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A Mennonite Preacher Discovers Torah

I grew up in a typical suburban family in the 'fifties and 'sixties with very little to no religious influences. In the turmoil of my high school days I got involved in a "discussion group" organized by the pastor of the Mennonite Brotherhood, the denomination to which my mother nominally belonged (my father was born Jewish but he intentionally assimilated and denied any religious inclination). This was my first serious confrontation with what is commonly known as "the Bible." It fascinated me and this confrontation led to an increasingly religious outlook on life, so much so that I decided to become a minister of religion and planned to study theology. "Religion" in this context was Christianity of course and my story is probably typical for a great many pastors in Protestant denominations who are active in their calling today.

What "went wrong" with me? Why am I today a Torah observant Jew? The answer to this obvious question lies in my continuing study of theology. In almost all Christian theological seminaries and faculties beginning students are required to learn Hebrew in order to be able to read the "Old Testament" in the original language. This study struck a resonant chord in me, quite in contrast to my fellow students. To them the Hebrew exam at the end of the first year of the curriculum was a major obstacle dreaded by many. Not for me: I took to the holy tongue like a fish to water.

When in a later stage we were taught "Exegesis of the Old Testament", I noticed that virtually everybody was content to study the texts IN TRANSLATION, totally relying on various Christian commentaries in German, English or French. Hebrew seemed all but forgotten! I was extremely dissatisfied with this state of affairs and began to have grave suspicions about the reliability of these Christian commentaries. Of course, in those days I believed in Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior and I was involved with Evangelical movements like Campus Crusade For Christ and Youth For Christ. I was convinced that I was saved and even "spoke in tongues", that is, I uttered unintelligible sounds when in religious ecstasy, sounds which other "brothers" or "sisters" claimed to understand. All the standard Evangelical explanations of the "Old Testament" were available to me. If I had only been able to set aside any rational thought, I would today be a "born again Christian" like I was in those days.

However, I was not able to swallow the missionary "explanations" and continued to feel bothered with glaring contradictions between Christian theology and the plain meaning of the Hebrew texts contained in the "Old Testament". A small example: the Torah charges the Jewish nation with eternal commandments like observance of Shabbat and the Festivals. The New Testament is quite clear that these observances are, at best, not very important. In the world of the New Testament the one and only important issue is whether or not you believe that a certain Jewish carpenter was an incarnation of the Almighty God and that that man died a horrible death as a price that God demands as a ransom for your soul. In the shadow of that one crucial issue, ALL OTHER THINGS become utterly unimportant. Most notably, a believer in this man Jesus is supposed to become automatically a perfect human being incapable of sin. No divine code of conduct is really needed anymore: Jesus does it all! In the Torah, by contrast, we find very detailed "instructions for life" which are meant, by the words of the Torah itself, to bring a Jew nearer to his Maker and to perfect him or her in the service of God. There is no trace of the philosophies of the New Testament to be found in the Torah. It became crystal clear to me that the "Old Testament" and the New Testament are utterly incompatible. Yet, only the New Testament contained the life story of that man in whom I had put all my trust: Jesus. And, yet again, the Christians, too, believe that the Torah was given to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai. The apostle Paul is attributed saying that the Torah is "good, perfect and holy"! What was going on??

I soon discovered that the Christian theologians had "solved" this glaring contradiction by re-interpreting the "Old Testament" so radically that it becomes, in fact, a totally different document altogether! The "law" (Christian parlance for "Torah") is there to convict of sin. All those marvelous ideas like Shabbat, tzedakah (social justice), teshuvah (return to God) etc. etc. are to Christians only a devious trap that God, heaven forbid, has set for the nation that He calls His peculiar treasure among the nations, to cause them to stumble and lose their eternal soul! The Torah means nothing in reality to Christians: it is completely subject to any twisted explanation whenever the message of the Gospel of Jesus seems to demand that.

However, the Christians confess that "Jesus is the Messiah ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES"!! What other Scriptures do they mean than the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets) and Kethuvim (Writings)? Well, I seemed to have found the solution to this riddle. All I had to do was learn those Scriptures, Tanach, FIRST and check the Christian claim. Only, how to go about learning the "Old Testament" without Christian commentaries which already presuppose belief in Jesus as a key to understand the "Old Testament"? I tried to understand the text "as is" and got a bit underway. Not much, though, because Tanach isn't an easy book.

One day I walked into the library of the university and saw on a shelf a chumash (a Hebrew Torah edition) with Rashi's commentary, the foremost of the Jewish Bible scholars. I had vaguely heard of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) and imagined that his commentary must be full with pharisaic hypocrisy, legalistic casuistics and other horrors which I subconsciously had learned to associate with the Jewish religion, under the influence of the New Testament. How surprised I was when I took the book from the shelf and started to read it (very slowly, for my understanding of Hebrew was not very good at the time and the typical Rashi script wasn't very helpful either!): for the first time I read explanations of the "Old Testament" which were faithful to the plain meaning of the text without trying to make the text say things which are not there.

From that moment on things moved quicker than I could believe: as a result of my study of Torah (without the benefit of any guidance or teachers), I found out that I much preferred to believe God than Jesus. Oh horror of horrors! I found myself losing my Christian faith rapidly. All the time a clear vision of God had been eclipsed by the figure of Jesus, a man of flesh and blood. For the sake of that man I had disregarded God's own clear message in His own revelation to His people: the Torah which was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.

I looked around for teachers and guidance but could not find any. The Jewish community where I lived was extremely reluctant to get involved with this Mennonite preacher who could not yet get himself to admit that he wasn't a Christian anymore. I decided to break with it all. I resigned as a preacher, left the Church that I belonged to, gave up my theological study, sold my second-hand car and bought an airplane ticket to Israel. I did not have anywhere to go in Israel except for some old friends of my parents who lived there. They took me into their home. They were totally irreligious and were amused to meet this strange young man who seemed on a spiritual quest for truth. What did I do next? Oh yes, I went to pray at the Western Wall. I had heard that God's presence never ceased to be manifest at that place, according to ancient Jewish belief. So I went there every day, feeling at home among the Jews praying there, without having much of a clue as to what was going on.

One Thursday, a man approached me: "Would you like to spend a Shabbat with a religious family?" I jumped at the opportunity and said: "Yes, please!" I waited until he had written down my name and telephone number and had promised to call me that evening to give me the details of the family where he would put me up. Then I sprung my surprise on him: "There is one thing you should know: I'm not Jewish." What would the man do? Tell me that in that case all bets were off?? Nothing of the kind! He didn't blink an eye and seemed to ignore my remark. So, I stayed with this family over Shabbat and enjoyed it thoroughly. The tranquillity of a neighborhood permeated with an atmosphere of the sanctity of Shabbat, the prayer in the shul where everybody seemed at home: what a contrast with what I had seen in Christianity! Here were people who managed to live a life that reflects Torah in all its aspects! Here God mattered, not a man. Here life mattered as much as the afterlife! I had tasted a life that I wanted to share . I had not realized that my quest for truth might lead to such a radical decision but when it came that far, I was singlemindedly pursuing it.

The rest of my story is not terribly extraordinary. I was lucky enough to find a yeshiva that was willing to take me in, pending my full adoption into the community of Israel. A few months later, after circumcision according to halacha (Jewish law). I went into a mikveh as a Gentile without a spiritual home and emerged as a Jew, co-heir to that marvelous gift, the Torah.

How I learned in Yeshiva, how I found my wife (who happens to be descended from a string of prominent rabbis), how we have been blessed with three wonderful children, who are privileged to have all those things that their father had to look for and search out against the stream of his environment, well, it is not different from stories that so many born Jews who have rediscovered their own heritage can tell. Today, Baruch HaShem, I am not different from the guy next to me in shul. What can I say? God is good. His ways are not like the ways of flesh and blood. He does marvelous things. It is good to be under the wings of His presence, the Shechinah.

"Nestor Komer" is a pseudonym, named after a ninth century priest who converted to Judaism and defended Judaism against his Christian ex-colleagues. The author of this piece requested privacy because, as he put it so succinctly, "I'm pretty much 'stam a Yid' [just a Jew]" and doesn't like to make a big deal about his past. It must be stated that though he modestly protests that he has far to go with his learning, he has a worldwide reputation as a dedicated Jew and a 'mensch'.

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