Editor's note: This article continues our 2023 Testimony series. While most of the articles in this series will be about how some of our Jewish friends came to know Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, we may also tell stories of how the Jewishness of Jesus and his Gospel have enriched the faith of Gentile followers of Jesus.
By Rosalind Stanley
Growing up, my siblings and I were the only Jews in our town, the only Jews in our school, and the only Jews most of our friends had ever known or would ever know. Do you know what that made me? Special. A de facto expert on all things Jewish, and – to my rural-Maine friends – all things New York, by extension.
At the risk of seeming full of myself, I pitied my friends, all of whom I assumed were Christians. They weren’t Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, after all. What else was left? The fact that Christian is not a catch-all term never occurred to me. They only got two holidays a year. They didn’t get extra days off from school. They didn’t get to go to an empty Chinese buffet or an empty movie theater on Christmas Day. What good was some ephemeral sense of “belonging,” I figured when compared to all of that?
Beginning around the time of my bat mitzvah1, that ease gave way to a growing sense of…restlessness? Discontent? Even disgust, sometimes? God, who had always felt as near to me as my own father, seemed distant. Things that had always been easy were suddenly hard. Looking around, I realized how few true believers – in anything – I knew. My Jewish friends seemed only to be in it for the bagels; my Christian friends were only in it for the presents in December and the chocolates at Easter. Talk about God, or Law, or Truth, to any of them, and their eyes would glaze over. It turned out that my parents were feeling a similar sense of dis-ease, so we found an Orthodox shul2 to attend and began an eight-year deep dive into Orthodox Judaism.
These were my people, I felt. They cared so deeply about the customs and the rules like I did. They spent hours – hours – laughing and arguing and talking about the most minuscule details in the Torah. Case in point: I attended two years of Hebrew school with this community, and do you know what we talked about? Genesis 22:2. That’s it. For two years. They were instantly recognizable to the outside world and not ashamed to be so: kippot,3 peyot,4 and tzitzit5 for the men, long skirts and bad wigs for the women. And – not only did they all know each other, they all knew each other’s rabbis, next-door neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and siblings, all the way back to Moses. For a loner who could never quite figure out how to be, this built-in community was a balm. It made me feel safe. If I could learn the customs and the rules, I’d be a Good Jew. And if I was a Good Jew, I’d be set. I’d have my community.
Please understand: I wasn’t looking to be convinced. Not in the slightest. I was looking for proof that I was right, and that Jesus really was just a rabbi or just a Good Person, or even just a lunatic.
Then came Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Boy, that movie came in like a wrecking ball, as they say. I was 18 and had agreed to see the movie that had already garnered such vitriol from the Jewish community and then submit my review for my rabbi’s newsletter.
There really are no words to explain the impact that film had on me.
What I saw in that theater stunned, moved, and terrified me. I must have known that Jesus had been crucified – mustn’t I have? – but I had certainly never thought about how it had felt. Nor had I ever heard about any of the other stuff: the prayer in Gethsemane, the mockery, the betrayals, the thieves who were crucified next to Jesus, none of it. It was like I’d spent my life playing in a puddle, a very nice puddle, mind you, and one I quite enjoyed, and then someone had turned me around and shown me the ocean. It had been there all along, and I’d never even thought of looking. Overwhelmed is not an adequate word for how I felt.
That night, I asked my father to come in and talk with me before I fell asleep. He’d grown up nominally Episcopalian and had attended both the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, graduating with a master’s degree in divinity, a master’s in psychology and religion, and a Ph.D. in religion and art. Then, he’d converted to Judaism to raise my siblings and me. He was – is – the smartest person I know, and he’d walked away from Jesus. After what I’d seen on the screen, I had to know how a person could do that. My dad was the only person I knew with that story in the back of his mind.
Please understand: I wasn’t looking to be convinced. Not in the slightest. I was looking for proof that I was right and that Jesus really was just a rabbi or just a Good Person, or even just a lunatic.
I asked him, why isn’t it true?
He told me he’d never quite gotten it about Jesus, who’d always been portrayed as a weak, effete, weeping figure to him in his Sunday school classes. He didn’t like that there was a conduit between him and God. There were more reasons than I can share here.
Matthew knew exactly who his audience was and exactly how they would understand what he was saying. ... And he did it well enough to terrify me, two thousand years and 5,300 miles away.
It was a long, gentle conversation, and my father’s reasons reassured me that I wasn’t crazy not to believe this thing that had sent thousands to martyrdom over the years. Eventually, he went to the bookshelf in the hallway and came back with a book in his hand. Handing it to me, he said, “This is the Bible I used in seminary. Read it for yourself.” He showed me where to find the start of the New Testament, which I’d never seen before, and said goodnight and closed the door.
Without any context telling me to start elsewhere, I started at the beginning – Matthew 1. The list of Jesus’ ancestry filled me with dread until I was crying too hard to see and practically hyperventilating. I slammed the book shut and hid it in my closet when I reached the end of the chapter and didn’t open a Bible again for three years.
What was so disturbing, you ask? In shul, during the Shabbat morning service, there’s always a Torah reading. That reading is split into seven sections. Each section is chanted by a different man. As each man comes up to the bima,6 he is introduced by the Gabbai7 as so-and-so, son of so-and-so, son of so-and-so…as far back as time or information allow. This is how Jews relate. When I would meet a Jew, I wouldn’t just give my name. I’d give my name and my rabbi’s name. Jews are not themselves; they are themselves in relation to their community.
The fact that the very first words of the New Testament I ever read echoed my own 21st century shul experience was not an accident. Matthew knew exactly who his audience was and exactly how they would understand what he was saying. There’s a reason he didn’t start with Jesus’ miracles or ministry and then get around to his family – he would have lost his audience by that point. These were Jews he was writing to; he needed to put Jesus into a framework for them.
And he did it well enough to terrify me, two thousand years and 5,300 miles away.
There is so much more to this story, so much more I could tell: the prayers from well-meaning strangers that made me roll my eyes; the increasing desperation with which I clung to Judaism, always thinking if I could just do more, know more, I’d feel safe again; the years – 15, to be exact – of anger and depression that came to a head one rainy November morning when I finally acknowledged my sin; the children – four of them, through whom God showed me little pieces of himself; the pastor that brought my parents to faith my junior year of college and then dealt with the aftermath (me); the man who was my friend before he ever tried to convert me and who held me when I cried about how scary and infuriating it was to change so much and so fast – after 13 years of marriage, he hasn’t stopped yet.
I know God had my salvation all worked out before I was even born, and I know that he’s still holding my yet-unsaved siblings closely, but… if I’m honest... When someone asks me for my story, it still feels like it started one winter night in 2004 when God used a new movie, an old Bible, and a conversation between father and daughter to point me in the right direction.
Rosalind Stanley is a mother of four. Originally from coastal Maine, she lived for 15 years in the mountains of southwest Virginia and now lives in Ambridge, PA, where her husband is a master of divinity student at Trinity School for Ministry. She received a B.A. in English from Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg) and has had her hand in some form of writing or communications work for the last 15 years. In her free time, she enjoys reading, walking, hiking, and cooking.
 Bat Mitzvah (bat mits-vah) n. A girl of 13 who has reached the age of religious majority; also the ceremony marking that event. Hebrew for “daughter of the commandment.” https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_B/hebrew_glossary_-_b.html
 Shul, (shool) n. A synagogue; (from “school”). https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Yiddish_Words/yiddish_words.html#Sh
 Kippot/Kippah (keep-PAH) n. lit. “dome” (for the head). For more information see https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_K/hebrew_glossary_-_k.html
 Peyot HaRosh (pe-oht hah-ROHSH) n. Earlocks; Sidelocks; peyot. For more information see https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_P/hebrew_glossary_-_p.html
 Tzitzit (tseet-tseet) n. Tzitzit. Fringes. For more information see https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_Ts/hebrew_glossary_-_ts.html
 Bimah (BEE-mah) n. Platform; pulpit; elevated platform in middle of synagogue. https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_B/hebrew_glossary_-_b.html
 Gabbai (gab-BAI) n. Tax-collector; in modern usage, a treasurer of a synagogue. For more information see https://hebrew4christians.com/Glossary/Hebrew_Glossary_-_G/hebrew_glossary_-_g.html
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