The Controversy in a Christian Theme Park

It isn't what you might expect. You might be able to dream up a dozen ideas of what the problem is with The Holy Land Experience. After all, it is an amusement park based on a major religion.

The Holy Land Experience is a theme park in Orlando, set to open on February 5th. I find the idea ridiculous and go into more detail here. But the controversy is a serious subject.

Marvin Rosenthal, minister of Zion's Hope, is the founder of the theme park, and is a Messianic Jew. Also called a Hebrew Christian, he considers himself Jewish and believes that Jesus is the messiah. According to Jews in Orlando, this is contradictory; you've got to be one or the other. Rabbi Dan Wolpe, chairman of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis, put it this way: "If you accept Jesus as your savior, you are a Christian. Any study of Judaism shows their beliefs are incompatible with Judaism." Because Christian and Jewish traditions are blended together, it is feared that the object of the park is to convert Jews to Christianity.

For example, a laser show begins with three Hebrew prayers, including the Vay-a-hofta, which are extremely important to Jews. The show includes the statement that the Jews' wandering through the desert was a prelude of greater things to come. And then a laser nativity scene flashes on the screen. Wolpe is offended by this, saying that "When they use our prayers in their exhibit, they're using a centuries-old device in proselytization, trying to show that Christianity is the legitimate evolution of Judaism." It probably doesn't help much that Jewish religious items, including menorahs, are sold in the gift shop. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Congregation Beth Am in Orlando agrees with Wolpe: "The connection of that with a scene of the Nativity...is certainly a perversion of the original intent of those prayers...".

Rosenthal claims that his goal with the theme park is not to proselytize, but to reach out to people of all faiths. Juxtapose this with his statement that "This is designed to communicate the truths of the word of God."

Granted, neither Wolpe or Shapiro have visited the theme park. But do they need to sit through a ridiculous laser show to know that Jewish and Christian traditions don't mix? They are definitely two very different religions. I'm not sure that Rosenthal's plan is to convert Jews to Christianity, but I'm suspicious. After all, he moved his Hebrew Christian ministry from New Jersey to Orlando to nab more people. It's obviously a method of proselytization, but I am not familiar enough with Hebrew Christians to know whether or not their goal is to make Jews into Christians. What I do know is that any time you mix religious traditions together to create your own, you're going to offend dozens of people.

I think the Rabbis and the rest of the Jewish community have a legitimate argument, but there's not much they can do except avoid stooping down to the level of someone who wants to make a carnival out of a religion.

Please read the companion piece to this article.

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