Mikveh, Mitzvah & Messiah

Telling Hasidic Jews about Jesus

“Where there are two Jews”, they say, “there will be at least three opinions”, and one of the cardinal mistakes when evangelising Jewish people – especially if they happen to be dressed in black from head to toe and are sporting curly sidelocks – is to imagine we know what each individual believes. I have long been convinced that asking questions and listening to the people we are trying to reach is a key element in evangelism. How can we share the gospel effectively with anyone if we don’t know what they believe or where they are coming from? Furthermore, how can we expect people to listen to us if we are not interested in them enough to find out who they are and what makes them tick?

Last summer, my wife and I represented CWI at a conference in a town where there were many Hasidic Jews. Early each day, I talked to the men after they had performed their ritual ablutions in preparation for their morning prayers. The temptation was to cut to the chase and talk about Jesus but I would have alienated them immediately. I determined, therefore, to move at a slow pace and to ask questions.

By taking that approach, I could  discover what the men believed and challenge them to think about the traditions they take for granted. After commending the men (sincerely) on their evident zeal for God, I acknowledged (again, sincerely) that they were called to be a light to the nations and asked if I might put to them some questions about the Torah.


Question Time

My first question was why Hasidim have to immerse themselves before they can pray? Isaac* told me it was to wash away the tumah, ceremonial defilement. When I pointed out that, according to Leviticus 15, he would remain unclean until the evening and must then offer a turtle dove or a pigeon as a sacrifice, he informed me that such regulations held good only when the temple was standing; Jews didn’t offer sacrifices any longer because the temple had been taken away. Why had the temple been removed? Because the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. By now, we were at his car and, before I could ask why God allowed Israel’s place of atonement to be removed, Isaac was ready to drive away.

The next day, I wanted to know which of the mitzvot, or commandments, was the greatest. Several men, including a rabbi, believed the mitzvot were of equal value. Some thought the greatest mitzvah was to believe in God and there were looks of consternation when I pointed out that God’s enemy, the Satan, believes in God and trembles; though one of the men informed me that the Satan has his own mitzvah, which is to tempt us to disobey God!

Was not the greatest command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself? That was a good mitzvah, said Isaac, but the mediaeval sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught that the greatest mitzvah was to free someone from prison. Suppose one kept all the mitzvot because tradition, the rabbis, the community and even one’s conscience demanded it but didn’t observe them out of love for God; what then? That was a good point, said Isaac. And suppose that the person one freed was guilty? Isaac said he hadn’t thought of that.

The following day, I was asking how we could escape the curse pronounced on those who do not obey all the words of the Torah in Deuteronomy 27:28. The rabbi looked troubled by the question and said it would require a lengthy discussion. Another man, in typical rabbinic style, responded with a question: What I would think if the text said only those who kept all the words of the Torah would be blessed? I would want to know what would happen if we didn’t keep all the Torah. Precisely, he said. The text was saying you are cursed only if you don’t keep any of the commandments. He then got in his car and drove away, leaving me to figure out the logic of his argument!

Isaac, however, did not attempt to answer the question; for several long seconds he scratched his luxuriant facial hair and then announced he would have to ask his rabbi.

“Of whom does the prophet speak?”

On Sunday, I asked if Isaac had had a good Shabbat. He had. Had he studied the Tanakh? He had gone to synagogue, had a good meal and slept; but he had not studied Scripture. I told him of a wonderful passage I had read and asked if he knew it. He listened as I recited Isaiah 53 and shared with him that the “Righteous Servant” of Adonai is a High Priest – he makes “intercession for the transgressors” – but he is also an “offering for sin”, because God lays on him “the iniquity of us all” and, like the scapegoat on Yom Kippur, he bears it away.

When I asked Isaac who the Servant of Adonai was, he tossed the question back at me. “I think it’s Jesus”, I said.

On the final morning, Isaac told me he and his friends were going to miss me. I replied that I would miss him too. Over the nine days or so I had known him, I had grown very fond of him and my heart was breaking to think that I, a Gentile who had once been an “alien from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger from the covenants of promise, without God and without hope in the world” had been brought into Israel’s New Covenant through Messiah while he, a zealous Hasid of the strictest kind, knew nothing about Messiah or the everlasting covenant established through his blood. To my delight, Isaac gladly accepted a CD Rom with Hebrew and Yiddish versions of Scripture, and asked for my phone number.

In my last encounter with the rabbi, I told him it had been a privilege to meet him and thanked him for the discussions we had had. As a wise man, did he have a word of wisdom to leave with me? “Yes. Be well and keep well”, he responded.

I thanked him and asked if I might share a word of wisdom from the Tanakh that was very precious to me. He agreed, and so I left him with Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone, to his own way; and Adonai has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Many thanks to all who made this pioneer outreach project possible through your prayers and your donations. Reaching out to these men was one of the privileges of my life and, God willing, next year we will reach out to these zealous Hasidim again. If you would like to assist us with your prayers and gifts, please contact Andrew Quinney at CWI Head Office.

*Isaac is a pseudonym

This article first appeared in the winter Herald 2010

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