Angela Buchdahl was born to an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother, yet on her path to the rabbinate did not take the time to convert to Judaism.
“It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi”
Published: August 14th, 2013 Latest update: August 15th, 2013
Now that’s an odd story. I was having coffee with my friend Tom last Sunday afternoon when he mentioned this news item. Today, he sent me the link via Facebook. But Reform Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s tale isn’t quite as it appears.
Exactly 30 years ago, in 1983, the Reform movement in America adopted the bilineal policy: “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.”
It should be noted that outside the U.S. the Reform movement is yet to adopt the sweeping “presumption of Jewish descent” doctrine, but they do, by and large, offer “accelerated conversions” to children of a Jewish father.
In the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements (and their various branches), Jewish identity is an important issue. Who is Jewish and who isn’t directly relates to the roles and responsibilities of individuals within Messianic Judaism and great efforts are made to maintain such distinctions, particularly since Messianic Jewish congregations contain (typically) a minority of halachically Jewish members and a majority of Gentile believers who choose to worship within a Jewish context.
Yori Yanover, in his article says that Reform Rabbi Buchdahl’s synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan can be seen to have a number of African and Hispanic attendees and that, as far as diversity goes, Yanover would “beam with pride” over “gentiles who embrace the Jewish faith and who go through the grueling process of converting to Judaism.” But that presupposes conversion to Judaism and adoption of Jewish identity.
Yet outside of Reform Judaism, especially the United States expression of it, Rabbi Buchdahl would be considered a non-Jew and the lines defining Jewish identity have gone beyond being blurred to being eradicated. A non-Jewish Rabbi and Cantor?
Indeed, the more the Reform movement is reinventing itself, the closer it gets to Christianity. She’s been active, among other things, at Auburn Theological Seminary, “an interfaith platform to address global issues and build bridges across religious traditions.” “Angela is an extraordinary religious leader,” Rev. Katherine Henderson, Auburn’s president, told Hadassah. At a gathering for a Presbyterian group last year, Buchdahl “led worship that was completely authentic for her as a Jew and yet completely accessible for this group of Christians,” says Henderson. “We were all able to praise God together!”
But should Jewish writer Yanover be complaining? Shouldn’t we all be getting along as people of faith? And as a Christian, shouldn’t I delight to see Judaism and Christianity coming together, merging, forming a combined corporate identity? Isn’t this just one more step to converting Jews to Christians and becoming “one new man?”
In 1827, Czar Nicholas I decreed that all Jewish boys be forcibly conscripted into the Russian Army at age 12. Called “cantonists,” these boys were kidnapped from their parents’ home, and tortured repeatedly with the implication that conditions would improve if they’d accept Christianity. (Many died of their wounds.) The boys were indoctrinated in military prep school until age 18, and thereafter served 25 years in the army. The authorities saw it as a corrective, forced assimilation of stubborn Jews into Russian society, and as a way to undermine the authority of Jewish communal leaders. Some 50,000 Jewish boys were forced into Czar Nicholas’ army, and most never returned to the families they had left at age 12. The policy was abolished in 1855, with the death of Nicholas.
Day in Jewish History – Elul 15
I was talking with another Christian recently and the topic of Jews being forced to convert to Christianity under torture came up. In the course of conversation, my companion said that the Jewish people ultimately need to accept Jesus as the Messiah and that it’s wrong for Jews to refuse to convert. Frankly, I could hardly believe my ears. Was this person saying that a Jewish person who felt that the blue-eyed, Goyishe Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah and who believed that Christianity embodied polytheism and idolatry should nevertheless accept conversion to Christianity while under torture as an act of obeying God?
That’s plain nuts. Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but it is not “Christian” to torture someone to conversion. Further, if you force a “conversion,” how sincere can it be? Did Jesus advocate such monstrous acts? Did Paul routinely beat, starve, burn, and cut other Jews who refused to see his side of the story about Jesus? How can this be right? How is this uplifting the Name of God and keeping it Holy?
I’m not saying that Judaism trumps the Word of God or the message of Messiah anymore than Christianity does. We are all (or should all be) seeking an encounter with God, not blindly marching after a series of theologies, doctrines, and dogmas. But is being Jewish nothing to God? Didn’t He call Abraham as the first Hebrew? Didn’t He require that the Children of Israel set themselves apart from the nations as His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation? (Exodus 19:5-6) And even on the “other side of the cross,” were not there many thousands of Jews who were all believers in Jesus as Messiah and all of them zealous for the Torah? (Acts 21:20)
It hardly seems as if God established the Jewish people and required them to be unique and set apart from the other nations and peoples of the world, and yet after the crucifixion, deleted them from any significance in the course of human history and the plan of the most Holy and One God.
Is God among the Jewish people who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah?
A commenter recently stated that he had no intention of reading anything by Abraham Joshua Heschel because he did not believe he could “grow spiritually” by reading “someone that doesn’t have the type of faith that’s required to be a born again believer in Yeshua.” I am not writing this response with the intention of casting aspersions on the commenter. I simply want to stand against this idea that we cannot learn from or grow spiritually by reading the ideas of people who do not share faith with us in Jesus.
I think the idea is baseless. I’d like to discuss it from various angles, not least of which is the observation that Christianity and Judaism both have long histories of believing otherwise. The theology behind the idea that spiritual truth can only be learned from people with Jesus-faith is not biblical, is not sound thinking about God and his ways, and has its basis in a spiritual triumphalism of the shallowest proportions. I am not saying that people who believe in the Jesus-believers-only theology are shallow, but they have been influenced by an arrogant religious culture.
“Can We Learn From ‘Unbelievers?'”
I can’t imagine Abraham Joshua Heschel not being a man of God, and certainly his famed book God in Search of Man is a testimony to every man’s spiritual search for his Creator.
Part of the response I posted on Derek’s blog states:
The whole idea of taking “sides of the cross,” so to speak, drives me nuts. In Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight tells a story about a chance meeting with another Pastor and McKnight asked in the course of the conversation if Jesus preached the gospel. The Pastor without hesitation said that it was impossible for Jesus to even have understood the gospel message because he was born on the wrong side of the cross! Apparently, this Pastor believed that no one understood the gospel message until Paul.
While Jesus changed a great deal in terms of non-Jewish covenant access to God, he didn’t revolutionize the universe and radically transform Judaism by eliminating any connection between Jewish people and God at the cross. Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah King, should be seen as both a continuation of Judaism across time and as an amplification of Judaism’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and the world.
I found the following Rabbinic stories at Aish.com and I encounter them elsewhere from time to time.
Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach once bought a donkey and found a gem in the carrying case which came with it. The rabbis congratulated him on the windfall with which he had been blessed. “No,” said Rabbi Shimon, “I bought a donkey, but I didn’t buy a diamond.” He proceeded to return the diamond to the donkey’s owner, an Arab, who remarked, “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shatach.”
A non-Jew once approached Rabbi Safra and offered him a sum of money to purchase an item. Since Rabbi Safra was in the midst of prayer at the time, he could not respond to the man, who interpreted the silence as a rejection of his offer and therefore told him that he would increase the price. When Rabbi Safra again did not respond, the man continued to raise his offer. When Rabbi Safra finished, he explained that he had been unable to interrupt his prayer, but had heard the initial amount offered and had silently consented to it in his heart. Therefore, the man could have the item for that first price. Here too, the astounded customer praised the God of Israel.
In Judaism, kiddush Hashem means “sanctifying the Divine Name,” usually by some sort of behavior. While I can’t say that all Jewish people across the world and across time have always lived up to this principle, I know for a fact that not all Christians have, either. We can hardly point to the cross and the fact that we were born on the “right” side of it as evidence that we have the spiritual upper hand. We certainly can’t say that our efforts to delete Jewish people and Judaism over the last nearly 2,000 years, using tools ranging from torture and murder to assimilation and conversion, represents the highest standard of kiddush Hashem. Are we introducing the Jewish people to their Messiah who holds the message of the good news for Jews, Israel, and through them, the rest of the world, or are we trying to earn points in the church by bringing another one to the Gentile Christ?
In my conversation with my Pastor last week, we discussed the range of beliefs within overall Christianity from fundamental to liberal and where people fall off the “scale of Christianity” on both edges. Yoni Yanover believes such a thing is possible in Judaism as well.
This reporter is known to be flippant, so I very much want to avoid being flippant about this story. I don’t think we should denounce people like Angela Buchdahl, or condemn the Reform movement for its straying so far out of the Rabbinical Jewish tent. But we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do “Jewish” in any way at all. We’re already not permitted to set foot inside their houses of worship. We should probably stop calling their religious teachers “Rabbi” – perhaps “Reform Rabbi” will do. And we should look forward to the time when calling someone “Reform” would simply mean a really nice non-Jew.
I’ve written before about the fundamental, core beliefs a person must hold to authentically call themselves “Christian,” but how does our treatment of Jewish people figure in to those beliefs? Is it OK to treat Jewish people and their beliefs with contempt and still call ourselves disciples of the King of the Jews? Can we really say that God is never, ever among the Jewish people because of the cross? How do we know?
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
–Matthew 23:37-39 (NASB)
This set of verses is often used by Christians to condemn the Jewish people, but listen to the compassion and love in Messiah’s lament. He longs to gather his people to him. He begs them to open their eyes and see him. It breaks his heart knowing that Jerusalem will soon be ravaged by Roman armies and be left desolate of her exiled people. He knows that his people, the Jewish people, will see him when they say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado just wrote a blog post called A Future for NT Studies?.
But, to take a slightly different approach, let’s consider why there is (and should continue to be) a field of study, a discipline, of NT Studies. It’s not practical here to do more than state some things briefly. “Byron” claims that NT scholars are simply “chasing their own tails.” That may characterize some work(ers) perhaps, but as a generalization is an unfair, and uninformed, view of things.
If, after nearly 2,000 years, our studies of the New Testament record have not produced an understanding of the Jewish Messiah, the Jewish Apostles, the Jewish disciples, and their interaction with and tutelage of the newly minted Gentile disciples who struggled to enter and maintain their presence in a Jewish religious venue, then we can only say that New Testament scholars and theologians are only “chasing their own tails” if they keep studying the same scriptures and coming up with the same conclusions that result in anti-Semitism, supersessionism, and (frankly) worship of the cross instead of the Jewish King who died on it.
As Gentile Christians, we should be provoking zealousness among the Jewish people as the means to emphasizing the need for them to return to the Torah and there, find the Messiah.
I apologize if this blog post has offended or upset anyone. I can’t imagine that I haven’t offended or upset practically everyone with today’s “extra meditation,” but we really, really need to stop worshiping Christianity, especially in a manner that must delete Judaism in order to ensure our continued existence. Seek God and His desires. If He continues to love and cherish the Jewish people, who are we as Christians in the church to do otherwise?