Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, May 22, 2009


Went with Roger to the Chabad House over near the Israeli embassy. My interest in Hasidic Judaism began many years ago when I read The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. But there is not much active Judaism in China--no active synagogues.

Roger went to medical school in Israel, so he has a little more familiarity with Judaism. The Chabad house seemed a lot like a lodge to me. I guess that's partly because Jews are not accustomed to inviting non-Jews to their worship meetings. We were not invited; we just showed up. When we first got there, there was a Hasidic Jew from New York who was asking our names and then the Yiddish form. I have no Yiddish form for my name, but I told the guy that my middle name was David, so that seemed to satisfy him. Roger picked up on what he was getting at, and informed him that we were not Jewish. Anyway, it was a little awkward at the beginning, but it actually turned out to be a very interesting evening. They fed us a very nice kosher dinner and insisted that it was on the house.

The regular rabbi was at a retreat or something, so the assistant rabbi was in charge. When he showed up, he recognized Roger, who had been there before. Roger introduced me, and he asked me where I was from. I told him that I grew up in Japan. He said, "Your parents were in the service?" I knew I was in trouble when he asked that question, but I wasn't going to lie to him. I said, "They were missionaries." He said, "I need to see you in my office."

Jews don't believe in "proselytizing," and they really don't like when someone tries to "proselytize" them. To be perfectly honest, I have never been very good at proselyitizing, although I don't have the same religious objection to it. Proselityzing, as the Jews use the term, has to do with getting someone to change their religion. Most of the Chinese people I talk with about religious belief tell me they have no religion.

"We Chinese have no religion. We don't believe in anything." The fact that they don't identify with a particular belief doesn't mean that are ready to adopt yours, but they tend to be less cynical than westerners who have become hardened to spiritual truth.

When Christians hear Jews saying something like, "We don't proselytize," or "we don't share our beliefs," it rubs them the wrong way, because to them, it is as if the Jews are saying, "We don't care about the spiritual needs of others as long as we are taken care of." But to a Jew, the idea that you would try to rob them of all the richness of their religious tradition is almost as offensive as if you invaded their country. Religious Jews do not see Christian evangelism as "sharing God's love." They see it as an assault on their way of life. That situation is changing, now, because even in Israel there are more and more Messianic Jews, who hold to the traditions, but who also believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. Still, it's a sensitive issue for many Jewish people.

The Rabbi said, "I know that in your religious belief, you believe that it is your job to missionize, but we don't want any of that here." I said, "I understand." I don't know if I really do, but I try to. It's different from when I was a kid. Growing up in northern Japan among a bunch of Norwegian American missionaries, I was about as far removed from classic Judaism as it is possible to be. But then, as I mentioned before, I read The Chosen. Never would I have thought that I would relate to anything in Hassidic Judaism, but in fact, I did. And it makes sense when you look at the history. After all, Christianity did not start out as a separate religion. It started as a First Century sect of Judaism. Early Christians did not call themselves "Christians." They thought of themselves as sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. Galatians 3:29 says, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." The "promise," of course, is the Abrahamic covenant.

But today it's different. Christianity and Judaism are seen as two completely different religions. I always thought they were too, until I read The Chosen. Christians and Jews have the whole Old Testament in common. Sort of. Jews certainly don't call it the "Old Testament." And they tend to focus on the Torah and neglect the prophets. And Christians tend to treat the Old Testament like excess baggage, except for Psalms and Proverbs. Nevertheless, both religious cultures are profoundly influenced by something they have in common that they both think of as very much their own.

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