Jews for Jesus: Interview w/Shmuel Herzfeld

Last week, NPR’s “Heard on the Street” featured a “debate” between Jew for Jesus Larry Dubin and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of The National Synagogue.

After listening to the clip (which you can hear here), I had a few questions for Rabbi Herzfeld, which he was kind enough to answer.

DS: You, as a rabbi, are undoubtedly extremely busy. With all your pastoral duties, you probably have to pick your “causes” and the time you spend on them very carefully. Why did you decide that fighting Jews for Jesus was worthwhile? Are they really such a threat to Jews and Judaism?

SH: The Jews for Jesus and their affiliates have 33 congregations in the Washington-Baltimore area. They are a growing movement with a lot of money at their disposal. Their goal is to convert as many Jews as possible. Their method is to attract Jews to their church by disguising their churches to look like synagogues. Are they really such a threat? I see the individuals who sit in my office and tell me that their children have been caught in the tentacles of this group. Or I see their own embarrassment as they admit that they themselves were caught up with this group. I see their pain and I get angry. A fundamental principle of activism is that we must speak out against evil.

To my mind, this group –through their deceitful and manipulative methods and through their goal of drawing as many Jews as possible away from Judaism — represents wickedness. I went out to the streets to condemn them because they are wrong. It is that simple.

jfj_huppah.jpg(Huppah at a JFJ wedding. Yes, that’s a cross in the background.)

DS: I’ve always had the sense that, as a community, we blow their influence out of proportion. But, certainly, I may be wrong. Are your grievances a matter of principle or a concern that Jews for Jesus may actually pull a large number of Jews away from Judaism?

SH: MLK said where there is injustice I shall go. If there is evil in the world it needs condemnation, otherwise we are tacitly accepting it.

Are they pulling away large numbers? Let us think about it this way. I think it is fair to say that they are spending more money on outreach to unaffiliated Jews than most synagogues in the country. (It is their mission as evangelicals.) Just look at how much they planned on spending in DC in the last few years. In NYC their influence is mitigated by the large number of synagogues—but outside of NYC where synagogues are scant, their presence as a “form of Judaism� is growing tremendously.

Anecdotally, people tell me how they stop into their “synagogues� thinking they are real synagogues only to leave very confused. Many American Jews are not well educated enough in their Judaism to understand a clear difference between “Messianic Jews� and the real thing, especially when their true beliefs are cleverly disguised in the garb of traditional Judaism. It is this population that Jews for Jesus preys on like a vulture waiting to steal another bird’s eggs. We need to condemn them for their disgusting approach, but fundamentally we need to do a better job educating our own and we too need to be on the streets spreading our faith to Jews before they wander into this other camp through their own ignorance and naiveté.

DS: In the NPR bit, you say “They’re trying to spread hatred and falsehoods and vanities. This is religion at its worst…”
1) You may object to their presentation of Judaism, but are they really spreading hatred?
2) I don’t want to perform an inappropriate close-reading of your rhetoric, but do you really believe it’s religion at its worst? At least they’re not killing people in the name of God.

SH: Religion at its best is about spreading light and goodness in the world. At its worst it is about spreading darkness. At its best it helps people find God in the world and thus the godliness within themselves. At its worst it is about cut throat methods and a no holds barred attempt to have everyone share their own beliefs irrespective of the means employed.

The theology of Jews for Jesus, i.e. the belief that they must use deceptive practices to lure Jews into their faith so that Jews do not burn in hell is a close cousin of the theology that led to many persecutions of Jews by Christianity throughout history. Many Jews were killed at the stake by well intentioned Christians who wanted to save the souls of Jews before they perished. If the theology of Jews for Jesus is an attempt to save our souls even through immoral means, then where do you think such a theology is headed?

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