In Conversation with an Orthodox Jew
On my way back from Israel to Johannesburg, this past Wednesday, I had an extremely interesting time. I had a window seat (fortunately, because that is the only place where I have a slight possibility of sleeping on an aircraft). The aisle seat was already taken when I arrived and after sitting down we greeted each other. I assumed that the passenger was Jewish (we were flying with El AL from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, so this was a fairly easy deduction to make). Nevertheless, I asked him whether he was living in Israel and visiting South Africa or living in South Africa and returning from a visit to Israel. He then told me that he had been to Israel for his father’s funeral. His father had died the previous Sunday and the funeral was held on the following Tuesday. What then happened was a conversation out of the book, so to speak. Hebrew had been one of my two main subjects at university and I have had an interest in the Jewish religion and customs for many years.
I started asking questions about their customs during funerals which then developed into a time of him sharing a lot from his experience of his religion, how he felt about the synagogue services, how he felt about keeping to the Shabbat, how he felt about always eating kosher food, even sharing with me one of his most intimate moments when he had circumcised his own son. His wife was five months pregnant before they realised it (they did not think that she would be able to become pregnant again) and the baby was born two months prematurely, which meant that they were only aware of two months that she was pregnant (what a bonus!) I never realised that circumcision was done only when the baby boy weighs three kilograms. I always thought that a baby had to be circumcised at 8 days.
He shared a lot about fighting with God about his father’s death (almost like Job) and struggling to come to terms with it. At one point I asked him whether the Jewish religion had an expectation of life after death, which he then rephrased to: We believe in life after life! After dinner (at 3 in the morning) he wanted to sleep and for myself it was also a memorable occasion as I slept from 3 up to about 7.30 (a record for me, admittedly with the help of a sleeping tablet – the only time I ever use it.)
After breakfast he started questioning me: How do we as Christians feel about death? When a Christian dies, will that person be with God immediately? What about suffering? Learning that my father died about seven years ago he wanted to know from me how I had handled it and if it will ever become easier to think of his father. And then an amazing question: Who killed Jesus? When I answered him that Jesus had been killed by the Jews, he looked at me in total disbelief. He had never realised this! I don’t know what he thought, but he knows nothing about the New Testament. I shared with him in short the story of Jesus and how he was crucified. And I asked him to get a New Testament and to read the four gospels and Acts in order to understand how Jesus fits in with the Jewish people of His time.
We had become friends during the nine hour flight to South Africa and he made me promise that, if I ever visit Cape Town in the future, that I will call him so that he can take me to the synagogue with him on a Saturday morning, which is the main Shabbat service. I have attended the Friday evening service in a synagogue on two occasions, but never the Saturday service.
Why was this so special to me? Mainly because I have said over and over again that evangelism can mostly only be done effectively within a relationship. There are exceptions to the rule. But the greatest compliment I received was just before I disembarked, when he gave me his business card and told me that he would be making contact with me to ask more questions about Christianity, because, as he said, most Christians don’t want to answer questions and he appreciated that I was willing to explain things to him which he didn’t understand.
What will come from this, I don’t know. It’s not that I have this strong belief that he is going to convert to Christianity. But at the very least I trust that he will feel that Christians have love for people, regardless of their faith or background and that we don’t see the rest of the world as us against them, a host of people who have to be converted as quickly as possible. Obviously I pray that he will come to true saving faith in the real Messhiach, but this will have to happen as God provides opportunities for greater interaction to take place.