In the thread on Robert Novak’s death, a reader, Range Rover, leaves this heart-breaking comment on the theme of conversion to other faiths:
There is another reason Jews convert to other religions: There is for some of us an emptiness in Judaism, with its emphasis on ritual and its continual emphasis on how “nonhuman” G-d is.
There is also a distinct emphasis on materialism in American Jewish culture, as well as political agendas — like advocacy for Israel.
You cannot even go to a synagogue during the day to just sit and pray; most are locked except during the prescribed prayer services.
And my background is that I was born and raised Orthodox, and both of my parents were survivors of the Holocaust.
And yet I am seriouly considering converting to Catholicism, just as Mr. Novak did, so that I may have some kind of direct relationship with G-d and so that apart from keeping Kosher, and lighting candles, etc., there is something to my life that is spiritual and soul enriching.
A lot of Jews abandon Judaism for those kinds of reasons, not out of ignorance of their faith.
This communication struck me with almost the same force that it would if, God forbid, someone were to say, “I am seriously considering putting my head in an oven and turning on the gas.” The feelings it arouses are panic (what can I do to help?) and sadness. Unfortunately, there’s not much one can do. People embrace religions and leave them not in response to arguments but from a felt need. The reasons tend to come after. You can’t argue someone into adopting a religious view, they can’t hear you at all, unless they are open to what you’re saying already for reasons of the heart.
I will say this, however, to Range Rover. I know what you mean — most of the complaints about Jewish life that you mention are valid and are things I’ve thought and written about myself. Or rather, there are threads in Jewish life about which they are valid. In Judaism, I’ve long felt, as in other faiths, a thoughtful and sensitive person has to labor to find his own path, and that means rejecting other paths in the same religion. This is hard work, no doubt, a lifetime’s labor, but the reward is discovering for yourself the incredibly rich and authentic heart of Jewish spirituality. Where in your Orthodox upbringing — which I’d like to hear more about, I wonder exactly what you mean — did you ever learn that Judaism is simple?
Regarding the Catholic Church, it has its own problems, very disturbing ones such as the widespread sexual corruption of the priesthood, but it’s a church that in general I admire very much for its ancient tradition and philosophical coherence. The question for a Jew, however, is, What does God want from me? Not, What religious entity seems to best fit my personal inclinations? It’s not like buying clothes or food, where individual taste is the main point.
What is true about God and the Jewish people? The most relevant single document we have in hand is the Hebrew Bible. Read it without prejudice and you’ll see one thing very clearly. God has offered us a unique relationship with Him, one based in a grammar of law. That law is eternal. It continues in force forever, even in historical circumstances where many mitzvot can’t in fact be practically carried out. This is not me, or “the rabbis,” or “Judaism,” saying this. It’s what the Bible says, over and over and over. Nothing is insisted on more clearly.
There’s much that Jews and Christians can argue about, but not that. The New Testament seeks to place its own understanding on the nature of this relationship with God, but the Christian interpretation, originated by Paul, is simply tendentious and implausible. It only works if you read the Bible backward, starting with the Greek scriptures, absorbing their assumptions, and then reading the Hebrew Bible in that light. But this is of course not a natural way of understanding Scripture.
That, to me, is the heart of the Jewish objection to Christianity. God gave us a particular relationship with him, a modality for approaching Him. Why that one and not another? An interesting question to contemplate but the fact remains. Christianity in all its forms cancels and abrogates that relationship. God is our life. For a Jew to accept Christianity — I’m not speaking of Gentiles here — is therefore a kind of suicide.
It’s not surprising to find, then, that Christian belief has acted as it has, down through the ages, as the most powerful of all acids on the existence of the Jewish people. Do you think God cares that this treasured people, Abraham’s family, should continue to exist? That He does would seem to be another major, fundamental message of the Bible.
Yet the effect of Christianity has always been to tear Jews loose from Abraham. A Jew who converts has condemned his lineage to extermination. Jesus and his initial followers were Jews. There were communities of Jewish Christians in the first centuries CE. They all disappeared and have no Jewish descendants today — not one, zero — unless they came back to Jewish tradition. So it is with “Messianic Jews” and “Jews for Jesus” in our time. (Admittedly, most folks involved with those groups are not Jewish by birth.) For the Jewish people, existentially, these are all techniques of self-murder. The surest way of making certain that you will have no Jewish descendants is to believe in Jesus. You think that’s what God wants? Bloody unlikely.
This is not about ethnicity. It’s about the Jewish mission that God has in mind for us. It’s His idea. Not mine. If you as a Jew have a bone to pick with God, you’ll need to take that up with Him directly.
None of this applies for a Gentile. What God wants from a non-Jew is a totally different discussion. For a Jew, however, it’s absolutely fundamental. I hope our dear brother (or sister?) Range Rover will comment again and keep coming back. Please forgive me if my tone here comes across as too harsh. Consider reading my two books that deal extensively with the issues raised here, The Lord Will Gather Me In
and Why the Jews Rejected Jesus