Tikvat Israel

Upon Considering a Virtual Community

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish physician who spent the years of the Second World War in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, related, “I remember my dilemma in a concentration camp when faced with a man and a woman who were close to suicide; both had told me that they expected nothing more from life. I asked both my fellow prisoners whether the question was really what we expected from life. Was it not, rather, what life was expecting from us? I suggested that life was awaiting something from them.”

The person who feels despair and discouragement is asking the wrong question. He asks what the world is giving him. As soon as he changes his question to what is the good that he can do, he will always be able to find an answer.

(Gateway to Happiness, p.374)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“What Does Life Want From You?”
Daily Lift #260

Recently, blogger Judah Gabriel Himango wrote an insightful article called Stop your religious whining! (Lighten up, we live in an amazing time!) He addressed what I’d call “the petty (religious) slights of the hyper-sensitive” and his blog post encourages us to appreciate all that God has provided to us personally and in the world around us.

This got me to thinking about all the complaining I tend to do and what’s really supposed to be important.

My previous blog post Is Messianic Judaism Shrinking Because Almost All Other Judaisms Are Shrinking has received a lot of attention (almost 150 comments as I write this). It addresses an important aspect of religion: community.

Messianic Jewish community is problematic on a number of levels. One of the “problem” issues is the matter of including Gentiles in Messianic Jewish religious and community space. How many Gentiles do you allow into a Jewish space before it ceases to be Jewish? How can the Jewishness of Messianic Judaism be protected? How can Messiah remain central in the minds, hearts, and faith of the Jewish and Gentile believer and still have Messianic Judaism emphasize the centrality of Jewish identity in Jewish community?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions, and they are questions that Messianic Judaism and the various individuals and organizations involved continue to struggle with.

However, there’s another important community issue Messianic Judaism faces: isolation.

Face it, depending on how you define an authentic Messianic Jewish synagogue, such communities are few and far between. I can think of three or four off the top of my head, but at least one of them, Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, is lead primarily by non-Jews, although there are some Jews who are members (If I’ve gotten this wrong, please feel free to correct me).

One of the things it says on the Beth Immanuel website is that it provides “Messianic Judaism for the Nations”. It is a community that strongly adheres to traditional synagogue practices and halachah (to the best of my ability to assess such things) and yet is inclusive of the Gentiles in Messiah who regularly or occasionally worship there.

I’ve attended events at Beth Immanuel exactly twice, but since Hudson, Wisconsin is quite a distance from Idaho, I only rarely have the opportunity to make the trip over there.

I think the closest authentic Messianic Jewish synagogue is located in the Puget Sound area and beyond that, I know of one in Virginia and another in Massachusetts.

messianic judaism for the nationsI’ve listened to quite a few of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons on the Beth Immanuel audio page and one of the things said on the recordings when introducing each lesson, is for the listener to consider donating to their congregation as a “virtual member.”

What is it to be a virtual member? I don’t know that there’s anything formal about it except donating and consuming audio and video teachings streamed over the Internet. In fact, on Beth Immanuel’s Community page, it says:

Beth Immanuel is not a building, it is people. We are a community of disciples seeking to care for and nurture one another as our lives intersect on the common path of discipleship.

Because the Torah cannot be functionally lived outside of a community context, we are mutually dependent upon one another. This means learning to get along with each other even when we don’t always agree on every point. Community means working through the difficulties and acknowledging that, in the end, we really are family.

At Beth Immanuel, we are dedicated to making community happen. Several families live within walking distance of the congregation building. We regularly host one another in our homes on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. On Saturdays, we share a community meal after service. We keep the building open until after sunset so that we can enjoy common fellowship, prayer and study throughout the Sabbath day.

We desire to be known as disciples of Yeshua of Nazareth by our love for one another.

That would seem to preclude even the concept of being a “virtual member,” since community is defined by the direct contact of the people involved in their congregation. Community is particularly identified as those families who live within walking distance of Beth Immanuel, and families who host each other in their homes on Erev Shabbat. That’s pretty hard to do over the Internet, even with webcams and Skype.

On their Why Do We Exist page, it states in part:

Beth Immanuel provides a venue of worship and a community of support for Jewish and Gentile believers alike. We are here for those drawn to practice Messianic Judaism–the historical mode of Christian faith. We are dedicated to teaching and living out the Jewish Roots of our faith in Messiah.

Again, that “venue of worship and a community of support” requires a physical rather than a virtual presence.

Several months ago, I was offered the opportunity to contact the Rabbi at a Messianic Jewish synagogue (located thousands of miles away) and initiate a process that would admit me as a virtual member. I was assured that it would be very interactive and beneficial and I have no reason to doubt the word of the person who kindly contacted me with this suggestion.

This occurred last year right before the High Holidays and I decided to wait until after they were over, figuring the Rabbi and his synagogue would be very busy preparing for and conducting services for the Days of Awe.

And after they were over, I waited some more, turning things over in my head and trying to figure out what my needs really are and what’s important to me.

Which leads me back to the quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin I placed at the top of this missive.

It occurred to me that my own sense of isolation isn’t really as important as I’ve imagined it to be. Certainly, there are many Messianic Gentiles who live great distances from any community that could adequately serve their needs. And more importantly, there are many Messianic Jews who live very far from communities which could fully serve their needs. Some live in areas of the country that have little or no Jewish community at all, let alone Messianic Jewish community.

If Messianic Jewish community exists primarily to serve Jews, who am I to complain because I, as a Gentile, live nowhere near such a shul.

My primary role as a Messianic Gentile isn’t to get my “fix” of “Jewish stuff,” but rather, to do what I can to promote Jewish observance of Torah, particularly among (but not exclusive to) Messianic Jews. I’m well pleased that my wife, who is Jewish and not at all Messianic, is taking Hebrew classes at the local Chabad synagogue and attending other Jewish community events (and she’s even studying Tanya). This is as it should be, and if I can’t participate, the least I can do is stay out of her way and let her continue to explore her own Jewish identity and practice.

hopeI’ve decided that the best thing for me to do is to open my hand and let go my “need” for community. I left church after a two-year sojourn because of the extreme dissonance between their core doctrines and mine, and I knew I couldn’t meekly sit by Sunday after Sunday, and listen to teachings that I believe are detached from what God’s true intent is for the Jewish people and national Israel, even though this church and its staff and members were doing many other fine acts of tzedakah (charity, justice).

I can’t imagine a church environment that would have me let alone serve my needs, but remember, it’s not about serving my needs, but rather, finding what good I can do in the world. I don’t have to belong to a church or synagogue to do that. It’s a mission that we all share as disciples of the Master.

We are only isolated to the degree that we isolate ourselves from God and the performance of deeds of kindness and compassion. It’s almost never about what you can get from another person or any particular community or institution. It’s about what you can give back. That’s not virtual, it’s real.