Tag Archives: converts

Can Messianic Judaism Directly Reach Out To Atheists?

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


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.

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?

Oneness, Twoness, and Three Converts

Let us use the famous story of Shammai, Hillel and the three converts (Shabbos 31) to demonstrate the fusion of Halacha and Aggadah,: A gentile once came to Shammai, and wanted to convert to Judaism. But he insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!” Another gentile who accepted only the Written Torah, came to convert. Shammai refused, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the correct order of the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day he reversed the letters. The convert was confused:”But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “You now see that the Written Word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition to explain G-d’s Word.” A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…

from “Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts”
Saratoga Chabad

This is sort of the “B-side” to my earlier blog post Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph which, in turn, was a response to a blog post written by Peter Vest called David Rudolph to Gentiles: Like Yeshua, Our Mission is to the Jews, not Gentiles

The basic allegation is that certain Messianic Jewish organizations, congregations, and leaders are being “exclusionist” and even “racist” by having a mission only or at least primarily to the Jewish people. This was based on a twenty-minute sermon delivered by Rabbi Rudolph called Our Mission. I listened to the sermon and, not finding anything disturbing or offensive in the content, looked for other sermons and materials to add some dimension to this discussion, and then I wrote “Twoness and Oneness.”

I knew that there would be some folks my response wouldn’t satisfy. There will always be someone who disagrees and there are people with whom I disagree. That’s the nature of human beings, especially in discussions of religion and politics.

The comparison of Messianic Jewish congregations to churches such as Chinese or Korean churches broke down, at least in one person’s eyes (see the comments on Peter’s blog post for details), because it was argued that if you were not Korean but attended a Korean church (let’s say you regularly attended with Korean family members or friends) your role would not be restricted because you weren’t Korean.

In certain Messianic Jewish congregations (and this is regularly debated and agonized over in many of those congregations), non-Jewish members are not allowed to fulfill certain roles or perform certain functions (be a Rabbi or be called up to an aliyah, for example) as those roles and activities are reserved for Jewish members only.

I have no idea how any of this works at Tikvat Israel, Rabbi Rudolph’s congregation, and I can hardly speak for his position, but even if it’s true, there is a foundation for making such distinctions.

Notice the quote I placed at the top of this blog post. It’s a rather famous story that would have taken place about a generation before the time of Jesus. Three Gentiles wanting to convert to Judaism for various reasons first approach the sage Shammai with their rather outrageous requests and are chased away. When they approach Rabbinic Master Hillel, he accepts all three as converts and students but he does so with a “twist.”

The relevant convert is the man who wanted to be Jewish so he could fulfill the role of High Priest and wear the priestly robes. Hillel didn’t explain that it would be a role forever denied him because, even converting to Judaism, he wasn’t a Levite and he wasn’t a direct descendent of Aaron. He let the convert find out for himself.

Hillel and ShammaiI remember reading a commentary that described a conversation between the three converts some years after these events. I can’t find where I read it and only sort of recall it (such is my middle-aged memory), but I think these three men realized finally that not only were they incredibly arrogant in their original motivations, but that Hillel, in his graciousness, enabled them to learn the truth for themselves and saved them from condemnation by Hashem.

If someone can point me to the actual commentary online so I can correct any errors in recall, I’d really appreciate it.

As applied to the latest allegations against Rudolph in specific and Messianic Judaism in general, frankly ladies and gentlemen…this isn’t “church”.

Potentially, in the Christian hierarchy, anyone can be anything provided they meet certain qualifications. You can be the Pastor of a church, regardless of lineage or background, as long as you satisfy the educational and experiential requirements.

But to be the High Priest, you must be a Levite and a descendant of Aaron. To be the rightful King of Israel, you must be from the tribe of Judah and be a descendant of David.

In the modern synagogue setting, Messianic or not, you must be Jewish to qualify for certain offices and activities (In a Reform synagogue, a Gentile can be on the board of directors, but still will never be Rabbi). As a Gentile, I would not be called up for an aliyah, to read the Torah on Shabbat, in any synagogue in the world. I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a Rabbi or Cantor, even if I had the proper equivalent education (and I would never be admitted into a Yeshiva for study as a non-Jew, though there have been rare exceptions).

Because a synagogue is Messianic, that is, because the members have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and as Israel’s King, doesn’t mean it is not a center of Jewish community and worship, and it doesn’t mean that Jewish and Gentile roles have stopped being Jewish and Gentile roles. I’ve written a great deal on the legal decision rendered by James and the Council of Apostles on the status of Gentiles within the ancient Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” and how Jewish and Gentile roles were to be managed.

Granted, after Acts 15, there would be a long period of application and adjustment as copies of the Jerusalem letter circulated in the Messianic communities in the Land and in the diaspora. We don’t have a complete record of how it was (or if it was) finally lived out, unless the Didache can give us some clues, but what we definitely don’t have is a “smoking gun” saying that Jewish and Gentile members of “the Way” were indistinguishable units in the body of Messiah (this is hotly debated in Christianity, of course, relative to Ephesians 2:15, which I addressed in my previous missive).

Again, the opinions I’m expressing are my own. I have no idea, based on the recorded sermons of David Rudolph I reviewed, how things are run at Tikvat Israel. For all I know, they may have a completely different conceptualization of these issues. This is only how I look at these matters.

I don’t say all this in the hopes of convincing anyone to change their minds and to look at Messianic Judaism in a different light. But the question was raised and I thought some people might want to read one possible answer. As I said on Peter’s blog, I’m not interested in toggling back and forth across two or more web-based venues trying to talk about all this. I just want to clarify my position on the issues at hand for the sake of anyone who might want to know.

5 Days: Practicing Christianity

pakistani-christians-singing-hymnsBoth the Jews and gentiles recognized that the Jews denied the gods of the nations and claimed that their God alone was the true God, the Lord of the universe, but for both Jews and gentiles the boundary line between Judaism and polytheism was determined more by Jewish observances than by Jewish theology. Josephus defines an apostate as a Jew who “hates the customs of the Jews” or “does not abide by the ancestral customs.” He defines a convert to Judaism as a gentile who, through circumcision, “adopts the ancestral customs of the Jews.”

-Shaye J. D. Cohen
Chapter 3: The Jewish “Religion”, Practices and Beliefs
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd ed.

Many years later, as recorded in Acts 21, the apostles reaffirmed that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were all “zealous for the Law.” To clarify the key difference between Jewish and Gentile believers, they continued: “But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25).

Based on this ruling and on the revelation Christ gave to him personally, the apostle Paul staunchly fought for the right of Gentile believers to remain Gentiles. This is actually what Paul was arguing for in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the body of Messiah accepts everyone as they are – it doesn’t matter whether you’re slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile. You don’t have to become something you’re not in order to follow Yeshua.

-Boaz Michael
Introduction, pg 20
from his book
Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile

That’s comforting to know. God is the ultimate supporter of diversity. No matter who you are, where you come from, what your race, ethnicity, nationality, language, heritage, or anything else is, you can be reconciled to the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach, the Savior of the world and the Jewish Messiah King.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.

1 Corinthians 7:17-20 (ESV)

This is Paul, saying the same thing we read in Galatians 3:28 and it fits very well with how Cohen states Josephus defines a convert to Judaism. Since we know that Paul opposed Gentile believers becoming circumcised when they came to faith in God through the Messiah, then we understand that the Gentiles did not convert to Judaism. They retained their Gentile identities. If we compare the message of Acts 21 with the rest of the definition of a convert as presented by Josephus, we can reasonably believe that the Gentile disciples of Messiah were not required to adopt the full yoke of the Torah and not commanded to perform the entire body of mitzvot.

I know I’ve talked about this before in The Uncircumcised Convert, Part 1 and Part 2, but when I started reading my actual, official, published copy of Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David (yes, it finally arrived) and in parallel, took up Cohen’s book again (I couldn’t access it for a while because I needed to get my Kindle Fire replaced – battery problems), I immediately saw how what both Michael and Cohen wrote dovetailed into this message.

christian-coffee-cultureI know it seems as if I’m off on another religious harangue designed to bring the so-called “One Law” or “One Torah” movements within Hebrew Roots (as opposed to Jewish roots and as more opposed to Messianic Judaism) to task, but this is more personal, or more to the point, this has more to do with my personal identity.

After a recent encounter, I’ve received a very strong message that I need to redouble my efforts to return to church, stay there, and become part of the body of believers within their walls and their context. Part of that effort is picking up, to whatever degree I’m able, the identity of a Gentile believer, a Christian. Boaz Michael in his book plainly defines a “Messianic Gentile” as:

While these believers are still Christians, for the sake of clarity and definition I will call them by the term “Messianic Gentile” (the term “Gentile” meaning nothing more than “non-Jew”). A Messianic Gentile is a non-Jewish Christian who appreciates the Torah, his relationship with Israel, and the Jewish roots of his faith.

-Michael, pg 17

There are probably a fair number of Christians in churches who are also “Messianic Gentiles” based on that definition, but who just haven’t thought of themselves in such a light.

Based on my recent coffee encounter as well as other factors, not the least of which is Boaz’s book, I know I have to go to church and stay in church. It still doesn’t particularly thrill me at this stage, but I must proceed hopefully. And I know I’m not going in to change anyone or to present myself as some sort of “expert.” I’m certainly not going to bill myself as a “Messianic Gentile,” though I suppose the definition fits me after a fashion.

But who I am needs to fit better with other Christians. I can study the Jewish texts forever, and forever I will be isolated and alone because I’m not Jewish. It’s not my “Messianic Gentileness” I’m taking into the church and it’s not even my Christianity…it’s my desire to encounter God within the context of his non-Jewish disciples. Perhaps at some point, my voice will be added to theirs but for now, I need to be a learner and not a teacher.

I know I’m not a Jew and I know based on the Bible, that I’m not required or directed to act like one. Yes, the very early Gentile believers took on a number of the mitzvot such as giving to the poor among Israel, donating to build synagogues, studying the Law of Moses, and the fixed times of prayer.

All these texts imply that the recitation of prayers was a prominent feature of Jewish piety, not just for sectarians like the Jews of Qumran but also for plain folk. Jews who lived in or near Jerusalem prayed regularly at the temple. This is the plausible claim of Luke 1:10, “Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside [the temple],” and Acts 3:1, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

-Cohen, Chapter 3

PrayingWe know the early Jewish disciples met at Solomon’s colonnade (John 10:23, Acts 3:11, 5:12) at the Temple for daily prayers. The later Gentile converts to “the Way” most likely adopted the times and “the prayers” in their own worship (Acts 10:3) as well as other Jewish customs and practices, but of course, as we’ve seen above, they were not considered converts to Judaism nor obligated to the mitzvot, although it seems like they were certainly allowed to perform the mitzvot in a number of instances. That had limits, particularly in terms of access to the Temple.

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

Acts 21:27-29 (ESV)

We may never recapture the full history of what the relationship was like between the early Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master, but we can take what information we have and use it to reasonably recognize who and what we are today as Christians. For me, that means pursuing a course of action that requires following both the timeless footsteps of the first Christians such as Cornelius (Acts 10) and the modern Gentile believers, with the firm conviction of who I am and who the Jewish people are in relation to God. If God permits, maybe my role will one day be of some use to Him among His people in the church, but for now, I just need to practice being who I am…a Christian.