The Rabbi Wonders When We’ll Discover Our Communal Gag Reflex

The Rabbi Wonders When We’ll Discover Our Communal Gag Reflex April 28, 2014

This post is by my dear friend, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, in which he reflects from a Jewish perspective on the Jews for Jesus video about which I posted last week. He wrote it for Yom HaShoah, which is today’s commemoration of the Holocaust.

I sometimes wonder how much murder, hatred and contempt it takes to provoke a collective expression of utter disgust—a shared communal gag reflex.

The Kansas City murders of three innocent Christians by a known White Supremacist anti-Semite close to Passover shocked most Americans, but this vulgar 73-year-old bigot is no surprise; even his timing was logical.

Terrorizing leaflets passed out in the chaos of Donetsk, Ukraine said authorities had “…decided that all citizens of Jewish descent, over 16 years of age and residing within the republic’s territory are required to report to the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration building and register.” The leaflets were written for the expressed purpose of terrorizing Jews, but disavowed by all authorities in Donetsk. Again, we heard all the correct words, labeling even the threat of such requirements as Nazi-like and disgusting, but in order to remove the sting of the leaflets we began reading that this was a “fake” act of anti-Semitism.

We were disgusted, but when we found out that it was just a false threat, we failed to follow up with our original disgust and affirm that the creating and passing out of such leaflets is an intentional act anti-Semitic terrorism. Donetsk is 700 km from Kiev where the infamous Babi Yar massacre of 34,000 Jews took place in 1941, but those were Nazis, these leaflets only threatened registration of the Jews—from a “fake” government.

Then just in time for Good Friday, I was led to a new YouTube video that puts Jesus in Auschwitz. With Easter and Passover now past, and this Sunday night and Monday as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day for the global Jewish community, I offer this plea to the Christian community as Jews gather to remember.

The video stages the selection process outside the infamous gates at Auschwitz. Two Nazis make the decisions about who will work and who will go to the “showers,” as the YouTube Jesus comes up carrying the cross, the SS officer selects Jesus for death with the punch line, “Just another Jew!” My vocabulary is too limited to express my experience of this video.

Writing about this obscene video obviously provides Jews for Jesus, a “Messianic” Christian missionary group, with free exposure, but remaining silent about this newest outreach to Jews dismisses their intentional defiance that there are basic communal standards of decency. There is a website dedicated to the video with a collection of readings explaining why the Holocaust is a valued and necessary venue for a mission to the Jews:

This grotesque act of Internet Christian mission demands that we ask: shouldn’t this make us gag in utter disgust?  Sure, a Jew is the asking that question, but this video is not just another Jewish problem. This video is a Christian problem because Christianity has chosen to institutionally and communally remain silent about such Missions to the Jews. Funding and the distribution of Jesus in Auschwitz have one purpose, converting Jews. This video is a public communal act of Christian desecration.

Jews know that there will always be anti-Semites who want to murder us. Jews accept the reality that when there is chaos there will always be a few who use the terror for a cover so anti-Semitism can be picked out of the garbage heaps of history. But Jews will never accept Christians who trivialize the Shoah for the purpose of diminishing the Jewish community—again! This is a question of that common decency that affirms the basic trust of any interfaith relationship.

I want to know if the diverse and collective Christian community is willing to share a communal expression of disgust: With all that continues to plague the human spirit, we must acknowledge our need to wretch that anyone could produce, distribute and justify the demeaning of even this memory!

Joseph A. Edelheit is the Director and Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at St Cloud State University in St Cloud, MN. He has also been a rabbi for more than 40 years.

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  • KentonS

    While I empathize with the Rabbi’s disgust, I have a hard time reconciling Jesus’ words about loving one’s enemies and blessing those who persecute you with vomiting on Jews for Jesus. Although I often suck at doing it, following Jesus’ example for me means standing with the persecuted when they’re being scapegoated. This is one of those times when I’m not sure which side I’m supposed to be on if I’m actually standing with the persecuted.

    I haven’t watched the video. I’m sure if I did, I would shake my head in shame and disgust at it, and I would want to stand with the Rabbi and the Jewish community at large. But retaliation won’t resolve the problem. It just perpetuates the animosity. How does one go the “blessed are the peacemakers” route here?

    Blessings to Rabbi Edelheit. Blessings to Tony Jones. And blessings to the Jewish community, the Theoblogy community, and to those who embarrass us whether it’s the “Jews” part or the “For Jesus” part.

    • Ric Shewell

      Jesus’ instructions in the sermon on the mount, instructions to Jews being oppressed by a mammoth empire, does not have a one-to-one analogy for how the church should respond to Jews for Jesus. This group is not an oppressive government, and they really aren’t our enemies.

      A better analogy from Scripture is probably 1 Cor 6, when this early church is dealing with a guy sleeping with his dad’s wife. He was one of them, but his actions needed to be held accountable for the sake of the community.

      • KentonS

        Really, Ric? Wow, I didn’t know that loophole existed. Can you please get me out of that whole “turn the other cheek” bull$#!+ while you’re at it?

        • Ric Shewell

          Well, that escalated quickly.

          Was the church in Corinth disobeying Christ and the Sermon on the Mount when they threw that guy out? When Paul called out his actions as a disgrace the likes of which aren’t even done among the Gentiles? When Paul tells them not to even associate with him?

          Did Paul provide this loophole? Or perhaps the church’s understanding of grace and accountability has always been richer and more complex than one verse.

          • KentonS

            While the ministry of Paul brought about (practically) all of the spread of the gospel, I wouldn’t say that he was the word of God incarnate. That passage always seemed extreme to me. Was there a path to reconciliation for the guy? Was there a bigger back story than the text lets on?

            It seems like on the surface there are shades of Paul doing to this guy what the Pharisees were doing to the woman caught in adultery. I’m seeing the same thing taking place here. I want to stone these guys too, but I’m choosing to drop my stones and walk away. Peace, Ric.

            • S_i_m_o_n

              Read verse 5. Paul instructed the church to do this in order that he may be fully restored.

              • KentonS

                Thanks, S_i_m_o_n. That tells me if we’re applying that passage to this situation, the end game should be the full restoration of Jews for Jesus to the community, yes? I’m still asking, if vomiting on them helps accomplish that end?

                • S_i_m_o_n

                  Well personally I don’t think they did anything wrong so there is no restoration required. What sin did they commit?

                  • KentonS

                    Well clearly there’s a rift between JFJ and the larger Jewish community over this. Sorry, but how the video did that is not something I’m interested in debating. Jesus calls us to leave our gift at the altar and be reconciled with our brother when he has something against us. That’s where I would focus the conversation.

    • R Vogel

      I’m a little unsure what ‘retaliation’ you speak of, unless condemning a vile piece of trash for what it is can be considered ‘retaliation’ Jesus said to love your neighbor, and I personally have a very difficult time seeing how trying to appropriate one of the most historically significant events in Jewish history for the purpose of evangelism – which ironically enough often took the form of convert or die historically – fulfills that directive, nor remaining silent when this kind of filth is perpetrated against our Jewish brothers and sisters. Solidarity, which is how I view the heart of love your neighbor, requires you to stand somewhere, either with the oppressor or the oppressed, but you can’t stand with everyone.

      • KentonS

        I get it. The video is evil. And I agree the heart of love requires you to stand with the oppressed. Period. Regardless of how the perpetrators self-identify.

        But what happens when the oppressed become the oppressors? When the oppressed take the language of “wretch”, “filth” and “trash” so long applied to themselves and apply it to others? What’s our calling then?

        • R Vogel

          OK, I see where you’re coming from. I did not read it as applying to the people in question as much as to their offensive methods. But I believe following Jesus’ example always requires us to stand with the oppressed regardless of whether we agree with their tone. Policing tone can be a real distraction from the core issue, and typical tactic the powerful use against the oppressed. (I am NOT accusing you of this, just making the point) Harsh language does not make you and oppressor, oppressing people does. If someone starts denigrating christian symbols and trivializing christian suffering for their own ends, then you may have a case. The fact that Rabbi is mad as hell over this, and expresses it in his language by calling out the christian community; he has every right to be in my opinion.

          • KentonS

            Yeah, he does have that right, and as I said previously, his anger is justifiable. But I’m not sure I’m on the same page as you are when it comes to tone. Tone matters. A soft answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger. (That’s one of mine. You can use it if you’d like. ;)) I just think this conversation could use a little more softness in it and a little less harshness.

            Grace, R Vogel.

  • Nathaniel

    Don’t worry Mr. Edelheit. Very soon will come a bevy of Christians to dismiss your objections as being mean and uncouth. The great commission is too important to care about other people’s feelings.

  • Nithin Thompson

    Tony, what’s your take on evangelism and the great commission? Do you have any posts in the past on your take on these topics?

  • Richard

    Rabbi, Edelheit, I can’t think of a more delicate way to phrase these question via typing so please read this with a soft-spoken, inquiring nuance. Is this much more of a step from Elie Wiesel saying ‘God is there’ (paraphrased) in reference to a boy hanging on Nazi gallows or poems about Maximilian Kolbe (almost always portrayed as a Christ figure in Auschwitz)? Are those equally as offensive in content? If not, please help me understand why not.


  • Stephen Katz

    And for the sake of balance, here are the words of an Orthodox Rabbi (who is a holocaust scholar with many books on the subject) who totally disagrees with Rabbi Edelhiet about the Jews for Jesus film:

  • S_i_m_o_n

    Perhaps a follow up question would be when will JFJ stop being treated and 2nd (or even 3rd) class Jews?

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