A complex relationship made in heaven


The body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve; William Blake, 1826

The undercover missionary scandal must not jeopardise closer bonds between Christians and Jews

For those wishing to improve relations between Jews and Christians, the extraordinary unmasking of Michael Elkohen as an undercover Christian missionary in Jerusalem has been something of a setback.

Elkohen, who was living as an ultra-orthodox rabbi with his wife (who died two months ago) and five children, was revealed last week in Israeli media to be a non-Jew who had trained as a Christian minister before gaining online rabbinical qualifications and moving to Israel in 2006.

As Jonathan Sacerdoti further reports in the London Jewish Chronicle, he had been born in New Jersey to a Methodist mother and a Mennonite Protestant father whose family name was Elk.

He set up his own religious seminary, Yeshivat Yarim Ha’am, which had about 10 students and where he taught a Judaised version of Christianity, even ordaining Christian “rabbis” to spread the gospel. He performed ritual circumcisions and his children attended ultra-orthodox Jewish schools. He was unmasked by the Israeli anti-missionary group Beyneynu after his 13-year-old daughter told a friend that “Jesus accepts everyone”.

Sacerdoti says investigators are now poised to expose a cell of three further such Christian missionary families in Jerusalem who have been posing as religious Jews.

The scandal will confirm many Jews in their suspicion that Christians are still to be feared as profound antisemites who want to destroy Judaism by converting the Jews to Christianity, thus ensuring they repudiate their religious and cultural identity.

This communal suspicion is the product of a long and appalling history. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders and other European Christians slaughtered in their tens of thousands Jews who refused to be converted. Such persecution later resulted in further thousands of Spanish conversos, Jews who did convert under the threat of torture or being burned at the stake.

Many of those conversos assumed the outward show of Christianity while continuing to observe Jewish rituals and traditions in secret. Those people, too, were hunted down and massacred by the Inquisition of the Catholic church.

The days of Christian pogroms and persecution are gone. In 2015, the Vatican published a document declaring that Catholics should no longer try to convert Jews.

Half a century after the Catholic church had formally repudiated the idea of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus, its 2015 document showed sensitivity and respect towards Judaism by quoting extensively from Jewish rabbinical sources and recognising their validity, as well as the centrality to Judaism of the Torah.

However, the Catholics’ unambiguous repudiation of Jewish conversion has not been replicated in Protestantism.

In 2019, the Church of England issued a report called “God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations” which acknowledged Christianity’s historic record of Jewish persecution.

Nevertheless Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, expressed his “substantial misgiving” that it failed to repudiate the efforts of those Christians who tried to convert Jews to Christianity.

Indeed, there are still Protestants, particularly in America with its significant bloc of fundamentalist churches, who believe it is their religious mission to bring the Jewish people to belief in the divinity of Jesus.

Some of them believe that the conversion of the Jews is the necessary prelude to the second coming of Jesus and the consequent “End of Days.” Still others believe that the Jews will eventually be converted anyway in that second coming (to which a Jew might well shrug, “I’ll take my chances on that one”).

So the unmasking of undercover missionaries in Israel may reignite smouldering Jewish fears and suspicions of Christians. This would be extremely unfortunate, as it obscures a much more complex reality.

Christians form the most solid and passionate bloc of Israel supporters in the world. Indeed, the support for Israel by American Christians is far stronger than the support for Israel displayed by the majority of American Jews.

There’s a further tremendous irony here. That American Jewish majority, who are overwhelmingly politically and religiously liberal, actually tend to have a Christianised view that belief in God is central to religion, and that religious faith is necessarily private and confessional.

This is not true of Judaism, in which belief in God is merely the starting point for investing with spiritual significance every single aspect of everyday life — from drinking a glass of water to constraining what you do on the Sabbath to how to behave in the bedroom and bathroom — in order to sanctify the Jewish people in accordance with the laws and precepts laid down in the Torah.

Liberal American Jews, however, devalue many of Judaism’s all-important rules and rituals which they think are merely archaic anachronisms of no relevance to today’s world.