Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Haredim and Hilonim in Israel & the Next Stage of Jewish Evangelism

Two iconic figures representing the
polar opposite worldviews of Israel:
Religious politician Aryeh Deri 
& Secular atheist Amos Oz

The Haredim and Hilonim  in Israel
& the Next Stage of Jewish Evangelism

A Guest Essay by Jim Melnick

Israeli author Amos Oz’s passing at the end of December has served to highlight the importance of understanding the two worldview ‘poles’ or extremes of Jewish life today in Israel. These are between the haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) on the one hand and the hilonim (secular) on the other.  Indeed, the daily struggle in Israel between these two polar opposites largely defines the tempo of political life in Israel today.

Many secular Israelis have come to hate the
haredim even while acknowledging that the latter comprise what they suppose is ‘true’ Judaism.  Likewise, many of the haredim hate or despise secular Jews, whom they barely even consider to be Jews even though it was mostly secular Jews who founded the modern-day State of Israel. Secular Jews were the most ardent Zionists and even now put their lives on the line every day to protect the ultra-Orthodox and to preserve their way of life in a Jewish state. Talk about ingratitude! Or at least, that’s how many secular Israelis look at it.

Haredi Jews for the most part see secular Israelis as usurpers who jump-started creating a Jewish state that they think should only have been established by the Messiah. This is the tension of daily life in Israel and that tension is at the heart of the ongoing political struggle for the soul of Israel.
In this massive internal struggle, the Messianic movement and believers in Israel are mostly onlookers, a minority operating on a different plane. At the same time, believers sometimes end up becoming the tip of the spear in this struggle, as in what has occurred in Arad. In Arad’s case, Messianic believers have been harassed and persecuted there for many years, but they have not been the only target, just one of the most vulnerable.

The Gur Hasidic sect has wanted to turn Arad into a mostly haredi city, and some of the secular are fighting back.  Serious violence between the haredim and secular Israelis broke out there, for example, in September 2017 (4 arrested in Arad clashes between ultra-Orthodox, secular residents). In some ways, this violence represents a microcosm of the antagonisms that exist between the two groups throughout the country spilling over into open conflict.

As an outsider who observes Israel closely, but from afar (so accept or reject my views as you will), I believe that understanding this dynamic is crucial to taking evangelism in Israel and intercessory prayer for Israel to the next level.

The very religious and the very secular are both growing at rapid rates both in Israel and in the United States. Those trends are continuing to deepen. At the same time, in terms of outreach and ministry, both groups remain the most unreached by the gospel message from the Messianic movement and the Jewish missions community. There are obvious reasons for this –both are extremely resistant to the Gospel. These are the hardest spiritual nuts to crack, so to speak. 

Yet it is here, I believe, that we need to focus more of our energies, resources and prayers. I believe that the Lord will open up new doors of opportunity in Israel as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere, as we are faithful in trying to reach out to these very difficult-to-reach segments of society. Even if our initial attempts seem quite meager and not very hopeful at first, it is good to begin to develop a heart for reaching both.

How do we do it? There are new steps underway in trying to reach the haredim both in the U.S. and in Israel, but those steps are in their very early stages. As far as trying to reach secular Israelis and ‘Jewish atheists’ such as how Amos Oz described himself, I am not aware of anyone who is systematically engaging the latter, at least not the ‘thought-leaders’. If anyone is, I would love to hear from you!

I am nearly finished writing a new book on Jewish atheism and secularism, and I have been stunned in doing my research to learn how extensive and varied these secular worldviews are. While God is sovereign and the Holy Spirit can break even the hardest individual’s heart, in general we still have much to learn before we can adequately engage this group on a level where they will listen to what we have to say.

I remember a time, and I’m sure many of you reading this do, too, when we could pass out vanloads of Bibles and other literature in Israel to Russian Jewish immigrants eager to receive them! That was an amazing time, but that time has passed.   Subsequently, though, praise God, we saw the emergence of Russian Messianic congregations and home groups, and the establishment of Russian-speaking leaders and elders in congregations all over Israel. These are now doing outreach among their own communities which are receptive to them and bearing fruit for the kingdom. We are now in another phase in Israel’s spiritual life.

I believe that now is a time to focus on the two opposite “poles” of Israeli society – the two poles that are either most hostile or most indifferent to our message. These two mission fields are certainly ‘white unto harvest’!

The task is very much uphill and certainly much more difficult than passing out Bibles on the street to those who were receptive to receive them! Nevertheless, I believe that if we invest more in these difficult areas of ministry - even if we don’t see a lot of fruit right away (but maybe we will?!), God will surprise us, as we all await that Day when “all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11: 26)

Amos Oz:  A Tribute by Jim Melnick

Amos Oz died on December 28, 2018. Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, wrote in tribute, “Amos, our friend. How dear you were to us... How dear and important you were to the State of Israel, to Israeli society, to the world of literature.” Prime Minister Netanyahu called him “one of the greatest authors of the State of Israel,” who “contributed a huge amount to the re-birth of the Hebrew language.”

So far I have only read a little over half of Amos Oz’s famous 500-plus-page work, A Tale of Love and Darkness. A reviewer in the Guardian called it one of “the funniest, most tragic and most touching books” they had ever read. I agree. I have found it extraordinarily moving, but almost too intense to take in all at once. It is better to digest it in smaller segments, especially about his growing up years in Jerusalem, as well as the joys and sorrows of Jewish life back in Poland and Ukraine. In 2015 the book was also turned into a film.

Oz indeed had a profound impact on modern-day Israeli society and culture. Though many disagreed with his politics, he was a leading voice in the Israeli peace movement. He served in the Six-Day War in 1967 and also in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and walked with a slight limp due to a war wound.
Oz lived for many years in Arad. Lura and Eddie Beckford, who ministered in Arad for years, often saw him and sometimes spoke with him at Ali’s Café. Ali is Bedouin and his café is usually avoided by Orthodox Jews and some secular Israelis, but Oz made a point of spending lots of time there. In a 2000 article he said that he was referred to as the town’s “Arab lover,” A Postcard from Arad. A man who thirsted for justice, I wonder what he thought about the harassment and persecution that raged in Arad against Messianic believers by some of the haredim?

In 2012, Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger together wrote Jews and Words, a book in which they both blatantly proclaimed their atheism. They said: “First, we do not believe in God…our Jewish identity is not faith-powered….As Jewish atheists, we take religion to be a great human invention.” They described themselves as “Atheists of the Book” and claimed that there “are, to date, more Bible-wise atheists in Israel than anywhere else.” The mindset behind these words is, I think, key to understanding much of secular Israeli culture today.

In 2016, Oz published the novel Judas, contending that Judas was not really a betrayer but that he actually “believed in Jesus more than Jesus believed in himself.” I won’t try to unpack that bizarre view, but the book does chronicle Oz’s fascination with Jesus. He considered Yeshua “one of the greatest Jews who ever lived,” a fascination that began during his teenage years. Oz’s great uncle was Joseph Klausner, author of the famous book, Jesus of Nazareth. (Amos Oz: ‘I love Israel, but I don’t like it very much’)But Oz’s fascination with Jesus was as far as it went.

I regret that during my many visits to Arad over the years, I did not know until the last few years who Amos Oz was. I did not know that he lived there for some time. I had not yet read any of his books. Otherwise I would have loved to have asked sometime to sit down with him at Ali’s café to discuss his worldview, his life in Jerusalem during those early years and his views about Yeshua. Being the kind of man he was, I think he would have said yes. 

We so desperately need windows into the minds and souls of secular Israelis and secular Jews worldwide in praying for and sharing the Gospel with them. Through his writings, Amos Oz provided one of those windows. 

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