I came across your site and wow–I really want to become Jewish. My mother was a fairly devout Italian Catholic and my father an Anglican skeptic who never went to church. I was always so confused. But now your site has really turned me on to Judaism, a real coming home for me. What’s my next step?
Your next step is to become a better person. Develop greater faith in your soul, in your destiny, and in your Maker. Do more good, reach out to more people. Learn more wisdom, apply whatever you learn, and make life worth living.
But you don’t need to become Jewish to do any of that. Plenty of wonderful people doing beautiful things in the world are not Jewish, and G‑d is nonetheless pleased with them.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Should I Convert to Judaism?”
My wife was reading this in an email newsletter from Chabad last Friday afternoon. As I came home from work, I passed by her and happened to glance at what she was viewing on her computer. I briefly saw the title and was intrigued (since she’s already Jewish and conversion is a non-issue for her). Later on, I looked up the article and read through it.
The full content of what Rabbi Freeman wrote is astonishingly applicable to the debates we see happening between the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots (particularly One Law/One Torah) movements. I recently became aware of an online dialog discussing whether the One Law/One Torah movement should or should not be considered a “Judaism”. Some of the more well-known pundits in that space were saying “no” based on the requirement to distance themselves from the large body of Talmudic authority and rulings (subsequent commentary indicates the opinions being expressed are more complicated, but that has little bearing on what I’m presenting here).
This is in contrast to how First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael recently defined Messianic Judaism in his “Director’s Letter” in the Fall 2014 edition of Messiah Journal, p.10:
To me, Messianic Judaism is not just a Jewish-flavored version of Christianity. If I was asked to define Messianic Judaism, I would say, “Messianic Judaism is the practice of Judaism coupled with the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”
- Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cosmetically altered “Jewish-style” version of what is extant in the wider Christian community.
- God’s particular relationship with Israel is expressed in the Torah, God’s unique covenant with the Jewish people.
- Yeshua is the fullness of Torah.
- The Jewish people are “us” not “them.”
- The richness of the Rabbinic tradition is a valuable part of our heritage as Jewish people.
Rather than emphasizing the sufficiency or the primacy of scripture to the exclusion of all other considerations or practices as does One Law/One Torah, Messianic Judaism can be thought of in the manner of the other branches of Judaism in accepting, in addition to the primacy of Torah, all of the history, traditions, customs, wisdom, and interpretations of the great Jewish sages as part of their legacy, heritage, and lived daily experience, and added to all that, “the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”
In his reply to the non-Jewish writer who was inquiring about conversion to Judaism, Rabbi Freeman continued:
You see, there’s Judaism and there’s Jewishness, and the two are not one and the same. Judaism is wisdom for every person on the planet and beyond. We call it the Torah, meaning “the teaching,” and it’s a divine message to all human beings containing the principles that much of humanity has already accepted as absolute truths. The idea that human life is beyond value is a teaching originating from Torah, as is the related concept that all human beings are created equal. So too, the right of every individual to literacy and education was brought to the world through Torah. And world peace as a value and goal was preached exclusively by the Torah and its prophets thousands of years before it became popular in the rest of the world. And of course, the idea that there is a single, incorporeal Being who creates and sustains all of reality, and is concerned over all that occurs with each individual, thereby giving each person, creature, event and object meaning, purpose and destiny–this is a core teaching upon which everything else rests, and the central teaching of the Torah.
That’s Judaism. Then there is Jewishness. To be Jewish means to belong to an ancient tribe, either by birth or by adoption (a.k.a. conversion).
I invite you to click on link I provided above and read R. Freeman’s entire commentary (it’s not very long). He says some amazing things about the comparison and contrast of Judaism and Jewishness. It seems, on some level, anyone who is responding to God through the basic presentation of the Torah and the awareness presented by Judaism can access God through that template, that is, through the relationship Israel has with God as understood through the Torah, but that “Judaism” isn’t the same as “Jewishness”.
Tribes have rituals. So do Jews. Males of the tribe wear particular items of clothing, such as tzitzit and kippot. Women keep a certain mode of modest dress and married women cover their hair. Men also wrap leather boxes containing parchment scrolls on the heads and arms every morning, while robed in woolen sheets with more of those tzitzit tassels. In our services, we chant ancient Hebrew and read from an ancient scroll. We have holidays that commemorate our tribal memories and establish our identity as a whole. Certain foods are taboo and other food is supervised and declared fit-for-the-tribe. Nope, you can’t get much more ancient-tribal than any of that.
The point is, none of that ritual stuff was ever meant as a universal teaching, except perhaps in a more generalized way…
Now, what I’m saying is not very PC nowadays. We live in a world of hypermobility. Not just because we own our own cars and reserve our own tickets online to go anywhere, anytime–but because we imagine our very identities to be just as mobile as our powerbook. Pick me up and take me anywhere. Today I’m a capitalist entrepreneur, tomorrow an Inuit activist, and the next day a Californian bohemian. And we can mix and match–today, you can be Italian, Nigerian, Chinese and Bostonian all in the same meal. So who is this Freeman character to tell me which tribe I belong to and which not?
To be frank, because this Freeman character considers the hyper-identity scheme to be a scam, a mass delusion and a social illness. You can switch your clothes, your eating habits, your friends, your social demeanor, your perspective on life and maybe you can even switch to a Mac. But G-d decides who you are, and the best you can do is discover it.
It almost seems as if Rabbi Freeman were borrowing his arguments from those I’ve recently heard expressed in Messianic Judaism, but maybe it’s the other way around. If indeed we consider Messianic Judaism as another branch of Judaism alongside the other branches, it stands to reason that how they think of “Judaism” and “Jewishness” should be similar, in this instance, to the Chabad among the other Judaisms.
At the same time, there are also Jewish disciples of Yeshua; their Jewishness remains significant, and it is central to their unique identity. Unity in corporate prayer between Messianic Gentiles and Jews is a beautiful and powerful testimony of Yeshua’s greatness. Such unity can only exist in a setting in which members are aware of their respective roles within the people of God.
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.47
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer
One of the “issues” that comes up, and Boaz Michael discusses it in the aforementioned “Director’s Letter” from Messiah Journal, is that Messianic Judaism has some difficulty in identifying the role of the Messianic Gentile within Jewish community. This, as I’ve mentioned before, is also one of my personal challenges, although I am not involved in face-to-face Jewish (or any other kind of) community at present. Still, every time I do “Jewish stuff,” it is prudent of me to be mindful of that community and to at least try to imagine what my role as a Gentile should be.
Gentiles who devote themselves to Yeshua of Nazareth are not only disciples; they are his subjects, and he is their King…
These Gentiles are no longer separated from Messiah or “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Instead, they share in the inheritance and the destiny of the whole nation. In keeping with this identity, the God-fearing Messianic Gentile should not hesitate to join the Jewish people in formal prayer.
As Messianic Gentiles engage in these prayers, they must not lose sight of their own important and esteemed position as the crowning jewels of the nations.
I previously wrote a two-part review of Mark D. Nanos’ paper ‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus’ which discussed some of the distinctive differences between “Jews” and “Jewishly” as it might have been perceived by the apostle Paul (and Nanos’ paper is now freely available online at the Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) website).
I received a number of pointed responses based on the controversial nature of the topic, but then, the idea of Gentiles operating in Jewish religious and communal space as equal co-participants tends to get controversial.
If I can take Rabbi Freeman’s commentary and adapt it to the Messianic Jewish and Gentile framework, then it seems, as the Rabbi suggests, that Gentiles are perfectly free to take the higher principles of the Torah as universal, but should reserve those rituals that are specifically “Jewishly” for the “tribal” Jewish people as the Rabbi defines them.
R. Freeman finished his response with the following paragraph.
I believe that what G-d wants from each person is that s/he examine the heritage of his ancestors, discover the truths hidden there and live in accordance with them, knowing that this is what his Creator wants from her/him. The truths are there because all of human society was originally founded upon the laws given to Adam and to Noah, along with those laws that all the children of Noah accepted upon themselves. These truths are found by examining one’s heritage through the light of Torah. The Jewish Tribe are the bearers of that light. But you don’t need to become Jewish to partake of it. Light shines for all who have eyes.
Granted, he isn’t writing with the Messianic Gentile in mind and our status in relation to Israel through our devotion to Messiah Yeshua isn’t the same as a Noahide, but I believe his basic point is essentially the right one. Jews, as tribal members (although Israel isn’t truly tribal in the modern era, they inherit was belongs to the tribes as their descendents), are the original possessors of the Torah including all of the tribal rituals assigned to them by God. The rest of us, once we are drawn to Israel by the light of Torah and the light of Messiah, discover the truth of the Torah by its light from within our own national and ancestral contexts. This is why a Gentile approaching Messianic Jewish prayer does so along a somewhat different trajectory than a Messianic Jew.
This is why my upcoming personal Shabbos Project is traveling a somewhat different path and why I’ve had difficulty in attempting to interpret the path as it applies to me. I’ve come to a sort of peace with it now that Shabbos is approaching and I no longer feel intimidated about having to “get everything right”. The point of the experience is to experience God, not to worry about my level of observance. I’m not going to look anything like an Orthodox Jew nor should I ever try. I want to honor God and enter His presence and with that uppermost in my mind and heart, the rest will take care of itself with a little judicious preparation.
In some ways, I’m facing the Shabbat for the first time and already I’m discovering more about myself and who I am through the Shabbat and the light of Torah, which is the portrait Rabbi Freeman has so aptly painted.