Backwater news and commentary

A strange story out of Israel.

Michael Elkohen, born Elk, has been holding forth for a decade or so as an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi in Israel, all the while intending to lead Jews to his conception of Christianity.

He apparently was a fairly persuasive humbug, as he had many followers and was entrusted with circumcisions, copying Talmud scrolls and such. (On the other hand, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copland and Joel Osteen have plenty of followers, implausible though they be. Go figure and caveat emptor.)

Persuasive Elk/Elkohen has, however, been pretty persuasively unmasked, though he denies the accusations — sort of (He says something along the lines of "Yeah, I was doing that but I repented.") If you read the stories, though, I think you’ll discern that they’ve nailed him. Here are three very overlapping accounts:

  1. NJ ‘orthodox rabbi’ accused of double life as missionary in Israel
  2. EXCLUSIVE: Unmasked, the Christian missionary who went undercover in Jerusalem as an Orthodox rabbi
  3. ‘Good Jewish boy’ or chief ‘infiltrator’? NJ man spent years as fake rabbi in Israel, groups say

So much for the basic story. Here’s what fascinates me, though: Elk/Elkohen may not be unequivocally fake, even if the exposés are true.

Michael Elk came from the marriage of a non-observant Methodist and a non-observant Mennonite. (Rod Dreher wrote of his own youth something very like this, which my memory dishes up: "We didn’t go to church much, and the church we didn’t go to was Methodist.") Elk "got religion" around age 17 and went off to an evangelical college. By the time he graduated, he was living as a Messianic Jew and claiming that both of his parents were Jewish.

> Elk’s path to Judaism appears to have begun around the time of his graduation. By that time, he was in a serious relationship with Crystal Tracy, whom he had met at Eastern University. > > At the time, she told the JC, Elk was attending a ‘Messianic synagogue’ (for Jews who follow Jesus) called Beth Yeshua, in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. > > He also worshipped at a charismatic evangelical church called Vineyard. Yet he was dressing like an Orthodox Jew, always wearing a white shirt, black trousers and kippah.

(EXCLUSIVE: Unmasked, the Christian missionary who went undercover in Jerusalem as an Orthodox rabbi)

He convinced Ms. Terry that he’d discovered her Jewish ancestry, too, so they could be married — in a wedding with some Jewish accoutrements. He apparently did something similar with his second wife, after Ms. Terry woke up and dumped him (he’d lost a job over accusations of flim-flammery with the time clock). Then off he went to Israel with wife two, where they were fruitful, and multiplied, and filled the earth with five little Elkohens.

So what I thought was going to be the story of a very bright guy who had undergone extensive spy-like training starts to look like a story of a guy who got deluded fairly young and stayed deluded for the long haul — perhaps even up until now. It’s no less interesting a story for that, but press coverage seems to favor the humbug theory even while reporting the tidbits that make me suspect delusion. (Some of the Israel-based stories don’t seem very conversant with the countless Protestant groups around. One referred to the simple cross on the tombstone of Elk’s father as a "crucifix.")

Arguing against the delusion theory, though, is a 2011 MorningStar Ministries TV appearance:

> In the interview, he openly praised Jesus and prayed together with other Christian devotees. The Jews, he said, needed to be “stirred to jealousy” until they followed Christ.

(Id.) But overall, I get the impression that he was a Christian Judaizer, syncretistically blending Jewish ritual with Christian doctrine. (That’s why I suggest that he’s not unequivocally fake.) Or as one of the stories put it, perhaps not knowing that there are Christian Judaizers:

> The idea of these messianic groups is to blur distinctions in order to lure Jews who would otherwise resist the Christian message.

(NJ ‘orthodox rabbi’ accused of double life as missionary in Israel)

A version of such distinction-blurring was repudiated at the very first Council of the Christian Church, in Jerusalem, where the Church held that Gentile Christians need not be circumcised, as a substantial party of Jewish Christians argued they must be. Later, Paul harshly and thoroughly warned the Galatians about such Judaizing in the Epistle to the Galatians, chapters 3 and 4.

Moreover, MorningStar Ministries, allegedly his sponsoring missionary agency, bears a distinctive mark of dispensational premillennialism, a second heresy but one that tends to go along with evangelical Judaizing:

> As time went on, Ms Tracy said, Elk became more and more committed to the group. Elk considered going to their ministry school, she said, and was “very, very devoted” to their teachings. > > “He carried on with MorningStar after the divorce,” she recalled. “They are very much about converting the Jews to bring on the end times. I heard this all the time.”

(EXCLUSIVE: Unmasked, above)

So sincere or not, a conscious deceiver or a deluded heretic, "Rabbi" Michael Elkohen deserves adherence neither by Jews nor Gentile Christians who recognize heresies.

And he reportedly is not the only covert Christian Missionary working in Israel.

Restless Natives In Judeo-Christendom

> [A]dministrators made it clear to me that members of certain religious groups were overrepresented on campus. This was why the college wanted to get rid of chaplaincy programs. I suddenly realized what was at stake in the move from the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, or Thomas Chatterton Williams, for example, to the antiracism of Ibram Kendi or Robin DiAngelo. Telling me that the “number one priority of the college is antiracism,” my supervisor in Student Life explained:   > >> And because of the colleges’ commitment to antiracism and equity the question finally becomes, Is chaplaincy sustainable? Our Jewish community has the support of its alumni donor. How do we manage that? And Roman Catholic students and others interested in Catholicism can apply for grants from an endowed fund for Roman Catholic Studies. And in order to be antiracist we have to have equal resources for Hindu students, Muslim students, Buddhist students, or we need to do away with Spiritual Life groups all together. > > My supervisor was echoing Ibram X. Kendi, who writes, “If discrimination is creating equity then it is antiracist.” Inequity, in this case, means any difference between ethnic groups that isn’t reflected in the racial demographics of the United States. How does this relate to religion? I didn’t think that it did. But here this administrator decided that because Jews, being a tiny percentage of the US population are overrepresented in higher education generally, and at the college where I worked in particular, antiracism in this instance required that the number of Jewish students be reduced. Moreover, because there were 60 students at Shabbat and only a handful of Muslim students on campus, the Jewish group should not exist.

Anna Keating, The Problem with “Western” Religions on Campus – The Hedgehog Review

Contemptuous Familiarity with a Counterfeit

> I found a Christianity that had retained its ancient heart—a faith with living saints and a central ritual of deep and inexplicable power. I found a faith that, unlike the one I had seen as a boy, was not a dusty moral template but a mystical path, an ancient and rooted thing, pointing to a world in which the divine is not absent but everywhere present, moving in the mountains and the waters. The story I had heard a thousand times turned out to be a story I had never heard at all.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Cross and the Machine

I appreciate that Kingsnorth is open about his conversion, but also that he’s wise enough not to be argumentative about it ("None of this is rationally explicable, and there is no point in arguing with me about it. There is no point in my arguing with myself about it: I gave up after a while."). That’s better than how I did it.

The Averted Gaze

I recently watched the Netflix documentary on Operation Varsity Blues and would summarize it as timorous.

Wealthy clients of Rick Singer spent in the high six-figures or more to get their failsons and boopsies into elite schools, making it likelier that they would graduate from merely "wealthy" to "upper-class," just one step down from fully "elite" (see Aaron M. Renn, Rediscovering E. Digby Baltzell’s Sociology of Elites (American Affairs Journal).

But that’s only part of the story. Liberal ameliorative legislation like Title IX and the ADA set the stage for some of Singer’s trickery (while not actually creating "legal loopholes").

> The water polo angle may give the scandal a WASPy flavor but that’s a red herring … > > In fact, if the water polo angle signifies anything, it’s the crucial importance of liberal policies in making Singer’s schemes possible. The reason schools have so many recruitment slots in boutique sports like women’s crew is Title IX, which forced colleges to equalize spending on men’s and women’s athletics. “Institutions with football programs can have upwards of 100 men on those teams,” Unacceptable explains. “To maintain equitable opportunity, they may have built really, really big women’s rowing programs.” > > The biggest silent revolution in education today is the proliferation of diagnosed disabilities among affluent students. In the last ten years, elite parents discovered that getting their kid labeled with ADHD or anxiety allows them to request special accommodations on tests, like extra time or a private room. Singer encouraged clients to get bogus diagnoses so he could channel their kids to special testing sites and put his designated proctor in the room with them to correct their answers. > > Students with special accommodations used to have asterisks next to their SAT scores when the College Board sent them out. In 2003, those asterisks were removed — not because wealthy parents flexed their influence, but because of a civil rights lawsuit brought by a disability advocacy group. Eliminating the “scarlet asterisk” would protect disabled students from discrimination, they said. Instead it enabled canny operators like Singer to commit fraud on a large scale.

Helen Andrews, Operation Varsity Blues: Elite Anxiety, Not Elite Privilege.

> Because of Title IX gender equity rules, colleges are far more likely to have a women’s crew team than a men’s squad. Athletic departments use women’s crew teams to balance out male sports like football and wrestling. Unlike men’s rowing, women’s crew is an official NCAA sport with a sanctioned championship. Women’s Division I rowing teams are allowed to hand out the equivalent of 20 full scholarships, more than any other women’s sport.

For an edge in Ivy League admissions, grab an oar and row – Chicago Tribune

See also Hal Berghel, A Critical Look at the 2019 College Admissions Scandal

Reporting on bad behavior by rich celebrities is easy, but for me, the untold parts of the story, the parts too hot to handle, include (1) the insidious corruption of education by sports and (2) the insidious corruptibility of ameliorative legislation.

Is the Sum of Evangelical Parachurch Ministries Called "Christendom"?

I’m not exactly sour on David French, but I read him ever more critically when he (currently a Calvinist with a meandering background) addresses Christian matters. Most recently, How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity seems both formulaic and confused:

  • He provincially conflates Evangelical "parachurch" ministries with "Christendom" even though the ministries he names neither sought nor gained sway over governments. (See below.)
  • He poisons the well by insinuating that doctrinally orthodox, spiritually lukewarm institutions are in it for the money.
  • He implies that lukewarm orthodox Christians ("Christendom") were a problem to be solved rather than an inevitability.

There’s probably more.

I fully appreciate that the sexual abuses of Ravi Zacharias and Kanakuk Kamp have been much on French’s mind, but to address them as a problem of "Christendom" reads like a brainstorm he had but should have abandoned as far too facile. It seems, though, that French had this "evangelical parachurch ministries as Christendom" brainstorm a few years ago and clings to it still:

> The Evangelical analogue to the state religious establishments of years past — the “Christendom” that all-too-often redefined the faith as a kind of cultural and legal conformity, a rote adherence to external religious dictates — is the creation of a series of extraordinarily wealthy, powerful, and influential institutions that not only reach and influence Americans by the tens of millions, but also shape the course and conduct of the domestic and foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

I’m unconvinced that the Evangelical institutions are as powerful and influential as French thinks. I’m even less convinced that they’re a plausible analogy to "Christendom" as traditionally understood.

But I’ve lamented that when Americans hear "Christian" they probably think of Evangelicals, or perhaps Roman Catholics in a few instances, and that neither tradition remotely represents me. So maybe those Evangelical institutions have a bigger "Christendom-like" footprint than I’m appreciating.


A local grade school principal challenged her students to collect 1000 cereal boxes in a week, promising that if they did, she’d let them duct-tape her to the wall. They did and she did.

In completely unrelated news, schoolchildren reportedly have problems with disrespecting their teachers and administrators.

> "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient," he explains. "There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

Bill Gates, quoted in In Search of the Real Bill Gates – TIME, 1/13/1997.

I must be aiming somewhere other than where Bill Gates is aiming, because I consider church indispensible.

> Doyle has 43,000 Twitter followers, a fan base 20 times smaller than that of the Sarcastic Mars Rover parody account.

How Substack Soap Operas Change the Media Business – The Atlantic

Comparative measures of smallness, fewness and such are a usage I’ll never consider proper.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Marcionite Christology

Striking insight:

N. T. Wright has argued that most of the Christology of the past two hundred years, Protestant and Catholic, has been largely Marcionite in form—that is to say, developed in almost complete abstraction from the Old Testament. Consider Schleiermacher’s presentation of Jesus as the human being with a constantly potent God-consciousness, or Kant’s account of the archetype of the person perfectly pleasing to God, or Bultmann’s paragon of the existential choice, or Tillich’s appearance of the new being under the conditions of estrangement, or Rahner’s insistence that Christology is fully realized anthropology. All of these approaches are intelligible apart from the dense texture of Old Testament revelation and expectation. When Jesus is presented in this manner, he devolves into a sage, an exemplar of moral virtue, or a teacher of timeless truths. But evangelization—the declaration of good news—has precious little to do with any of this. It has to do with the startling announcement that the story of Israel has come to its climax, or to state it a bit differently, that the promises made to Israel have been fulfilled. Not to understand Israel, therefore, is not to understand why Jesus represents such good news.

(Robert Barron, Evangelizing the Nones)

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Can these bones live?

I sometimes have trouble focusing. My mind careens around like a pinball. I see connections between X and Y and my mind races off to how Y connects to Z and so forth. Or it can be as simple as “what’s the next thing to sing in this long Good Friday service?” So I sometimes miss things.

I have it on pretty good authority that I’m not alone in this, by the way, and that single-mindedness is part of that toward which our salvation – our spiritual healing and restoration – tends.

But last night, my mind stopped racing for a moment. John nearby was chanting Ezekiel chapter 37 – “the Spirit of the Lord … set me in the midst of the plain, which was full of human bones ….”

I thought that was a prophecy of the restoration of Israel! What’s it doing in a Good Friday service!?

The Fathers taught that it prophesies the Final Resurrection:

Great is the lovingkindness of the Lord, that the prophet is taken as a witness of the future resurrection, that we, too might see it with his eyes … We notice here how the operations of the Spirit of life are again resumed; we know after what manner the dead are raised from the opening tombs … And finally, he who has believed that the dead shall rise again ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump (for the trumpet shall sound) … shall be caught up among the first in the clouds to meet Christ in the air’; he who has not believed shall be left, and subject himself to the sentence by his own unbelief.

(Ambrose of Milan via the Orthodox Study Bible.)

Again, this except from the daily Dynamis devotional:

Ezekiel 37:1-14    (4/3-4/16)     Prophecy at Lamentations Orthros of Great &Holy Saturday

The Mystery of Resurrection: Ezekiel  37:1-14 SAAS, especially vs. 3: “Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord, You know this.’” God speaks through His Prophet Ezekiel to show us …a great multitude of bones on the face of the plain.  They were very dry (Ezek. 37:1,2). We confront bleak death. Can it be undone?

Archpriest Georges Florovsky faces the vast plain of dry death, and he adds a notable disclaimer: “Human death did not belong to the Divine order of Creation.  It was not normal or natural for man to die.”  Death is not according to the will of God.  It is alien, an enemy in league with the father of lies, the purveyor of death.  Father Florovsky recalls that in Scripture death is “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23).  Therefore, he stoutly refuses the conception of death “…as a release of an immortal soul out of the bondage of the body.”  Rather, he counters with the great truth that “…death is not a release, it is a catastrophe,” following the world-view of Scripture.

By bringing us into the valley of dead, dry bones, God sets a mystery before us:  “Can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3).  Cancer, heart attacks, tsunamis, suicide bombers, earthquakes, and the graves of our war dead press us to say, “Unlikely!”  But the Prophet does not answer this way.  He defers to the power, mercy, and boundless love of God.  “O Lord, You know this” (vs.3).  Yes, death defies us and the image of God within us.  We cry out, “What of death, O Lord?”  Is the end just weathered bones on the valley floor of hades?

But, the word of the Lord stops the mind to arrest our attention: “Thus says the Lord to these bones: ‘Behold, I will bring the Spirit of life upon you. I will put muscles on you and bring flesh upon you.  I will cover you with skin and put my Spirit into you.  Then you shall live and know that I am the Lord’”(vss. 4-6).  The Prophet Ezekiel was a deported slave. The life of Israel was virtually ended by conquest and deportation.  Still, God promised, “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your tombs, bring you up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel” (vs. 12).

God’s promise was no less incredible for the disciples scattered at the arrest and  crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.  He died on the cross.  He crossed into the plain of dry bones. Where was God with His promise?  Learn from Ezekiel.  The Prophet obeyed God: “So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the Spirit entered into them and they lived and stood upon their feet, and exceeding great assembly” (vs. 10).  Likewise, the Lord Jesus kept His promise as well: “They will scourge Him and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again” (Lk. 18:33).  “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep….even so in Christ all shall be made alive” ( 1 Cor. 15:20,22).  Ezekiel discloses the way. The Lord Jesus’ Resurrection is just the beginning.  And many shall follow!

The gates of Hades didst Thou shatter, O Lord, and by Thy death Thou didst destroy death.  And Thou didst free the race of man, granting life and great mercy to the world.

A Myth lingering

I’ve long been fascinated by the academic idea of “myth” as roughly “the stories by which we live our lives.” In that sense, a myth can be true – indeed, one would hope we’d live according to truth, not delusion.

As Wikipedia says in its opening paragraph on mythology:

…The term “myth” is often used colloquially to refer to a false story; however, the academic use of the term generally does not pass judgment on its truth or falsity. In the study of folklore, a myth is a religious narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. Many scholars in other fields use the term “myth” in somewhat different ways. In a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story...

It was in this academic sense that C.S. Lewis wrote of myth becoming fact in the incarnation of Christ.

There was a time in my life when myth becoming fact would have sounded like gibberish – arrestingly expressed, but gibberish. I know this to a certainty, though I discovered Lewis in college, because I remember branding a new faculty member in my evangelical Protestant boarding high school as “liberal” because he spoke of certain fiction (probably Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner) as being “true.” “Truth” was “fact” – like in the Bible – I knew deep in my bones.

How I could believe that when Christ said “I am the … truth” is beyond me.  (It’s obligatory, it seems, for former Evangelicals to call their upbringing “fundamentalist,” but this is one intellectual roadblock I had that seems to warrant the equation of evangelicalism and fundamentalism – at least as expressed at my boarding school.)

One such true myth by which we refuse to live is the Dreyfus affair. The Dreyfus affair mythically is about scapegoating and bigotry, with the bending of the rule of law thrown in for good measure. (Oh my! People do still hear about Dreyfus, don’t they? It’s not a myth if they don’t.)

I say we “refuse to live by it because of interment of Japanese during World War II and the interment of suspected bad guys at Guantanamo Bay even today. Sometimes, wrongful convictions through prosecutorial misconduct generally is the phenomenon writ small.

There is a review of a newish book on the Dreyfus affair at the Financial Times which may be of interest. I had forgotten how long the scandal echoed loudly in France, and I had no idea that it may have influenced Theodore Herzl to found modern Zionism.

I have tended to admire France, grudgingly (I was treated as haughtily there as any other American), for marching to its own drummer, but the record clearly is not all admirable.

Then again, what history is all admirable? Even modern Israel is writing chapters that, G*d willing, they will some day rue.