Isaac Lichtenstein was born in an Orthodox Jewish home in northern Hungary in 1824. He had a yeshiva education and was ordained as a rabbi by the age of twenty. He eventually became the district rabbi for the Hungarian city of Tapioszele.
One day he was teaching in his home, when one of his students, a teacher in the community, had shown him a ‘New Testament.’ In a fit of anger, he ripped it from his hands and threw it across the room. It fell behind some books and there it remained hidden—and waiting.
Thirty-five years later, a terrible nightmare descended on Hungarian Jewry—the Jewish community was accused of sacrificing Christian children in the synagogue. In the midst of the horrid blood-libel affair, Rabbi Lichtenstein was rummaging among his books and discovered the long-hidden and forgotten New Testament. His curiosity had been piqued by the current controversy. He decided to read the book for himself and see who the real “Jesus” was. Rabbi Lichtenstein later wrote in one of his books, describing the experience that flowed from his reading of the New Testament:
I had thought the New Testament to be impure, a source of pride, of overweening selfishness, of hatred, of the worst kind of violence. But as I opened it, I felt myself peculiarly and wonderfully taken possession of. A sudden glory, a light, flashed through my soul. I looked for thorns and gathered roses; I discovered pearls instead of pebbles; instead of hatred, love; instead of vengeance, forgiveness; instead of bondage, freedom; instead of pride, humility; instead of enmity, conciliation; instead of death, life, salvation, resurrection,heavenly treasure.
Years later, he wrote to his son about that fateful encounter with the New Testament:
From every line in the New Testament, from every word, the Jewish spirit streamed forth light, life, power, endurance, faith, hope, love, charity, limitless and indestructible faith in God.
His Sabbath sermons in the synagogue began to be heavily influenced by the teacher under whom he was now studying—the Rabbi from Galilee. He began to use Yeshua’s material on Torah. He began to speak of Messiah in veiled suggestions. After two years, while teaching one of the Master’s parables, he threw caution to the wind and forthrightly declared the Redeemer of Israel.
Like the apostles, like the first century believers, he never turned his back on Torah or on the traditions of his people. He remained a Jew in the Jewish community. He was summoned to appear before the head Rabbinate under Rabbi Kohn, the chief rabbi of Budapest. On his entering the court of Torah, everyone stood up and began to chant, “Retract! Retract!” “Gentlemen,” said the rabbi, “I shall most willingly retract if you convince me I am wrong.”
Rabbi Kohn demanded that he resign his position and be formally baptized into the church as a Christian. Lichtenstein replied, “I have no intention of joining any church.” He was a Jew, and the faith he found within the New Testament, was as he described it, “True Judaism.” To leave Torah and join the church would have been to him as much a denial of Messiah as consenting not to speak the Master’s name.
This placed Rabbi Kohn in a difficult position. According to the laws of Hungary, he could not remove Rabbi Lichtenstein from his synagogue or district. Only a request for dismissal from within his own community could accomplish that, and none had been forthcoming. Rabbi Lichtenstein’s people loved him, and quite probably, many of them believed him. They refused to have him removed.
He returned to his home and continued in his post as district rabbi. But the scandal had drawn attention from other quarters as well. He was soon receiving visitors from different Jewish evangelistic organizations, even from the Vatican, all seeking to convince him to leave Judaism and join them as Christians working to convert other Jews. To those seeking to draw him into the church, he responded:
I will remain among my own nation… I am not drawn to join Christendom. Just as the prophet Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem, in spite of the generous offers of Nebuchadnezzar and the captain of his host, chose rather to remain and lament among the ruins of the holy city, and with the despised remnant of his brethren, so will I remain among my own brethren, as a watchman from within and to plead with them to behold in Yeshua the true glory of Israel.
He would not go to Babylon. Persecution from the Jewish community was forthcoming, and Rabbi Lichtenstein’s community found itself increasingly isolated. At last, for the sake of the community and for the sake of his own failing health, he stepped down from his post as district rabbi in 1892, seven years after becoming a believer. He spent the rest of his life living out his convictions within the Jewish community. Despite fierce persecution from fellow Jews and constant haranguing from Christians who regarded a Torah-observant believer as somehow defective, he stayed the course.
Rabbi Lichtenstein lamented that there was no believing synagogue for him to join. “If I were twenty years younger, I would endeavor myself to form one,” he once said. The congregation he was looking for, practically, did not exist. When Rabbi Lichtenstein read the Gospels, he did not see a Messiah who did away with the Torah, who changed Sabbath to Sunday, or who encouraged his followers to start a new religion. He saw the Messiah of Judaism—a Torah-observant Jew.
He read of the early believers gathering on Shabbat in the synagogues, engaging in the prayer services, hearing the public reading of Scripture, learning Torah, and keeping the whole of the commandments of God. As he lay dying on his bed, he said:
Give my warmest thanks and greetings to my brethren and friends; goodnight, my children; goodnight my enemies, you can injure me no more. We have One God and One Father of all who are called children in heaven and on earth, and one Messiah who gave up His life on the cursed tree for the salvation of men. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, of most blessed memory, left this earth on Hoshanah Rabbah, the year of 5669 (1908), during the happy season of Sukkot. Hoshanah Rabbah is the seventh day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the 21st day of Tishrei.