A synagogue is above all a sacred community of Jewish people who gather for worship, prayer, study, benevolence, social justice, lifestyle events, outreach, and other Jewish community activities. What distinguishes Messianic synagogues from mainstream synagogues is the centrality of Yeshua, the prominent place of the New Testament, and the presence of Gentile followers of Yeshua who come alongside Messianic Jews to build a congregation for Yeshua within the house of Israel.
-David Rudolph and Elliot Klayman
“Chapter 2: Messianic Jewish Synagogues” (pg 37)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
Let’s look at part of the above-quoted paragraph again.
…and the presence of Gentile followers of Yeshua who come alongside Messianic Jews to build a congregation for Yeshua within the house of Israel.
For a long time, I’ve been hearing some Messianic Jews describe the relationship between themselves and we Gentile Christians (whether we call ourselves “Christians,” “Hebrew Roots,” or “Messianic Gentiles,” in this context, it’s all the same) as two groups who come alongside each other, or more commonly expressed as “Christians coming alongside” Messianic Jews.
What does that mean?
I know the Messianic Jews who make this statement have an internal conceptualization about what it means, but I’ve never had access to that conceptualization. As someone on the outside looking in, this whole “alongside” thing has reminded me to two silos standing next to each other on a farm somewhere. Sure, silo B is standing “alongside” silo A, but otherwise, what do they have in common? They’re both silos, but let’s assume they hold different contents. Let’s also assume that there is no conduit (tunnel or other direct link) that attaches one silo to another and allows the contents of each silo to freely flow from one to another.
That’s how I’ve imagined the whole “alongside” thing.
Then I read the introduction to the Rudolph/Willitts book (pg 15) written by David Rudolph and received a revelation.
One of the main purposes of this book is to give Gentile Christians vision for the dialogical relationship they share with Messianic Jews so that they will come alongside the Messianic Jewish community and assist it. Coming alongside can take many forms, including (a) praying for the Messianic Jewish community, (b) sharing the good news of Yeshua in a way that affirms the calling of Jews who follow Yeshua to remain Jews and to become better Jews, (c) encouraging Jews in churches to be involved in the Messianic Jewish community, (d) supporting Messianic Jewish education, (e) contributing to the welfare of Messianic Jews in Israel, (f) helping local Messianic synagogues, (g) collaborating with Messianic Jewish ecclesial leaders and scholars, (h) preaching and teaching the Scriptures in a way that affirms God’s covenant faithfulness to the Jewish people and the bilateral (Jew-Gentile) nature of the church, and (i) including Messianic Jews in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
In reading Rudolph’s definitions for “coming alongside,” I seem to fit several of those points, at least as I perceive myself. Thus being alongside doesn’t mean just standing there next to, but actually being directly involved on numerous levels with the Messianic Jewish community including, as we saw in the quote at the top of the page, worshiping with Messianic Jews in a synagogue setting (and I’ll be coming alongside a number of Messianic Jews next month at the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot conference).
Now, some people are going to take exception to this next part:
The demographic reality of Messianic Gentiles, including a second and third generation, raises a number of questions that the Messianic Jewish community is currently engaging. Many of these questions relate to time-honored traditions in the Jewish world concerning the participation of non-Jews in Jewish life. In mainstream synagogues, for example, Gentiles are not generally permitted to have a bar/bat mitzvah, wear a tallit, or read from the Torah because these are all activities in which a Jew affirms his/her covenant responsibilities as a member of the people of Israel, something a non-Jew cannot do. Some Messianic synagogues believe that these normative standards should be maintained for reasons of conscience and to avoid blurring the distinction between Jew and Gentile in the body of Messiah, a differentiation that the New Testament upholds (1 Cor 7:17-24; Acts 15; 21:24-25). Other Messianic synagogues contend that these customs should be modified so that Messianic Gentiles may participate more fully in Jewish community life.
-Rudolph/Klayman, pp 48-9
I remember taking my three Jewish children to the local Reform – Conservative synagogue a number of years ago. As a Gentile I felt somewhat uncomfortable in reading from those portions of the siddur where I was supposed to refer to myself as “Israel” or to the patriarchs as my “Fathers.” Since it’s a pretty liberal place, the Rabbi once offered me an aliyah (to go up and read from the Torah) but I was incredibly intimidated and turned it down. In retrospect, and given my current values, I am glad I refused the honor because in a synagogue setting the honor is not mine. My children, once past bar/bat mitzvah age, were the ones accepting the aliyot because they (and their mother) are Jewish.
But as we’ve just seen within the Messianic Jewish community, the struggle continues regarding how to include and incorporate those Gentiles who have come alongside their Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters. Messianic Judaism is still in the process of creating itself and a “silo” containing both Jewish and Gentile components.
And that’s good. There should be a struggle. There was a struggle in Apostolic times, which was the whole point of Acts 15, but the Jerusalem letter didn’t define the specific halachah for Gentile participation in Jewish worship and ritual within the synagogue setting, at least not with any detail. In other words, we don’t have a Biblical model for how to include Gentiles in Messianic Jewish communities today.
At least not a good one.
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.
And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’
Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air…
As you can see, many Jews didn’t have a problem with Paul’s message about the Messiah, but they had a really big problem with including non-Jews into a Jewish worship and ritual community. At that point in history, James and the Council of Apostles were the highest authority in our world for the Messianic community. Today, we have reversed the order, with Gentiles being the largest single body of people who worship the Jewish Messiah and Messianic Jews being only a tiny minority.
So should Gentile believers have control over the Messianic Jewish community? Common sense says “no” but that won’t stop some Gentile Christians from trying. Now keep in mind that for nearly twenty centuries, Gentile Christians have been treating Jewish people and Judaism with less than kindness and courtesy. It’s understandable that Jewish people should feel a little “standoffish” when approached by Christians since historically, Christians have been responsible for inquisitions, pogroms, and burning synagogues, Torah scrolls, volumes of Talmud, and occasionally bunches and bunches of Jewish human beings.
Remember those two silos I mentioned before? Now imagine that “coming alongside” wasn’t sufficient for a subset of Gentile believers. They want inside the Jewish silo and to take possession and control of the covenant identity and responsibilities assigned by God to Jews. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to this population of Gentiles if the Jews want them to do this or not.
Which is crazy, because based on my quotes of Rudolph, both in this blog post and in yesterday’s, Gentile Christians are not just welcome in Messianic Jewish communities, but we are an integral part of the body of Messiah. Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians must be united elements in a single body in order for the body to live and thrive, just as the human body must contain a heart, lungs, and liver in order to be alive. Yeah, they’re radically different organs with different functions, roles, and purposes, but they all work together.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
–1 Corinthians 12:14-20
I know Paul wasn’t necessarily talking about differences in Jewish vs. Gentile roles, and he was likely talking about the differences between prophets, preachers, teachers, and the guy who has to take out the garbage at church, but the principle and analogy holds up, at least to a degree. There are aspects to Jewish worship and community life that confirm the covenant identity and responsibility of a Jew as a Jew. Should Gentiles in the community also claim that identity, especially by force or demand? In First Century CE Jerusalem, the Jewish Council of Apostles had the authority to issue halachah that impacted both the Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah. Shouldn’t Messianic Jewish communities in the Twenty-First Century CE have the right to issue halachah just for themselves and whoever attends their synagogues?
I know this gets into arguments that involve “flesh” and there are accusations of bigotry and even racism that fly about the blogosphere, but Gentiles aren’t being excluded from the Messianic community. The Messianic community is just in the process of defining itself and how it is supposed to work, something that was never made clear in the letters of Paul (and who better than Paul to have known such a thing?).
Both Judaism and Christianity are communities with unique cultures and characteristics. Some Gentile believers, for whatever reason, desire or fit better within the Messianic Jewish community than the Christian church community and that’s fine. Some Gentile Christians such as myself, take pieces of that Messianic culture, identity, and conceptualization and live it out within a church setting to support and encourage an understanding of Messianic Judaism in the church. I think that’s part of coming alongside, too.
But I don’t tell my Pastor or the congregation what to do, what rights I have, how they aren’t being Biblical, or otherwise “storm the gates” of their community with my ideas and my personality just because I think the Bible tells me that I should (and I don’t think it tells me that I should). I respect the community and only speak my mind freely when invited (and Pastor Randy has been abundantly gracious with me in this area). I would never dream of going into the local Conservative – Reform shul or the local Chabad and telling the respective Rabbis that they’re doing it wrong and I’m there to straighten them out (although some local Hebrew Roots people have done exactly that in the past). Why would I do such a thing either in a church or in a Messianic synagogue? What would give me the right, even if I thought they had erred in relation to the commands of God?
In some ways, I’ve “come alongside” the church by going back to church since culturally, I’m not a “typical” Christian. Being part of a community isn’t about individual rights or making demands. It’s about being an active part of the community, making a contribution, benefiting the whole. Sure, the community gives back, but the community is about the community. We all benefit each other. I’m not there just to have my needs fulfilled, especially if that results in causing others in the community pain or discomfort.
One of the traditional songs sung at the Passover seder is Dayenu or “It would have been sufficient…” One portion of the traditional song goes:
If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah – Dayenu, it would have been sufficient!
Part of my personal version goes:
If He had given us His only begotten Son so that the world might be saved, and had not given us the Torah – Dayenu, it would have been sufficient!
God has given us so much. What more do we want besides grace and mercy…and for believing Jews and Gentiles to come alongside each other and together bring honor and glory to King Messiah? It is sufficient.
I don’t share my thoughts because I think it will change the minds of people who think differently I share my thoughts to show the people who already think like me that they’re not alone.