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An Orthodox Jew Finds Jesus

Charles Hoffman
October 29, 2018 No Comments

In July 1990, my wife, Sara, and I visited Poland as part of a pilgrimage. It was my first trip back since 1937, when I was four years old and visited my grandparents in Krakow. During our pilgrimage, we visited Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp. It was an extremely emotional experience for me. I saw pictures of little children who died in Auschwitz just because they were Jews. Items on display included children’s shoes, clothing, and other articles. I realized then that, but by the grace of God, I could have been in those pictures. Those shoes and belongings could have been mine.

I was born into a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany in October 1933. In that same year, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Soon afterwards, democratic Germany became a dictatorship, and Hitler was the Fuehrer (Leader). “Crystal Night” is the name given to the night of November 9, 1938. In most German cities, store windows of Jewish shops were broken; Jewish houses and apartments were de- stroyed; and synagogues were demolished and set on fire that night. Many Jews were arrested; some were beaten; some even killed. On that night, I was at my aunt’s apartment in Berlin. Gangs ran into the courtyard of the apartment complex, screaming hatred. In that complex was a synagogue, which they destroyed, along with all the sacred scrolls and prayer books. As a five-year-old Jewish boy, I was terrified.

After 1938, it became extremely difficult for Jews to leave Germany. By the grace of God, my mother and I left on May 13, 1939. With some nine hundred other Jews, we boarded a ship called the St. Louis, bound for Cuba, where my father was waiting for us. Upon arrival, the Cuban government would not grant us entry. After a week of futile negotiation, our ship turned toward the United States, hoping for asylum. The U.S. Congress debated our fate, then refused us entry. The German captain had no choice but to return to Europe. He did not want to go to Germany; he knew only too well what would happen to the Jewish passengers. Finally, after intense negotiations with several European countries, England, France, and Holland accepted us. My mother and I, including some three hundred who were Polish citizens, fortunately went to England. Though I was born in Germany, my mother and I were Polish citizens on account of my father being Polish. The six hundred Jews holding German citizenship were accepted by France and Holland. Eventually, almost all of the latter died in concentration camps when Nazi troops occupied those countries. Because of this ill-fated odyssey, my mother and I are considered Holocaust survivors.

My maternal grandmother and other relatives on my mother’s side were able to get out of Germany. Most of my Polish relatives on my father’s side were killed in concentration camps when the Germans occupied Poland. From 1939 to 1943, my mother and I lived in London, England. During most of that time, we experi- enced the terror of daily bombings. Coming to the United States in 1943 was a tremendous blessing. I quickly came to appreciate what a great country it is.

Although my mother was not well-versed in her Jewish Faith, she insisted that I be taught and practice the Orthodox Jewish tradition. Modern Judaism is divided into Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches, representing an extremely wide theological spectrum. It is the Orthodox branch, which today represents only about ten percent of all Judaism, that most closely mirrors the beliefs of Pharisaic Judaism at the time of Jesus.

While attending college in New York during the 1950s, some of my best friends were Christian. We had many discussions about religion. Up to that point in time I had not read the New Testament, and nothing my Christian friends said, nor the way they acted, attracted me to Jesus or Christianity.

Christians often told me that it was Jews who killed Jesus. I rejected this and blamed the Romans. However, while in college, I did read parts of the New Testament as an assignment in an English literature course — my first real encounter with Jesus Christ. His teachings impressed me; my misgiving was that He claimed equality with God. I felt it important to defend the doctrine of God’s unity. Also, Jesus was not the glorious Messiah that I had been taught to expect, but a man who had suffered and died. As an Orthodox Jew, I felt I had no choice but to reject Him.

In 1956, my wife, Irma, and I were married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. In 1957, I graduated from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of NYU) with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree. A few years after graduation, something began to bother me. I wanted to understand what motivated Jesus to make the claims He made about who He was and why God allowed Him and His Jewish followers to start a new religion called Christianity, which had now grown to over a billion believers, while we Jews were so relatively small in number. The Holy Spirit was encouraging me to search for answers by investigating the beliefs of Christianity from its foundation to the present. At the time, I did not realize that God would turn this investigation into a conversion process.

There were some weighty Christian claims that I had to address: that the one God is a Trinity of Persons; that Jesus, the Messiah, was God; that He became man; and that He had to suffer and die. I started with the one God being a Trinity since I felt that this would be the key to resolving the other issues. This investigation took several years of intensive study and prayer while the Holy Spirit and God’s abundant grace gradually enlightened me to the truth. Having the benefit of being raised in the Jewish Faith, the more I studied Jesus’ teachings, the more He fascinated me, and the more He challenged me to discover who He was, what He did, and what it meant for my life. It is because Jesus was a Jew that His words enabled me to understand why He was the Messiah who I believed was yet to come and to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

Once I had come to terms with the issues of the Trinity and the Incarnation, I began to investigate the inexplicable growth of Christianity. In 1961, more than one billion Christians inhabited the world two thousand years after a Jew named Jesus and His twelve Jewish followers had started Christianity. Jesus claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. But Jews, including His Apostles, had never conceived that the Messiah would be God Himself and would suffer and die on behalf of mankind. After Jesus’ death, His disciples claimed that He rose from the dead and then, after forty days, ascended to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, they claimed God’s Holy Spirit came upon them, and they went out to preach about Jesus. The Apostles were not from the Jewish elite. They were ordinary men, not especially skillful or gifted. Yet they converted many Jews to Christ. The first Christian community, made up exclusively of Jews, lived together lovingly, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47):

These remained faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers … And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all people.

That Jews could form this kind of community amazed me. Then along came Paul, a fanatical and learned Pharisee. He saw Christ in an apparition and started converting pagans. At that time in history, there were no rapid transit systems, radios, televisions, telephones, newspapers, or internet. Yet within thirty years after Jesus’ death, thousands of Christians suffered persecution and death for their belief. This tiny sect continued to grow over the next several hundred years in spite of the brutal persecution. What explanation could there be for this growth? Why didn’t this movement die in its infancy? If Jesus was an impostor and did not have God on His side, how could His followers have been so effective?

By Christmas of 1961, I had reached the conclusion that God, indeed, had been behind the growth of Christianity because it presented the truth. I will always thank the Trinity for allowing me to grasp that the God of Israel was indeed behind the growth of Christianity, as Rabbi Gamaliel had prophesied in Acts 5:27-42.

On the evening of December 24, 1961, an event took place that was to change my life forever. After spending a tense year struggling with the idea of conversion to Christianity and what effects it might have on my family, I decided to watch midnight Mass via television from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. During the consecration, as the bishop elevated the consecrated host, I looked at it and said, “I believe! My Lord and my God.” Instantly, all the tensions within me disappeared, and I felt at peace. Everything I had read and studied about Jesus came together. No more doubting or wandering! Jesus was my Savior and my God.

After accepting Jesus, I faced the important decision of choosing a church. The existence of so many Christian churches, each with its own structure and understanding of Scripture, overwhelmed me. As an Orthodox Jew, I found it difficult to believe that God would send His Son to create many competing Christian churches. Where was the unity that St. Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4:1-6? St. Paul would have been horrified if he knew that by the 21st century there would be great divisions within Christianity. Jesus, according to Scripture, intended that there be only one Church, founded on the Rock, Peter. We read in John 17:21 that, at the Last Supper, Jesus prayed to the Father:

May the all be one, Father; may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.

Men, not God, created the divisions. Divisions within Christianity are a scandal and an obstacle to belief in Jesus Christ.

If a Christian Church is truly the fulfillment of ancient Judaism, then it should possess characteristics similar to those of the ancient faith. What, then, was ancient Judaism? Judaism was a revealed religion with God-ordained faith, worship, and way of life. As an organic religion, Judaism dated from the time of Moses, the lawgiver, through whom God instituted the religious and civil requirements of the Israelites. The Torah and the other inspired, prophetical writings of the Old Testament set forth Judaism, pure and unadulterated. Based also upon the Oral Law, God is said to have communicated the Commandments to Moses. But Jews did not reduce them to writing during the priest-functioning ages of Israel. Hence, to this day, Orthodox Judaism holds that the source of revelation is both the written and the unwritten word of God, as contained in both Scripture and Tradition (Talmud). The Talmud is the main repository of Judaic Tradition. The Church’s belief in both Scripture and Tradition is why I focused mainly on Catholic sources during my conversion process.

It was Catholic beliefs and doctrines regarding papal infallibility, Mary, purgatory, and that God’s revelation comes to us through Scripture and Tradition that led me to believe that the Catholic Church was indeed the one true Church founded by Christ. But above all, it was the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist that proved to me that the Catholic Church was indeed the fulfillment of Judaism.

The Exodus event stands as the central fact of Israel’s history. It is the basis of Israel’s faith: redemption from Egypt and God’s selection of the Israelites as His people. His promise remains the basis of Israel’s hope. The whole purpose of the Passover celebration (the Seder) is to recall in thankfulness the saving works of the Exodus and to stir up hope in a greater deliverance yet to come.

We know from the New Testament Scriptures that Jesus looked at His life’s work and mission in terms of the Old Testament. It is significant, then, that the sinless Jesus chose the Passover meal, the sacramental memorial of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, as the sacramental memorial of the passage, or “exodus” (see Luke 9:31), of humanity from its fallen condition, due to man’s sin, to its transfigured life in God. In the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus linked the central event of the New Testament — His passion, death, and resurrection — with the central event of the Old Testament, the passage from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

In the book of Exodus, God orders the remembrance of the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt by celebrating, each year, the feast of the Passover (Exodus 12:14). As I studied these things, I wondered why Christians did not celebrate the Passover since God had ordered it to be observed forever. Jesus, being a Jew, celebrated the Passover each year (see John 2:13; 12:1). By the time I entered the Catholic Church, it had become evident to me that the Mass, which is a sacrifice and communion meal led by a priest, was indeed the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish Passover celebration and that God’s edict in Exodus 12:14 remains intact.

I decided to enter the Catholic Church because I believed that of all the thousands of Christian denominations, it alone possessed the authority given by Jesus, when He gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom, to be the authentic teacher of His Gospel, along with the other Apostles. Since the time of Moses, the authority that Moses and Aaron received from God was passed on from generation to generation. In the same manner, the authority given by Jesus to Peter was also passed on to Peter’s successors, the Bishops of Rome and those bishops in communion with him. They make up the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

One final observation: Judaism at the time of Jesus was much more like Catholicism (with priests leading worship centered on sacrifice), whereas rabbinic Judaism after the Temple’s destruction was much more like Protestantism (a rabbi, leading worship without blood sacrifice).

I had been taught to believe in a glorious Messiah who would restore Israel to greatness, raise the dead, and end suffering and death. In addition, the Messiah would restore the one Temple with its Holy of Holies, the priesthood with its High Priest, the altars for the animal sacrifices, and reinstate all the ancient laws. Once I came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, I saw it would be at His Second Coming that the resurrection of the dead and an end to suffering and death would take place. And I saw that Jesus had already fulfilled in the Catholic Church the other things I expected the future Messiah would do. These are:

  • All Catholic Churches throughout the world, with their tabernacles, in which resides the Real Presence of our Lord, are greater than the one Temple in Jerusalem with its Holy of Holies.
  • At the Last Supper, Christ instituted the new priesthood not based on genealogy. And the Catholic Church is the only Church that has a High Priest, the Pope in Rome, who is the successor of Peter.
  • In each Mass, a bloodless sacrifice takes place on an altar, with a priest presiding.
  • At the Last Supper, Christ made a new and everlasting covenant with all peoples.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, He reinstated the ancient laws with their real meaning (see Matthew 5–7).

I was baptized on February 23, 1963, at the age of 29, at Christ the King Catholic Church in Commack, NY. My wife, Irma, also a Jew, was baptized later that same year.

Sometimes the question is asked, “If a Jew becomes a Catholic, does he still remain a Jew?” If being a Jew means living the Mosaic way of life, the answer is no. While the convert from Judaism to the Church is no longer a Jew in the sectarian sense of the term, he continues, as a Catholic, in his love of the faith of his fathers of old in Israel, seeing in Catholic principles and practices Judaism full-bloomed.

Jesus cannot be fully understood unless Christians have a better understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ time (i.e., its beliefs, devotions, and practices). If you really want to know who Jesus is and what He said and did, then you need to interpret His words and deeds in their historical context. The Catholic Church teaches that the Old Testament is the promise and the New Testament is the fulfillment. But how can you truly understand the fulfillment if you have no clue as to what was the promise?

As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us:

It must be said that the message of Jesus is completely misunderstood if it is separated from the context of the faith and hope of the Chosen People: like John the Baptist, his direct Precursor, Jesus above all addresses Israel (cf. Mt 15:24) in order to “gather” it together in the eschatological time that arrived with him.

Jesus’ Jewish context has been repeatedly ignored and, as a result, many readers of the Gospels have not understood Him. When one focuses on the Jewish context of Jesus’ teachings, all His words not only begin to make sense, but they come alive in a way that is exciting and powerful. Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the only legitimate revelation from God is that which is contained in Scripture alone. They also believe that, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, one can interpret the Sacred Scriptures in order to know the truth that is contained in them. This has resulted in over 30,000 Christian denominations, each claiming to know the truth revealed in the Bible.

About a year after I entered the Church, I had a discussion with a Protestant friend on the interpretation of the Bible. How does one know the revealed truth? He told me that he was taught by his church that he could know the truth by reading the Bible and praying to the Holy Spirit for inspiration to interpret the Bible. I asked him, since I was a baptized Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, could I do the same in order to know the truth. He answered “Yes.” I then asked him whether he believed that when Jesus said, “This is My body; This is My blood” (Luke 22:19-20) and “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you” (John 6:53), He was speaking symbolically or literally. He replied, “Symbolically.”

I then said, “But I believe that Jesus was speaking literally. How come the Holy Spirit is telling you one thing and me another?” Since the Holy Spirit is incapable of misleading anyone, it seems only reasonable to believe that the gift of correctly interpreting the Bible does not reside in every Christian. My Orthodox Jewish faith also did not admit of private interpretation of Scripture.

I must also say something about our Blessed Mother Mary. There was a time when I belittled and made fun of the greatest woman in all Scripture, Mary, Mother of God. I couldn’t see why Catholics put her on a high pedestal. They prayed to her, lighted candles at her statues, and asked her for favors. I could not comprehend it. Of course, at the time I didn’t believe in Christ, either.

The Catholic Church has fostered great devotion to Mary from the earliest moments of Christian history. If all my life I had been taught to honor and praise the great Jewish women of the Old Tes- tament, then why should I not honor and praise the Jewish woman who gave to the world the Son of God? Very quickly, it became evident to me that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the greatest human being ever created, superior even to angels. Recognition that devotion to the Mother of God was warranted and important was a gift I received from my Jewish heritage.

Mary can never be an obstacle to Jesus. She can only lead us to a closer personal relationship with her Son. After all, who knew Him better than she did? I have a difficulty understanding why Mary is almost entirely ignored by most Protestants and many Catholics. If we ignore Mary, it can only be because we really do not know Jesus, either as God or as Man. But then, how can we understand the Fulfillment, which is the Gospel, if we know so little about the Promise, which are the Old Testament and the faith of Israel?

Months before my baptism, I prayed intensely to Jesus that my mother would not be devastated by my conversion. After all, it was she who raised me in the Jewish Faith. I had been the only one in my family who could pray in Hebrew and lead the Sabbath worship services as a cantor in the synagogue. She was very proud of that. When I told her that I had become Catholic, her reaction surprised us. She simply told me that I was nuts but that she still loved me and her grandson. I was also able to remain close to my mother’s three sisters and my cousins.

I had neglected, however, to pray for Irma’s parents. I thought, because they were Jews in name only, they wouldn’t care about our conversion. I was wrong. Her father never talked to us again and would not even acknowledge his grandson, whom he loved deeply, or the existence of a granddaughter he never saw. Irma’s mother kept in touch with us, saw us occasionally, and, of course, blamed me for the break in our family.

After my baptism, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the Catholic Church. So, in 1964, I started to pursue a degree in theology at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. In 1967, I received a Master’s degree in Theology. In 1968, my wife, children, and I moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. In 1970, I entered the Permanent Diaconate program and was ordained a permanent deacon on September 30, 1972. As a deacon, I preached once a month at several Masses, performed baptisms, and witnessed marriages. I was involved in private instruction of converts and also had a social ministry.

After a lengthy illness, my wife, Irma, died in 1982. I was laicized in 1984 so that I could marry my present wife, Sara. We have been blessed with five children and nineteen grandchildren.

At this critical time, I believe that the Church needs once again to proclaim Jesus Christ crucified, especially through its preaching, and in the manner of Saints Peter and Paul. The passion and death of our Lord is the greatest act of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness the world will ever know. We did not earn it, did not deserve it. Jesus experienced this agony solely because of His unconditional love for us.

Most Protestant churches display crosses but not crucifixes. Protestants will tell you Jesus was resurrected and lives in heaven; therefore, there is no need for a crucifix depicting His suffering and death. Messianic Jews, who try to bring other Jews to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, have no crosses. They say that the cross is a sign of persecution of Jews by Christians. How very sad!

Jesus, by means of His cross, leads us through our own exodus. We are still in the world, suffer, and must face death. Looking at and praying before a crucifix can make our exodus bearable. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead and is now glorified at the right hand of the Father. But while I still live in this world, it is His passion and death with which I can best identify. It helps me realize that my sufferings are nothing compared to His suffering and death. The passion and death of Jesus has been a constant reminder to me of the extremes God was willing to undergo for a sinner like me, and, indeed, all sinners.

Charles Hoffman

As a Jew, Charles Hoffman fled the Nazi Holocaust, settling with his mother in England. In 1943, they migrated to the United States, where he was educated and trained in the Orthodox Jewish faith. While studying at the university level, he encountered Christianity for the first time. Several years of investigation ensued, during which Charles found the keys to Christianity in his own Jewish faith. He came to believe in Christ and entered the Catholic Church, with his wife, Irma, following soon after. Subsequently, Charles was ordained a Permanent Deacon. Then his wife died. Charles chose to be laicized so that he could marry Sara, who worked for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Charles has written a number of booklets, such as The Holy Rosary, Rich in Jewish Tradition;Twice Chosen; Jewish Roots of the Catholic Church; The Mass: The Jewish Passover and Temple Sacrifice Fulfilled; and Who Was Responsible for the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ?

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