whitewashMordechai said to respond to Esther, “Do not think that you can save yourself [from Haman’s decree of annihilation] because you are in the royal palace.”

Esther 4:13

Esther, the heroine of the Purim episode, received this sharp rebuke from Mordechai. No Jew should ever assume that anti-Semitism will affect only others but not oneself. No one has immunity. Every Jew must know that he or she is part of a unit, and a threat against any Jew anywhere in the world is a threat to all Jews.

History has unfortunately repeated itself many times. Spanish Jews who held powerful governmental positions were sent into exile along with their brethren. Jewish millionaires and members of European parliaments were cremated in Auschwitz ovens. Throughout the ages, those who had thought to escape anti-Semitic persecution by concealing their Jewish identities sadly learned that this effort was futile.

Esther accepted Mordechai’s reprimand and risked her life to save her people. In fact, the Megillah (Book of Esther) tells us that Esther had not revealed her Jewish identity because Mordechai had instructed her to keep it a secret. She never would have stayed hidden in the palace and watched her people perish. Mordechai spoke his sharp words not to her, but to posterity.

Some people simply refuse to accept history’s painful lessons. In defiance, they continue to say that they will be different. Neither any individual who feels secure for any reason nor any community that lives in what it considers to be a safe environment should have this delusion of immunity.

Mordechai’s message reverberates throughout the centuries: “Do not think that you can save yourself by hiding when other Jews are being persecuted.”

Today I shall…

…be forthcoming and proud of my Jewish identity and at all times retain a firm solidarity with my people.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 14”

Purim is typically celebrated as a time of joy, happiness, and even silliness, but there is always an undercurrent of sheer terror and a hint of cringing under the spectre of death. The Jewish people had “dodged the bullet,” so to speak, and it’s not so difficult to understand that when you thought you would certainly die and then are miraculously saved at the last-minute, you’d want to “whoop it up” a little because you’re so relieved. Hence the costumes, wigs, and hamantash.

But let’s get back to that “spectre of death” thing for a minute. The story of Esther is only one story in the long history of persecution and multiple times of “certain death” for the Jews, not just individual Jewish people, but the entire Jewish people. Nevertheless, God in his infinite mercy and love for His Children, though He may rebuke them, even harshly, never allows their light to be completely extinguished from the earth.

Purim teaches us the age-old lesson, which has been verified even most recently, to our sorrow, that no manner of assimilation, not even such which is extended over several generations, provides an escape from the Hamans and Hitlers; nor can any Jew sever his ties with his people by attempting such an escape.

On the contrary: Our salvation and our existence depend precisely upon the fact that “their laws are different from those of any other people.”

Purim reminds us that the strength of our people as a whole, and of each individual Jew and Jewess, lies in a closer adherence to our ancient spiritual heritage, which contains the secret of harmonious life, hence of a healthy and happy life. All other things in our spiritual and temporal life must be free from any contradiction to the basis and essence of our existence, and must be attuned accordingly in order to make for the utmost harmony, and add to our physical and spiritual strength, both of which go hand in hand in Jewish life.

-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory
from Personal and Public Correspondence of the Rebbe
7th of Adar, 5713 [February 22, 1953] Brooklyn, N.Y.

In this letter, written by the Rebbe just over sixty years ago, he tells us of two types of dangers to the Jewish people: “Hamans and Hitlers” and “assimilation.” However of the two, it would seem that assimilation is the greater villain in our “Purim play” for while violence and oppression can be resisted, passivity and apathy is like a cancer in the bones. And yet even as Esther’s supposed “assimilation” did not exempt her from her duty to her people, and even as assimilation did not save the European Jews from the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust, the Rebbe says that assimilation will not hide the Jewish people forever, even “extended over several generations.”

jewish-assimilationBut what about whitewashing?

In a sense, Jews assimilating into the surrounding culture is a form of whitewashing; a form of disappearing into the background, blending in, disappearing, vanishing completely. But what of the reverse? What if the “background” blends into the Jews?

I suppose one way of doing that would be if the rest of the world converted to Judaism, but that hardly seems likely. In fact, the rest of the world is going to do everything in its power to avoid looking or acting like Jews for fear of being mistaken for them and being swept up in the next persecution, pogrom, or holocaust.

But time and again on blogs like mine, the theme of a kind of “reverse whitewashing” comes up where it is not the Jews who are disappearing into the Christian background, but certain elements of the Christian background are springing up and looking like Jews. But how could this be much of a problem? I mean, after all, history shows us that the Jewish people need all of the allies they can get, even allies in Christianity (which historically has been one of the greatest forces in attempting to exterminate Judaism).

But a Christian cannot convert to Judaism (except arguably Messianic Judaism, but that’s a discussion for another time) without renouncing Christ, and such a thing would be unthinkable (see Matthew 10:33). However, what if you could assume a Jewish “identity” without ever converting to Judaism?

Some say that’s exactly the situation James and the Jerusalem Council set up in Acts 15, but as you may know if you’ve read my Return to Jerusalem series, that is not quite the case. But then again, we know that Paul applied a sort of halachah to the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus, and we also know that even in the absence of Jewish teachers, devout non-Jews worshipped the God of Israel in a manner very similar to the Jews in the days of Paul and Silas.

So where is the dividing line that separates Jewish and Gentile identity in the body of the Jewish Messiah? I think that’s still being worked out. There are some in Messianic Judaism who say that no Christian should ever worship in a body of believing Jews nor perform any mitzvot that even remotely suggests Judaism. There are others however, who say that Lydia and her group of devout women in Philippi (see Acts 16:13-15) should be a sort of model for the rest of us; a template for Gentile Christian congregations to recite the Shema, pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and read from the Torah and the Prophets during Shabbat services.

In less than three months, a group of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah will gather together in Hudson, Wisconsin to celebrate Shavuot and to discuss and share the gifts of the spirit. Last year I attended this conference and was blessed to be part of this unified body of Messiah, which for just a few days, seemed to summon the Messianic future we will all one day enjoy.

Since the gathering included a wide variety of people representing different expressions of faith, philosophy, and theology, there were a few who were still struggling with the “identity issue,” including one Christian gentleman who said he insisted on wearing a kippah and tallit gadol to different churches in his area to act as a “witness” to his faith. This viewpoint was gently challenged by the hosts of the event, but the majority of us seemed to have a clear idea of who we are in Christ and what role God expects of each of the parts of Messiah’s body.

Gentile believers ate kosher alongside Jewish believers. We had every opportunity to pray side by side, share ideas, discuss our devotion to God, hear the Torah being read, and bask in the glow of the light of the world in one house as one family.

And whitewashing our identities to create some sort of illusion of uniformity (which after all, is not the same as unity) was not requested nor required.

Assimilation and its shadowy twin which I’ve been describing are remnants of the past, vestiges of an era when it was thought that Jews and Christians could not co-exist as co-heirs in one body of Jesus.

Small groups of Jewish Christians (more accurately, Christian Jews) persisted through the first five or six centuries CE, but they were regarded as sects by both the Jews and the Christians. As one fourth-century church father remarked, “They are not Jews because they believe in Christ, and they are not Christians because they observe the Jewish laws.”

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 5: Sectarian and Normative
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd ed (kindle edition)
quoting Jerome, Epistle 112, in A.E.J. Klijn and G.J. Reinink
“Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects” (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 201

diversity-dayenuWhile Cohen may believe (and while Jerome may have believed) that a Jew who is a disciple of Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah and who is still performing the mitzvot is an oxymoron, I do not. I don’t believe those Jews who continued their faith in the Master into the fifth and sixth centuries CE were confused or misguided for their faith or for continuing to observe Torah. I don’t believe that we non-Jewish disciples of our Jewish Messiah King are confused for desiring to recite the Shema or pray the Amidah alongside our believing Jewish brothers and sisters. I just think we need to be exceptionally mindful of the fact that coming alongside Israel does not make us Israel; it makes us the beneficiaries of God’s love and mercy toward humanity through Israel, the light to the nations, and through Messiah, the light to the world.

But if we Christians, especially those of us drawn to the Torah, to the siddur, and to Shabbos, truly honor our Jewish brethen and “love Israel,” then we will do anything to protect them, which means protecting the very identity of the Jewish people and of Judaism, even from ourselves.

Protecting Jewish identity is how Jews and Judaism have always been saved from Hamans, Hitlers, assimilation, and whitewashing.

The Rebbe concluded his letter this way:

With best wishes for a joyous Purim, and may we live to see a world free of Hamans and all types of Amalekites, the enemies of the Jews, of their body, soul and faith.

Put away the paint brush and the bucket of whitewash and enjoy the colors, hues, and shades produced by the differing “organs” within the body of the Christ. Appreciate the “civilized” Jewish branches along with the “wild” Gentile branches, soaking up the same nourishment from the same root, and growing and flourishing together.

2 thoughts on “Whitewash”

  1. “then we will do anything to protect them, which means protecting the very identity of the Jewish people and of Judaism, even from ourselves.”

    Indeed. When non-Jewish believers put aside jealousy, pride, envy, and insecurity, they will see that there is much work to do in fulfilling God’s plan and will stop neglecting their calling to protect Israel. Gentiles don’t need to be Jews, we need to be ourselves, but firmly planted in the security of God’s love as who He made us to be.

  2. Thanks for that comment.

    There are really two related fronts to be addressed: One is protecting Jewish identity and the other is to realize our unique Christian identity. I’m addressing (to some degree) the latter in tomorrow’s “meditation.”

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