Rainbow Shabbat

The Question of Gentiles and Judaism

Dear Rabbi,

I have a question that has bothered me/intrigued me for years. What was Jesus’ true name? What was the name his mother called him? His disciples? The name that he told them that you can do all things “in my name.” I thought ya’ll may have something in your archives that would point to an answer.

Rabbi Rachael Bregman
“Rabbi, What’s Jesus’ Nickname?”

I was a little surprised to read such an article at My Jewish Learning, but I guess I shouldn’t be, since the “About Us” page for this site states:

MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Offering articles and resources on all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, the site is geared toward adults of all ages and backgrounds, from the casual reader looking for interesting insights, to non-Jews searching for a better understanding of Jewish culture, to experienced learners wishing to delve deeper into specific topic areas.

The word “transdenominational” suggests a somewhat more liberal perspective relative to Judaism and perhaps other religious streams. But it wasn’t just that Rabbi Bregman considered the question, but the answer she gave that interested me. Here’s part of it:

This is from a real email I received.

I am a rabbi in a small city on the coast of Georgia; as the only rabbi in a 75-or-so-mile radius, I get many emails and phone calls with all kinds of questions from folks in the Christian community. This one is a favorite for several reasons.

First of all, there is a place where Judaism and Christianity intersect, and that place is Jesus. I love how the writer is looking to me, the local go-to expert on all things Jewish, to help him navigate that intersection. For his sake and for ours, I wish there was an archive of Jewish stuff , where we could look there to not only help our Christian, Muslim and other-faith friends understand their religions better but to also gain deep insight into our own. I mean, a great way to understand the tensions around Jewish religious practice at the time of the Second Temple is to read the Gospels.

By the way, Bregman never gets around to attaching a Hebrew name to Jesus, but she did end her brief blog post with this:

I don’t know any other names for Jesus, or for Allah or Buddha or Brahman, or for God. But what I learned from this man’s email is that many of us are seeking that name, and by sharing the search with one another we enhance the journey for us all.

rabbi bregman
Rachael Bregman – Photo: jacksonville.com

I think what I was impressed with the most was that Bregman seemed completely unthreatened by the question and didn’t mind taking a stab at the answer that wasn’t in some way dismissive of the Christian questioner. Even in my own home, bringing up certain subjects with my Jewish wife (the Apostle Paul being one of them) is likely to be met with a rather icy response.

So I decided to find out what I could about Bregman.

Rachael Bregman knows she doesn’t fit most people’s concepts of a rabbi, at least as seen on TV.
“They’re always old men with earlocks. They’re called peyas,’’ she said of the strands of uncut hair in front of the ears. “That’s spelled p-e-y-a-s … maybe. I know how to spell it in Hebrew.”

Bregman is a 36-year-old divorcee who left Atlanta three weeks ago with her rambunctious 8-month-old dog Safi, a pit bull-ridgeback-Lab mix, at least those are the breeds Bregman thinks she has identified.

Bregman knows big-city life, having grown up in Boston and lived in Atlanta, but she was drawn to Brunswick by the size of Temple Beth Tefilloh, a Union of Reform Judaism congregation chartered 127 years ago.

-Terry Dickson, July 24, 2013
“Woman is Temple Beth Tefilloh’s first rabbi in 50 years”

She also has a Facebook page that’s pretty accessible as long as you’re logged in to Facebook.

I know some people, both Jewish and otherwise, who have issues with female Rabbis (or with female authority in general), Reform Judaism, and liberal political and social viewpoints, but at least she seems approachable, even if asking a Rabbi about Jesus’s name might be somewhat awkward.

Of course many of the comments on My Jewish Learning’s Facebook page were a little less than completely cordial:

Daniel C: I’ve been following MJL for quite awhile and this is the first I’ve seen posted on the matter. If they now have Messianic Jewish leanings then they’ve become a Christian organ and I will no longer be following them.

Carol C: Agreed. Jesus has nothing to do with Judaism. We do not study him or ever mention him in our learning. But since the inception of Christianity his followers have used his name to persecute and murder us. Can’t deny that.

D.E: My Jewish Learning is not a JEWISH resource but a trans-denominational collaboration of mostly misinformed christians and URJ adherents. That it exists does not make it authoritative.

Lori F: Has this become a “jews for jesus” site now?

interfaithAnd the beat goes on. Actually, these responses are pretty predictable, although nothing I read in the original article seemed to support the idea of a Jew having any sort of “approach” to Jesus.

A number of Christians and “Messianic” folks also commented in a more direct attempt to answer the question, but that didn’t go over well. One Jewish fellow even called “Messianic Judaism” an “oxymoron,” but I can’t locate the specific entry anymore.

In spite of recent comments from the Vatican and the suggestion of a partnership between Christianity and Orthodox Judaism, I still think we have a long way to go in having a more comfortable conversation take place between Gentile “Talmidei Yeshua” and Jewish people.

I certainly don’t blame any Jew for experiencing some sense of threat at the idea of a Christian “incursion” into Jewish historical, social, and religious space, but from my particular point of view, it is occasionally frustrating. However, even my highly unusual theological and doctrinal viewpoint won’t earn me any points within normative Judaism anymore than it does with my long-suffering wife.

Still, as a Gentile, once you’ve accepted a certain “Judaicly-aware” consciousness regarding the central message of the Bible, particularly the New Covenant, and how the nations of the world even have a place in a wholly Jewish document, it’s difficult to not want to build some sort of “interface.”

But there are limits, sometimes rather severe ones. Having acknowledged to the Jewish people, including those within Messianic Judaism that what’s yours is yours, whether within Jewish community or standing outside of it, we non-Jewish yet “Judaicly-aware” Talmidei Yeshua struggle to find a place where we belong.

I sometimes suspect that’s why many/most/all of the non-Jews associated with the ancient Jewish community of Yeshua followers in the early decades and centuries of the common era finally broke away from their mentors and teachers in what I’ve previously termed a rather ugly divorce, in order to create a brand new religious entity (Christianity) where the Gentile might feel more at home.

That “solution” has worked out, albeit in a very uneasy (gross understatement) manner, for nearly twenty centuries now, but for a few of us on the fringes of both Christianity and Judaism, that’s not good enough anymore.

NoahOf course, normative Judaism’s response to someone like me is to give up Christianity in any form and become a Noahide or “righteous Gentile”. Judaism maintains that the rest of the world doesn’t need to convert in order to be “saved,” so it doesn’t actively seek converts. In fact, it tends to discourage conversion for a variety of reasons.

But according to this JTA news story published a few days ago, a group called the National Center to Encourage Judaism is attempting to break through that “taboo”.

Maybe it’s the centuries of living under Christian and Muslim rule. Maybe it’s the history of forced conversion. Maybe it’s that there’s no religion requirement for the Jewish afterlife.

Whatever the reasons, Jews have traditionally been uncomfortable proselytizing.

But a Maryland foundation is flouting the taboo by funding outreach programs to non-Jews in an effort to bring them into the fold.

I read an article years or even a decade or so ago (so I can’t remember the source) suggesting that Jews attempt to convert Gentiles to Judaism as a matter of Jewish survival, since except among Orthodox Jewish communities, Jewish families are in a decline.

But again, this effort is not without its Jewish critics:

Eli W: If these people weren’t so ignorant of Jewish law they would realize that soliciting converts if prohibited and that the conversion process they’re advocating wouldn’t result in valid conversions anyway.

Of course if these people weren’t so ignorant of Jewish law the attrition rate from their movements wouldn’t be so shockingly high and there would be no need for conversions to replenish dwindling numbers.

So maybe a proper Jewish education for Jews might be a better idea than trying to recruit non-Jews?

Mark J: when was it ruled that soliciting converts is prohibited? Before or after Moshe Rabenyu married his shiksa? The ban on soliciting conversions was made under duress as was the end of polygamy and I am sure many other rulings by ersatz rabbis who ruled out of fear of gentiles…

Eli W: Did you ever hear of work called the Shulchan Aruch? That and predecessor works like the Tur and Maimonides Mishna Torah have defined normative Jewish law for centuries. They preceded the crackpot websites that seem to be your source for Jewish law.

Photo: OU.org

Dave M: Eli, you are very right on may of your comments. Except, my friend, many many groups are doing kiruv work eg. Chabad, Aish etc. but still the total result has been sadly very little. I am not sayng to stop. I am just saying let’s just ALSO put the information out there on the internet ie. information about Judaism in terms a non-Jew who knows nothing about Judaism can understand. Let’s spread the light of Torah around the world by talking about Judaism not by hiding it under a bushel basket.

There are voices that potentially could be involved in this debate that I’ve left out, mainly because I didn’t stumble across any convenient articles about them. Certainly Evangelical Christianity would have an opinion about Jews proselytizing Christians. Imagine an individual Jew or Jewish family going door to door in a largely Gentile/Christian neighborhood passing out booklets citing the social and spiritual advantages of becoming a Jews.

I don’t see that happening and I do believe that the Church would probably push back pretty hard if it ever did (also keep in mind that occasionally, converts to Judaism become vulnerable to abuse within Jewish community).

Then, of course, there’s what people in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements would have to say about it. Periodically, non-Jews involved in either movement decide to shoot out the other side and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism, mistaking becoming a Jew as the primary means of having a relationship with God.

In many ways, it would be so much easier to accept that Jews are Jews and Christians are Christians and that they are separate communities with nothing in common. If Christians would just mind their/our own business and keep their/our noses out of Jewish community, everyone would be happy.

So being “Judaicly-aware” and a self-described “Talmid Yeshua” is a somewhat risky venture. Many non-Jews have felt the necessity to convert to (non-Messianic) Judaism because of such an awareness, remain Gentile and claim the Torah as belonging to them anyway, or gone the two-house, “I’m a member of a lost tribe” route, essentially saying that they’re already Jewish and thus the Torah is theirs, too.

I have another solution. How about learning to be comfortable in your own skin?

That doesn’t mean you, as a Gentile, have to learn to be comfortable in a church. I tried that for a couple of years and it didn’t work out.

So, you either live near enough to a religious community that is accepting of Jews and non-Jews who are “Talmidei Yeshua,” or you just admit to yourself that you are who you are and that you don’t fit into someone’s pre-conceived identity category.

That has the disadvantage of meaning that you, more often than not, will have no community to which you relate, unless you can find one online. However, it has the advantage of meaning you don’t have to constantly argue with people, since you aren’t claiming anything that belongs to any other person or group.

Up to JerusalemThe double-edged sword is building an identity for yourself that’s consistent with what the Bible says about righteous people of the nations who become disciples of Rav Yeshua. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that’s not such an easy thing to do. On the other hand, at least you have the freedom to create yourself.

If you are a Talmid Yeshua and are in a church (and you’re open with your opinions and beliefs), you are liable to butt heads with clergy and worshippers. The same if you are in a normative synagogue. So you either keep your mouth shut (easier for some people more than others), find a more compatible community, or believe that God accepts you as you are, even if most people don’t.

From Judaism’s point of view, anytime a non-Jew expresses an interest in Judaism the question is, “What do we do with these Gentiles?” Certainly the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) faced that question on many occasions. It’s the whole point of the events Luke recorded in Acts 15 relative to the legal proceeding establishing Gentile status in ancient Jewish community, and the resultant “Jerusalem letter.”

As you’ve read above, these aren’t issues contained only within Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots. They’re spilling over into many other Jewish venues as well. They probably always have. And normative Judaism doesn’t seem to have any better answer to this question than the rest of us do, and we have the rather gruesome history of how the Church has treated the Jewish people and Judaism to thank for it.

I know that there are all kinds of religious pundits in a wide variety of camps who think they have the definitive answer. I think it’s much more interesting to explore the question and to keep creating a better “me,” whoever that happens to be and whatever that means to God.

5 thoughts on “The Question of Gentiles and Judaism”

  1. I came across the article Finding Your Unique Purpose too late to include it in the body of the blog post. Although written for a Jewish audience, I think with a few “tweaks,” it is easily adaptable to the rest of us, particularly when we consider how to develop non-Jewish identity and role as disciples of our (Jewish) Rav Yeshua.

  2. “sometimes suspect that’s why many/most/all of the non-Jews associated with the ancient Jewish community of Yeshua followers in the early decades and centuries of the common era finally broke away from their mentors and teachers in what I’ve previously termed a rather ugly divorce, in order to create a brand new religious entity (Christianity) where the Gentile might feel more at home.”

    You seem to be assuming that “Judaism” existed in Jesus’ day (it didn’t) and that it has remained a constant, and you said that Christianity “broke off” from it (Rabbinic Judaism) creating a “new identity”, when in fact that is what the Jews did as well!

    Many 1st century Jews relentlessly persecuted the nascent, fully Jewish Jesus movement, which was originally quite small. As it grew to include Gentiles, many Jews tried to force Jewish identity (there was no such thing yet as “Judaism” or “Christianity”) and all of the requirements of ethnic Israel, upon Gentiles who had come to believe in Israel’s God..

    Christianity is the largest religion in the world. If the Judaizers had been successful, this wouldn’t be the case.

    Putting a foux Jewish identity upon Gentiles can hardly be understood as God’s intention anyway, since prophecies say the nations will turn to and worship the God of Israel, who is the One True God, and they are never depicted as Jews. His house will be a house of prayer for all nations, and the nations will essentially tell the Covenant people who their messiah is, for they will turn to him in droves. The nations also play a part in the restoration of Israel to their God, in which all of humanity will benefit.

    But, since I’ve not seen any prophecies denoting that “the nations” would or even could become Jews in one mass of undistinguished humanity, I’d say that separation was necessary, and quite fruitful.


    Into the 4th century, Christian leaders were consulting “rabbis about interpretation of difficult Scriptural verses” and Christianity was, of course, heavily patterned after the synagogue and Jewish worship (Catholic).

    Marcionism and other errant Gnostic teachings were quickly dismissed by the church, and rightly called heretical. This shows close ties between Christian leaders to Jews and Jewish interpretive methods.

    Well into the 7th century in Capernaum, Jews from a non-messianic synagogue, and a congregation of so-called “Jewish Christians”, lived in apparent harmony opposite each other on the same street!

    All of this (and much more) proves that Christianity did not divorce, or merely “break away from their mentors” at all.

    In the 4th century, Constantine ordered that “Jews be restrained from attacking” Jews who’d become believers in Jesus. And, Rome issued several prohibitions against mixed marriages between Christians and Jews. Of course, there’s little point in doing that if it weren’t happening. There was a lot of overlap for a very long time.

    However, Gentiles who are infatuated with what Rabbinic Judaism, (created well after Jesus resurrected, in part to create clear distinctions between Jews and Christians, hence the commenter you quoted can say “Jesus never had anything to do with Judaism”, because frankly, it didn’t exist yet) get very strange. Insecurities give way to pridefulness and demands.

    Judaized Gentiles are a strange and destructive force for Christians as well as Jews.

    As you say, they will often turn away from and renounce messiah, and they generally leave much confusion and destruction in their wake.

    Often, gentile Christians will “find out” or “decide” they are Jewish, come in contact with a Jew (usually Chabad) and allow themselves to be convinced that they cannot be legitimately Jewish if they believe in Jesus. Many will opt for this foux identity and acceptance, over prior experiences and commitments to Jesus.

    1. Greetings, Bandlin. You seem to have some pretty definite ideas of the history of the first few centuries of the common era.

      I’m basing my understanding of the separation of the Jewish and non-Jewish participants in early Yeshua faith largely on Magnus Zetterholm’s book The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity. Granted, the history and dynamics of such a separation are more involved than I’ve described here, but I don’t have the bandwidth to rehash all of the historical and sociological details every time I want to mention these events.

      As far as there being no such thing as Judaism in the late second temple period, it’s probably more accurate to say there were multiple streams of Jewish observance in existence during this time, principally the Pharisees and Sadducees along with others. The Jewish stream of Yeshua-faith seems to have emerged (in my opinion) from the Pharisees since even post-Acts 9, Saul’s/Paul’s teaching and praxis remained rooted in Pharisaic tradition, although he adapted his perspective to acknowledge his revelation of Yeshua as Messiah and to allow for very liberal policies involving Gentile inclusion.

      When I said the non-Jews broke from their Jewish leaders and mentors, I was referring to this branch of Judaism, since what we now think of as Rabbinic Judaism (and even that’s an oversimplification) did not as yet exist (Tannaim is probably the most historically relevant label given the topic and period in history at hand).

      I also didn’t mean to imply that it was the purpose of Paul and the other apostles to create a “Jewish” identity for the non-Jews in their midst. In my opinion, the Acts 15 legal procedure was conducted to create a halachic status of Gentiles within Jewish community, one that distinguished them from Am Yisrael. I do believe that some of the Jewish devotees of Messiah thought the only way to include non-Jews in the New Covenant blessings was for them to convert, but fortunately, God had a plan to bring us close to Him without us becoming Jews and that plan was initiated as we see in the aforementioned Acts 15.

      I agree that Gentiles were never intended to convert to Judaism as such, but instead, to remain outside of Israel and part of the nations as Jesus-disciples.

      But based on a variety of sources, including the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, the role and status of the non-Jewish Jesus disciple within Jewish community may never have been “fleshed out,” possibly because Paul truly believed the Messiah would be returning within a few years or decades, and that he would finish this “definition” himself as King.

      If events had happened as Paul imagined (this is all academic supposition since we don’t know a great deal about this time in history), under ideal circumstances, you would still have two distinct groups of Jesus followers: Am Yisrael and the people of the nations, contained within the same overarching body (ekklesia), and yet distinct based on nationality and relevant covenantal relationship with God.

      However, as Gentile Christianity and what would become Rabbinic Judaism took divergent trajectories through history, they grew quite far apart, and the Church’s persecution of Jews and Judaism is well documented.

      However, in the modern era, there is now a small but growing group of non-Jews who are attempting to revisit traditional Christian teachings about the origins of our faith and who are questioning many of the assumptions manufactured by the early Church fathers to support supersessionism including the cryptosupersessionism that exists in some churches today.

      The question then is how this unique population of non-Jewish followers of Jesus self-identify without “judaizing” while at the same time also renouncing the anti-Semitic history of the Church?

      I know it seems like I’m “church bashing,” and I have been critical of some of the doctrine and theology of normative Christianity, but really it’s the legacy of anti-Judaism that remains in the Church which I oppose. I’ve met many good and fine people in churches who are living examples of faith and who obey our Teacher in feeding the hungry and otherwise being compassionate to other human beings. Kindness and charity are the cornerstone of both Christianity and Judaism, at least in their perfect incarnations.

      God knows who He wants each of us to be, including the praxis and identity of each group of Jesus followers: Am Yisrael and the nations. Since the rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be a house of prayer for all nations, and since every knee will bow, will it be “the Church” representing the nations, or will there even be a Church in Messianic Days?

      Yes, the nations will remain distinct from Israel, but what will that look like if you correct for nearly two-thousand years of “mission drift?”

  3. James, as to your closing questions, I was reminded of a quote by Abram (Bram) Poljak (1900-1963), whom I’m sure you know was an early pioneer of current Messianic Judaism who laid some of the foundation for what we see happening today.

    He said in part: “In order to understand us (in Messianic Judaism), it is necessary to begin from the starting point of Christianity.  Where did Christianity begin?  In the synagogue.  Yeshua only preached in the Temple at Jerusalem and in the synagogues of Palestine.  Christ in the synogogue — that is the messianic synagogue.”
    “That which separates us [Messianic Jews] from [other] Jews and [Gentile] Christians is time.  We are bearers of the future.  Messianic Judaism is the faith of the future.  It is the higher order into which Judaism and Christianity will both be absorbed…….In the Kingdom, both Israel and the church will be resurrected and be absorbed into a higher element, into Messianic Judaism.  And so, both of them, the Jews and the Christians will become [Messianic] Jewish-Christians, discovering the faith of the future.”

    From my reading of Scripture I tend to agree and pray that it happens soon.

    1. Hi Mel. Good to hear from you again.

      I do agree that the synagogue was the “natural habitat” of both Jewish and non-Jewish Yeshua-followers in ancient days, but of course, all that has changed. The vast majority of non-Jewish Christians worship in church and believe that “the Church,” the world-wide collective of believers (who are apart from Judaism and the synagogue) will inherit the Earth with Jesus, ruling and reigning with him.

      Is Messianic Judaism as we have it now the religion of the Messianic Age? Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect that we all have an imperfect vision of just how to be Jewish and Gentile Yeshua Talmidei from God’s point of view. If one of the things Messiah is supposed to do upon coming/returning, is to correctly interpret Torah, that will include correctly interpreting the praxis of his Jewish and Gentile devotees. I suspect we will all need to make some adjustments when Moshiach ascends his throne in Jerusalem.

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