On April 26, 1864, Gurland and his wife were baptized by Pastor Faltin. In accordance with church tradition and Russian law, their names were changed. That Gurland chose “Rudolf Hermann” indicates that the minister was his godfather. Marie was named after Faltin’s wife, Emma. The law in 1850 did not allow Russian Jewish converts to take new surnames.(Raymond Lillevik, Apostates, Hybrids, or True Jews? Jewish Christians and Jewish Identity in Eastern Europe, 1860–1914, 56)
Rabbi Rudolp Hermann Gurland
Chaim Gurland, the son of a zealous Rabbi in Vilnia, Lithuania, was not yet five years old when his father taught him the word “God”. Soon he was able to read the Holy Scriptures and he loved the narratives of Elijah so much that one night he ran away from home because he “wanted to go up into heaven like Elijah”! It took days before the half-starved boy was found.
Chaim was destined to become a rabbi, but he later wrote the day of his induction that it was, “the most terrible, the most unhappy day of my whole life.” He had great doubts as to the divine origin of the Talmud but, in obedience to his parents, Chaim became a rabbi, knowing well that it could not satisfy him. Although his conscience troubled him greatly, he accepted the call to be Rabbi at Wilkomir.
In the Synagogue he publicly preached against the Talmud and challenged his hearers to a discussion, but no one accepted his challenge. The Chief Rabbi demanded a revocation but Gurland refused. He remained in office for another two years, but then had to leave.
For some years he made a meagre living as a private teacher. Then, one day, a Jewish peddler brought him a Hebrew New Testament in which the rabbi read for the first time the Sermon on the Mount, the epistles of Paul and other passages. His reading led to fresh doubts and great sadness came over him.
A Pastor Faltin, who was in contact with many Jewish people in Kishinev, called on the Rabbi, who warmly welcomed him. Mr. Faltin remarked: “I should like to improve my knowledge of the Hebrew language. I am good at drawing and would be pleased to give you drawing lessons and German lessons if you, in turn, would read the Hebrew Bible with me once a week.” The Rabbi agreed.
The Forbidden Chapter
In the course of their reading they came to the fifty-third chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Many Jewish people are afraid of the chapter because Christians say it describes the manner and meaning of the Messiah’s sufferings, death, and resurrection, and Rabbi Gurland therefore asked Pastor Faltin not to read it. Pastor Faltin said: “I shall pray that God may give you courage to be willing to know His saving truth.” From that time the rabbi could not help thinking about that remarkable chapter, and felt it was cowardly to be afraid to know what God had revealed in it.
The following week Rabbi Gurland expressed his willingness to read the fifty-third chapter with Pastor Faltin. First of all Pastor Faltin read to him the story of Christ’s sufferings as contained in the New Testament. After that they read Isaiah fifty-three, which was written more than 700 years before Jesus was born. Rabbi Gurland admitted that the chapter was a perfect picture of what Jesus had suffered and acquired for us at Calvary and he eventually desired to confess the Lord Jesus Christ in baptism. After instruction in the faith the 33-year-old Gurland and his wife were baptised.
The excitement and indignation of the Jewish population was great when they heard that Rabbi Gurland was to be baptised in Pastor Faltin’s church, and confess publicly his faith in Jesus. Many Jews were so enraged that they wrote to him that his baptism would be a disgrace and a calamity to the Jews. They told him that a number of Jews had sworn that if he dared to go through with it, they would kill him in the church after his baptism. Pastor Faltin asked the rabbi whether he would not prefer to be baptised quietly in the manse. “No”, he answered, “Jesus the Messiah is a living, mighty Saviour. He can protect me; but even if He does not, I am willing to suffer and die for Him.”
When the day of the Rabbi’s baptism arrived, the Jews were greatly excited and the church was overcrowded with both Christians and Jews. The service went on quietly. The minister preached about the Messiah who came to seek and to save that which was lost. Before the baptism, Gurland gave a short address, in which he stated how he received the heavenly light through reading the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and that he believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the promised Messiah and Saviour. During the act of baptism and the rest of the service everything was quiet. Jesus had once calmed the raging sea, now He had pacified raging hearts. After the service an elderly lady told Gurland that for eighteen years she had prayed to God and pleaded with Him to save his soul.
Now a new training began. Rudolf, as he was called since the day of his baptism, studied theology in Berlin and was later ordained as a Protestant Pastor. That day he preached on Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
He became co-pastor with his friend and spiritual father, Pastor Faltin in Kishinev. This did not cause him to forget his brethren of the house of Israel. He often had talked to them, led many to see that Jesus is the Messiah and Saviour, and baptised them. His work became well known in Germany and in Russia.
A few years later the Church of Kurland called him as their missionary to the Jews. He conducted Bible classes for Jewish people, had a large correspondence and was enabled by the Spirit of God to help many Jewish people believe in Jesus. There were many disappointments in the work, many tests and struggles – but Gurland was able to sow love for the Jews and for work amongst them in the hearts of many Christians, and to show many Jewish people the way of salvation.
As Gurland became well known and a beloved figure he was appointed Chief Pastor of the Church in Mitau. Consequently, and to his sincere regret, the mission work was neglected, for his new office brought with it many duties. Later, however, ill health forced him to lay down this post and to give himself solely to the Mission in Riga and Odessa.
Overwork badly impaired his health and he was often very sick. Asked how he could continually be so active in spite of his poor physical condition, Gurland would answer: “I preach myself well. Sickness is a hard test, especially permanent sickness: I know that from experience, it is a dark valley. Often God gives only enough light for one step at a time— but to the faithful a glorious end is assured, for God wonderfully leads him from darkness to light.”
The former Rabbi lived in two worlds. Time and again he kindled flames of love in the hearts of Christians for God’s ancient people and for service to them. Time and again he called his Jewish brethren to the Messiah Who died for Jews and non-Jews.
Almost 74 years old, Gurland went to his eternal home and reward, but not without first choosing the text, Psalm I22:1-3 “I rejoice in those who told me: Let us go into the house of the Lord! Our feet stand in thy gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built to be a city where the people should gather.”
Prayer: The streams of the modern Messianic movement flow deep through Kishinev in the 19th century, and the lives of Rabinowitz, Gurland and others testify to a growing number of Jewish believers in Yeshua who came to faith. Thank you for their example, and the way they navigated through issues of observance, assimilation, witness and identity. Help us to learn from their example, and in our day and context live out the special path you have called us to follow, as Jewish followers of Yeshua. In his name we pray. Amen.