It is appropriate for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to participate in Jewish prayer. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem is to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Yeshua did not come to create a separate religion for Gentiles with different prayers.
“Prayer in Jewish Space,” p.33
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer
I’ve quoted from Aaron’s book twice before, the first time in Messianic Jewish Shabbat Observance and the Gentile and just yesterday in Discovering Myself by the Light of Torah. I suppose it’s appropriate for me to do a more proper book review, and I’m writing it from the expected perspective: that of a non-Jew.
You see, for the most part, Messianic Jewish Prayer is Jewish Prayer. Aaron’s book can be thought of as a “Jewish Prayer 101” class complete with a minimalist siddur at the end of the book. It’s unique in that it has a specific focus on Yeshua HaMoshiach, but a focus on Messiah is not considered unusual according to Aaron:
The traditional Jewish prayers are constantly focused on the Messiah. Although they do not identify Yeshua by name, they do identify the Messiah by character and title.
Some people might object that the traditional Jewish prayers do not say anything about Yeshua since they do not mention him by name. The same is true of the Hebrew scriptures, yet we know that they say a great deal about Yeshua.
“Prayer in Jewish Space,” p.29
Aaron starts out in Part One by describing “Prayer in Messianic Judaism” as distinct from the other Judaisms and Christianity. Although describing Jewish Prayer, as I said above, the specific focus is always on Messiah. In essence then, this is an instruction manual about prayer in Messianic Judaism which first and foremost should speak to Jewish people. Granted, devout Jewish people raised in religious households are raised in Jewish prayer, but many of the Jews attracted to Messianic Judaism have not had a traditional Jewish education. Still, the emphasis on Judaism must be recognized. The portions of his book that specifically address Gentiles in Jewish Prayer and in Jewish Space are called out and those are the parts I spent most of my time in.
In fact, the section of Part One called “Prayer in Jewish Space” seems to be a primer on how Jewish Prayer is conducted “procedurally” as well as in terms of “kavanah” (intent). I quoted from this chapter previously when addressing “Gentiles and Jewish Prayer.”
For example, one line in the traditional after-meal blessing offers thanks to God “for the covenant that [he] sealed in our flesh.” It seems problematic for a Messianic Gentile to say this. But should someone who is not Jewish then say “for the covenant that you have written on our hearts?” To do so would imply that Messianic Jews have only a fleshly covenant, whereas the new covenant that is written on hearts belongs only to Messianic Gentiles, God forbid.
For the uninitiated Gentile or for those who are sensitive in one way or another to the distinctions made between Jews and Gentiles in Messianic Jewish space, parts of this book may be a little confusing or disorienting and even seem kind of annoying. At best, it will take some work for Gentiles, even those familiar with Jewish Prayer on some level, to get used to the flow of prayer outlined in the book during a synagogue service or even a Shabbat dinner. At worst, some Gentiles will feel put out not to be considered “Israel” and thus directed to pray the prayers in not exactly the same manner as their Jewish counterparts.
However, this book is designed to not only teach Messianic Jewish Prayer, but to continue to establish the distinctive roles Jews and Gentiles play in Messianic Judaism, with the understanding (from my point of view, anyway) that those roles are not firmly anchored or agreed upon at present.
That said, I was surprised when Aaron didn’t make much in the way of Jewish/Gentile distinctions relative to the standard prayers, particularly the Shema. But let me back up a step:
Gentiles who devote themselves to Yeshua of Nazareth are not only disciples; they are his subjects, and he is their King. In that sense they relate to the nation of Israel and the Jewish people in the same way that a conquered and annexed people is subordinated to a conquering king. These Gentiles are no longer separated from the Messiah or “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants 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.
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.47
As a non-Jew in Messianic Jewish territory, you could choose to take this one of two ways. The first is that you could rejoice in your (our) unique role in the Kingdom of Messiah as grafted in Gentiles who had no hope and no belonging until our faith in Messiah brought us alongside Israel in devotion to God and sharers in the blessings of the New Covenant promises. The second is that you could feel pushed away, slighted, or “sent to the back of the bus,” so to speak, as if, as a Gentile, you aren’t worthy of sitting in the front of the synagogue with the Jews. By definition, if the nations of the Gentiles are to be considered vassal, then they serve Israel as well as Israel’s King. The wording Aaron uses could be spun in either direction:
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. A Messianic Gentile who participates in the prayers and petitions of Israel should thus consciously acknowledge that since he is not legally Jewish, his connection to Israel comes only through King Messiah.
That’s where the “declaration of intent” comes in. Aaron has a difficult job as the author of this book in balancing the invitation of Gentiles into Jewish prayer and, at the same time, containing and protecting Jewish identity in Jewish space including in (Messianic) Jewish prayer. It’s our faith in Messiah that binds us and it’s difficult, particularly in egalitarian America, to accept the status of a subordinate or vassal citizen in the Kingdom of Messiah, with Jewish Israel being “large and in charge” of the rest of the world (that means the rest of us).
If you can accept that role as many Messianic Gentiles have done, then the only difficulty you may encounter is adapting your prayer life to the structure and language this book presents (depending on your experience in Jewish prayer up to this point). If you can’t, then you’re going to have a difficult time stumbling over the presuppositions Aaron makes about Jewish and Gentile roles in the Messianic Jewish synagogue.
Although I’ve attended Shavuot services and had a Shabbat meal or two at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, which offers Jewish services and includes Jewish prayer, I’ve not had the pleasure of attending any of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Shabbaton events. This would have given me a more personal look at how to use The Sabbath Table prayer book (which, as you read this, I’ll be using tonight for the first time), and thus experience Jewish prayer in the manner Aaron describes.
Although I’ve used a number of siddurs before, including Artscroll’s Sefard Siddur, this coming Shabbat will be a unique experience. I’m somewhat used to making the mental and linguistic adjustments Aaron’s book recommends for Gentiles since the language in traditional siddurs assumes the perspective of a Jewish man, but it’s refreshing to come across material that can be specifically adapted to me as a Messianic Gentile. I still expect to be challenged by the flow of Erev Shabbat prayers, especially since there won’t be anyone else present to emulate.
Aaron’s book devotes a lot of attention to the Shema and Amidah, which you’d expect, and as I mentioned before, I was surprised that these pages weren’t covered with caveats and alternate language for Gentiles, since this is the heart of Jewish prayer. Aaron continues to write for the reader, Jewish or Gentile, who knows little or nothing about Jewish prayer. Standard siddurs, although they contain many notes on a variety of topics, assume a certain amount of prior knowledge by the user. Aaron’s book opens the box, so to speak, and lets the reader look inside the prayers, what they mean, and how they were written.
But while there are few mentions of Jewish/Gentile distinction, they can be found:
Tefillin are a distinct marker of Jewish identity. It is not forbidden for a Messianic Gentile to wear them; however there are some communities in which it would be confusing or even offensive for a non-Jew to do so. It is important that Messianic Gentiles who wear tefillin are sensitive to the message that it communicates and that they conform to community standards; it may be advisable for Messianic Gentiles to avoid wearing them in public venues.
Tzitziyot serve as a marker of Jewish identity. It is not forbidden for Messianic Gentiles to wear them; however, doing so may cause confusion and offense. It is advisable for Messianic Gentiles who choose to wear them to do so with utter discretion.
Several years ago, for a variety of reasons, I put my tefillin and tallit in a box and shoved the box onto a shelf in the back of my closet. One of the reasons I did so was I became convinced that the part of Aaron’s statement about distinctiveness and Jewish identity is correct. This was filtered through the knowledge and experience of being married to a Jewish wife who had come to the conclusion that having a Gentile/Christian husband dressing up as a Jew was a pretty odd thing to do.
No, she never mentioned it, but after being married for over thirty years, you pick up a few things about how your wife thinks. To honor her as much as for any other reason, I stopped doing pretty much anything that might appear “Jewish”.
I know Messianic Gentiles, including those within FFOZ and at Beth Immanuel, who wear tzitzit and kippot, and within their personal or community contexts, given Aaron’s words above, that would seem to make sense. In fact, since giving up the practice of wearing a kippah, tallit, and laying tefillin, even in private, I’ve been concerned about some potential “blowback,” even if it’s left unsaid, from some Messianic Gentiles and Jews concerning my non-use of Jewish “particulars”. Identity confusion goes both ways, and I can see how I might seem a little too “light” or “insubstantial” for actually not donning a tallit when I pray.
I wonder if someone like me would be considered offensive in a Messianic synagogue that more or less expected most Gentiles to wear a kippah and tallit, especially since Aaron presents the Shema as acceptable for Gentiles to recite, and especially because one of the customs during the Shema is to grasp the tzitzit together in the left hand?
I think the bottom line as Aaron suggested, is for the Messianic Gentile to adapt their practice based on the standards of their local worship community. Being “community-less” at the moment allows me to do more or less anything based on personal standards, but I’ve still got good reasons for not getting that box out of the closet and opening it up.
But that suggests another option. Many Hebrew Roots individuals and groups not only consider wearing a tallit to be an available option, but even an obligation and their right as grafted-in Gentiles. While I disagree with that opinion, since these people operate within their own communities and those communities have set standards permitting and even commanding Gentile men to wear tallitot, then technically, this part of Aaron’s book is adaptable to their needs.
I also started wondering (and I guess this is a community standard thing) if Gentiles could be considered as part of a minyan in Messianic Jewish synagogues. Aaron didn’t address that topic at all, and yet certain prayers, including Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) require a minyan.
As I said, much of the book was taken up with a detailed description of the Shema and Amidah prayers, but then on page 103, starts an analysis of what most Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Aaron refers to it as “Our Father”.
The Didache contains this prayer in a version that is quite similar to that of Matthew, and it instructs believers to recite it three times a day. From the earliest available records, Christians have used this prayer as part of liturgical worship. Like a majority of traditional Jewish prayers, the first-person pronouns of “Our Father” are plural (“us,” “our”). This suggests that the prayer was intended for corporate liturgical use.
While some scholars have suggested that “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer) was meant to take the place of the traditional Jewish prayer service and even contains all of the basic elements of said-service, Aaron believes that it was meant to be included at the end of the Amidah for Messianic Jewish and Gentile believers, particularly because the Didache instructs Gentile disciples to recite it three times a day.
The Didache was a sort of “training manual” for how to teach a non-Jew to become a disciple of the Jewish Messiah. It’s thought to have been originally composed by the Apostles or those close to them. The earliest version may have been in the form of oral instructions that accompanied the well-known Acts 15 “Jerusalem Letter.” This all seems to say that the very earliest Gentile disciples of Messiah practiced Jewish prayer alongside their Jewish teachers and mentors, perhaps well beyond the First Century CE.
The final portion of the book is a sort of “mini-siddur” containing the text, in English and Hebrew, for:
- I Hereby join
- Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles
- Our Father
- Prayer for the Restoration of Zion
Aaron even put in a “Suggested Readings” list at the back of the book for those who want to go beyond the “Jewish Prayer 101” level.
I know many of us in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements have struggled at one time or another about how to use a siddur, how to adapt it to our faith in Messiah, and how to adapt it for a mixed Jewish/Gentile worship service. Over a decade ago, I regularly worshiped in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue during the time when my children were in Hebrew school, and I had no guide for this sort of thing. I felt pretty awkward.
That sort of dynamic is built-in to a Messianic shul and I think Aaron’s book is at least part of the answer to integrating Jews and Gentiles in a Messianic Jewish prayer service, at least enough to get a lot of people and communities started along the right path.
As I said, it’s not for everyone. If you, as a Gentile, think of yourself as part of “Israel” or a “spiritual Jews” or even espouse a “two-house” theology, then several parts of what Aaron wrote won’t suit you at all. Interestingly enough though, I’d still recommend First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer to just about anyone interested in the topic, because the research and level of description that has gone into the book illuminates the origin, purpose, and meaning of the prayers.