain eternal life.
What, then, is the nature of the eternity to which those six million Jews were consigned? According to the Old Testament, the Jews are the apple of G-d’s eye, engraved on the palm of His hand. G-d committed Himself to an everlasting Covenant with the Jewish people, a people whom He promised never to forsake. Yet, according to Christianity, the six million Jews are burning in hell for eternity because they never accepted Jesus! At the same time, according to Christian doctrine, it is feasible that Hitler and his henchmen if they repented before they died, and accepted Jesus – could be forgiven for their sins and be sitting up in heaven basking in G-d’s presence. This deeply distressed me.
I found it difficult to accept what Christianity had to say about my wonderful and loving parents: that they were sinners doomed to go to hell. Many pious Jews died in the Holocaust. Many very famous rabbis and tzadikim (righteous people) had perished in the gas chambers – as had my own grandparents. From what my parents told me about my grandparents, they were devout, G-d- fearing people. But Christianity maintained that they were burning in hell. I found it incomprehensible that Jews who had died tortured deaths with the words “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One” on their lips would be punished by that same G-d by being banished to hell.
There were many Christian precepts, which I found difficult to digest. Yet, because I felt committed to my belief in Jesus, I was convinced that the issues I was unable to comprehend would somehow soon become clear.
Nevertheless, occasionally there were irreconcilable contradictions. One such example occurred during an evening Bible class, when our group was studying the Book of Ezekiel. Chapter 18, verses 21 through 24, clearly states that if a wicked man turns from all the sins he has committed, keeps G-d’s ordinances, and executes justice and righteousness, he will surely live and will not die. The Scripture further states that the transgressions he had committed will not be remembered against him, and that “in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live”. Similarly, Jeremiah 36:3 states “that
I realized that there was no mention in the passages of Ezekiel of having to offer a sacrifice in order to be forgiven for one’s sins. But when I confronted the pastor that evening and asked him about this glaring contradiction with Christianity, he gave me a weak answer which appeared to be inconsistent with what was being expressed in Scripture. Instead of contesting his claim, I determined not to “rock the boat”, and merely stored this incident in my mental file for future reference.
During my final two years, this and other issues were continually surfacing which indicated a striking contradiction between the scripture of the Tenach (Old Testament) and the teachings of the New Testament.
I found an increasing number of references in the Jewish Bible demonstrating that blood sacrifice was not required. For example, in Leviticus 5:11-13; Numbers 31:50; and Numbers 14:17-20, flour, jewelry and prayer were used to atone for sins. Interestingly, nowhere in the Old Testament is it ever mentioned that a gentile was required to offer a sacrifice for atonement. When a “sin sacrifice” was offered [which was only for an unintentional sin), it was always an animal sacrifice. Human sacrifice, the Torah teaches, is absolutely forbidden.
Who was right?
The Tenach is G-d’s word, and instructs us to keep His Torah forever, neither adding to nor subtracting from it. How can the New Testament be Divinely inspired if it completely invalidates that same G-d-given Torah? The New Testament claims that the Torah is a curse (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law…” [Galatians 3:131), and that the only path to G-d is through faith in Jesus.
While these and many other questions perturbed me, I remained confident that there had to be answers to these issues. After all, hadn’t the messianic prophecies proven that Jesus was the Messiah?
At the same time, my mental file of doubts continued to grow at an alarming rate.
Then the leader of my congregation assigned me to teach Sunday school to our adult congregants. I taught a program entitled “How to Share Israel’s Messiah With the Jewish People”. I used a variety of different books as resources for this series of classes, extending over nine months. During those months, I covered a lot of Biblical territory, digesting all this material.
There’s a truism that one of the best ways to learn is to teach. In order to prepare my weekly lessons, I was exposed to various Biblical passages, which were regarded as traditional “proof texts” for Christianity. Often I found these references encouraging; they helped build my faith and my belief in Jesus as the Messiah. But the inconsistencies and contradictions I had noted between the New Testament and the Old Testament continued to multiply. One of the principles constantly impressed upon me, from the day I first became involved in Christianity, was that the Bible was one hundred per cent the true and “inerrant” word of G-d, and that G-d was not a liar or subject to error. And I was now discovering many errors. If G-d were in fact the author of this Bible, why was I discovering references in the New Testament, which were utterly inconsistent with the sources in the Tenach, which they claimed to be fulfilling?
The New Testament frequently alluded to passages in the Tenach, and blatantly erred in transcribing the information. For instance, the New Testament states, in Acts 7:14, that seventy-five persons came with Jacob to Egypt; whereas Genesis 46:27, Exodus 1:5, and Deuteronomy 10:22 all clearly state that there were seventy persons in total. In addition, the Book of Genesis (49: 28-30; 50:13) says that Ya’akov (Jacob) was buried in Mamre (which is Hebron, according to Genesis 23:19), in land that had been purchased from Ephron the Hittite. Yet the New Testament book of Acts (7:16-17) misquotes Genesis and claims that Ya’akov was buried not in Hebron but in Shechem, in land bought from the sons of Hamor. Furthermore, I observed time and again that the New Testament itself was markedly inconsistent from one chapter to another. The various accounts of the Resurrection in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were mutually exclusive. The very Resurrection of the son of G-d was not consistently described by this allegedly divinely inspired book!
I discovered that many of the references to alleged messianic prophecies in fact did not concern messianic prophecies at all. One such example, central to Christian doctrine, is the mistranslated reference to “virgin birth” in the Christian editions of the book of Isaiah (7:14). This “virgin birth” passage is a pillar of Christianity, because upon this verse Christianity bases its belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the son of G-d, and that he was the Messiah.
I remember clearly that, when I was first shown the passage of Isaiah 7:14, where Christians claim the concept of “virgin birth” first appears, my reaction was, “How could this be? How, for two thousand years, could the rabbis not have seen this?” I remember that, when I confronted my pastor at the time, he said to me, “Julius, it’s because those rabbis were blinded. They had a veil over their eyes, but G-d has lifted the veil from your eyes so that you can see the truth.”
I felt that I had been paid a huge compliment: G-d had chosen me above all the thousands and thousands of Jews who had gone before me for the last two thousand years. G-d would pick me, of all people, to see the truth in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be born of a virgin? I felt like a prophet. Never did it occur to me to check the original Hebrew, or to study Jewish sources for the traditional Jewish interpretation of this verse. I accepted the pastor’s explanation at face value, certain that this prophecy was to be found in Jewish scripture.
Not until I was preparing a class on the “virgin birth” did I actually study the Hebrew sources. I saw that not only did the passage in question make no reference to a “virgin birth”, but that it also had nothing whatsoever to do with the Messiah. When the entire chapter was studied in its context, it was seen to describe an event in history utterly unrelated and altogether foreign to anything contained in the New Testament.
To paraphrase the content of Chapter 7 of Isaiah: the prophet Isaiah speaks to King Ahaz at a very peculiar time in Jewish history. There were two Jewish nations in the Holy Land at the time; the kingdom of Judah in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem; and the kingdom of Israel in the north. They were enemies. Israel had formed a military alliance with the kingdom of Aram, and had planned an attack on the kingdom of Judah. Ahaz, the king of Judah, was frightened by the enemies at his doorstep and didn’t know what to do. He was approached by the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Ask for a sign from G-d to show you that everything will be all right.” Ahaz refused to ask for such a sign. Isaiah then declared to the king: “I’11 give you a sign. The sign is that the young woman is going to have a baby. By the time the baby is old enough to eat honey and digest cheese, you should know that the two nations that have allied themselves against you will no longer be a threat.” The fact that this prophecy was fulfilled during the time of Ahaz and Isaiah can be seen in II Kings, chapters 15-17 and II Chronicles, chapter 28.
The Christians mistranslated the Hebrew word meaning “the young woman.” She is referred to in Hebrew as “HaAlmah”, or “the young maiden”, with the definite article indicating a specific woman whose identity was known both to Isaiah and to Ahaz. The Christians say that “alma” translates not as “maiden”, but as “virgin”. This claim is not supported by the Hebrew or by any other instances in which the word “almah” appears in the Tenach. (The correct Hebrew word for “virgin” is “betulah”.) The mistranslation was the result of pagan influence. Greek and other pagan mythologies are full of stories of the gods coming down and impregnating women who then give birth to gods.
I made numerous similar – and almost equally dismaying – discoveries during the course of my preparation for the Sunday school classes.
In addition, I had begun to scrutinize the lives of many of the people in my congregation. Despite the fact that they claimed to have “new” lives in Jesus, I saw that there were a number of them whose prayers went unanswered. Several exhibited neuroses, which were clearly indications of very, troubled lives. Even with all the prayers for healing offered in the congregation, these individuals continued to be ill.
The New Testament promises believers that they will be able to heal the sick in Jesus’ name, as stated in Mark 16:18: “If they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. It disgusted me that some Christians in the group blamed those who did not appear to have been healed for “not having the faith”, or for “giving in to the temptations of Satan”! I felt that such people were playing an extremely dangerous game with the lives of others. And, oddly enough, while they claimed to have perfect literal faith in the above New Testament verse regarding the power to heal, I never once saw any instance of their drinking a deadly poison and living to tell about it.
The more I observed, the more I became aware that there were two distinct groups comprising the congregation: the blind believers, or followers; and the leadership, who seemed to be interested only in their own political survival. The same appeared to be true of other congregations I had visited. I began focusing on the sermons delivered in our congregation. I repeatedly heard pleas for money. Almost every week, the congregational leader had something to say about people giving their tithes (one-tenth of their income) and offerings. Frequently, an entire sermon would be devoted to the necessity of ensuring that we gave our tithes and contributed generously to the congregation. I began to wonder why I attended these services, when I was receiving only persistent requests for money.
I simultaneously realized that there were qualities lacking in the congregation’s leadership. A year after I had joined the congregation, a gentile minister was appointed as the spiritual leader. I became increasingly aware of his lack of sensitivity to Jewish issues. Disagreements often arose when those members who were Jewish felt that their needs were not being acknowledged. I saw that our “spiritual leader” lacked any understanding of the Jewish neshama (soul]. He was also intent on grooming the non-Jews among us to assume leadership positions. I thought this very strange for a Jewish congregation!
At the same time, I began to notice that some of my long-time Jewish friends were leading very rich, vibrant, and rewarding lives within the context of traditional Judaism. Chaya, a woman whom I’d known for many years, had become an Orthodox Jew, and was a constant, committed friend to me throughout my five years of involvement with Christianity. She never turned her back on me, always offering an outstretched hand to try to welcome me back to the fold. Moshe, another friend, who, in fact, was once involved in this same “Hebrew Christian” church, had since left it, and also had come to fully embrace Judaism. He occasionally phoned to engage me in discussion, trying to reason with me. Even after he had presented many very compelling arguments against Christian belief, I irrationally and adamantly responded, “I don’t care what you say; I believe, and that’s all that matters.” I had invested so much, both emotionally and spiritually, for such a long time, that it was shattering to think that I might be wrong.
Gradually, though, I began to realize that much of what I believed seemed to be making less and less sense. I was not allowing my intellect to think through any of the profound arguments advanced by my friends. I had believed in Jesus, but was now finding that my reason and intellect, my “Pintele Yid” (spark of Jewish spirituality), and my neshama were crying out to me, “Julius, stop, listen! You’re making a mistake.”
After five years of exposure to a variety of people who claimed to be “fulfilled, Messianic Jews”, I was forced to admit that not a single Jew among them had ever known what authentic Judaism was all about.
The one person whom I felt might give me some answers to my many doubts was Toronto’s new Director of Jews for Jesus. He seemed intelligent, had a Hebrew name, and claimed to have had a traditional Jewish background. I had worked with him both as a graphic designer and as a street missionary, distributing leaflets. I went to Jews for Jesus’ headquarters to attend a meeting, and found myself in his office. ‘While I was admiring the contents of his bookshelves, my eye was drawn to a black and yellow book spine entitled Faith Strengthened.
I reached to remove the book from the shelf. He nervously grabbed it from my hands, saying, ‘”You don’t want to look at that.”
“Why?” I asked. ‘What is it?”
“It’s a book written by a rabbi in the Middle Ages to refute Christianity,” he responded. “It’s just the type of book Satan loves to use to trip up a ‘Messianic’ believer.”
I smiled politely, but was very uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon as a result of this incident.
The following day, I ran to a local Jewish bookstore and requested a copy of Faith Strengthened. I bought it and rushed home to devour it.
The book seemed to articulate and to clarify many of the doubts I had harboured about Christianity. It answered a number of my questions with lucid rational arguments, and encouraged me to learn more about Jewish responses to Christianity. “Am I really being tempted by Satan,” I wondered, “Or is G-d allowing me to finally use my mind?”
I returned to the Jewish bookstore and purchased two more books: The Real Messiah, by Aryeh Kaplan; and Jews and Jewish Christianity, by David Berger and Michael Wyschogrod. (All three of these books are available for free by clicking here.)
I could no longer continue my commitment to Christianity or my belief in Jesus. What I read in these books completely shattered my faith and left me with a mountain of doubts. Despite having been cautioned that these doubtful thoughts were from the Devil, I had reached the point where I said to myself, “Devil be damned! I have to listen to my own intellect.” This Christian teaching of doubts being the voice of Satan himself had maintained a powerful hold on me for most of the five years of my involvement in “Messianic Judaism”, just as I’m sure it has a hold on many adherents to the Christian faith.
Christians believe that the Devil is a constant adversary, sitting in every corner. On the one hand, the Christian tries to do what is right; but, on the other hand, there’s a satanic power constantly trying to make him sin.
When we make a decision, something in us informs us whether it’s a right decision or a wrong one. If we have doubts, our instincts tell us that we should listen to our intellect and to the lessons of our past experience. We must also weigh the “pros” and “cons”. Here I had been involved in a situation where I had made a major spiritual decision and I had many doubts. I was told that these doubts were not a normal function of my human mind, but were the work of a potent spiritual force, which was attempting to deceive me. The entire concept totally distorts reality.
Fear of Satanic influence had introduced into my dilemma an utterly unanticipated dimension. I had been taught that I couldn’t listen to doubts about Jesus’ divinity because these doubts were from Satan! In retrospect, I see that this was a form of mind control, or brainwashing: a serious violation of free will.
In Judaism, we are taught to think, to ask questions, and to be skeptical. We are encouraged not to accept things on faith, but to look for proof. This constitutes one of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity. While faith plays a vital role, Judaism places great emphasis on learning and education.
I decided that I had to meet with someone Jewish who had a thorough knowledge of both Judaism and Christianity. My friend Chaya arranged a meeting for me with Rabbi Immanuel Schochet. After we had spent an entire evening in discussion, he advised me to take one per cent of the effort I had devoted to Christianity and to invest it in an exploration of Judaism. He suggested that it would not be wise for me to maintain contact with my “Hebrew Christian” friends of the last five years. In retrospect, I believe he was right; I had forged such a deep emotional bond with many of these individuals that seeing them would have made me very vulnerable to their overtures.
There was great consternation in the “Messianic” movement when I left. Because I had been very active in missionary work, as an illustrator, graphic designer, and teacher, I received phone calls from several concerned “Messianic” leaders throughout the United States. I had contributed my artistic talent to the efforts of no fewer than twelve “Hebrew Christian” missionary organizations in North America. These were Jews for Jesus, Kol Simcha, Hebrew Christian Witness, Messianic Jewish Movement International, Congregation Melech Yisrael, Hamilton Friends of Israel, Messianic Literature Outreach, House of David, Lamb, Messianic Vision, Jewish Voice, and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. I had committed myself wholeheartedly to “Messianic Judaism”, and my departure was a rude shock to many.
Abandoning the “Hebrew Christian” movement was very difficult, and the difficulty was compounded by the fact that I was leaving behind some of the best friends I had ever had. To this day, I still love them and miss them. I wish it were possible to maintain these friendships; but I know that, had I tried, I would never have been able to resolve the spiritual issues at the centre of my being.
I went to Aish HaTorah and to Ohr Somayach, two organizations devoted to exposing Jewishly uneducated Jews to the richness and depth of their faith, and there started learning for the first time what Judaism truly was all about. For the first time in my life, I met “born again” Jews, true messianic Jews, and I encountered a Jewish life I’d never known. I met Jews who were more than willing to talk about belief in G-d, and about how to achieve a personal relationship with Him. They invited me into their homes and synagogues, and I was able to experience the magnificent sanctity of Shabbat and the spiritual depth of Jewish prayer. I was introduced to the excitement of Torah study. I formed lasting friendships, and through these friends I encountered the Jewish holidays in a way I had never known. I soon realized that I had missed so much, by simply closing my eyes to my true Jewish heritage. I regretted not having explored it earlier, and especially having taken this heritage so much for granted as to have entirely overlooked it.
Since my return to Judaism, I have developed an honest and sustaining personal relationship with G-d. I believe that the Torah, which the Jewish people have embraced for over 3,300 years, is the only document describing the revelation of G-d to the Jewish people. The New Testament is not of Divine origin. Moreover, the Book of Deuteronomy (13:1-12) clearly teaches us that the false prophet who was responsible for the inauguration of the New Testament religion was strictly a test from G-d to see if the Jewish people truly loved Him and would uphold His Torah.
In the first year after my return to Judaism, I was careful not to mention my Christian past. Only later, when asked what had influenced me to become Torah-observant, did I reluctantly speak of those five years. Several people referred me to other Jewish organizations, which were interested in my knowledge and experience of Christianity. I have since spoken to countless Jewish audiences in the United States, Israel and Canada about my experience, and about the differences between Judaism and Christianity. I am often called upon by people to advise them how to most effectively counsel a loved one who is involved in Christianity.
I am now a “counter- missionary”, not by choice but of necessity. Other than a few activists, no one in the Jewish community appears to be addressing the problem of deceptive missionary tactics in the aggressive drive to convert Jews, When I walked into the church with Mary Beth, I knew to what I was being exposed; but when I walked into the “Messianic Synagogue”. I was misled. The people used Hebrew names and Hebrew terminology, sang Hebrew songs, and wore yarmulkes and tallitot. The leader of the congregation said, ‘”You’re not going to convert and become a Christian. You’re a Jew; now you’ll be a ‘completed Jew’, a ‘fulfilled Jew’. You’re not being asked to believe in Jesus Christ, but to accept ‘Yeshua HaMashiach’ as your Messiah instead. You won’t be baptized; you’ll have a ‘Mikvah-Bris”‘. The missionaries make the Christian religion look very Jewish, like kosher pork! It troubles me that Jews are falling prey to these false claims. Because of my own misspent years when I could have been living as a Jew, I hate to see others being sold the same false bill of goods, and cheated of their authentic heritage. Having been on both the Christian and the Jewish side of this issue, I know with certainty that Christianity is wrong for the Jew, and that Jesus is not the Messiah.
According to the Tenach, the Messiah will accomplish four things: he will cause the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel; he will bring about world recognition of G-d; he will serve as catalyst for world peace; and he will effect the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem which existed prior to the Roman destruction in 70 CE. Jesus met none of these criteria. World history clearly shows that there have been more wars waged since Jesus’ death than before it, many of which have been fought in his very name. Nor is there a worldwide knowledge of G-d; if there were, all the missionaries scattered over the face of the earth would be entirely unnecessary. And why are there so many world religions contrary to Christianity? The Jews have not all returned to the Land of Israel; nor has the Temple been restored.
How could Jesus have been the Messiah when these conditions have not been fulfilled? The Christians claim that these four criteria will be met in Jesus’ “Second Coming”. However, Judaism does not anticipate a Messiah who comes, fails miserably in his mission, dies, and then comes back thousands of years later to try again.
I pray, with all my heart, that any Jew who is involved in Christianity will make an effort to explore what Judaism has to say for itself, about the Messiah, and about the Christian faith, before embarking on a commitment to a religion that will lead him or her far from truth and from our precious Jewish heritage.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Julius Ciss, Executive Director of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada), was a prolific Advertising and Editorial Illustrator in North America from 1975 to 2004. He was also a popular Illustration Professor at The Ontario College of Art & Design from 1977 to 2004. The images on his personal website, www.juliusciss.com, are just a few samples of the hundreds of paintings he created during his award-winning illustration career in Canada. Once referred to as the Jewish “Norman Rockwell”, Julius retired from both creating and teaching illustration in 2004 to devote himself full-time to the vital counter-missionary work of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada). You can contact Julius at firstname.lastname@example.org.