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Keep Taboo on Conversion to Christianity

On contemplating a Jew who has become a Christian, such as indicted corporate lawyer Mark Belnick, the sensation you get may be like being on a roller coaster that has begun its swooping drop from a great height, as if the bottom of your stomach had slid away. Featured in a recent front-page Wall Street Journal profile, Belnick provides an occasion to wonder why Jews are made so deeply uneasy by Jewish-to-Christian conversion stories.

As radio commentator Michael Medved has noted, the only thing Jews can agree on is that Jesus wasn’t God. Of course, not every single Jew agrees. You hear about unusual cases like Belnick, a Jew-turned-Catholic who may have to spend 25 years in prison for grand larceny, allegedly committed when he was general counsel for Tyco International.

One knows Jews who have become Buddhists, and many more who embrace total alienation from all religion. Such people provoke few notably uneasy feelings. Yet in discussions with friends the day the article on Belnick came out, I kept hearing how “disturbing” they found his story. It wasn’t the fact that he’s accused of stealing $12 million, among other misdealings, but that as a Jew, no less the former president of a suburban Conservative synagogue, he was simultaneously preparing to be baptized as a Roman Catholic.

I have a small personal connection to Belnick. The priest who won him over is someone I knew casually in New York. A charismatic fellow, Father John McCloskey makes it his business to evangelize the brightest and the wealthiest potential converts. A Jew is a specially valued prize.

A previous McCloskey trophy is economist Lawrence Kudlow, now with his own news show on CNBC. I knew Larry when we were both editors at National Review. I’d encounter McCloskey ambling down the hallway to counsel Larry in his office. A Jew who knew little about Judaism and was struggling with personal demons, Larry was soon hooked, and McCloskey reeled him in.

What’s so “disturbing” about Belnick and Kudlow? An easy but unsatisfying answer points to the history of Christian anti-Jewish persecution. This fails to satisfy one’s curiosity because cases like Belnick’s affect us equally whether we’re the type of Jew in whose imagination antisemitism burns brightly as an unquenchable threat, or whether we’re the type who spends little time worrying about antisemitism.

Rather, what we are dealing with here is an inborn emotional trigger. By way of analogy, consider the revulsion human beings feel at the thought of sexual relations among family members. But there are evolutionary reasons given for this taboo — notwithstanding that rare instances of incest are known. No such reasons can be given for the taboo against Christianity.

The Talmud suggests that God wired us this way. In the centuries immediately prior to the Christian era, the men of the Great Assembly, the Jewish leaders of the post-prophetic age, prayed that the Jews be released from an overwhelmingly powerful temptation to worship other deities (Sanhedrin 64a). God responded affirmatively to their request — at least, it would appear, insofar as Christianity would be concerned. The taboo isn’t absolute, but it is pretty effective.

It wasn’t that He saw nothing positive in the new religion. On the contrary, as Rabbi Judah Halevi writes in the great medieval apologetic work the “Kuzari,” by God’s “secret and wise design” Christianity was born of a seed of Jewish origin, through which it transforms the world for the good. “The Law of Moses has changed them that come into contact with it, even though they seem to have cast the Law aside.”

I would add that to remain healthy, Christianity requires the existence not merely of the Jewish texts included in the Christian Bible, but of Jews themselves. A Jewish philosopher of a different stripe, the Reform saint Leo Baeck, shrewdly delineated the tension in Christianity with its Jewish origins. In some Christian branches, notably Lutheranism, there is a distancing from the Jewish content in Christian Scripture, while in others, such as Calvinism, one sees an exaltation of Hebrew ethics. Lutheranism, of course, produced Nazi Germany, while Calvinism, by way of English Puritanism, produced America.

When Christians become detached from the Jewish seed at the heart of their faith, they go down the road Lutheranism did, with disastrous results. But Jews living in the midst of Christians can, if the relationship functions as it should, act as an inspiration to look to the vital roots of the Christian religion. They need us as Jews.

In God’s “secret and wise design,” the Christian-Jewish polarity is part of the plan. The spiritual trajectory of a Mark Belnick or a Larry Kudlow is like food traveling the wrong way up the esophagus. We register this as nausea. Christians would feel similarly if they understood entirely what’s good for us all, Jews and Christians alike.

David Klinghoffer’s is the author of, most recently, “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).

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