Passover, Messianic Judaism, and Mutual Inclusiveness

Jewish wealth is not houses and gold. The everlasting Jewish wealth is: Being Jews who keep Torah and Mitzvot, and bringing into the world children and grandchildren who keep Torah and Mitzvot.

-from “Today’s Day” for Nissan 9 5703
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943) from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

“The older I get, the more I realize how different it is to be a Jew in a Jewish place as opposed to a Jew in a non-Jewish place. It’s definitely a different feeling in terms of how freely you can be yourself and celebrate your culture and religion.”

-Natalie Portman

I have tried to pull back from my formerly self-imposed obligation of writing and posting a “morning meditation” each day (except for Shabbos). I typically plan to write only one or two blog posts each week. But I realize that, perhaps below the level of conscious thought, I’m actually leaving room in my schedule for those things I write spontaneously when I come across a compelling topic…

…like Jewish identity.

Jewish identity and the approach of Pesach (Passover). What do they have in common besides the obvious?

Our Sages assert that the Israelites in Egypt were on the lowest level of spiritual impurity. They worshipped idols. They were debauched and dissolute. So how did they merit the grand and miraculous redemption?

They had only three things going for them: They kept their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, and their distinctive Hebrew dress. In other words, they retained their Jewish identity.

Wait a second! Didn’t you cringe when you found out that the biggest Ponzi scheme in history had been perpetuated by someone with a distinctly Jewish name? Wouldn’t we have preferred that instead of retaining his Jewish identity he had changed his name to Christopher Johnson?

What is the redemptive value of Jewish identity?

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“Jewish Identity: Are You In or Out?”

In Christianity, one is redeemed by God due to faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not who we are, for Christ accepts everyone, regardless of heritage, background, nationality, language, walk of life, and so on. You aren’t saved by who you are but by what you believe, almost regardless of what you do about it (though to be fair, I know Christians who expect believers to live a transformed life in response to their faith).

But what Sara Yoheved Rigler is suggesting, is that Jews are redeemed by who they are, particularly in their outward appearance. What redeemed the ancient Israelites (according to the Sages) is that, regardless of worshiping idols and being enslaved, they retained an obvious Jewish identity.

Seems crazy, huh?

But according to Ms. Rigler, this isn’t just an issue for the Jews of antiquity, but it is a critical question for modern Judaism.

The question assumes particular importance in our generation. Indeed, the rates of adultery, domestic violence, addiction to drugs and porn, and murder for reasons as trifling as being cut off in traffic have skyrocketed in this generation. An objective look at our moral standing would produce a grim assessment.

Judaism promulgates a teleological worldview – that history is moving toward a specific goal, namely, the Redemption, or the Messianic era. So how can a generation as dissolute as ours be redeemed?

jewish-davening-by-waterI’ve written before about the necessity of a Jewish community for Messianic Jews and that one of the critical purposes of Jewish community for Jews in Messiah is to prevent them from being cut off from the world-wide community of Jews. But no matter how much or how well I think I’ve made my point, it’s one that is difficult for many others, including some Messianic Jews, to accept.

What many people read and hear is that I’m replacing Messiah with Judaism, as if Messiah and Judaism are mutually exclusive terms. Certainly the Chabad don’t think that, although they’d certainly disagree with me about the identity, function, and to a degree, purpose of the Messiah. On the other hand, they certainly expect him to arrive and don’t consider the desire for the coming of Messiah to eliminate their Jewish identity.

So where do we get the idea that Jews must stop being Jewish and stop having community with other Jews when they come to faith in Yeshua of Nazareth as Messiah?

From Christianity and Judaism, historically.

For nearly two-thousand years, any Jew who has realized that Jesus (Yeshua) is indeed the Messiah and desired to worship him and honor him has been required, by the Church (in its many and various forms) to renounce Jewish identity and Jewish practices and convert to (Gentile) Christianity. In its darkest days, the Church has resorted to various sanctions, torture, and even the threat of death to “convert” Jews to Christians. For Christianity, being Jewish and being a Christian are mutually exclusive terms.

To be fair, this is also considered true by most Jewish people. I’ve heard stories that in Orthodox Judaism, a friend or family member is mourned as if they died if they should become a Christian (I don’t know how true this is but I can see the point). Messianic Jews, that is, halachically Jewish people who come to faith in Yeshua as Messiah and yet retain their Jewish identity, continue to perform the mitzvot, and in all other ways, live a completely consistent Jewish life are still thought of as “Jews for Jesus” and tend to be shunned by secular and religious Jews alike.

In the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal, Rabbi Stuart Dauermann wrote an impassioned plea that all Jews in Messiah must consider the Jewish people as Us, not Them, meaning that faith in Messiah should not and must not stand in between a Jew and all other Jews.

And many centuries ago, another Jew made a similar plea:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5 (NASB)

The Jewish PaulIn his faith in Messiah, Paul did not see himself as separated from the larger Jewish world or from other religious streams of Judaism. In fact, his love for his fellow (unbelieving) Jews was so great that he would have willingly become accursed and separated from the Messiah for the sake of other Jewish people, that they might see and accept Messiah as Paul did.

For Paul, the Jewish people, all of them, were “us” not “them.” Jewish identity and faith in Messiah were never at odds for Paul. Faith in Messiah was the natural extension of his being a ”Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee…as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). It’s thought by many Christians that Paul was talking about his past, before “conversion,” since he mentioned his persecuting the church, yet he was speaking in the present tense when he said:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.

Acts 22:3 (NASB)

”Being zealous for God just as you all are today.” Paul was talking to a crowd of Jewish people. True, they were calling for his death, but that wasn’t because Paul surrendered his Jewish identity and was encouraging other Jews to do likewise, as the false allegations suggested. He remained a devout and faithful Jew and zealous for the Torah. His only “crime” was his fervent desire to also include Gentiles among the community of the redeemed.

Maimonides, in his code of Jewish Law, makes a startling pronouncement. He writes that a Jew who lives in isolation from the Jewish community, even if he keeps all the commandments, is considered a kofer b’ikar, a heretic. The implication is that identifying with the Jewish community is a basic value that underlies all the commandments.

Living among so many Gentiles for so much of his life must have taken a toll on Paul. I don’t know if the concept of kofer b’ikar existed in first century Judaism, but if it did, it may have been another reason the Jewish crowds in Acts 21-22 were so angry at Paul. He was a Jew who, because of his unique mission as an emissary to the Gentiles, didn’t spend a great deal of time in Jewish community. Yes, he went first to the Jew and then also to the Greek, but by the end of his third missionary journey, many Jewish communities in the diaspora were incensed with Paul because of the issue of the Gentiles.

This is a huge issue in Messianic Judaism today. This is one of the vital reasons why Messianic Jews must consider themselves as part of a larger Jewish community, not just a Messianic Jewish synagogue, but the overarching world of Jewry and affiliation and allegiance to national Israel. Even if a Messianic Jew is scrupulous in observing the Torah and faultless in performance of the mitzvot, outside of Jewish community, or more to the point, buried neck-deep in a community of Gentile believers, whether Messianic Gentiles or Evangelical Christians, the very real threat of kofer b’ikar and kareth exists.

Sara Yocheved Rigler
Sara Yocheved Rigler

I’m not suggesting that all Messianic Jews abandon their relationship with non-Jewish believers or stop associating with non-Jews in Messianic Jewish religious spaces, but first and foremost, a Messianic Jew must continually grasp tightly to the fact that he or she is a Jew and part of the Jewish people, all of them, everywhere.

In her article, Ms. Rigler goes on to describe the different critical points in history when Jews could and often did renounce their Jewish identity through forced or voluntary conversion to Christianity or to blend in with American culture when emigrating to this country.

That’s why alarm bells rang a couple years ago when a study revealed that 50% of American Jews under the age of 35 would not consider it “a personal tragedy if the State of Israel ceased to exist.” Two months ago an American Congresswoman declared that the Jews of America had sold out Israel in their support of Obama’s diplomatic surrender to Iran’s nuclear program.

Today, the community of Jews in the diaspora and particularly in western nations, could easily be extinguished through assimilation. I don’t believe that’s what God wants but I do believe it’s what most Christians want as long as said-assimilated Jews assimilated into the Church.

But unlike why I, or rather Ms. Rigler said above, it’s not just about appearing Jewish:

Let’s be clear here. God wants the maximum from us Jews: love your neighbor as yourself; keep Shabbos; don’t speak lashon hara; keep kosher – the whole nine yards. But the minimum requirement to be redeemed is to identify as a Jew.

Jewish identity is where you start, not where you finish. Particularly for Jews in Messiah, it must be abundantly clear to all other Jews as well as to everyone else, that the Jewish person in Messiah is Jewish. That’s why it’s (in my opinion) not optional for a Jew in Messiah to observe the mitzvot. While the minimum requirement to identify as a Jew is good, it is much better to go the whole nine yards, so to speak, and to live a life indistinguishable from other religious Jews, regardless if the standard of observance is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

Jewish identity is what prompted Kirk Douglas to fast every Yom Kippur. As he proudly stated, “I might be making a film, but I fasted.”

Jewish identity is what prompted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to post a large silver mezuzah on the doorpost of her Supreme Court chambers.

Jewish identity is what prompted movie star Scarlet Johansson to stand up for Israel at the cost of her prestige as an Oxfam ambassador.

R. Michael Schiffman

This morning, Rabbi Michael Schiffman, who grew up in Jericho, NY in a traditional Jewish family, wrote a simple and heartwarming blog post called Finding Yeshua. No, being a Jewish believer and living a life consistent with Judaism, Jewish identity, and affiliation with Jewish community does not replace or reduce Messiah. It simply puts everything in perspective.

Ms. Rigler ends her article this way:

The Passover Seder speaks about four sons. Only one of them is cast as “wicked.” As the Hagaddah states: “The wicked son, what does he say? ‘What is this service to you?’ ‘To you,’ but not to him. Because he excludes himself from the community, he is a heretic. … Say to him, ‘Because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’ For me, but not for him, because if he would have been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

The first Passover marked the birth of the Jewish nation. Every Passover since poses the challenge to every Jew: Are you in or are you out?

If you are Jewish and you are a believer, how do you answer this question? Since I’m not Jewish, it’s not a question directed at me, but as a Messianic Gentile, I believe it is my duty to encourage believing Jews to answer “in.”

7 thoughts on “Passover, Messianic Judaism, and Mutual Inclusiveness”

  1. One of the prophetic roles of the Jewish people is to teach the nations about Hashem. I was starting to despair of my participation in anything Jewish at all until the seder last night. A portion of the reading from the hagaddah reminds Jews that ‘our ancestors worshipped idols.’ It dawned on me that so did MY ancestors. But Hashem brought them out of it by the life of the Messiah, a descendant of Abraham. Did Hashem bring MY ancestors out of idolatry just to abandon them to the desert? Are we supposed to just make things up in our service to Hashem? Hashem has given NOTHING to the nations in terms of rites and rituals that bind people together, outside of some form of participation in the Torah.

    If it is Hashem’s intention that we learn from the Jewish people, I ask, ‘To what end?’ Noachide laws are entirely civil except for the prohibition on idolatry. What religion are we supposed to be? Anything we like as long as it is monothestic? Why not become Muslim then? Why would Hashem want Gentiles to become disciples of a Jew by the name of Yeshua?

  2. Learning about Hashem in a Jewish context isn’t something that’s incredibly difficult to do. My entire educational frame of reference (or the vast majority of it anyway) is Jewish and specifically Messianic Jewish.

    However, from many Christian’s points of view, it’s only Jewish if it involves specific Jewish practices such as wearing a tallit, laying tefillin, or in this case, attending a Passover seder.

    Given a personal investigation I’m currently undertaking, one “Jewish” thing I’m pursuing with vigor is teshuvah, which is often translated as “repentance” but is better rendered as “return.” Click the link to find out the four steps of change and I promise if you actually put them into action, they contain a lot more depth than they seem.

    If that isn’t something Jewish revealing Hashem to the nations, I don’t know what is.

    1. @Steve — You asked: “What religious rite and rituals for Gentiles. This is a question that I never get an answer to.” This is an understandable difficulty, because the Tenakh and a significant portion of the apostolic writings were written to a Jewish audience. Hence the cultural behaviors that are referenced are the Jewish ones. Add to that the fact that Jewish culture has had to develop a specialized set of procedures since the Hurban, in order to continue observance and expression of the appointed times that HaShem assigned to the Jewish people as part of their distinct heritage. During the past 19 centuries there has been no comparable development of Torah-informed cultural expression for gentiles who affiliate with the Jewish people supportively rather than antagonistically. The antagonism is what has characterized Christian cultural development, and it is understandable and proper that enlightened gentiles wish for better alternatives that reflect their affiliation and support. Sukkot, at least, has implications for non-Jews that are indicated in the Prophets, particularly Zachariyah. This is also recognized rabbinically, whereby Sukkot is deemed to provide a redemptive parallel for non-Jews to the call for Jewish repentance and atonement reflected in Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim. So, while RhSh and YhKp would not be appropriate for non-Jewish observance, the Days of Awe between them might be suitable (though there are no particular activities involved but only personal meditation, and then Sukkot itself, where some form of tent-camping experience in place of actual sukkah-building could reflect the imagery of leaving one’s home in order to go up to Jerusalem. If we consider Is.56 (and even Acts 15), it would seem that some kind of Shabbat observance is appropriate, which would involve learning Torah and might include synagogue attendance in order to do so. Recent blog discussions have been considering what sort of Passover observance is or is not appropriate for gentiles — whether they should be constrained to a night-before Passover (erev Preparation Day) study session that discusses aspects and symbols of Passover, comparable to what Rav Yeshua did with his disciples shortly before his arrest, and whether any sort of actual Seder participation is appropriate. I wouldn’t see any harm in eating matza along with Jews for the week, as a concrete response to Rav Shaul’s metaphorical references in his exhortation to the Corinthians in 1Cor.5:7-8. I could even see merit in some sort of overnight vigil following the erev 14 Nisan study session, evoking the tense anticipation of the next morning’s trial and the anguish over the afternoon execution (maybe even a fast). And would anyone object to an early-morning celebration on 17 Nisan (only occasionally occurring on a Sunday) commemorating resurrection? Counting the omer until Shavuot should probably be reserved as a Jewish responsibility, though Shavuot itself could be observed by non-Jews commemorating the outpouring of HaShem’s Spirit as well as honoring the gift of Torah and Covenant to Jews. I don’t know if anyone can identify a date for Kefa’s sheet-vision and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit on the first gentiles to receive it. That would actually be a better alternative than Shavuot for gentile observance. Now, there are a few more Jewish observances I haven’t mentioned, some of which are post-biblical. I recommend that Tisha b’Av should remain a Jewish commemoration, though gentile attendance before Shavuot at celebrations of Israel’s Independence and commemorations of the Shoah could be meaningful demonstrations of support and solidarity. Purim could present difficulties for Christians, since most of the gentiles represented in this event were either persecutors needing to be overcome and destroyed or they were among those who allied themselves by conversion to Judaism — which is a practice that Rav Shaul explicitly discouraged under other circumstances. Hanukah also doesn’t really offer any positive resonance for gentiles, though in modern non-Jewish culture there would seem to exist some need for a concrete alternative to error-based Christmas traditions. One could use it to focus attention on Rav Yeshua’s claim to be a light for all the world, if one is careful not to let this eclipse the fundamental meaning of the Temple’s desecration and rededication, and the fight the ensure religious freedom for Jews in particular, in the face of an overwhelming Greek-inspired universalism. In this aspect, the events of 165 BCE do have some bearing on the anti-Jewish religious pressures of several centuries later. In any case, I would recommend that gentiles skip the tallit, arba kanfot (or any other garment bearing tztzit), and tefilin, though wearing a kippah while inside Jewish space like a synagogue is acceptable to modern Jewish sensibilities as a sign of respect. Wearing a kippah outside such space would not be deemed appropriate. I might be persuaded that a tallit without tzitzit (and thus ineligible for the blessing about wrapping oneself in a garment with tzitzit) would be acceptable for non-Jewish prayer participation within Jewish space, just as the kippah is acceptable. Peyot also should be reserved for Jews, though no one has a monopoly on beards or other facial hair. Keeping kosher can be deemed a form of support for Jewish requirements, by providing sufficient demand for kosher products that it is economically feasible for manufacturers to endure the extra expense of certifying them. Use of Jewish mikveh facilities could be problematic, though I see no reason why gentiles could not build and maintain their own mikvaot to Jewish halakhic standards. As for determining when or how often to use them, ritual cleansing for gentiles in the absence of the Temple and red-heifer purification is an uncharted territory, though the immersion of repentance is an existing recognized practice.

      Now, I regret that the notions I’ve presented so far don’t provide complete details for non-Jewish ritual observances, but perhaps they may stimulate further development that could begin to address the need that you feel, Steve.

  3. We try to practice Judaism, at a Conservative to Reform level. More and more I am hearing that Gentiles should not practice Judaism coming from those in MJ circles of influence. What do they expect me to do? Go back to made up holidays and rituals and ditch the only ones we KNOW came from God?

  4. I know there are a plethora of messages being sent out by various factions in Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, but the fact remains that at least in the U.S., the majority of Messianic Jewish synagogues are attended by a majority Gentile population. I’ve visited Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Wisconsin and although it presents very much a Jewish religious space, most of the people I saw there were Gentiles (admittedly, I attended only twice and both times during Sukkot, so there were a lot of visitors). Beth Immanuel’s primary teacher is D. Thomas Lancaster who isn’t Jewish, so you can even say that the leadership of this congregation isn’t made up of only Jews.

    I haven’t attended Tikvat Israel in Virginia, but it is lead by Rabbi David Rudolph, who is Jewish and who has produced a number of books and other materials in the Jewish and Messianic Jewish space. Based on some email exchanges I’ve had with R. Rudolph and listening to his sermons, I surmise that a large number if not most of his congregation is made up of Gentiles. Further, his wife is not Jewish and I have to believe that she lives a lifestyle consistent with her husband’s position as Rabbi, both in the home and at shul.

    I say all this to state that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-Jews worshiping within the context of Messianic Judaism, if such a congregation is within a reasonable commute (for me, it’s not but there are other reasons why I couldn’t attend). It is true that some voices in Messianic Judaism request or require that Messianic Jewish religious spaces be “owned and operated” by Jews and provide a community for a majority of Jews or exclusively for Jews, but to the best of my knowledge in the U.S., such a congregation does not exist.

    I can understand (to the best of my ability not being Jewish) why some Messianic Jews would desire this and I endorse and support such communities for them, but I don’t think that means there won’t also be many other synagogues where Gentiles are more than welcome and who have integral roles within that Messianic Jewish space.

    First Fruits of Zion’s Toby Janicki, a non-Jew, wears a kippah more or less regularly and he’s said he wears a tallit katan with the tzitzit tucked into his pants, so in his private worship, he seems to maintain a Jewish practice. What he does in community is between him and his community. What he does privately is between him and God.

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