Question: Is formal conversion really necessary to be considered part of the Jewish people? After all, so many synagogues welcome non-Jewish members and so many rabbis sanction interfaith weddings.
Answer: It’s true that Jewish communities have become more inclusive of non-Jews, particularly non-Orthodox synagogues. Many Reform and some Conservative synagogues grant membership to non-Jews, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at interfaith weddings, and some Jewish cemeteries will grant burial rights to non-Jewish spouses.
“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They’re “living in the Jewish community.”
-from “10 Questions About Jewish Conversion You Want to Know but are Afraid to Ask”
No, I’m not considering converting, but this particular question and answer has bearing on a theme I’ve been addressing this week. You could consider today’s “meditation” to be a “Part 3” to my Upon Reading a Rant and Diminishing blog posts.
The theme I’ve been discussing has to do with the relative roles of Jews and non-Jews within the modern Messianic Jewish (or just “Messianic”) community. As the comments section of my blog posts indicate, opinions vary widely. However, in the above-quoted question and answer, I see a sort of “marriage” between the two major viewpoints, an illustration of how a non-Jew can be part of the Jewish “family” as such.
We have to remember that this discussion or something like it, was taking place nearly two-thousand years ago. It was occurring in the synagogues and other communities established by the Apostle Paul as he endeavored to find a way for the Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus) to co-exist in a mutually shared Jewish environment as co-equals (and please recall what I’ve said before about equality not requiring uniformity).
But there’s a distinction between the Jewish communities mentioned in the article I cited above and Messianic Judaism today. In all of the other Judaisms, it is well-known that they are first and foremost, Jewish communities, and that being a Gentile who is a participant in those communities does not automatically make the Gentile identical in form and function to the Jewish people in membership.
I only quoted part of the answer to the question above. Here’s the rest:
Indeed, surveys show that actual converts to Judaism are far outnumbered by Americans born outside the faith who consider themselves Jewish despite having never formally converted to Judaism. However, even in the most liberal Jewish communities, there is a dividing line that excludes non-Jews. Practically no synagogues allow non-Jews to be called to the Torah (unless they are accompanying a Jewish spouse at their kid’s bar mitzvah). Jews married to non-Jews are barred from admission to rabbinical school. And, of course, non-Jews can’t marry Jews under Conservative or Orthodox auspices.
Most importantly, you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.
The big issue that seemingly separates the Judaisms described above from Messianic Judaism, is the assumption by Gentile believers who are among Jews who have sworn fealty to the Moshiach, that by virtue of such a faith, all differences and distinctions between Jewish and Gentile disciples are rendered moot, and the ekklesia ceases to be a Jewish community in favor of a Messianic community, as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive.
And yet, we forget that the ekklesia of Messiah began most forcefully as a Jewish community, one in which few if any Gentiles were to be found.
So then, those [Jews] who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand [Jewish] souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those [Jews] who were being saved.
–Acts 2:41-42, 47 (NASB)
“You see, brother, how many (tens of) thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law…
All Jews, all living, working, and glorifying God together in Jewish community. No one batted an eye and in fact, the only upset occurred when Gentiles started to enter the mix in great numbers.
As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.
The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were slandering him. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.
The tale of Paul’s encounter at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch is well-known, although most Christians are taught that these verses indicate Paul’s permanently turning away from the Jews to the Gentiles, which is patently untrue. Nevertheless, this is a portrait of the extreme difficulty that many Jewish communities had in understanding the New Covenant imperative of including the Gentiles in the community of Messiah without having them undergo the proselyte rite as formal initiates into Judaism.
Paul attempted to communicate that imperative to his Jewish listeners (see verse 48) by quoting Isaiah 49:6:
‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles,
That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth.’
(As a side note, when Paul says “I have placed You“ and “That You may…”, the “You” in both cases is singular in the Greek.)
In all this, I am not saying that Gentiles and Jews in Messiah cannot co-mingle and cannot share community. I am saying that it is not strange, bizarre, or even unBiblical to understand that community, the Messianic community, as distinctly Jewish.
On a previous and related blog post, Pete Rambo said:
The question Messianic Judaism has to answer is, ‘Who are they desiring to please? Abba, or Judaism?’
To quote Tony Stark by way of an answer, my response is, “Is it too much to ask for both?”
To find out more about how Jews and Gentiles in Jewish community finally didn’t work out in the late First Century CE, please read Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and “Honey, I Want a Divorce”.
It’s fairly easy to understand why “Messianic Gentiles” of one sort or another might object to the idea that Messianic Jews have a right to Jewish community and even a right to Jewish rituals, practices, and religious objects based on the long history between Christians and Jews, but what about Messianic Jews who object to this way of thinking?
No, I’m not talking about Messianic Jews who are willing to share their communal space with Gentiles with the understanding that Jewish and non-Jewish roles within the ekklesia are, by definition, differentiated. I’m talking about those few Jewish individuals who truly believe there is one and only one single application of the mitzvot for all populations everywhere and that Jews are not distinct in any behavioral or covenantal sense.
Question: I recently saw a “Jewish” professor speaking at an anti-Israel rally. When I voiced my disgust to a friend who knew him as a child, I learned that his parents converted to Catholicism back in Europe, he never had a circumcision or a bar mitzvah, and he is married to a non-Jewish woman. He claims in his speeches that he is a Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor. He may be the son of a survivor, but can we say once and for all that he is not Jewish?
-from “Is a Self-Hating Jew Still a Jew”
This may not seem applicable but hear me out. There are Jewish people who have come to faith in Messiah (or in Christ, as it were) who truly struggle with the apparent dissonance that results from being Jewish and being a Christian. After all, the Church generally teaches that you can’t practice Judaism and Christianity simultaneously. Actually, that part is probably true, but the underlying message is that you can’t be Jewish and be a Christian. You have to choose one. Messianic Judaism, to many Christians, seems like a messy “mash-up” of the two faiths (many Jews see it that way, too), a way to “pretend” to be one while actually being the other. But interestingly enough, Christianity was “invented” by Gentiles starting in the Second Century CE and beyond (see my aforementioned review of Zetterholm) and the original faith in Messiah has always been Jewish.
Hebrew Christians and Hebrew Roots Jewish people have the same struggle from two different directions. They both do not believe that “Judaism” has much if anything at all to do with faith in the Jewish Messiah. While they can acknowledge (and I could be stepping into deep doo doo expressing this opinion since I’m not Jewish) their Jewish ancestral and “DNA” heritage, there’s a difference (for them) between being Jewish and practicing Judaism. For them, faith in Messiah transcends Judaism and becomes something else entirely. So in this, Hebrew Roots is in agreement with traditional Christianity, though their expressions are quite different.
Chabad Rabbi Aron Moss answers the above-quoted question in part by saying:
And so, in a twisted way, he expresses his Jewishness by being the anti-Jewish Jew.
Yes, he is using his Jewishness as a weapon against Jews.
No, he should not be invited to speak at any Jewish event.
But yes, he is a Jew.
People like that can do a huge amount of damage. But the biggest damage is to themselves. Here is a Jewish soul yearning to connect to Jewishness, who has blocked his own path. Here is someone whose primary preoccupation, whose main claim to fame, is his Jewishness, but a tormented Jewishness. Rather than embrace it, he fights it. He is an accomplice in his own persecution.
While the “anti-Jewish Jew” in question doesn’t exactly fit the circumstance to which I am writing, there is an approximate match. I do not believe that you can separate being Jewish from practicing Judaism if you are at all a religious Jew in Messiah. Yeshua observed the mitzvot faithfully. So did his brother Jacob (James). So did Peter and the other apostles who walked with Yeshua. So did the later apostle Paul, emissary to the Gentiles. So did tens of thousands of other Jews in Messiah who were all zealous for the Torah of Moses (see the previously quoted Acts 21:20).
Practicing Judaism today is not like practicing Judaism in the days of the apostles. Practicing Judaism in the days of the apostles was not like how it was with the Prophet Daniel in the Babylonian exile. Practicing Judaism was also different in the days of Solomon, in the days of David, and it was different in the days of Moses.
Torah is Torah and the Word of God is permanent and inviolate, but how it is interpreted and applied across the wide tapestry of Jewish history is changeable and adaptable. The method of allowing non-Jews to join the assembly of Israel for example, has undergone much change since the days of Moses and Aaron, and it has changed again since the days of Paul, Peter, and James.
Of course, accepting the idea of the modification of the application of Torah is contingent upon the belief that God authorized or at least permitted the Jewish people to make such adaptations due to changes in circumstance and environment, particularly as related to the passage of time. Assuming this is true, then the current varieties of practicing Judaism are no less valid than they were Apostolic times. Are they all “right”? Probably, at least in the same sense that different Christian denominations are also all “right” (though it might be more accurate to say that none of them are completely right or completely wrong relative to their interpretation and application of the Bible).
I can’t throw out the baby with the bath water, though, whether it be in the case of Christianity or Judaism. Jesus taught and worked within the Judaism that existed in his day. He may have criticized specific teachings and practices, but he didn’t dismiss those Judaisms as entire ways of life with a wave of his hand. He accepted that these people were Jews and that by and large, especially when it came to the Pharisees, their overall teachings and halachah were acceptable and authoritative.
Jesus didn’t preach the destruction of Judaism with the idea of replacing it with “the Church” as Christianity teaches, nor did he believe Judaism (for Jews) should be replaced with anything else, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have operated within the normative Judaisms of the late Second Temple period nor would he have permitted the Jewish apostles to do so after his ascension to the right hand of the Father.
With all that in mind, why do both Jews and Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots system of belief insist that Jesus wants the destruction of the practice of observant Judaism among Messianic (or any other kind of) Jews now?