Orthodoxy Both Uncomfortable and Envious Of Evangelicals

I was doing my usual work and was fact checking something and google delivered this sermon by Ariel Rackovsky, assistant rabbi of the Jewish Center. I have never met him and do not know anything about him. But I found this recent sermon quite interesting.

Rackovsky asks about our comfort level in the adoption of Jewish ritual by Christians. He thinks we are bothered because they know things about Judaism that we as Jews don’t; we are bothered that they are trying to proselytize; and we are reticent to talk about our faith and doctrine compared to them. He defends Evangelicals as not engaged in proselytizing. This is a great piece for a social history of the current era.

Rackovsky uses Evangelicals as paradigms that we can learn from. We learn to know our own tradition better, we can missionize our own people, and we need to know more about our own principles of faith and learn to articulate and express them.As a contrast to seeing contemporary Christians as knowing Bible, active outreach and expressing theology, R. Yosef Karo saw their ascetic piety and mortifications as worthy of emulation.

Go and learn from the Gentiles: Think of the tortures and mortifications which they suffer. How much more then should you be ready to suffer tortures and mortifications… (Magid Mesharim 38a)

He knows about replacement theology and dispensational premillenialists, and expects his congregants to know those terms. (This is more those who did interfaith work in the 1960’s knew and it is way beyond the meager knowledge gained from the sharing of pulpits in the 1960’s!)

The Challenge of Evangelism
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
The Jewish Center 5771

If we are honest with ourselves, all this love of Jewish rituals and Jews in general, particularly by devout Christians, makes us more than a little nervous and uncomfortable, and there are a number of good reasons for this,
besides politics alone. First, it is discomfiting when others know more about important aspects of our heritage than we do. Even if they profoundly misinterpret a number of key passages, many devout Christians can quote chapter and verse in the Bible better than many of us can (I include myself in this).

Another reason we may be concerned is the legitimate worry that many of these groups are actually interested in proselytizing to us. We are wary of philo-Semitism, because we are concerned of the ulterior motive involved therein. After all, many fundamentalist, evangelical groups make no secret of their belief that salvation can only be attained through accepting their belief system. Indeed, some of the Sedarim carried out in Churches substitute Christianized themes for those uniquely Jewish elements of the Seder, and it is not God who saves the Jewish people.

The truth, though, is that many evangelical denominations have officially disavowed replacement theology and have stopped proselytizing to Jews, while the Presbyterian Church, one of the most pernicious and implacable opponents of the State of Israel, still funds messianic congregations.
A related concern… Centuries of the most horrific persecution, from the Crusades to the pogroms to the Holocaust to
institutionalized anti Semitism in the United States have made us deeply wary of the motives of those around us.

A third reason that these kinds of imitations of our rituals and fascination with Judaism and the Jewish people make us nervous is that like our forebears in Egypt who were reticent about declaring God’s dominion, we in the Modern Orthodox community are more than a little wary of public proclamations of faith and expressions of religiosity. It’s understandable; many Christian groups express great certitude about ideas that we struggle with, or are afraid to talk about, like the Messiah (even though they disagree with us on his identity), Jewish chosenness, and, most notably, the spiritual significance of the Land (and State) of Israel as the God given home of the Jewish people.

Christian advocacy for Israel especially makes us nervous because of our perception that they are doing it to agitate events in the middle East, and thereby hasten an Apocalyptic outcome, even though many Christian Zionists are dispensational premillenialists who don’t believe they can do anything to hasten the arrival of the Messiah-
So, is Christian love of Jews and Jewish rituals good for the Jews? I don’t know, but I think our nervousness about it is, as it presents us with a powerful challenge.

*If we are uncomfortable with Christian knowledge of our scriptures and co-opting of our rituals, this should spur us to become more Jewishly literate, and take greater ownership over the traditions that are a critical part of our spiritual heritage.

*If we are uncomfortable with proselytizing, that should be a powerful challenge for us to proselytize as well. Not to members of other religions, of course; Judaism is not that kind of religion. Rather, our challenge is to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are unconnected to the beauty of our tradition and their heritage, by showing them that it is something beautiful and exciting for us that we want to share, and that they need not look outside their own heritage for authentic religious experiences and inspiration.

*Finally, if we are uncomfortable with public professions of certitude and faith by others about the things we are not sure if we believe, that is a challenge to us to review and study classic texts of Jewish thought and belief, acquainting ourselves with the rich tradition in this area, and to arrive at a serious and well thought out articulation of faith. Moreover, we should not be afraid to express the aspects of Jewish faith we do believe, and do so resolutely.
Read the rest here

I have asked before for people to submit sermons of Rabbis. Let me rephrase the request. Let me know of synagogue websites that have the sermons of the rabbis. I am especially looking for younger rabbis in important congregations, not the usual self-promoters and institutional speeches. Which other Orthodox synagogues post the rabbi’s recent sermons besides the Jewish Center? I am not looking for OU/YUTorah sanitized sermons, I am looking for those under the radar and in the real world like this one.

Here is a great collection of sermons by Conservative Rabbis.
From those under the radar we see that Scholarship and historicism is out while the word covenantal is in.

9 responses to “Orthodoxy Both Uncomfortable and Envious Of Evangelicals

  1. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh posts all of his sermons. http://www.bethtfiloh.com/sermons
    He’s a great darshan, but I’m not sure if he’s what you’re looking for. He posts on his blog and on twitter, too.

    • Thank you. That is exactly what I am looking for. The Rabbis that give a sense of what is actually going on without having to be a talking head for an organization. Keep them coming.
      I still have not figured out how to separate wheat from chaff in twitter, maybe one is not supposed to.

  2. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld posts his sermons at http://www.rabbishmuel.com/browse.cgi?type=torah_sermons
    I believe some will be published next year.

  3. Ariel Rackovsky

    I am Ariel Rackovsky, who delivered the sermon in question- thank you for sharing and for the positive press! I delivered this sermon because the JC is exactly the demographic that is made extremely nervous by evangelical Christians. In truth, this sermon arose from a discussion I had with a friend of mine who is making aliyah in a few weeks, and who is going to be working together with Rabbis on educating evangelical Christians about Zionism and Israel. When he told me about the various Christian groups he was already interacting with, we began having an argument about their motives, intent and whether his new initiative represented “sleeping with the enemy.” He challenged me to evaluate the issue of Jewish Christian relations dispassionately, especially since groups like CUFI are now becoming the establishment in terms of political support for Israel. Also helpful in formulating my thoughts were my friend Avraham Bronstein’s descriptions of the Rev. John Hagee’s visit to the Hampton Synagogue. I am still thinking about this issue, and how we are to profess our faith unabashedly in public as evangelical Christians do, especially as Orthodox clergy are (as you have pointed out in the past) borrowing the vocabulary and the institutional models of megachurches.

    Starting in mid November, I will be assuming the position of Rabbi at the Irving Place Minyan, a new minyan in Woodmere with some 120 families. I hope to continue posting my sermons online there as well.

  4. Ariel-
    How do Orthodox congregants come to have knowledge of Evangelical terms like replacement theology and premillennial dispensation? How do they know enough to use the terms without your needing to define them in a sermon?

    How far do you see this sacred envy of Evangelicals changing Orthodoxy?

  5. David Wolkenfeld

    Apropos to this discussion: See Leon Wieseltier’s response to “The Response” on The New Republic website.

  6. Ariel Rackovsky

    This is a pretty educated crowd, who are quite well read. For those who don’t necessarily know the terms, I try and define them in context. For example, I gave a working definition of the term pre-millenial dispensation when I described it- “even though many Christian Zionists are dispensational premillenialists who don’t believe they can do anything to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.”

    As far as how sacred envy of Evangelicals changes Orthodoxy, I’m still not sure. Consider the sociological breakdown: The more chareidi elements are already quite unabashed about practicing Judaism openly and using political advantage to advocate for themselves, and are also the ones who, in the main, are involved in outreach. The “flipped out” generation of Modern Orthodoxy aligns with them. They don’t necessarily need to be envious of evangelicals though they may interact with them on social issues . Those in the Modern Orthodox community who align with far-right Israeli causes also use the vocabulary of faith and Biblical promise in their support of Israel. This was aimed at more of a center-left crowd whose support of Israel is primarily on political grounds, who are discomfited by extremist, messianic rhetoric, who are not particularly involved in outreach and who are often concerned about appearing or acting “too religious.” Whether they will embrace the challenge of evangelism, and how it will affect this community, remains to be seen.

  7. I have a more prosaic and sartorial question. When will we see Orthodoxy drop the aesthetic pretense and emulate the positive, down home style of Evangelicals? Really, really, we need to not wear suits every shabbos in the summer. Someone needs to be the first Rabbi to wear a nice polo shirt and khakis. It is so weird to make shul an extension of the office, at least as far as black suits are concerned. Modern Orthodox Jews actually already spend more than enough time in such drab attire

    • A rabbi introducing “shabbat casual” would most likely occur in an area where there is only one Modern Orthodox institution (or, one Orthodox institution). If there is more than one, that rabbi would be more easily subject to negative comparison, simply on the basis of clothing. The rabbi would also be likely well-established and/or tenured, such that the rabbi is less likely to feel a need to take measures to appear formal. Yet, the rabbi would need to be young enough to want to take this unusual stand of informality, and confident enough to look good without the additional layers.

      So you’re looking for rabbi with 5-10 years in a one-shul town, to start this trend. Maybe you can find Prof. Brill some sermons too.

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