A Jewish Cantor Learns to Sing Jehovah’s Praises
As told to “Awake!” correspondent in Israel
AT THE age of seventeen I was studying at a college for rabbinical students in Istanbul. This is a seminary for the preparation and instruction of rabbis for the whole of Turkey. Due to my progress in my Torah and Talmud studies, I had been appointed as the cantor (an official who sings or chants religious music and leads the congregation in prayer) at a well-known synagogue. I was also appointed as instructor over two classes of younger students of the Torah. Both these assignments carried with them a steady salary.
Although my parents were not so enamored with the idea, I had planned to terminate my local studies there in Turkey and to transfer to a Yeshiva (a school for advanced Talmudic study) in order to complete my education there.
A Bible Discussion with Aftereffects
But at this stage came the turning point. One day two sisters of a friend of mine asked me to visit a certain family with them. “There’s someone calling there every week who argues against the teachings of Judaism,” they said. “But we are sure that if you would come along, you’d be able to win the argument.” I agreed to go along, and we fixed a time.
Equipped with my Bible in Hebrew, and wearing my traditional kippa or skullcap, I set out for the appointed place at 9 o’clock in the evening. The house was full of people, many of them curious onlookers. And there among them sat a young man from a Moslem family who took out a Bible in the Turkish language. I was quite taken aback at seeing someone from a Moslem family with a Bible, it being the Holy Book that I viewed as originating with the Jews, but I quickly got over my astonishment. Our discussion of various Biblical themes soon got under way.
I felt confident, in view of having a good knowledge of the Bible. But it became clear to me later that it is not enough to know what is written in the Scriptures, but one must also understand them. Besides this, many teachings that I had believed were based on the Bible proved, to my surprise, not to have any connection with the Bible at all, being instead traditions added later by various rabbis.
I have to admit that I had quite a tough time trying to defend my beliefs Biblically, the discussion continuing until 3 o’clock in the morning! However, I was sure that the points that I was not able to answer myself, the rabbi teachers would know. So I determined to ask one of them the following day.
One of the basic tenets of the Jewish faith, for example, is a belief in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But according to this Turkish man, the Bible itself does not indicate any need for building a material temple to God. In proof he quoted the words of Isaiah 66:1: “This is what Jehovah has said: ‘The heavens are my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where, then, is the house that you people can build for me, and where, then, is the place as a resting-place for me?’”
The next day I raised a question on this matter with the rabbi during a class lesson. I asked him: “On what basis do we believe that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, when God is not interested in such buildings, according to Isaiah 66:1?”
The rabbi glared at me suspiciously, and raised his voice as he asked me: “Are you going to the ‘Jehovists’ [Jehovah’s Christian witnesses]? Don’t you dare!” From the way that he spoke, it sounded as though I must indeed have committed some terrible sin, so I fervently denied it, “No! No!” But then he just went right on with the set lesson, leaving me without any answer to my question.
It really puzzled me how the rabbi could possibly have known that I had met with Jehovah’s Christian witnesses just by my asking this one question. Later I realized that the Jewish rabbis and the clergy of Christendom in the city simply could not tolerate the Witnesses, being alarmed at the growing number of people that were leaving their flocks and associating with Jehovah’s witnesses.
Study Convinces Me of Bible Truth
About two weeks later, while on my way to give a private lesson to one of my students, I heard someone calling me by name. I recognized him as the house owner where I had had that long discussion two weeks previously. “Well, what did you think about him?” he wanted to know.
“I wasn’t so greatly impressed,” I replied, not wanting to lose my self-respect.
“Would you like to meet one of Jehovah’s witnesses who is Jewish-born?” he inquired.
“I wouldn’t mind,” I said, but hastened to add, “but I’ll never leave my Jewish faith.”
We fixed a date for our meeting. This appointment proved to be the first in a series of weekly discussions, all held secretly for fear of the reactions that would inevitably come from my teachers, my parents and from the whole Jewish community. For all that, I decided to continue these discussions so as to be able to make a full and thorough comparison between my traditionalist Jewish studies at the seminary and the Bible teachings of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.
The more that I associated with the Witnesses and came to know them well, the more I became convinced that they have the Bible’s truth. So in due course came the time when I could not hold it in any longer, nor did I want to do so. I decided to discuss the Bible truths that I had learned, both with others in my own class at the college and with the students that I was currently teaching. Immediately came objections and opposition from every quarter. At the school I was summoned to the headmaster’s room. His language was unmistakable and, in fact, threatening—if I would not cease all association with Jehovah’s witnesses, he would dismiss me from the school. He also pressed me to give the names and addresses of the Witnesses that I knew, so that he could pass the information on to the police. Needless to say, I did not reveal anything to him.
The news of my becoming a Christian witness of Jehovah spread rapidly throughout the entire Jewish community in Istanbul. The members of the school began to avoid me, for fear of being influenced to become “converted” also. Often I had to contend with ridicule. Although this was not a pleasant experience it did not worry me unduly.
Incident Regarding Isaiah 9:6, 7
I well remember an experience that occurred in school one day. Due to the fact that the higher classes were small in size, three classes were joined together for Bible study. The ages of the students varied from seventeen to twenty-one. During a lesson with Rabbi M————— from a Jerusalem Yeshiva, we were studying the ninth chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. Regarding Isa 9 verse six of that chapter, the interpretation was given that the promised “child” that was born was none other than King Hezekiah of Judah. The rest of the students simply accepted this explanation without question. But I interrupted the teacher to ask how it was possible to attribute the fulfillment of this prophecy to Hezekiah when he certainly did not prove to be a “Mighty God,” an “Eternal Father,” or a “Prince of Peace,” nor did he establish the “throne of David” firmly or sit thereon forever.
He replied by asking me what I myself thought about the passage. I expressed my belief that it must surely refer to the Messiah, the one who would sit on David’s throne to time indefinite and who would establish eternal peace. Such an application of these words seemed to come as a complete surprise to the rabbi, he apparently not being used to opinions like these being expressed.
It was interesting to see how the whole class awoke from their lethargy and waited expectantly for the rabbi’s response. I could hear them whispering one to another: “He hasn’t changed his ideas.” “It seems that he’s still going to the ‘Jehovists.’” And even the rabbi’s response was to ask me: “Are you the one named David?” It was obvious that he had been warned about me, but did not know me personally. “I will deal with your question after the lesson,” he said.
The bell rang to terminate the class, but no one wanted to leave the classroom—they all waited to hear the rabbi’s answer to my question about the remarkable prophecy of Isaiah chapter nine, verses six and seven. But he announced that he would wait until the classroom was cleared before dealing with the matter, so they had to leave. However, all the students gathered outside the open window so as to listen to the discussion. The rabbi rose, scolded them and firmly closed the window before turning to me. “Is it you that I heard has got mixed up with the ‘Jehovists’? I advise you to stay away from them, and to accept the interpretations given by the rabbis.” That was the only answer that he gave to my question. With that he left the room.
After a while I was called before the local Jewish community committee for the area in which I lived, in order to clarify my position. I took the opportunity to present a full explanation of my outlook and beliefs. The committee’s decision regarding my case was made public the following sabbath when the committee chairman addressed the central synagogue and expressed their regrets about my “conversion” to Christianity. He announced my dismissal from my offices as cantor and teacher, and warned all, especially my friends, not to maintain any association with me, in view of my being no longer a member of the Jewish community.
Results of Meetings with Rabbis
I had, of course, been expecting that such steps would be taken in due course, so this was no surprise. However, this public announcement brought on bitter opposition from my parents. They even turned me out of the family home for a time. When they later allowed me back, they concentrated every effort on persuading me that my course was wrong. I told them that I was ready to meet any rabbi who could present to me convincing arguments. One rabbi expressed his readiness to reason with me and fixed an appointment for a discussion to take place at our local synagogue.
Present at this discussion were a number of my friends who had stopped speaking to me ever since my expulsion. The discussion centered around the subject of God’s name, Jehovah. In response to his claims that the divine name must never be mentioned or used and that it is not important in Jewish worship, I quoted a number of verses from the Bible that specifically state man’s obligation to call on God’s name, to teach his name to others and to use God’s name in prayer. At this he became enraged and started to shout at me. He even cursed the very name of Jehovah God! I could not refrain from asking him how he could possibly claim to be a spiritual leader of the nation and at the same time curse the name of Jehovah God his Creator. I reminded him of the case of Pharaoh of Egypt who refused to recognize Jehovah but who despised him and whose end was a bitter one. Apparently he realized the extreme seriousness of what he had done, for he began to deny the whole thing, swearing that he had not cursed the name of Jehovah.
As I left the synagogue that night and made my way home, I was conscious of someone following me along the road. It was one of my friends who had sat in at the discussion. He caught up with me and said: “Now I know that you have the truth. I myself heard how the rabbi lied, when he denied cursing the name of Jehovah.” In due course he began to study the Bible with one of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses and started to attend meetings of the Christian congregation.
One final effort was made to ‘straighten out’ my thinking when an uncle of mine fixed an appointment for me to meet the Chief Rabbi for all of Turkey. At this meeting were also present two other leading members of the Jewish community. It was held at the rabbi’s country summer residence, where he was staying at the time. Right from the start he derided the Witnesses as being no more than simple, ignorant people, using the term am ha-ʹarets (literally ‘people of the earth’). But then, when he eventually gave me an opportunity to state my views and I requested that he bring out his Bible, he replied that he did not have one in the house. I could not hide my utter amazement that in the home of the Chief Rabbi of the whole land there was not one copy of the Bible, despite the Scriptural injunction: “This book of the law should not depart from your mouth, and you must in an undertone read in it day and night.” (Josh. 1:8) Then he quickly tried to save face in front of the others present by saying that he had forgotten to transfer his Bible from his winter home in the city.
At the close of this meeting, those present advised me that my best course would be to move to Israel, for there I would be certain to be restored to the right path. Sometime later, in fact, I did move to Israel as an immigrant, but instead of their expectations being realized, I am still serving Jehovah as one of his witnesses, sharing regularly in the Christian ministry.
Instead of singing set portions of the Torah on sabbath days as a cantor in the synagogue, I am happy to be singing Jehovah’s praises daily, by proclaiming his name and kingdom in the homes of interested persons. This is my response to the Scriptural call: “Sing to Jehovah, bless his name.”—Ps. 96:2, 3.