The first thing you need to know about Penina Taylor is that she was actually born a Jew, albeit to a couple of secular parents. As a kid, one of Taylor's friends introduced her to Jesus and her life would never be the same. She went to a Christian college, received a Bible Certificate, and even served as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade. For the next 17 years she became a hot ticket speaker in the Evangelical movement lecturing at churches, youth groups, and a smattering of other events.
It would have been interesting enough had the story ended there. But, like all good yarns, there was a twist, a third act not even Taylor saw coming. Her spiritual journey led her right back to Judaism.
She first made a pit-stop in Messianic Judaism, starting a Jews for Jesus synagogue and even creating a Messianic Passover Haggadah. She eventually dropped the Jesus part and returned to Judaism, where she is now Orthodox, married with four kids, and living in Israel.
Her stranger-than-fiction life story is recounted in her new memoir, Coming Full Circle. I caught up with Taylor to ask her about her spiritual journey, her feelings towards Jesus, and to find out if she has any regrets.
Why did you feel it was important to write about your journey?
My goal in writing the book was not just to communicate the more intricate details of my journey, but to enlighten. I wanted to help religious Jews understand the phenomenon behind why a secular Jew might become a Christian. I wanted to help Jewish community professionals across the religious spectrum to understand some of the factors that lead to such a choice as well as the culture and mindset involved in it. That way, these professionals might be better prepared to deal with such individuals when they encounter them as well as being able to understand them and what their needs are, especially when they are attempting to re-enter the Jewish community.
I also wanted my book to provide enough information for the Messianic Jew who might pick it up, to understand why I gave up my belief in Jesus. It was not my intention to preach, but it was certainly one of my goals to encourage to them to re-investigate Judaism and to understand that Judaism has rejected Jesus as the messiah for good reasons, reasons really worth taking a look at.
You write about starting a Messianic "Jews for Jesus" synagogue in Maryland and how you led some of your Jewish family members into that movement. Looking back now, how do you feel about that?
Most of the people who I brought to a faith in Jesus over the 17 years I was a Christian were not Jewish. While I now know I was wrong in what I taught them, that doesn't really bother me as much as the Jewish people whose lives I affected. One of the biggest regrets I have in my life is that I had a part in a couple of close family members becoming Christians and they have not yet returned to Judaism as the rest of my family has.
I suppose that's part of why I feel so strongly about using my gifts and talents to talk to Jewish people about Judaism and Christianity, encouraging them to develop a meaningful and relevant Jewish experience, rather than seeking it in another faith. I feel like I have a personal tikkun (corrective) to make and so I've devoted my life to this cause.
I think most Jews feel uncomfortable when Christians try to convert them. Coming from someone with your personal history, do you feel differently? Do you empathize with Christian missionaries at all?
There is an ongoing debate here in Israel about Christians who are missionaries and those who are supposedly not. Charles Spurgeon, a highly respected and influential preacher from the late 19th century once said that, "a Christian is either a missionary or an impostor." I know that all Christians who believe their Bible believe that it is their duty to proselytize. When I come across such an individual, I empathize with them only so far as I understand where they are coming from and what their motivation is.
That having been said, I usually find myself wanting to get into a discussion with them so that I can show them the lies that they not only believe, but actively preach. While it isn't my goal to destroy a Christian's faith, it is my goal to give them pause, so that maybe they won't proselytize to Jewish people they come across.
Outside of something theological, what's the biggest day-to-day difference between living the life of an Evangelical Christian and being an Orthodox Jew?
The answer to that question is practically another book in itself! The difference between living as an Evangelical Christian and being an Orthodox Jew really boils down to a difference in mindset. Instead of going through life with this feeling that as a person I am inadequate and therefore needed Jesus to make me adequate before God, I understand that as an Orthodox Jew, every aspect of my life has one of two purposes -- strengthening my relationship with God and elevating the mundane everyday things of life to a level of holiness, and then being a conduit to bring that holiness back down to earth.
Instead of my motivating factor being the fear of burning in Hell forever, my motivation is one of determination to fulfill the purpose for which I was created.
How has the Orthodox community treated you, especially now that you're going public with your full story?
When I first came back to Judaism, I came back on the heels of a situation where the Orthodox community had recently been infiltrated by missionaries pretending to be new converts to Judaism. Their abuse of the community set the Jewish world on its head and everyone was afraid of it happening again. As a result, it took me a while to earn their trust.
I worked very hard to establish myself as an honest baalat teshuvah (returnee to Judaism), and built a reputation of honesty and transparency, which has earned me a great deal of respect. At this point, I and my family have been completely accepted into most of the Orthodox community and I feel very much a part of it.
I think that going public with the story has helped the Orthodox community to better understand Messianic Judaism -- both its dangers and its appeal. It has also helped raise the alarm that there is a need for pro-active educationally based counter-missionary programming for this generation.
What do you hope your children learn from your experience?
My greatest hope for my children is that they will treasure their Jewish heritage, understanding that it is a precious gift from God. I hope and pray that they will take their experience growing up in my home and be able to transmit the love and passion for G-d and Judaism that they experienced here to the next generation.
Benyamin Cohen, the author of "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith," is the content director for the Mother Nature Network.