Tag Archives: conversion

Hurtado on the “Conversion” of Paul

The Jewish PaulI finally got around to reading Larry Hurtado’s blog post The “Conversion” of Paul and found it illuminating. Here are the two most telling paragraphs:

But it’s a genuine question among scholars whether Paul understood himself as having undergone a “conversion,” at least in the sense that the word typically has. He didn’t move from irreligion to a religious life, from being a sinful man to virtue. And he didn’t change his God, or denounce his ancestral religious tradition. Instead, he expresses the strong conviction that the God he had always sought to serve showed him his blindness in opposing the Jesus-movement, revealed (Paul’s word) Jesus’ high/unique status, and summoned Paul to a special mission that he believed would usher in (or at least promote markedly) the consummation of the divine plan of world-redemption.

So, some scholars prefer to characterize Paul’s shift in religious orientation as a prophet-like “calling” rather than a “conversion” (as influentially proposed by Krister Stendahl). Others, such as Alan Segal, contended that “conversion” was appropriate, as the term can include a change from one version of a religious tradition to another, such as a Roman Catholic becoming a Baptist. So, Segal urged, Paul shifted from one understanding of what his God required to another very different one, and from opposition to the Jesus-movement to aligning himself with it.

Anyone who has read this blogspot for very long knows I don’t consider Paul (or Rav Shaul if you prefer) a convert, but rather someone who received a “Prophet-like” calling (to use Hurtado’s phrase) to become Rav Yeshua’s (Jesus Christ’s) emissary to the Gentiles.

What’s really cool though, is Hurtado, a well-known and respected New Testament scholar, holds a view of Paul that you would hardly find preached in most normative Christian churches.

I still find it surprising that what the Church teaches (and I’m using the word “Church” in the broadest possible sense) is so at odds with the continuing research being done on the New Testament in general and on Paul specifically.

I suppose one explanation could be that, Christian (and Jewish) tradition about Paul being what it is, the average Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday wouldn’t tolerate a radical update to his/her doctrine. In order to make supersessionist/replacement theology work, Paul had to convert from the Judaism of his day to early Christianity. Most Jews and probably even some Christians believe that Paul even founded Christianity, converting it from a branch of ancient Judaism to a wholly Gentile religion.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Hurtado’s reply to one of his readers continues to establish his views on the Apostle, complete with Biblical citations:

Well, Michael, to go by his own testimony, Paul/Saul remained a devoted Jew, even in his ministry as “apostle to the nations” (e.g., Philip 3:4ff; 2 Cor 11:21ff.). But you put your finger on the historical phenomenon that I’ve worked on for over 30 yrs now, offering the best answers that I can find to the various component questions. Paul’s own statement (Gal 1:13ff) is that he shifted from opponent of the Jesus-movement to proponent when “God revealed his Son to me”. So, he accepted the exalted status of Jesus as thoroughly compatible with his commitment to the uniqueness of the God of Israel precisely because he was convinced (by a “revelation”) that this one God had himself exalted Jesus and now required him to be acknowledged and reverenced. In short, if God approved, who was he to withstand it?

In 2 Cor 3:7–4:6, Paul’s description of fellow members of Israel who don’t perceive/accept Jesus as “Lord” pictures them as having a veil over their minds. But “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16).

We have to form our notions of what “Jewish traditions and biblical monotheism” could include based on the evidence, not preconceptions. And, as I showed in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord (3rd ed., 2015), “ancient Jewish Monotheism” could accommodate some amazing things.

Moreover, Paul was and remained a Jew, and so even the remarkable view of Jesus that he accepted must be included as one of the developments initially within 2nd temple Jewish tradition.

Coffee and BibleI’m probably just recycling things I’ve written in the past, but frankly, I learn more about what the Bible is actually saying by studying scholarly works rather than listening to a Pastor’s sermon or going to Sunday School.

I wish I could make blogs like Hurtado’s  “required reading” for all churches everywhere, but, in my  opinion, many or most Christians don’t want to actually learn anything new. They are quite content to have their theology “settled”.

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Conversions in Madagascar: A Cautionary Tale

Yeah, I know. Two blog posts in one day. I was inspired.

A nascent Jewish community was officially born in Madagascar last month when 121 men, women and children underwent Orthodox conversions on the remote Indian Ocean island nation better known for lemurs, chameleons, dense rain forests and vanilla.

The conversions, which took place over a 10-day period, were the climax of a process that arose organically five to six years ago when followers of various messianic Christian sects became disillusioned with their churches and began to study Torah.

-Deborah Josefson, June 5, 2016
“In remote Madagascar, a new community chooses to be Jewish”
Arutz Sheva

mikvahTo me, the news here isn’t that 121 people in Madagascar chose to participate in a mass conversion to Judaism, it’s that they (if I’m reading this right) converted after becoming disillusioned with their various messianic Christian sects.”

The article doesn’t provide the details about the former churches involved, but it does say:

While many Malagasies were brought to Judaism through study of the Old Testament and a sincere effort to get closer to God, some see the practice of Judaism as a return to their roots and an overthrowing of the last vestiges of colonialism.

“I was a victim of the colonizers, as you know we had the French here, and then the communists and then the socialists … so I didn’t have any roots anymore,” said Mija Rasolo, an actor who hosts his own late night talk show on Madagascar TV and took the Hebrew name David Mazal.

There are two things here. The first is more applicable to “Messianic Gentiles” and Messianic Jewish congregations in general.

As I’ve said numerous times before, the majority of people I know involved in either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots became disillusioned with their churches and with normative Christianity in general and sought out an alternative. They too studied the scriptures and particularly the interconnectedness of the Old and New Testaments.

One of the things that comes along with such study is an introduction to the “Jewish stuff,” the materials and praxis associated with Jewish theology, worship, and lifestyle.

And that’s where the problem lies.

It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the Jewish traditions, the celebrations, the Festivals. It’s easy to get confused between the “Jewish stuff” and the meaning and role of non-Jews within a Jewish-oriented understanding of the Tanakh and the Apostolic scriptures.

Sometimes people zig when they should have zagged. Sometimes people think the only way to worship God is the Jewish way, and you can only do that by converting to Judaism (the Apostle Paul had a lot to say about that in his Epistle to the Galatians and in Acts 15).

Lacking a proper understanding of the Apostolic scriptures and especially the Apostle Paul (called Rav Shaul in some circles), it’s easy to see that Judaism makes so much sense but Christianity, not so much (although I’m sure I have some Christian readers who would be confused by that statement).

That’s one of the big reasons (but not the only one) why I’ve dispensed with Jewish praxis, although I adhere to a Jewish-oriented interpretation of the Bible, one that favors the centrality of national Israel, the New Covenant promises of God to the Jews, and the subordinate role of the nations to Israel’s Messiah King.

Of course, having a Jewish wife, one who is not the least bit “Messianic,” and one who calls me a Christian, also has a lot to do with me keeping my head above water.

However, the Arutz Sheva article also mentioned an indigenous person’s faith in Jesus being part of colonialism.

ChristianI belong to a closed Facebook group for indigenous people (no, I’m not indigenous). I was added some years ago due to my association with a native artist I’ve exchanged emails (and one phone call) with. One of the recurring themes I see in this group is a disdain for Christianity, not for theological purposes as such, but because conversion to Christianity was historically used as a tool of colonialism to destroy the language, customs, and practices of the first nations. For them, the theft of their land and their culture by Europe and forced conversion to Christianity was the same injury.

Jews should be all too sensitive to such sentiments, having been the victim of forced conversations and assimilation for centuries. We see evidence of that heritage being lived out in Israel and elsewhere today. The Arutz Sheva article celebrates the conversion of 121 Malagasies during a single event as a victory. For many of them, conversion to Judaism was a return to their roots.

For them, maybe it was, but it was also something else.

If you are a disciple of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) and you are firm in your faith, particularly from a pro-Israel, pro-Judaism viewpoint, you realize one does not have to lose that perspective in order to maintain steadfast faith in our Rav. For the people in this article, they traded one for the other.

More’s the pity. Consider this a cautionary tale.

Are We Naaman or Ruth?

This may sound like a really stupid question (Are there still Jews and Greeks in Christ?), but I cannot tell you how many people over the years have cited to me one particular text from the only surviving correspondence of the first century Pharisee, Saul Paul. This text relates to the believers in Galatia, who thought that, since they now followed the Jewish Christ, it stood to reason that they should not simply be a part of the Jewish coalition (sojourners with Israel), but they should also adopt all the ancestral customs of the Jews (This is what was meant to convert to Judaism back then). It is to them, in this nuanced and commonly misunderstood letter that the beloved Apostle wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek… in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

-Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
“Are there still Jews and Greeks in Jesus Christ?”
Jewish Studies Blog

I found a link to this article on a closed Facebook page a few days ago and have just gotten around to reading it. It’s short, easily consumable by most folks, and has a very interesting and, to me, relevant perspective.

The Jewish PaulAccording to Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg (who I hear of from time to time, but don’t know a lot about), what we think of as converting to another religion, such as Judaism, today, wasn’t how it worked back when the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) was actively proclaiming the good news of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) among the Goyim (Gentiles).

Conversions were widely attested in the ancient times. However conversions as they were practiced then, have little in common with conversions as we understand them today. Unlike in ancient times, “religion” today is seen as a category of its own – so someone can be Irish and Jewish, American and Jewish, Russian and Jewish, and so on. Ancient people, however, did not speak of conversion in terms of simply accepting another religion, while staying culturally the same. To them conversion to Judaism meant joining the people of Israel (especially its southern branch, “Judeans”, and hence “Judaism”) and adopting a set of ancestral customs which permeated every area of life. In other words, conversion to Judaism was a ‘package deal’. If one converted, he or she was expected to cut ties with their previous culture in every respect – not just accept a new divinity, but the entire package (God and people).

So in the minds of the Gentile Galatians, to follow the teachings of Rav Yeshua and to worship the God of Israel meant to not only become part if Israel in name, but to totally adopt all of the practices of born-Jews, being observant in every conceivable way. They would stop being citizens of their respective nations, and become Israelites.

ruth
Ruth the Moabitess

This has significant relevance to my previous blog post, The Non-Covenant Relationship with God, and particularly the discussion which (as I write this) is still going on in the comments section beneath. If we non-Jews are not Israel, who are we in terms of our faith and national citizenship, especially to Hashem?

As it turns out, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was intended to correct their mistaken belief that in order to be disciples of Rav Yeshua and devoted servants to the God of Israel, they had to become part of Israel and become Torah observant in exactly the same manner as the Jews.

However, this was only one paradigm of legitimate Gentile dedication to Israel’s God. There was another – I call this the “Naaman” paradigm, to distinguish it from the “Ruth” paradigm.

Notably, he did not say or do as Ruth did. He returned to his country and his own people and continued to worship Israel’s God there. In contrast to Ruth the Moabite, Naaman’s approach was more along the lines of: “Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people”. Interestingly, in the end he receives from the prophet of God the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of Shalom (2 Kings 5:18-19).

You’re going to have to click the link I provided above to read all of Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s article, but he poses the question of whether or not we non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (and all Christians) are more like Ruth or Naaman. Ruth underwent what we would think of as conversation, not only adopting the ‘religion’ of Judaism, but citizenship in Israel. Remember, in ancient times, one’s religion wasn’t a separate entity from one’s national affiliation or any other aspect of your life.

However, Ruth’s choice wasn’t Naaman’s choice. He acknowledged that only the God of Israel was God, and devoted the rest of his life to honoring Hashem, but he went back to his Land and he did not change his citizenship nor his cultural identity.

Apostolic DecreeFrom Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s point of view, the First Century apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Council saw the Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua joining their ranks as Naaman, not Ruth. There was never an expectation that they would obliterate their own nationality and cultural affiliation to become Israel, nor that they would take on a Jew’s obligation of Torah. That’s the whole point of the Jerusalem letter.

…so the apostles decided not to lay upon them any further burden. It seems from Acts 15:21, that it was assumed that Gentile believers would be attending synagogues wherever they lived, and hearing Moses read and presumably also hearing what Judaism taught about living a generally righteous life. In practical terms, observing these 4 laws would potentially enable Gentile believers to fellowship with Jews without offending them and being ostracized by them.

Acts 16:4-5 tells us that Apostle Saul Paul fully endorsed the decision of the “Jerusalem Council” and proclaimed its message with great joy as he traveled from congregation to congregation. Full Torah observance (proselyte conversion to Judaism) was unnecessary for any Gentile who joined the Jewish coalition by following the Jewish Christ. They too (as the Nations) were now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.

Look at that. “…now first class-citizens in the Kingdom of God.” First class, not second class.

And finally:

What Apostle Saul Paul meant by the phrase “there is neither Jew nor Greek” had to do, not with cessation of difference, but with cessation of discrimination. There is no discrimination with regard to race, culture, rank, or gender, for all are one in the Jewish Christ. Gentiles will no longer be discriminated against in the Kingdom of Israel’s God. They now will play an equally important rule in God’s redemptive plan. Their faith in the Jewish Christ alone qualifies and justifies them (just as it does the Jews) in every way to be first-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, without relinquishing their important identity as the “Nations of the World”.

kindnessWe don’t need to worry that because our people have no direct covenant relationship with Hashem, we or our nations are illegitimate. We are also important in God’s redemptive plan for the world just as people of our respective nations. Our closeness and “oneness” with Israel is a matter of reconciliation between Israel and the nations, not a fusing of national and covenant identities. As Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg points out in Acts 16:4-5, the Gentile disciples received this news with great joy, not confusion or jealousy. Becoming a disciple of Rav Yeshua, worship of the God of Israel, and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven were and are available to everyone, making this branch of Judaism the most inclusive of all without the requirement to convert, adopt Israeli citizenship, and full obligation to the Torah of Moses.

Something has become terribly twisted that today we cannot experience that same joy, but must either declare ourselves as replacing the Jews in God’s promises and love, or claiming the Torah for our very own, complaining and fretting when others disagree with these very non-Biblical viewpoints.

I don’t know what else Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg has written or what he teaches in general, but I have to agree with his conclusion that we Gentiles in Messiah are Naaman, not Ruth.

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?”
MyJewishLearning.com

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”
jacksonville.com

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.

kiruv
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.

Can Messianic Judaism Directly Reach Out To Atheists?

An atheist cannot find God for the same reason a thief cannot find a policeman.

-Anonymous

Before anyone becomes upset, I am not saying that atheists are thieves. The quote simply means that an atheist cannot find God, not only because he/she isn’t looking for Him, but also because they are actively avoiding Him, just like a thief would avoid a law enforcement officer.

But it’s an interesting comparison, because if a cop did find a thief in the act of committing a crime, the thief would be “busted.” Once the thief saw the police officer and knew he/she couldn’t get away, they’d be facing the consequences for their actions.

arrestWhat happens when God “catches” an atheist? Well, this is where the metaphor starts to break down, because while God is aware of all human actions, we humans (and this is certainly true of atheists) aren’t always aware of God. Thus, although God sees our “crimes” (and any human action that opposes the will of God is the short definition of “sin,” which is analogous to “crime” in this example), we don’t see him “catching” us.

Rabbi Kalman Packouz posted the above-quoted sentence on this week’s Shabbat Shalom Weekly online column. He also said this:

Recently a friend of mine asked me, “Do you really believe in God?” When I answered “for sure” his response was “really?” Personally, I don’t find it particularly hard to believe that a rabbi believes in God. However, he seemed to be amazed that anyone believes in God.

In our experience at Aish HaTorah (a major international Jewish educational outreach organization), if you ask the young people who come through the doors of our world center in Jerusalem if they believe in God, four out of five will say “no.” What’s fascinating is that if you don’t ask the question directly, it’s possible to demonstrate to them that they do believe in God. Why? They are influenced by the society, the educational system and their friends to think that they don’t believe in God.

Do you want to demonstrate to someone that deep down they not only believe in God, but that they believe that God loves them? Here are the questions to ask…

I highly encourage you to click the link I provided above and read all of Rabbi Packouz’s discussion on how to illuminate anyone (or at least any secular Jew) to investigate their lack of belief in God. It’s really quite interesting (an equally enthralling question is if R. Packouz’s “method” were applied to non-Jews, would they become Noahides?). I’m not sure how it would play out for the rest of us, but on the surface, his arguments are compelling.

He finishes up his column with the following:

How can one intelligently deal with the question of the existence of God? Start on Aish.com and search the articles on “God” and “Evidence of God”. Go to AishAudio.com (search “evidence”) and listen to the four lectures “Evidence of God’s Existence” by Rav Noah Weinberg (the founder and head of Aish HaTorah and my teacher). Also, I highly recommend Permission to Believe by Lawrence Kelemen available at your local Jewish bookstore, at JudaicaEnterprises.com or by calling toll-free to 877-758-3242.

chabad
Credit: jewishvenice.org

I’m actually considering buying the Kelemen book (I’ve checked and it’s not available through my local library system), since it would be interesting to see how religious Jews reach out to secular Jews (besides the methods employed by Chabad).

It occurs to me that there’s a vacuum of this sort of information relative to Messianic Judaism.

Oh sure, Christianity’s efforts to evangelize the world are quite well known. If a traditional Christian wanted to know how to reach out to secular people in his/her community, all that person would have to do is approach their Pastor. I’m sure churches give classes on this sort of thing, and I know churches periodically organize their parishioners to canvas their local neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and handing out pamphlets.

But what does Messianic Judaism (and I’m using the term in the widest possible way) do to attract new members and to share their perspective on the “good news of Messiah?”

Just about anyone I’ve ever encountered, either within a Messianic Jewish (MJ) or Hebrew Roots (HR) environment, came to those venues by way of the Christian church. That is, whether they were Jew or Gentile, they first became a Christian and attended one or more churches before something happened to take them away from a particularly Christian viewpoint, and shifting them to a more Judaicly-aware perspective.

Oh, there may have been one or two exceptions, but I feel pretty confident, even based on anecdotal evidence, that most people, Jew and Gentile alike, come to a Judaic interpretation of all of the Bible, including the Apostolic Scriptures, only after converting to Christianity. I’m not saying that to be insulting. It just seems to best reflect the reality of how people come to the MJ or HR movements.

Of all of the resources available online and in brick-and-mortar stores, I can’t think of even one single book, audio, or video that teaches people like me how to share the message of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) specifically from a Messianic Jewish perspective.

You may be wondering why some slight adaptation of traditional Christian evangelical methods couldn’t be used. However, Christians and religious Jews see the Bible, God, and faith in fundamentally different ways (Christians tend to be internally based, with their faith hinging on personal beliefs, while Jews tend to be externally based, with their faith being acted out through performance of the mitzvot). Messianic Judaism isn’t just Christianity wearing a kippah. It’s a Judaism that acknowledges the revelation of the Messiah as illustrated in the Apostolic Scriptures, and one that has an unusually liberal policy on Gentile admission.

With all that said, is it even possible to share a Messianic Jewish view of our Rav and what the Bible is saying about him and redemption directly with an atheist, or must Christianity and the Church always be the first step?

encounterActually some time ago, I thought I’d found one such resource. It was either a book or a lecture (or lecture series) on audio CD, but a Google search does nothing to find it. Maybe I was mistaken, or maybe whatever it was has leaked out of my memory for good.

Christians have a well-honed machine for evangelizing as many people as it can reach, and at least some corners of Orthodox Judaism understand how to communicate their faith to secular Jews, but what does Messianic Judaism bring to the table? Instead of appealing to Christians in churches to take a Messianic look at the Bible, at their faith, at their Christ, can they reach out to people who do not have faith at all?

Christians can (which is how I came to faith in the first place). Jews can (and I know of more than one religious Jew who started out as a secular adult, and then became religious). What about Messianic Judaism?

Why All Our Arguments Will Never Whisper To The Soul

faithIn the comments section of my previous meditation, a number of people debated over their various theological beliefs and offered a number of “proofs” to support their points of view. At about the same time, I read an article called “Why is there no evidence of G-d” at Chabad.org. This inspired a few thoughts about the nature of “truth” and why (probably) no one person or religious organization has the complete corner market on truth. But in the sidebar of the aforementioned article was a series of links to related articles. I clicked the one that said What Does it Mean to “Believe in G-d”?.

The statement, “I believe there is a G‑d” is meaningless. Faith is not the ability to imagine that which does not exist. Faith is finding relevance in that which is transcendent. To believe in G‑d, then, means not that you’re of the opinion that He exists, but that you have found relevance in Him. When a person says “I believe in G‑d” what s/he really means is “G‑d is significant in my life”.

In discussing our relationship with G‑d, the question we first need to ask, is, Who cares? In what way is He relevant?

For some people, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the origins of existence. For others, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the afterlife, and faith is a prerequisite for getting to heaven. Finally, for others, G‑d is relevant because they believe that life has purpose.

Certainly Christians convince others to come to faith because of the promise of the afterlife (“If you died tonight, do you know what would happen to your soul?”). The Church convinces “sinners” to convert to Christianity based, at least initially, on the fear of going to Hell and suffering for all eternity, and that by being “saved,” they are promised they’ll avoid Hell and ascend to Heaven when they die to be with Jesus.

That seems kind of cheesy. It’s like we have faith in God because it’s all about us and our salvation. Even coming to faith so we have some “grounding” in the origins of the universe, people, and the existence of everything still seems kind of self-centered.

But what about believing because we want life to actually mean something?

In Judaism, particularly in Chassidism, the interest in G‑d comes from the conviction that life has meaning. The recurring question in Chassidic thought is: Why is a soul sent into the world to suffer in a physical body, for 80, 90 years? We know there is a purpose, that G‑d is the author of that purpose, and we want to know and understand it.

One who lives by his heart exclusively, trusts only what he feels. One who lives by his mind exclusively, trusts only what fits. But neither of these tells you the truth. The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah. Because the soul is a part of the Divine — and that is truth. When we have faith, when we find relevance in G‑d, we are trusting that instinct in the soul that tells us that G‑d is the purpose of life.

In pragmatic terms, the mind, the heart and the soul must each fulfill their function: when we know all that can be known, when we come to the edge of knowledge and logic itself tells us that we have reached its outer limits and it cannot handle what lay beyond this point, faith enters. Where the mind is no longer adequate, the soul responds to truth. This is faith.

Let’s look at the central message:

The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah.

soulIn an ultimate sense, we can use evidence to support facts but not the truth. Being nice or being smart don’t really lead us to truth, but then we have a problem. How can you or I convince another person of “the truth” since that exists only in the purview of the soul?

This is why in Chabad-Lubavitch it is our approach to invite a Jew — even one who claims not to believe — to do a mitzvah, before we engage them in a discussion on faith. Because in consideration of the existence of the soul, we can assume that we don’t have to convince people of life’s Divine purpose. We just have to get them started, and with each mitzvah they do, their neshama asserts itself more, and questions become answered of themselves. By way of analogy, if a woman’s maternal instinct appears to be absent, you don’t argue the philosophy of motherhood with her. Just put the baby in her lap and her maternal response will emerge.

I can’t even imagine how a Christian would evangelize using this method. In Christianity, doing only matters after believing and is only a reflection of believing. Granted, the Church has a strong practice of charity and service to others, but it’s not the driving force that causes a person to convert to Christianity in the first place (could you imagine being a Christian and approaching a “sinner,” inducing them to join the Church with the promise of a lifetime of service to God and humanity?).

However, that’s more or less what Rabbi Manis Friedman is suggesting in his article. That’s why the Chabad will ask a Jew who is not at all religious to perform at least one mitzvah. Because the mitzvot are what connects a Jew to God.

To encounter God is a transcendent experience that goes beyond thought or emotion, but in order to “operationalize” that encounter, a Jewish person “does”. That is, he or she connects the soul to the author of the soul by performing mitzvot. This isn’t to say that prayer and worship don’t connect Jewish people to God, but at least from the Chabad’s perspective, it all starts with performing a single mitzvah, and then another, and then another, until they are living an increasingly Jewish life.

Christianity has the opposite approach in that reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping come first, and then eventually as the believer’s life is transformed by their faith, they come to the place where they are “doing” Christianity by helping other people.

argumentWhen we argue with each other for the supposed purpose of correcting what we believe others have gotten wrong about the Bible, about God, and about Messiah, and we say we are doing so because we care about those people, we are missing a vital element. We can’t reach their soul, at least not directly, with logical arguments or by appealing to their emotions.

Whether it’s by a Christian having a person they’re evangelizing praying to be saved, or by a Chabad representative having a Jew lay tefillin, the appeal is to the soul, and although we have different actions we put people through to make this happen, it’s really God who is speaking to the neshamah. That’s why, except in very rare instances, our blog conversations will never really be able to convince someone to admit that their theology is wrong, to change their minds, and to adopt a different religious discipline.

Speaking of changing religions, I found this article and it seemed relevant.