Marranos in Reverse?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

At first blush, the blog reads like any modish commentary on the weekly Torah portion, complete with knowing references to the Mishnah and the building of the Tabernacle in the desert.  Only upon closer examination does it become evident that the discussion of the tabernacle as a medium for drawing nearer to God is a precursor to the claim that, nowadays, God can be worshipped "directly." The blogger is a follower of "Yeshua"—a Jewish believer in Jesus.

In Jewish eyes they are apostates, but a group of "Messianic Jews" living in Israel say they follow authentic Jewish lives in the footsteps of Jesus. Spiritually akin to the Jews for Jesus movement, they differ in one salient respect: they tend not to engage in overt proselytizing. They are also much more informally organized, consisting mostly of local leaders and followers who maintain their faith through personal relationships and e-mail lists. 

No one knows how many believers live in Israel—estimates vary from 5,000 to 15,000; there are said to be a hundred congregations. Many immigrated under the Law of Return or underwent Orthodox conversions upon arrival; some are native-born, and some are married to Christian spouses. 

Though ardent in their faith, Messianic Jews are usually discreet about sharing their beliefs. The immigrants especially have every reason to be cautious, fearing loss of livelihood or citizenship if exposed. As for those who are "out of the closet," they face open and sometimes violent opposition. In December, police charged an Orthodox extremist with bombing the home and gravely wounding the son of a Messianic family in the West Bank town of Ariel. Last month in northern Israel, police arrested two men for setting fire to a car belonging to a Messianic Jew. In Beersheba, after years of harassment, Messianic Jews took the city's Sephardi rabbi and an anti-missionary group to court. Today a judge is scheduled to hear final testimony and closing arguments.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the bona fides of conversos, Jews forced to embrace Christianity in Spain and Portugal, was always suspect; they were denigrated as Marranos (swine). Some number of them did live double lives: outwardly Christian while secretly adhering to Judaism.  In cloaking their own faith, some Messianic Jews today feel, incongruously enough, that they are Marranos in reverse. 

The logic is questionable at best. Little if anything connects the situation of Jews forced to convert to Christianity upon pain of expulsion or death with Jews who have found salvation through Jesus and yet—perversely, to their fellow Jews—insist on adhering to their identity as Jews. The courts will sort out the issues of law and civil liberties. In the meantime, in a country where identity, citizenship, and religious affiliation are intertwined with still-vivid historical memories, the presence of these Messianic Jews poses a unique challenge to the broadmindedness of Israeli society.

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