BY YOSEF B S HAKOHEN
In winter of the year 5760 – 2000 the beginning of a new millennium in the Christian calendar — certain Evangelical Christian groups had been engaging in aggressive missionary activities which had been targeted at Jews. One of them was the largest Protestant denomination in the United States — the Southern Baptist Convention. Three years ago, they issued a resolution calling on Christians to proselytize among Jews, and they established a well-funded programme which sends missionaries to Jewish communities all over the world. In that year, in honour of the “millennium,” they have increased their efforts to convert the Jews.
It is, therefore, relevant for us to remind ourselves of the sacred principles that Jews have lived for and died for, and there is one particular principle that can serve as a good starting point for study and discussion — the purity and dignity of the human soul.
According to the Christian doctrine of “original sin,” the human soul became innately sinful after the sin in the Garden of Eden, and since the soul is inherently sinful, it can only be redeemed through accepting the belief that Jesus is both God and the messiah. Judaism teaches, however, that although the human being descended to a lower spiritual level after the sin in the Garden, the soul remains inherently pure.
This ancient teaching is elaborated on in the biblical commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage of the 19th century:
“To this day every human child springs forth from the hand of God in the same state of purity as did Adam; every child comes into the world as pure as an angel. This is one of the basic concepts in the essence of Judaism and Jewish living.”
(Commentary to Genesis 3:19)
Rabbi Hirsch adds: “As for the doctrine that, because of Adam’s sin, all of mankind has become ‘sinful,’ that the human being has lost the ability to be good and is compelled to go on sinning, and that the human being’s return to God and the restoration of Paradise on earth require something other than a revival of devotion to duty — an effort within the capacity of every human being — these are notions against which Judaism must offer its most categorical protest. The human being needs no intermediary, dead or resurrected, in order to return to God.”
Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that this teaching is expressed in the opening words of a prayer that Jews chant each morning — a prayer which was composed several centuries before the beginning of Christianity:
“My God, the soul that You placed within me is pure. You created her, You fashioned her, You breathed her into me.”
These words had a profound effect on the spiritual journey of an African-American Christian minister who eventually converted to Judaism. The former minister is Ahuvah Gray, who now lives in Bayit Vegan, a haredi (traditional Orthodox) neighborhood in Jerusalem. Before becoming a Jew, she was struggling with a number of spiritual issues. One issue was the Christian doctrine of “original sin.”
She began to read books on Judaism, and one day, she came across the words of the above daily prayer words which filled her with an inner peace. She found in these words the confirmation of her own spiritual instincts concerning the inner purity of every human soul, and she felt herself drawn to the Jewish teaching that each human being can come close to God through study, prayer, refining one’s character traits, and good deeds. (She has written a book about her life which will be published by Targum Press, and she also speaks to Jewish groups about the significance of her journey.)
The journey of a convert to Judaism can remind us that we, as a people, have a unique and sacred heritage. If we rededicate ourselves to the preservation and renewal of this heritage, we will be able to convey an ancient and universal message to all peoples — not through proselytizing, but through the power of our ethical and spiritual example: “I call upon heaven and earth to testify that whether one is an Israelite or a Gentile, man or woman, a bondsman or a bondswoman —according to the deeds that one does, so does the Holy Spirit rest upon a person.”
- Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen is the author of “The Universal Jew – Letters to My Progressive Father” published by Feldheim Publishers. He is also the coordinator of a study-program called “Hazon – Our Universal Vision.” Hazon explores the universal vision of the Torah for Jews, humanity, and all creation.
- The web site address is: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/