Attention Jews: "Good News" on Prime Time!

Recently, my wife, daughter, and I watched television together in modern fashion: each simultaneously surfing the web and checking email. We shared comments about this or that while we half-noted what flickered across the room.  

Suddenly, my attention moved from the small screen on my lap to the larger one.   A brief commercial with a colorful banner reading “” appeared.  This was certainly something different for early evening TV!  As it ran, several people enthusiastically explained how their religious doubts and confusions had disappeared after reading that chapter of the Bible.   The commercial ended with an urging to visit the website. 

Curious but wary (and a bit chagrined at not remembering exactly what was in that chapter from my rabbinical school class on Isaiah), I typed the URL into my already-open browser.  (Pretty smart of the sponsors to guess that many simultaneous web-surfing-TV viewers would do exactly this!)   I suspected a Christian proselytizing site, but that was something with which I was familiar through Sunday morning cable TV and radio, and flyers rubber-banded to my front-door -- not early evening TV commercials.   My curiosity turned to aggravation as soon as I scrolled down the website page.  The website was aimed at Jews!  The three highlighted “testimonials” at the bottom of the page were captioned “What some rabbis say,” “I’m Jewish…now what?” and “A Jewish Sailor reads Isaiah 53.”   Now it was time to do what the website itself urged … reread Isaiah 53. 

Chapter 53 of Isaiah contains the “suffering servant” language so important to Christian theology.   “Upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? … A man of suffering … He was despised, we held him of no account, Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, Our suffering that he endured, smitten and afflicted by God; But he was pierced through because of our sins..and by his bruises we were healed…the Lord visited upon him the guilt of all of us…Like a sheep being led to slaughter.”   To Christians, this Chapter unmistakenly prohesized the person and death of Jesus more than half a millennium later. 

Judaism, of course, rejects this view.  The same book of Isaiah describes the “Servant of God” collectively as the people of Israel -- no fewer than nine times.[1]   Their suffering and their exile (to Babylonia following destruction of the First Temple), though portrayed in Isaiah 53 by a figure personifying the collective – similar to Moses’ and Jeremiah’s suffering on behalf of all Israel -- are redemptive acts of G-d.  The whole world is to see and know that G-d intends the suffering of the Jews in exile to be for their correction and betterment.[2]  (Moreover, just a few chapters earlier, Isaiah (45:1) expressly identified the Lord’s messiah by name: Cyrus, who freed the Jews from their redemptive exile and funded the Temple’s reconstruction in Jerusalem.)   

My point is not to “disprove” the interpretation of Christians of what they also view as their text.   Much of Scripture is enigmatic and susceptible to many views.  Early Christians were themselves Jewish; some earlier elements of Judaism had a strong messianic orientation (Jesus was neither the first nor last Jew to be received as the messiah), and Judaism encourages diverse views (albeit, there are limits, although few). 

Moreover, this is America.  Don’t we glory in the “marketplace of ideas,” including religious ones?  Is there anything wrong with a privately funded TV commercial advocating a particular religious point of view?   

In this case, yes.  When the commercial, which does not reference Jews, is merely an invitation to a website that conspicuously does target Jews, the commercial is subterfuge.  The greater problem, though, is the proselytizing itself.  While the “marketplace of ideas” concept is fine and even desirable in more neutral contexts, in this instance it ignores the problematic (to use the gentlest word I can think of) two-thousand year “relationship” between Christians and Jews.  For much of this history, Jews who did not accept Christian proselytizing were vilified, persecuted, and murdered. Thankfully, Jews in America currently face no such danger, although there has always been anti-Semitism here, sometimes virulent.  Even so, proselytizing activities aimed at Jews are, at a minimum, highly disrespectful and dismissive of this extremely painful history of Christian-Jewish relations.

But the problems with proselytizing do not stop there.    

First, As Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis has recently noted, America is extremely corrosive of Jewish identity.  Jews have assimilated and intermarried here as never before and continue to do so.   Thus, every effort to convert Jews away from Judaism is an attack on the ailing body of American Judaism.   Jews are vulnerable in part because they do not know their own texts, and thus cannot evaluate, counter, or thoughtfully dismiss solicitations such as the Christian interpretation of the “Suffering Servant.”  Proselytizing these Jews, in particular, (especially the younger set) reminds me of the Biblical Amalekites, who attacked the most vulnerable Israelite stragglers after they crossed the Red Sea, thereby earning G-d’s eternal animosity [Exodus 17:8-17; Deuteronomy 25:17-19.].  

Second, Christian argumentation and persecution has weakened Judaism by forcing rabbis to adopt radical defensive strategies.  Perhaps the most prominent example was removal of the Ten Commandments from the public liturgy when Christians (and others) emphasized them and challenged the legitimacy of other portions of the Hebrew Bible.  Isaiah 53 is another important example.   The Book of Isaiah is the most prominent book in the annual Haftorah reading cycle, and Chapter 53 provides powerful symbolism that, evidently, was once part of that cycle.  But when the Christians reinterpreted the “Suffering Servant” from the People of Israel to Jesus, the rabbis removed it from the Torah service.  As a result, Jews no longer know of it – except when it is introduced to them as a Christian proof text.  I have argued (see here) that it’s time to restore the Ten Commandments to our prayer services; perhaps it is also time to restore Isaiah 53 to our Torah service, thereby reclaiming our own holy and spiritually meaningful text.

It’s ironic that the word “suffer” means not only to feel pain, but to “tolerate.”  We should hope that members of other faith communities will pay more attention to this second meaning, and tolerate (at a minimum) Jewish views and sensibilities by not attempting to convert us and our children through Prime Time TV commercials.  More importantly, we need to relearn and value our own tradition!         

[1] 41:8,9; 44:1,2, 21, 26; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3. 

[2]  I learned the Jewish view from Hebrew Bible Professors Dr. Marvin Sweeney, Academy for Jewish Religion/Los Angeles and Claremont School of Theology and Dr. Joel Gereboff, Academy for Jewish Religion/Los Angeles and Arizona State University; and from (Christian scholar) George W.E. Nickelsburg’s book, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation.

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb