Isac Feinstein and my rebirth
The man who was to play a very special role in all this was
Isac Feinstein, one of the most glorious triumphs the grace of
Jesus has won among the Jewish people.
At the time of his conversion he was a minor business executive.
One evening, in a Christian gathering, he heard the message of
Jesus. Immediately he believed. When he came home, he ran up
to the bedroom of his parents, who had already retired for the
night, woke them up and exclaimed : “I have found the Messiah !”
From that evening he never wavered in his faith, although
he encountered great resistance from his family.
His father, a pious Jew, tried to persuade him to deny Jesus.
When this proved unsuccessful, he arranged for the ceremony to
be carried out which is prescribed by rabbis in cases of this kind.
He declared that his son was dead, carried out a symbolic burial
with a coffin in which the branch of a tree was placed, tore his
clothes, and wept for his son together with his family, sitting
on the floor for seven whole days.
All this time the “dead man” rejoiced in a life which was
richer than ever, and he grew in grace and knowledge of God.
After he had been a Christian for some time, he prepared to
work heart and soul to spread the gospel among the Jews of
Rumania. He took a missionary training in Poland, and on his
return to Rumania he entered the service of the Norwegian
Israel Mission in Galatz.
This man had an unlimited capacity for work. He published
a periodical for adults and one for children, as well as countless
Christian pamphlets. He preached all over the country, and
wrote numerous letters. He became an outstanding personality
among the disciples of Jesus in Rumania, a pillar of God’s temple.
But in order to assess a man’s real value, one must consider the
conclusion of his career. Napoleon wrote: “Great men are
meteors which are extinguished in order to give light to the
universe.” But Napoleon gave no light to the universe; on the
contrary, he caused the world to bleed and weep, by creating a
science without which the world would have been a better place –
the science of warfare.
Meteors do not bring light to the universe: even the biggest
meteor merely leaves behind briefly a transient stream of light
which the vast universe does not even notice. The people who
are the light of the world are those who add sacrifice to sacrifice-
just as islands are formed of coral, one tiny body upon the other.
They are the people who are seldom known, who generally re-
main anonymous, who play a humble role in raising children,
running a household, in art, in political, economic and academic
life; these are the people who shine with truth, love and faith,
shedding a light on those around them. Feinstein was such a
Feinstein was still a young man when war broke out. He was
thirty-seven years old, a pastor in a Jewish-Christian con-
gregation he had formed in Jassy, and from here his benevolent
activity spread over the whole country.
The atmosphere in Jassy was infected with anti-Semitism,
with the ever-present overhanging threat of a pogrom. Feinstein
was on a short visit to Bucharest, staying in my flat. I suggested
that he should not return to Jassy, where death lay in wait for him.
“We could send a Rumanian brother to bring your wife and your
six small children back to Bucharest.”
He answered: “The shepherd’s duty is to die together with
his flock. I know they will kill me, but I cannot abandon my
brethren. I am returning to Jassy.”
A few days after his return, on June 28th, 1941, the pogrom
broke loose. The number of Jews killed was eleven thousand.
Rumanians, too, were killed if they looked like Jews. Christian
Jews were also killed by the Fascist authorities and by the
incensed populace, who maintained that the country was waging
a holy crusade.
Feinstein was among those arrested. He was taken at first to
the police prison. Criminals who were in prison at that time have
recounted since their release that Feinstein told the Jews not to
have any illusions. He knew that they would be killed, and he
exhorted them to be converted in order that they might prepare
to meet their God.
Thousands of Jews were crammed together in sealed cattle-
trucks, and sent off beneath the scorching sun, without a drop of
water, with the result that most of them were suffocated. Among
these was Feinstein. The few survivors were interned in a
Some of these related how, when Feinstein realised that death
was at hand, he turned to a rabbi who was standing near him
and said : “It is time for us to sing the psalms!”
He died while the rabbi was reciting the psalms aloud, and
Feinstein was explaining what they foretold about Jesus. When
death came with suffocation, his head was resting on the rabbi’s
shoulder. The rabbi himself died only a few minutes later—a
Mosaic Jew and a Christian Jew were the victims of the same
hatred, the hatred which in Rumania was doubly vile because
it masqueraded behind the name of “Christian”.
Not a single man from the Jewish-Christian congregation
in Jassy survived; all were killed in the pogrom. Only a few girls
escaped with their lives.
I have described Feinstein’s death—a martyr of the Christian
faith who was of the Jewish race.
This outstanding man, who had a shepherd’s heart such as
I have seldom come across since, played an important role in
the spiritual crisis through which I passed.
He used to visit our home and I would talk to him about my
sin, and how impossible it was for me to rid myself of it. He
explained that Jesus’s words, “Judge not”, referred not only to
pther people, but also to myself. “In spiritual matters any form
of self-diagnosis is wrong. When you raise your right hand in
front of a mirror, the mirror will show you that you are raising
your left hand, and when you stand in front of a mirror with
your face towards the south, it will show you standing with your
face towards the north. Your conscience mirrors your spiritual
condition, and for that reason your conscience will distort reality
unless it is illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
“The Gospels tell us of two men who went up to the temple to
pray: one was a Pharisee, the other a publican. The first man
diagnosed himself, and was sincere when he came to the con-
clusion that he was good because he fasted often, and gave
generously to the temple. The other man did the same thing, but
he discovered that he was sinful because he lived on ill-gotten
gains. The self-diagnosis of both men was wrong. God does not
take account of what is seen on the surface, but of what is hidden
in the hearts of men. In the depths of his heart the first man was
a proud person, condemning others, while the publican was
humble, and confessed his sin.”
“Don’t judge yourself,” was the advice Feinstem always gave
me. “Don’t distress yourself, don’t worry yourself about your
sin. It is written, ‘Take no thought for your soul* [Matt. 6.25, in
the original Greek version]. The care of the soul is Jesus’s
concern. Just tell Him quite simply about your sin, and from
that moment it will be His concern to deal with it.
“Our own understanding is the hypocrite whom Jesus re-
proaches for observing the mote in his brother’s eye, which is the
sin of brother flesh, a result of our heredity, a faulty upbringing,
the pressure of social circumstances, the influence of the devil,
and a large number of imponderable factors. But the hypocrisy of
the understanding lies in the fact that it does not come down from
the lofty pinnacle from which it judges all things and all men, in
order to observe the beam in its own eye—its false criteria of
truth, its selfishness, its passion, its ignorance of condemning
oneself, the fact that it is not to be trusted. The proof that the
beam is in the eye of reason, is that reason cannot remove the
mote from its brother’s eye, but is merely content to reproach
him for it, and make life intolerable for him.
“Try to conquer sin by making an indirect attack on it. In the
heart, Satan is strong, because he provides the heart with
pleasures. Here it is difficult to overcome him. In the reason he is
weak, because here he creates only difficulties. ‘Be ye transformed
by the renewing of your mind,’ says Paul (Rom. 12.2). Jesus fought
His battle at Golgotha, which in Aramaic means ‘The Place of
the Skull’. This is where you, too, must fight your battle. Make
every thought a captive, in obedience to Christ. Accept Him
as the criterion of truth. Superficial truth, which is easily grasped,
will not change men’s hearts. The daily truth which you ponder
deeply, which you contantly chew over until it is transformed
within you, will undoubtedly change your life.
“The Talmud tells the story of the rabbi Akiba, who as a young
man was both ignorant and profane, and whose intelligence was
not fully developed. But he had a wife who had great faith in God,
and who asked her husband to sanctify himself and become a
teacher of the law. Akiba used to object: ‘But I have no talent for
this.’ She took him to a well, on the parapet of which the rope had
worn away the stonework, so that there was a small depression.
‘Can you see this groove in the stone?’ she said to him. ‘The rope
is much softer than the stone, yet for many years it has worn away
at the hard stone, and formed a depression. Be like the rope—up
and down, up and down, always the same motion: the Scriptures
and prayer, the Scriptures and prayer. Even if the heart and
mind are as hard as stone, they will eventually be penetrated by
the Word of God.’
“Akiba listened to the words of his wife, and became one of
the great lights of Judaism; he was finally crowned with a
martyr’s death. Do as he did ! Be zealous in thinking what is right
and Christian, and you will not need to run away from sin, for
sin will run away from you.”
It was thanks to Feinstein, who had a beautiful singing voice,
that I was for the first time in my life introduced to Bach’s hymn
“O sacred Head”. The song went straight to my heart.
One afternoon in 1937, the day before Yom-Kippur, the great
Jewish day of repentance and fasting, I was in Feinstein’s office.
My soul was greatly troubled, as indeed it had been from my
earliest childhood years. I said to Feinstein: “The demands of
Christianity are too extreme, they are impossible to fulfil. It is
written in the Bible that he who says that he is Christ’s must
also live as Jesus lived. But is that possible? It’s like asking a wolf
to live like a lamb, and then condemning it for not succeeding.
Since I have not been Christ through all eternity, since I was not
born of a virgin, since I have not had Jesus’s especially chosen rnd
holy upbringing, since I have no clear perception of spiritual
realities, nor do I have His mind, since God’s angels are not
continually ascending and descending upon me, since I do not
live in celibacy, nor am I a carpenter—how, then, should I be able
to live as He did? Must the snail run like the hare? From the little
I have seen of Christians so far, conversion for some means
merely making Jesus an interesting subject of conversion; it
does not mean that they are converted to be a Jesus in miniature.
At any rate I have not seen people of Jesus’s type.”
Feinstein answered with his inimitable smile: “Don’t allow
yourself to be guided by what you see, because it is possible that
you do not see very well. The Jews who lived two thousand years
ago didn’t see in Jesus anything that made Him worthy of honour,
despite the fact that He was the incarnation of God. Unless a man
is born anew he cannot see God’s kingdom, even though it is per-
fectly incarnate in the man who is standing face to face with him.
“But is it not expected of us that we should be like Jesus, that
we should live like Him? The verse in St. John’s Epistle to which
you referred—’He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also
to walk’ (i John 2.6)—does not make our belief absurd, it is
merely a warning to those who go round proudly declaring:
‘I am in Christ.’
“There was once a country in which there were two great
painters. The country was divided into two: one half of the
population preferred one painter, the other part preferred the
other. The king of that country was asked to pronounce his
verdict. He had the marble hall in his palace divided into two by a
curtain; then he summoned the first painter, and ordered him to
paint anything he liked on one wall of the hall. He summoned the
other painter an4 ordered him to paint on the opposite wall. The
first painter, who was just as talented as he was conceited, im-
mediately set to work and painted a great many beautiful things,
assisted by his pupils. The painter on the other side was a humble
man. He said to his pupils: ‘It is foolish for me to try to compete
with my excellent rival. I cannot paint as he can. But I shall ask
you to do something else. Stay here from morning to evening,
and polish the marble until it shines.’ And so it was done. On one
side of the curtain they painted, and on the other side they
polished the wall. On the appointed day, the king came to see the
work of the two painters. He admired the work of the first, and
declared that he had never seen more beautiful pictures. Then
he ordered the curtain to be pulled to one side, so that he might
see what the other painter had done. He stepped back in amaze-
ment. The pictures painted by the first artist were reflected in
the marble which had been polished by the other, and their
beauty was dazzling. The second painter received the prize.
“The moral of this story is very simple. Only a very proud
person could imagine himself capable of living like Jesus. The
commandment to live like Jesus did, like all the other command-
ments in the Bible, was not given to us so that we should fulfil it,
but merely so that we should understand—as a result of our
constantly unsuccessful attempts—that it is impossible for us to
accomplish it, and so that it should reveal to us the depth of our
sinfulness. We should not attempt to live like Jesus, but we should
daily ‘polish’ our hearts by concentrated meditation and by faith,
and then the beauty of Jesus will be reflected in us—it will give
a still more beautiful picture than the picture of His own life,
because the living Christ, incarnate in a human being who had
been broken and had gone astray, is more beautiful than the
Christ incarnate born of a virgin.”
“No, no!” I cried, with tears in my eyes. “I do not want a
Jesus who has been calculated, explained, and believed in, but
a real Jesus. And the hope of ever having this Jesus seems to me
to be an impossible ideal.” So saying, I ran out of Feinstein’s
office, without taking leave of him.
He ran after me; I could not escape from him. I went into a
shop—he followed me inside. He was so insistent that he
persuaded nie to accompany him that very evening to a prayer
meeting which was being held by a small group of Christians in
Bucharest, in the hall of the Anglican Mission to the Jews.
There, after most of the congregation had offered up prayers,
I was involuntarily lifted up by the Spirit. I was astonished to
hear myself for the first time praying aloud in a public gathering.
I heard my own words, but they did not seem to be words that
I had formulated. They sprang from the depths of my soul, to
which as a rule my ego cannot gain access. Proof that the depths
had been stirred was the fact that I prayed in Yiddish—the
centuries-old language of my people in their suffering, a
language which in other circumstances I never spoke.
I consider the eve of Yom-Kippur 1937 as the day of my
rebirth, because—this is obvious—the teaching of Jesus cannot
be written clearly on a page which already bears some other
writing. What is required is a complete break with the past, and
a completely new beginning, the starting point of which is a
constant and uncompromising siege of one’s thinking.
The person who was most astonished at this change, a man
who had once been a militant atheist and an active participant in
the worst anarchic disturbances, was myself. My will was not
free when this change occurred. My hand was forced. Everything
is of the grace of God.
I believe that just as there is in nature a biological timetable
which governs the time when a young bird has to emerge from
its egg and when it has to migrate to another country, and to
return at a definite date, and just as there is a biological timetable
in man’s physical life, so there is a spiritual timetable which is
also determined in the same way. For every person who is chosen
by God, there is a particular foreordained hour when he dis-
covers the Son of God, who has always been in him but who
has waited patiently for the moment when He is to reveal
Himself. In that particular hour, internal and external factors,
which have been prepared a long time ago, come together in
order to produce this rebirth.
(From Richard Wurmbrand, Christ on the Jewish Road,
Living sacrifice, 1993, pp.30-37)