Jewish tradition is a network of interrelated practices, texts, and concepts that has been developed and passed down in Jewish communities from generation to generation. These include, for example, the conduct and content of prayer; norms of ethical behavior; texts such as the Scriptures, Talmud, and midrash collections; ritual items; lifestyle; and lifecycle events. These practices, texts, and concepts are carried forward in the context of the ongoing interpretation, debate, and modeling that are the glue of Jewish tradition.
All forms of Messianic Judaism have at least these three characteristics in common: they embrace the unique status of the person, words, and work of Yeshua the Messiah; they view the Scriptures as normative; and they observe some level of traditional Jewish practice. However, while the status of Yeshua and the Scriptures is normative, there are differing views on the value of Jewish tradition and its place in Messianic Jewish life. This variety is most evident in the widely divergent practices that can be observed from one Messianic Jewish congregation to the next. Even within congregations, there is often uncertainty or tension about the role of tradition.
“Chapter 5: Messianic Jews and Jewish Tradition” (pg 72)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
This essay builds on Dr. Kinbar’s previous essay in the Rudolph/Willitts book, “Chapter 4: Messianic Jews and Scripture which I discussed in “yesterdays morning meditation.” In fact, it’s probably the “flip side” to the issue, since scripture and traditions within the framework of Judaism and especially Messianic Judaism, is often seen as “at odds” by most Christians. And as Kinbar points out, there is a struggle even within Messianic Judaism as to how to understand the relationship between the two entities.
In Chapter 4, Kinbar discusses Messianic scholar Daniel Juster’s viewpoint, which I think would be the best fit for most Christians:
Juster argues for a more cautious approach toward Jewish tradition, asserting that “only biblical teaching is fully binding, whereas other authorities might be followed because we perceive wise application or respect community practices.” In other words, Scripture is the measure of tradition, never the reverse. Juster does not address the claim of traditionalists that the cumulative weight of centuries of interpretation is necessarily of greater weight than the judgment of the individual.
-Kinbar, pg 62
Scripture should not be overwritten by tradition, according to Juster’s point of view, but then, what is the role of Jewish tradition within the Messianic Jewish context, if any?
As Kinbar already suggested, there is no clear answer.
During the past twenty years, some Messianic Jewish leaders have advocated for close adherence to Jewish tradition…The majority of Messianic Jewish leaders have remained unconvinced, retaining their eclectic approach. These disparate approaches have occasioned much heated debate and a significant level of stress in Messianic Judaism.
-Kinbar, pg 73
For those of you who think the primary argument or debate on Jewish tradition is between Messianic Judaism and (Christian) Hebrew Roots or between Messianic Judaism and the mainstream Christian (Protestant) church, think again. Kinbar is pulling back the covers, so to speak, and giving the rest of us a small peek inside the real debate, which is among the Jewish population of overarching Messianic Judaism.
As we saw in Chapter 4, there remains considerable dissonance among differing Messianic Jewish groups as to the role and nature of Jewish tradition, which is more accurately expressed as Rabbinic tradition. Given that the authors of the traditions within Judaism were not advocates for Jesus as Messiah (quite the opposite in fact, as you can imagine), how can those traditions be integrated within Messianic Judaism, which holds Yeshua (Jesus) as central to their faith? Or maybe they can’t be integrated at all, at least not across all of the different groups within the Messianic framework.
Among Messianic Jewish leaders, there is a consensus that the Scriptures are the central and primary (or even the only) Messianic Jewish sacred texts. While it is also evident to most of these leaders that the Scriptures do not function alone but in concert with tradition, the precise nature and outworking of this relationship is a matter of contention.
-ibid, pg 74
In the body of this short chapter, Kinbar gives the reader a summary of how three Messianic Jewish organizations, Hashivenu, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC) have addressed these concerns. As you might imagine, options vary considerably.
Still there are some precious nuggets to be mined.
Placed between the soil of Torah and the New Covenant context, tradition is the expressive mode of Messianic Jewish life and identity. By implication, traditional Jewish practices, texts, and concepts are neither stigmatized nor marginalized, but considered significant for Messianic Judaism.
-Kinbar on the UMJC’s basic statement on tradition, pg 76
…the MJRC document depicts tradition in the role of an instructor who “helps us to identify the shape of obedience, so that we might retrace with the stylus of our own lives patterns of holiness worn deep by generations of our forebearers.”
-Kinbar on the MJRC document on tradition, pg 77
While these two quotes are very appealing and certainly quite poetic, they lack a certain definitiveness in “how” a Messianic Jew applies the Rabbinic traditions to a life of Jewish discipleship in Yeshua HaMashiach. The MJRC Standards of Observance (PDF) supplies a detailed description based on largely Reform and Conservative Jewish halachah and comes the closest, as far as I can see, to a practical guide, but it certainly isn’t the only way to apply tradition to a Messianic Jewish life.
But there is one more critical reason why Jewish tradition should be, in some manner or fashion, integrated as part of a Messianic Jewish observance of faith and holiness.
In this statement, it is clear that the MJRC desires not only to bring the knowledge of Yeshua to the wider Jewish world, but also to return disaffected and assimilated Jews to a more traditional orientation.
The MJRC “Standards” document continues, “We want to set out on a journey with Yeshua that will lead us all, in diverse ways, to a richer and fuller life as Jews obedient to the Torah through Messiah Yeshua, and obedient to Yeshua through the Torah.”
-Kinbar on the MJRC “Standards” document, pg 79
Kinbar’s essay contains more questions than answers, but as we’ve seen in my commentary on earlier essays within this book, Messianic Judaism is a movement still in the process of formation. Then again, like Christianity, Messianic Judaism seems to have more than one expression, even as it seeks (presumably) normalization within the larger Jewish communities.
But if Torah observance exists for the purpose of distinguishing Jews from the rest of the world including from among Jesus believing Gentiles, then Jewish tradition further expresses that distinction. On the other hand, it also creates a bridge of unity between Messianic Judaism and the other normative Judaisms.
About three months ago, young Messianic Jewish scholar and First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) blogger Jordan Levy presented her brief connection of understanding with “a wonderful Jewish scholar at his home in New York” called Respecting the Mechitzah.
A close, one-on-one conversation between an esteemed Orthodox Jewish scholar and a young Messianic Jewish writer and translator (among her other activities, Jordan translates French documents into English for FFOZ and Vine of David publications) is at least an extreme rarity if not a “historic” occasion within the Jewish world, and one of the things that even made it possible was Jordan’s fully lived experience and lifestyle as an observant Jew.
The conversation concluded in great respect for one another and in a clearer understanding of each other’s views. He had asked me questions that perplexed him; I asked him questions that perplexed me, and most importantly, we constantly searched for – and consistently found – the common ground that unites our faith: Judaism and the traditional understanding and performance of it. In reality, we agreed on close to 99% of the issues we discussed, our main difference being the identity of the Jewish rabbi from the Galilee.
Lastly, before I returned home, he took me to his synagogue nearby where I was able to pray minchah/ma’ariv (afternoon and evening prayers) with him and other men in his community. As I am a woman and I was in an orthodox synagogue, I stood behind the mechitzah (dividing wall) and prayed in unison with the men, which I was more than happy to do. The sweet gentleman that I had come to visit was very kind and came behind the mechitzah to make sure I was able to follow along with the very fast-paced prayers in the completely Hebrew siddur. I was doing just fine. It was a beautiful and moving experience praying to God in this tiny, adorable little synagogue together with so many pious Jewish men.
Jewish tradition then, functions not only to foster, support, and enhance a fully Jewish religious identity within Messianic Judaism, but across Messianic Judaism to Orthodox Judaism (and the other “Judaisms”). This functionality operated in microcosm between Jordan Levy and one Orthodox Jewish scholar, and although the meeting only spanned a tiny march of hours, the hope is that it is only the first stone laid down as part of the construction of the path leading the Jewish people in all their expressions back to King Messiah Yeshua.
As with many other things, more revelations are yet to come…but they’re definitely coming.