Back in 1998, at the time of Israel 50th birthday, my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin withstood a harsh round of controversy and criticism from the Jewish community when he spoke at a huge Christian pro-Israel conference in Orlando, Florida. Why? Because the event prominently featured, among its other speakers, some Messianic Jews — that is, Jews who believe in Jesus and think, wrongly, that such belief can be coherently melded with Judaism. (Interestingly, one such speaker was Beliefnet’s Jay Sekulow.) 

Rabbi Lapin, who is Orthodox, thinks for himself — to put it mildly. That is one reason I’ve admired him so much since we first got to know each other. So while other Jewish leaders indignantly turned down the speaking invitation over the Messianic issue, Lapin explained that while he too found Messianic Judaism to be “dishonest,” he was going to go ahead and speak. 
Neither Jews nor Judaism would gain anything from his reneging, he thought. On the contrary, showing gratitude to Christians for their support was only appropriate, even if it meant appearing at the same venue with confused “Jewish Christians.” This was before 9/11, of course, which produced something of a sea change in Jewish opinion about allying with pro-Israel Christians. Lapin was far ahead of that curve.
But in the particular instance, the 1998 Christian rally for Israel, was he right? Well, listen to this. Yesterday, Rabbi Lapin sent me an email that noted in passing:

A week ago, during my travels, in Los Angeles after a speech, a young woman asked to meet with me. She had been born to atheist Jewish parents but who had sought religion and found Christianity. As the girlfriend of one of the organizers, she was in that very audience 11 years ago. Last week she repeated to me that speech I gave in April ’98, and told me that she had left Christianity that same day as a result. She later married an Orthodox Jew in Texas. It was a wonderful encounter for me. 

Asked for more details about her, he answered:

She grew up totally secular, with a strong ethnic Jewish awareness but nothing but contempt for religion. When she was about 20 she started feeling a spiritual yearning and wanted to know about God. Her ventures into the occasional synagogue or temple fell far short of satisfying this yearning and she then socially met a few very gracious and very spiritual Christians who invited her to their church. She became very involved and found profound spiritual satisfaction and as a very talented and beautiful young woman she contributed much to the church she was involved in. Susan and I had a long coffee with her and were quite fascinated with her story, her simple sincerity, and her sparkling personality. She was also incredibly psychically healthy if you know what I mean.

Being strongly connected to one of the churches that organized the Orlando event in spring 1998, she sat in VIP seating in the very front row. (No, I don’t have any recollection of seeing her — there were 15,000 people there.) My speech revolved around how Judaism was not about suffering, the Holocaust, or disconnecting from life. Rather the reverse — it was the world’s most powerful life enhancing system. It was the world’s longest running sociological longitudinal study of life success with 3,000 years of track record in equipping people to build strong families, relationships and wealth.

She spoke to me for a few minutes later that day and then attended two more speeches I gave in Florida in the ensuing few weeks. She decided to leave Christianity and return home to her spiritual sources the day she heard me speak. She did find Orthodox Torah teachers and since then has been mostly observant in Jewish life.

So while Jewish big-shots like Malcolm Hoenlein, Morton Klein, and Howard Kohr took the safe road and stayed away, Lapin was the maverick as ever and ended up inspiring a young Jewish woman to return to Judaism.
I went back and read an essay he had written then, “Why Is Jesus Worse than Secularism?,” before speaking at the conference but after the controversy had blown up. I thought it was an extremely cogent argument for engagement with Jews who have taken other paths. He asks what’s so specially bad about Messianic Judaism that merits its practitioners being totally shunned, while other equally heterodox movements and ideas are petted and stroked by the Jewish community. Excerpt:

Would someone explain to me why one particular distortion of Judaism is so much worse than others?

Why is there no protesting those who claim that homosexual synagogues are perfectly kosher? Now please understand, at Pacific Jewish Center in Los Angeles which I was privileged to establish with Michael Medved and honored to serve for 15 years, we had a few individual members who had engaged in homosexual conduct. However we also had members who had eaten pork. I would have objected as strenuously about forming special prayer groups for pork eaters as I would have for practitioners of homosexuality. 

Not being perfect myself, I felt honored to serve, as rabbi, other imperfect Jews. But never would I, or any other Orthodox rabbi, endorse these imperfections as normative Judaism. Yet almost every mid-sized Jewish community in America boasts a homosexual congregation and nobody bats an eyelid. In fact, several of these congregations, dedicated to public violation of a Law that God gave Moses for all time, have been recipients of grants and awards from other Jewish organizations. Furthermore, many Orthodox organizations that do consider homosexuality to be wrong, march in Israel Independence Day parades alongside homosexual synagogues. They do not consider their actions to be validating homosexuality. So would someone please explain to me why so many of my fellow Jews find Messianic congregations dedicated to violating the second commandment, to be so much worse than homosexual congregations?

Ah, I’ve got it! Homosexuality is just a law from Leviticus, you will tell me, whereas a Messianic congregation violates the second of the Ten Commandments. I remain confused by a lack of consistency in our community. You see, the fourth commandment addresses the Sabbath. Violating the Sabbath is a pretty basic renunciation of Judaism. Yet there is any number of American synagogues whose busy parking lots each Shabbat morning prove that Jewish law is irrelevant to contemporary Jewish life. I am left with my question. Would someone please tell me why we are so angry about messianic synagogues and so incredibly tolerant of homosexual and Sabbath violating synagogues?

He recalls:

I was privileged to be among the first rabbis to specialize in kiruv or outreach. Thousands of young Jews returned to Judaism through my efforts in California between 1977 and 1992. Since that time I have traveled the country speaking to hundreds of Jewish and Christian audiences. I know the truth and you should know it too. We are losing very few Jews to Christianity. We are losing considerably more to eastern religions. However we are losing the greatest number to secularism and nothingness. We are exerting disproportionate emotional energy on the wrong target.

What should be the target of our efforts? The answer is simple — Jewish education. Instead of beaming out a message to our non Jewish neighbors of hatred, bigotry, intolerance and censorship, we should compete in the free marketplace of ideas. We should fight fire with fire. Have we no confidence in Judaism’s ability to compete and win? My friend, the late Jerry Falwell, once told me he seldom hears of a Torah observant Jew converting to Christianity or to anything else. He’s right, Christianity is not the problem. Our failed marketing of Judaism is what is causing Jewish attrition. 

Instead of Jewish leaders denouncing a group of Christians gathered to celebrate Israel, we should seek permission to place a booth of Jewish education at the event. Instead of Jewish leaders sanctimoniously boycotting the event, we should all be there. Just ask yourself this question. If there are Jews in the audience, and there are bound to be some, are they more or less likely to abandon Judaism if there is also a presence of mainstream Jewish speakers offering a road map to relevance within the Jewish community?

In retrospect, that last line was, of course, prophetic.
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