Behar-Bechukotai: Christians by Choice

panicBut if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.

Leviticus 26:14-20

But a convert did not have to become Jewish. No one forced him or her into it. If anything, those electing to join the Jewish faith are aware of something called Antisemitism. Do they need it in their lives? Are they suicidal, or just plain stupid? Why would anyone in their right mind go looking for tzorris?! Says the Midrash, one who does make that conscious, deliberate choice to embrace the G-d of Abraham despite the unique unpopularity of the Children of Abraham, is someone worthy of G-d’s special love. A Jew by choice is a Jew indeed.

-Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Jews By Choice”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behar-Bechukotai
Chabad.org

I haven’t considered converting to Judaism for a long time and this isn’t me revisiting those thoughts at all. But Rabbi Goldman’s Torah commentary made me wonder about the pluses and minuses of being Jewish and converting to Judaism, and particularly about all those non-Jews who, while they didn’t convert to Judaism, did enter into a Jewish religious space as disciples of the Jewish Messiah way back in the days of James, Peter, and Paul.

Were they crazy? Hasn’t they heard that hanging out with Jews wasn’t exactly popular? “Why would anyone in their right mind go looking for tzorris?!”

OK, they weren’t actually converting to Judaism and wouldn’t be identified as Jews. They wouldn’t (and I know this opinion is controversial in certain circles) have to take on board a Jewish Torah observant lifestyle, and they could continue to be seen as Gentiles and not Jews.

“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

Acts 15:23-31

The-LetterThis is the content of the letter sent out by James and the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem to the Gentile believers in the diaspora along with the response of those Gentiles to that letter. As you can see, it was good to the Jewish believers, good to the Gentile believers, and good to the Holy Spirit, for the Gentiles to not convert to Judaism, but instead to accept a modified set of “burdens” that was much less than the full yoke of the Torah commandments. Neither was circumcision required of the men among the Gentile believers.

Of course, this didn’t mean that the Gentile believers avoided all of the conflicts that confronted the Jews and eventually, they would be persecuted in their own right, but eventually, they would also overwhelm the Jewish Messianic movement, consume, and finally evict the Jewish believers.

But let’s not go there right now.

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.

So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 11:19-21, 25-26

After Cornelius and his household (see Acts 10), these were the first Gentiles to come to faith in Jesus, probably Gentile God-fearers attending one or more of the synagogues in Syrian Antioch. Verse 21 says “a great number” came to believe, while verse 24 says “a great many people were added to the Lord.” But who were these “great number” of Gentiles who were “added to the Lord?”

As it is said, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

You may consider applying the term “Christians” to the ancient congregation in Antioch rather anachronistic and not connected to the people we call “Christians” today. In church last Sunday, Pastor preached on Acts 11 and he said that the Greek word translated as “Christians” can be rendered “little Christs.” This gives the sense of followers of Christ or more appropriately, Messiah, so the Gentile believers were followers or disciples of the Jewish Messiah in the sense of being more or less little “copies” of their teacher. This doesn’t mean they became Jewish or took on a Jewish identity, but it does mean they exhibited a sense of extreme devotion to their Master, forsaking all other “gods” and religious practices for the sake of their new faith.

According to Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible for Acts 11:26:

The word χρηματισαι in our common text, which we translate were called, signifies in the New Testament, to appoint, warn, or nominate, by Divine direction. In this sense, the word is used, Matthew 2:12; Luke 2:26; and in the preceding chapter of this book, Acts 10:22. If, therefore, the name was given by Divine appointment, it as most likely that Saul and Barnabas were directed to give it; and that, therefore, the name Christian is from God…

Vincent’s Word Studies for the same text gives an even more pointed definition:

The disciples were called. They did not assume the name themselves. It occurs in only three passages in the New Testament: here; Acts 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16; and only in the last-named passage is used by a Christian of a Christian. The name was evidently not given by the Jews of Antioch, to whom Christ was the interpretation of Messiah, and who wouldn’t have bestowed that name on those whom they despised as apostates. The Jews designated the Christians as Nazarenes (Acts 24:5), a term of contempt, because it was a proverb that nothing good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:47), The name was probably not assumed by the disciples themselves; for they were in the habit of styling each other believers, disciples, saints, brethren, those of the way. It, doubtless, was bestowed by the Gentiles. Some suppose that it was applied as a term of ridicule, and cite the witty and sarcastic character of the people of Antioch, and their notoriety for inventing names of derision; but this is doubtful. The name may have been given simply as a distinctive title, naturally chosen from the recognized and avowed devotion of the disciples to Christ as their leader.

world-in-his-handsI’m going to assume (yeah, I’m going out on a limb here) the object of the “title” was the body of new Gentile believers and thus does not render the Jewish and Gentile believers as a single, homogeneous unit or identity. It doesn’t look like all of the believers, Jewish and Gentile, were called “Christian,” since the title seems tied to the context of large numbers of Gentiles coming to the faith. I get the picture that, just as James and the Council would subsequently issue halachah that was specifically unique to the Gentile disciples, the Gentiles were also called by a specific identifier that differentiated them from the Jewish “Nazarenes.” Admittedly, I’m “stretching” the text out of shape, but the word “Christians” seems directly aimed at the Gentiles of Antioch.

The Way, as I see it, was the entire unit, the container, the Ekklesia for the Jewish and Gentile believers, but within that container, the “body of Messiah,” were two basic populations of human beings. I’ve talked about this a lot lately, so I probably don’t have to repeat myself at this point.

While Rabbi Goldman has a great deal of praise for the Gentile who chooses to become a Jew, we might also want to praise the Gentile who becomes a Christian. To become a Christian is to leave a life of self-indulgence and to turn toward a greater purpose, a purpose of serving God and other human beings. It is also accepting a special and even vital role that was assigned to us by God, a “Divine appointment,” as stated in Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible. However, that commentary probably doesn’t describe the “Divine appointment” I have in mind.

In Romans 11, however, we learn another divine strategy in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Gentiles received mercy through Israel’s failure to embrace the gospel; now Gentiles would become a divine vehicle of bringing Jewish people to Christ. What did this reversal involve? Scripture promised that God would restore and exalt his people in the time of their ultimate repentance (e.g., Amos 9:7-15; Hosea 14:4-7).

They (Gentiles) would in turn help the Jewish people by provoking repentance.

-Craig Keener
“Chapter 17: Interdependence and Mutual Blessing in the Church” (pp 190-1)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
ed. David Rudolph and Joel Willitts

Christianity and Judaism in their mainstream expressions today, do not anticipate this sort of interdependence and mutual blessing between Jewish and Gentile believers, especially after Gentile Christianity and Judaism have described divergent courses across the last nearly 2,000 years of human history. But accepting Keener’s understanding of our relationship for a moment, being a “Christian” is not only a great joy but a great responsibility, not for just each other and not just for the unsaved, but especially for the Jewish people and for Israel.

Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish.com says that “The second portion for this week, Bechukosai, begins with the multitude of blessings you will receive for keeping the commandments of the Torah. (Truly worth reading!)” It’s easy for many Gentile believers who have a special attraction to Judaism to see the blessings for the Jewish people and the beauty of the mitzvot, and feel somehow “dissatisfied” with being only a Christian.

Rabbi Packouz also says:

Also included in this portion: redeeming land which was sold, to strengthen your fellow Jew when his economic means are faltering, not to lend to your fellow Jew with interest, the laws of indentured servants. (emph. mine)

jews_praying_togetherIt seems your fellow Jew is really special, and when some of we Gentile Christians read those portions of the Bible, we can feel left out or believe we are somehow “second-hand citizens” in the Kingdom of God. It seems like the Jews get to play with all the “cool toys.”

So when Gentiles take on some of the more obvious mitzvot that typically, visibly, and behaviorally identify a person as Jewish, it can raise a few concerns among Jewish people, similar to how Rabbi Goldman describes why some people who are born Jewish are suspicious of Gentiles who convert to Judaism:

There remains a difficult passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) that begs some elucidation. “Converts are as difficult for Israel as a blight!” Not a very flattering depiction. A simple explanation might be that when converts are insincere and they are not really committed to living a full Jewish life–perhaps they converted for ulterior motives, like to marry a Jew–then their failure to observe the commandments brings disrepute to Judaism and may have a negative ripple effect on other Jews.

Even if a Gentile does not convert to Judaism by going through a recognized Rabbinic authority, does a Gentile wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin during prayer indicate an “ulterior motive?” What about a Gentile Christian who prominently wears a kippah and lets his tzitzit from a tallit katan dangle visibly from under his shirt while he is out in public?

Rabbi Goldman says an alternative explanation for a convert being considered a “blight” is because…

Some understand the suggestion that converts are a blight upon Israel to mean that they give born Jews a bad name. Why? Because all too often converts are more zealous than any other Jews in their commitment to the faith. Have we not seen converts who are more observant and more passionate about Judaism than most born Jews? “A blight upon Israel” would then mean that their deeper commitment and zealousness puts us to shame.

This brings us back to Romans 11:11.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

I know some Gentile believers who have adopted Jewish practices and even mannerisms believe they are “provoking the Jews to jealousy.” But it’s one thing to be converted to Judaism and thus have voluntarily adopted all of the obligations to the mitzvot and then being considered a “blight” by born Jews because of “deeper commitment and zealousness,” and another thing entirely to take on practices that obviously identify a person as a Jew and Shomer Shabbos without having made the complete commitment to Judaism via conversion.

In old-fashioned terms, it’s the difference between a man and woman co-habitating vs. actually making a life long marital commitment. Worse, in the co-habitating scenario, it could be seen as a man moving into a woman’s place and using her stuff, saying that they’re “sharing”  and being “inclusive,” all against the woman’s will.

lifting-torahBut converting to Judaism for a Gentile Christian is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is that traditional Rabbinic authorities who oversee such conversions usually require the convert to surrender all other religious commitments (which typically means “Christianity” or any belief the Jesus is the Messiah). It’s like that part of old-fashioned wedding ceremonies that said, “…and forsaking all others…”

But we don’t have to do all that. God doesn’t require it. In fact, we have been “Divinely appointed” to a very special role of our own as Christians. Most Christians don’t realize this, but we are responsible for uplifting, supporting, and encouraging Jews to return to Torah, return to God, and to cherish King Messiah, longing for his return.

Ben Zoma would say: Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. Who is honorable, one who honors his fellows.

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

We, who were first called Christians at Antioch, are rich when we realize the “lot” that God has given us and accept that it is more than abundant for our needs and desires. We are also honorable when we learn to honor our Jewish brothers and sisters, from whom we receive the rich blessings of salvation and relationship with the God of Israel.

Ben Zoma also said that a wise man is one who learns from every man, and we must sometimes learn what we don’t want to hear. And he also said that one is strong who overpowers his inclinations, and so we too much differentiate between the will of God and the desires of our heart, and when our desires conflict with God, we must “overpower” our contrary “inclinations.”

Rabbi Eleazar further stated: “What is meant by the text: ‘And in thee shall the families of the earth be blessed [Genesis 12:1]?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, ‘I have two goodly shoots to engraft on you: Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess.’ All the families of the earth, even the other families who live on the earth are blessed only for Israel’s sake. All the nations of the earth, even the ships that go from Gaul to Spain are blessed only for Israel’s sake.”

-b.Yevamot 63a

Good Shabbos.

145 days.

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2 thoughts on “Behar-Bechukotai: Christians by Choice”

  1. “Most Christians don’t realize this, but we are responsible for uplifting, supporting, and encouraging Jews to return to Torah, return to God, and to cherish King Messiah, longing for his return.”

    Excellent James. And what I try to convey as well. We have a divine role to fill, in relation to God and the Jewish people. We are largely ignorant of that because we’ve traditionally kicked them out of their own story.

    The only thing I’d add to your list (” uplifting, supporting, and encouraging”) is “protecting.”
    It is Gentile Christians who are to stand between the Nations–who, ruled by the adversary in the spirit of Amalek, constantly try to foil God’s plan by killing off His people– and the Jewish people. But if we are in denial about their status with God, we fail miserably and think it’s all about us.

  2. The only thing I’d add to your list (” uplifting, supporting, and encouraging”) is “protecting.”

    True enough, Ruth. I stand corrected. Thank you.

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