Tag Archives: identity

What Defines The People of God?

Chosen People Racist?

What’s behind the whole concept of the Jews as the Chosen People? Isn’t this idea racist?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

All human beings are God’s people, as it says that Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. Further, the great prophet Malachi said, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10) The Talmud likewise points out that one reason the entire human race descends from a single set of parents, Adam and Eve, is so that no one would be able to claim his ancestors are greater than his fellow’s (Sanhedrin 37a). Judaism does not believe there is an inherently superior race of human beings.

-From the “Ask the Rabbi” column
Aish.com

Yesterday, I posted a blog article called Giving Up the Identity Crisis, which was based on material I reported on in Where Are All The Gentiles Who Are Drawn To The Torah?; a comparison between modern Noahides and their communities, and we “Messianic Gentiles” or, if you prefer, Talmidei Yeshua (Gentile Disciples of Jesus).

I’ve been pondering the ramifications of giving up the identity crisis and becoming more comfortable with who I am. Relative to our relationship with God, there’s only really one thought to consider: you’re either Jewish or you’re not.

new heartThe Jewish people, the modern inheritors of the covenants Hashem made with the Children of Israel, are the only named participants in those covenants. For the rest of us, by attaching ourselves to the Jewish Messiah, we attach ourselves to Israel and thus by God’s grace and mercy, we are allowed to benefit from some of the blessings of the New Covenant.

But as the quote from the Aish Rabbi states, if the Jewish people are not inherently superior to the rest of humanity, and if we’re all created in the image of the Almighty, then why are there distinctions between Israel and the people of the nations at all?

Historically, however, the world slipped away from its relationship with God, and eventually the entire world was worshipping idols. Approximately 4,000 years ago, Abraham re-discovered the one God, and chose to accept the challenge of spreading the ideas of monotheism and morality to the world. Through his dedication and willingness to give up everything for God, he was chosen – and his descendants after him – to become the guardians of God’s message.

In other words, Abraham chose God, and thus God chose Abraham.

Abraham then passed this responsibility to his sons Isaac and Jacob. That mission was formalized 3,300 years ago at Mount Sinai, when God put these ideas into a written form (the Torah).

Oh, that.

Yes, Israel became the keepers of the Torah of Moses for many, many centuries as well as the only nation on the planet that paid homage to God and obeyed His laws and statutes.

the crowdOf course, in that time, there were a number of non-Jews who, seeing the wisdom and beauty of the Torah, attached themselves to Israel and eventually, after the third generation, assimilated completely into Israel, leaving behind their non-Israelite lineage.

But God didn’t desire that humanity either have to convert to Judaism (which is how modern Jews view the ancient assimilation process) or be out of relationship with Him. And while modern religious Jews believe that humankind is born into a relationship with the God of Israel through the Noahide covenant (see Genesis 9 and AskNoah.org), God had a better plan.

That plan was absolutely not to replace Israel and Judaism with Gentile Christianity. That plan was and is for the people of the nations to benefit from God’s ultimate redemption of Israel by redeeming us as well, at least those of us who accept that Moshiach is the mediator of the New Covenant, trust in him and obey God’s commandments as they apply to the Goyim.

We aren’t born into this covenant relationship, but we are grafted in essentially as “alien residents” among Israel (symbolically, since most of us don’t live among the Jewish people in national Israel) so that the barriers that previously separated us from Israel have been resolved.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Christians and all Jews get along. Quite the opposite in some cases. But it does mean that the Gentiles and Jews who revere Rav Yeshua (Jesus) within the context of the ekklesia (which does not mean “church”), and trust in Hashem to save, are part of a larger Messianic community that will be fully realized upon Moshiach’s return.

I’ve said all this before in one way or another, so why am I repeating myself (yet again) now?

jew and gentile
Martin Luther King Jr. in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Rabbi Joshua Heschel, March 21, 1965

Because (and this is a gross oversimplification) once you learn that the only two identities you can have are “Jewish” and “Other” within the devotees to Israel’s God, there’s not much else to be concerned about.

But like I said, this is a gross oversimplification. People love labels and love to differentiate between groups by those labels and what they think those labels mean.

However, what we call ourselves and what we tell ourselves that means is probably less important than what we actually do about it. Is the non-Jew who says he or she “observes the Shabbat” any more or less loved by God or created in His image than the non-Jew who volunteers at the local food bank, donates clothing to the local homeless shelter, or who spends time with hospitalized friends and relatives because tzedakah (charity) was made part of our obedience to our Rav and thus to God?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the blessing of lighting the Shabbos candles is very beautiful, and so is inviting God into the home to share our rest, but the Shabbat is a unique sign of the Sinai covenant, a covenant Hashem made exclusively with the Children of Israel (and the mixed multitude present who would assimilate into the Israelites within three generations).

Once we acknowledge that we are either Jewish or not and we learn to be OK with that, our identity problems go away for the most part.

I am a (non-Jewish) disciple of my Rav.

Another person might say “I am a (non-Jewish) Christian,” and essentially mean the same thing.

OK, there are differences, but if I obey my Rav by donating to my local homeless shelter and the Christian obeys Jesus by donating canned goods to the local food bank, are we not both being obedient and following his commands? Are we not both being faithful in the same way to the same Master?

churchSure, you might say that Christians believe in supersessionism, or deny that the Jewish people are still attached to God through the commandments and the Torah, or that they believe that Jesus “nailed the Law to the cross,” but which of us has a theology and doctrine that is 100% correct from Hashem’s point of view?

Probably no one. And yet with an imperfect understanding of the Bible, our Rav, and our God, we can still do good in His Name. That very likely describes 100% of Christians and observant Jews.

One Christian denomination rails against another spending a lot of time and resources to do so. One branch of religious Judaism rails against another spending a lot of time and resources doing so. And good grief, just look at those of us who live, study, and worship “outside the box,” so to speak. We waste a lot of time arguing about distinctions this and distinctions that.

Isn’t there a better way to use our resources and to obey our Rav?

There is once you let go.

Someone on a closed Facebook group recently asked non-Jewish group members why they became Messianic Gentiles and what was the biggest obstacle they had to overcome in entering into Messianic Jewish community.

I know these are important questions and answering them facilitates a sense of community among those who participate, at least a virtual community since these people (potentially) live all over the world, but in some ways, making that distinction also facilitates the identity crisis.

Inner lightWho is a Messianic Gentile and what does that mean? What’s a Messianic Gentile’s relationship with Messianic Jewish community and how (or if) do we fit in? There are a bunch of other questions attached to those and there is no one unified answer.

But what if those aren’t the most important questions to ask and asking the right question gives us a better answer?

We are all created in the image of God. The Aish Rabbi said that the Jewish mission is to be a light to the nations. My interpretation is that Rav Yeshua is that light (John 8:12) and by becoming his disciple, we too become lights to the world (Matthew 5:14-16).

Maybe all we really have to answer is the question, “How can I better shine my light onto the world?” That’s a totally inclusive question because it applies to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Sure, the answer is somewhat different depending on whether you’re Jewish or not, but not as much as you think.

Both the Jew and the Gentile are commanded to do kindness and give charity. Both the Jew and the Gentile pray. Both the Jew and the Gentile give thanks to God for what He provides us from His grace, mercy, and generosity (Psalm 145:16).

I’ve stopped worrying about what to call myself (this is a lot easier for me because I’m not part of a religious community that has a label and expects that label to mean something specifically defining). I suppose there are any number of words that others use to define me. My Jewish wife for instance, considers me a Christian. From her point of view, she’s probably right.

Who am IBut what about God’s point of view? Maybe the identity He assigned us, the person He created each of us to be, is based less on some theological system of belief and more on what we do about it.

If you behave like the person God created you to be, and strive each day to become a truer realization of that person, who cares what people call you? Who cares what you call yourself? It matters most of all how God sees you and your (our, my) response to Him.

Who am I? What do I call myself? Why, I’m “me”. I’m doing my best to be the person God created me to be. Or like Batman said, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

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Giving Up the Identity Crisis

“Every human being on earth has a personal relationship with God – whether he knows it or not. The fact that he is alive or that he/she is breathing is God’s expression of love towards that individual. Some people accept it, acknowledge it, reciprocate, but some people don’t. The Jewish people, in addition to this personal relationship, stand in a communal relationship, in a national relationship. The Jewish people stand together as a community in a relationship with God. This is an inter-generational community that has a covenantal relationship with God. When the Torah says ‘you’ it addresses this national communal entity.”

–Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Blumenthal

The other day I wrote a blog post mentioning a community of Noahides in Texas (and elsewhere) called Netiv (Hebrew for “path” or so I’ve been told). I wrote the article to highlight the differences as well as the similarities between these Noahides and those “Judaicly-aware” non-Jews I sometimes call Talmidei Yeshua (which I think is a better name for them/us than “Messianic Gentiles”).

TrustWhile I was on the Netiv website, I had a look around and found a short article written by someone named Ida Blom called Pursuing Righteousness in the Nations.

The quote from Rabbi Blumenthal at the top of today’s “meditation” was taken from the opening words of Ms. Blom’s missive. In the span of a few short paragraphs (most of which I quote below), I discovered more interesting parallels between the world of Noahides and ours.

I quoted the above, to make a clear distinction between individual people (in the nations) and Israel. The individuals in the second group are part of the first group by default, but the reverse is NOT true. Looking at the first group, and focusing on the section of people in the nations who do in fact reciprocate with a deep longing to grow in righteousness and pursue this relationship, let’s focus on the ones who have taken the steps to come closer to the second group, and who desire to learn from them in how to be righteous in God’s eyes in the way that they (Israel) have been instructed by God to be a light unto these nations.

Ah, more distinctions between Israel (the Jewish people and nation) and the people of the nations who have attached themselves to Israel (Isaiah 14:1; Isaiah 56:6). These distinctions are easier to understand in the context Ms. Blom presents because it is clear that the relationship between Israel and the Noahides is distinguished by the effect of different covenants. The whole world is part of the covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9) but only Israel is a named participant in the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 19-20), or for that matter, the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:27).

Ms. Blom makes the point that the Jewish people are part of humanity, along with the people of the nations, but the people of the nations are not Israel. She goes on to say that we Gentiles look to Israel in order to learn the ways of righteousness. We must have a relationship with Israel to accomplish this.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’

Zechariah 8:23 (NASB)

tzitzitThis verse is well-known among those people like me and it seems to be lived out in the relationship between the aforementioned group of Noahides and their Jewish mentors.

But it is a relationship that is also desired by the Talmidei Yeshua, those non-Jews who choose to learn about Hashem (God), the Bible, and Rav Yeshua (Jesus) through a Judaicly oriented, Israel central lens.

Sometimes that relationship works well and at other times it doesn’t.

Actually, in quoting this article, the relationship between Gentiles and Jews doesn’t always work very well either:

And when Noahides show up at Chabad houses or synagogues, saying they want to learn Torah, they’re frequently turned away at the door.

I suppose after thousands of years of enmity between the nations of the world and the Jewish people, things are bound to remain a bit tense, at least under certain circumstances.

This next part I found to be very telling:

Why do the people in the first group, after coming out of our past religions, almost try to reverse-engineer our relationships with God in our zeal to find some identity? Because nobody but us will understand from experience, how and to what degree and price we have lost any previous identity. We are prepared to let go because of our quest for truth. True, we have to re-learn and unlearn MANY things, but there are some foundations which remain. We want to start with a new, clean slate, but by doing that, we almost throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. We ourselves create the void and then grab onto labels like noahide or ger or alternatively remain in the non-Jewish pool, feeling rudderless.

After leaving our former identity and context within normative Christianity, these Noahides struggle to establish a new identity in somewhat foreign territory and yet sometimes they “remain in the non-Jewish pool, feeling rudderless” to dodge being lost in the “void” while scrambling for a name and a label to call their own.

rudderlessSound familiar?

This is exactly what many non-Jews experience in their attempt to establish a place of belonging within Messianic Judaism, particularly those communities that really do function as a Judaism for Jews first and only afterward, a place for non-Jews to learn and worship as well.

See? We’re not alone. Noahides go through this, too. I suspect the non-Jewish disciples of our Rav that Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) made may have felt like this. Not quite fitting in. Not really understanding all of the prayers, all of the ceremonies and the praxis involved in a Shabbat service.

This is probably one of the reasons it was good with the Jerusalem Council and with the Holy Spirit not to lay the “burden” of all of the 613 commandments upon the shoulders of newly minted Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua (Acts 15:24-29). It was enough for them to learn little by little, from one Shabbat to the next, hearing the Torah of Moses read and taught in the synagogues of the diaspora (Acts 15:21).

However, Ms. Blom has some good news for Noahides, and I believe for us as well:

Let’s forget the labels for a moment and try to ignore our desire for belonging and having an identity. Why work backwards? Don’t we belong already? Think bigger! See God’s hand in your life! He brought you this far! When reading the above quote, we fall perfectly into the first group AND have been drawn by Him to reciprocate. That is a huge blessing! Did we believe in the God of the Bible, the God of Israel? YES. Of course we deviated badly along the way, but did we ever deny His existence? Did we ever deny that He is our Father? NO.

belonging to GodShe believes the way for them/us to solve their/our “identity crisis” is not to worry about identity or belonging. We already belong. Yes, but to what or who?

To God, of course. Blom obviously “dings” Christianity in this paragraph saying that these former Christians had “deviated badly.” On the other hand, even people in the Church do not deny the existence of the Almighty and that He is our Father, the Father to all.

All we needed was a bit of a course correction, so to speak, a clearer vision of the goal we were pursuing.

According to Blom, we were loved by God and He was by our side when we were in our churches, and, again according to her, God is by the side of the Noahides as they have determined a better way of pursuing righteousness for the nations.

That might be a good lesson for we Talmidei Yeshua to learn as well, rather than banging and pounding away at the door of our identity screaming at the top of our proverbial lungs, “Let us in!”

Blom says we’re already in.

The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth.

Psalm 145:8

If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

-Oscar Wilde

Identity and Diversity

I just read a blog post written by Dr. Larry Hurtado called Early Christian Diversity as well as a brief commentary by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski on Pirkei Avot 1:14. Interestingly enough, I think they both speak to me personally as well as to the wider body of modern Yeshua (Jesus) believers.

Part of what Rabbi Twerski wrote was:

What Hillel really meant can be better understood with a statement by the Rabbi of Kotzk, who said, “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not and you are not.”

William Shakespeare said the same thing with the words “To thine own self be true,” and I think that’s what I’m attempting in creating my own definition of a life of holiness (not that it’s so easy to follow such a definition).

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

In reading Dr. Hurtado’s blog post, I am once again reminded that what I’m going through, what we are all going through, is not new at all:

But it isn’t as though we didn’t know that before Bauer wrote. From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.

This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases…

I’ve tended to think of the differences between “early Christian” communities as being divided largely across the lines of Gentile believers and Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua, but I believe Dr. Hurtado is making finer distinctions. There may have been numerous branches of “Christianity” in the latter part of the first century and into the second that had other points of separation or distinction. In fact, there was likely no real effort to “form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement” until Eusebius or Constantine, according to Dr. Hurtado.

That makes me wonder what the Apostle Paul was up to if not attempting to create unified and uniform communities of Yeshua followers among the Gentiles (certainly Jewish praxis and community was already well established for Jewish disciples of the Rav).

Now let’s look at the Christian and Jewish religious landscapes today. There’s a wide variety of denominations and branches in both faith movements. There are thousands of separate or overlapping Christian denominations, and a number of different branches to Judaism including various subsets.

We could spend a lot of time debating who is right and who is wrong, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog post. Each early “Christianity” (I keep writing that word in quotes because until the Gentiles forcefully separated themselves from their Jewish mentors and teachers and reinterpreted the Bible as a Gentile religious document which excluded Jews, there was no such thing as “Christianity” … it was just another Jewish sect, albeit with an unusually liberal policy about admitting Gentiles) was the result of a separate understanding of the teachings of Rav Yeshua, sometimes interpreted by Paul, sometimes interpreted by other Jewish or Gentile teachers.

church?In modern times too, we are separate by differences in theology and doctrine, but I believe some of these separations are also the result of efforts to define identity. This is a key issue for Messianic Judaism certainly, but I believe we “Judaicly aware” non-Jewish disciples of the Rav are also worshipers in search of an identity.

Some are comfortable identifying as “Messianic Gentiles” and operating within the confines of a Messianic Jewish community (or primarily Messianic Gentile community in some cases), while others, though appreciating the Jewish perspective on the Bible, feel a need to not necessarily emulate Jewish praxis, even to a minor degree.

In a number of ways, I think that Gentile involvement in Messianic Judaism, while it works for some, can lead other non-Jews to attempt to ingrain Jewish practice and Jewish identity into themselves, either via the “one law” theology promoted in areas of the Hebrew Roots movement, or in extreme cases, by these Gentiles abandoning Yeshua altogether and converting to (usually Orthodox) Judaism.

For some of these non-Jews, there is a justification for conversion, either to the aforementioned Orthodox Judaism (or some other traditional branch) or even within certain streams of Messianic Judaism.

However, there are a plethora of Biblical prophesies stating that both Israel and the people of the nations of the world will acknowledge God and bow to the King in Messianic Days. For that to happen, there have to be some Gentiles around. We can’t all convert to Judaism.

And we can’t all practice Judaism as such. There have to be people around who are devoted to God who nonetheless are recognizably Gentile.

And there are tons of us, but we are mostly in Christian churches of one sort or another. Lots of diversity even within “the Church”. And then there are outliers like me who don’t really fit anyone’s mold, system, or structure, who are seeking an identity that fits our personalities, educations, perceptions, and circumstances.

Rabbi Twerski summed up his small missive with:

Today I shall…

…try to achieve my own identity. Whereas I will listen to the advice of those who are wiser than me, I will nonetheless never hold others responsible for what I do.

Of course, he is describing his personal identity. His identity as a Jew in Jewish community is well-defined largely by the community. Anyone who belongs to any community is, in some fashion, defined by the norms of that community.

aloneAnd for those of us who don’t belong, we struggle to define ourselves or at least, search the Bible for a way to understand how God defines us.

One mistake we often make is to take offense at how an individual defines themselves relative to the Bible, Rav Yeshua, and God. In writing Isaiah 56 and the Gentile, I started a bit of a “conversation” that was the result of my self-definition spilling over onto how other non-Jews define themselves.

Really, I’m hardly in a position to tell other people who they are and how to live when I’m struggling with those very issues myself. I believe I have a self-identity that’s fairly well-formed but a life of faith remains vital only when it is constantly under scrutiny.

Dr. Hurtado wrote of an early Christianity that was highly diverse as well as interconnected, finding different local and ethnic expressions. Rabbi Twerski spoke of consulting other individuals and the community and ultimately allowing self-identity to emerge from the “self”.

Whoever we are as human beings and people of faith, in community or not, the final responsibility to grasp an understanding of who we are, who God made us to be, and how God defines our identity, remains with each of us.

No one can threaten that unless you let them.

Are Messianic Gentiles Korach?

Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi, separated himself.

Bamidbar/Numbers 16:1

This verse begins the passage that deals with the rebellion of Korach, who sought to overthrow Moshe and Aharon from their positions as leaders of the Jews. The verse stresses that Korach took himself apart — that is, he deliberately sought to develop machlokes, strife between the Jews and their leaders.

-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.2
Sunday’s commentary on Torah Portion Korach
A Daily Dose of Torah

Over two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called What Am I, Chopped Liver?, in which I attempted to illustrate that non-Jews who are somehow associated with the Messianic Jewish movement are not an afterthought of God or a devalued population without a role in God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the nations simply because we’re not Jewish.

I could never have predicted what happened next. As I write this (Monday afternoon) that fifteen day old blog post has collected 191 comments and counting. Apparently, I struck a nerve, a really sensitive one.

I’ve written several posts since then, but none has gained the traction of “Chopped Liver,” which is just fine.

But then I started studying for the coming week’s Torah Portion Korach.

Rashi explains that Korach wished to make the point that there was no reason for Moshe and Aharon to be seen as greater than the rest of the Jews, for all of them had been spoken to by God at Sinai. thus their assuming leadership represented a selfish act of self-promotion…

…No matter how holy the Jews, they still needed leaders — and Hashem had ordained that those leaders were to be Moshe and Aharon. Sadly, Korach refused to see the obvious answer, and came to his terrible end as a result.

ibid, pp.2-3

We need to look at Korach and his 250 followers in context. The failure of the ten spies had just occurred (see Shelah) and the Children of Israel, bewailing their fate, refused to enter the Land and conquer it. Instead, they begged for a new leader to guide them back to Egypt. Even the next morning when the people realized their error, it was too late. Hashem had already decreed that the current generation wander the desert for forty years, until the last one of them expired.

Not listening to Hashem again, the Israelites attempted to take the Land. Hashem was not with them and the local Canaanite armies easily routed Israel, sending her packing, so to speak.

From Korach’s point of view, this might all seem to be the fault of Moses and Aaron. Midrash states that Korach and his companions believed Moses had appointed himself and Aaron as leaders, and that their positions of authority did not come from Hashem. If Korach were right, then there was no absolute divine source that appointed Moses as the Leader and Prophet of Israel and he might be opposed, overthrown, and replaced. This was Korach’s intent.

Although Korach was dead wrong (literally as it turns out) and Hashem decreed his demise, I can’t think too harshly of Korach. Yes, he was misguided and confused, probably tortured by the humiliating defeat in Canaan, and the dreaded prospect of the Israelites spending the rest of their days wandering the desert of Sinai. But assuming he wasn’t just greedy for power, he probably thought he was doing the right thing, the only thing he could think of to save his people.

korach rebellionBut he lacked Moses’ perspective and his apprehension of the will of Hashem for Israel.

It is commonly thought that Korach’s sin was one of attempting to usurp the roles of Moses and Aaron and to make himself the leader and High Priest (a bit if hypocrisy if he really thought that all Israelites were complete equals).

But we “Messianic Gentiles” (or whatever you want to call us) are also trying to figure out our roles relative to Messianic Jews and within the context of Messianic Judaism. Can we Gentiles be compared to those involved in the Korach rebellion?

First of all, let’s understand how I’m using the term “Messianic Gentiles.” Why don’t I just call us “Christians?”

Well, in the most generic way of speaking, we are Christians. That is, anyone who follows Christ (Messiah) as a disciple can be called a Christian (and my Jewish wife calls me a Christian). I make the differentiation for two reasons.

The first is that, in modern times, there are a number of Jews who choose to follow the traditions of their Sages in how they observe the Torah, living like many, many other observant Jews all over the world…and yet they are also disciples of Yeshua, recognizing him as Moshiach and the coming Jewish King.

Calling them “Christians” would be a gross injustice because historically, Christianity has been directly opposed to Jews observing Torah, studying Talmud, gathering in synagogues on Shabbos, and honoring the traditions of the Sages.

The closest analog to modern Messianic Jews are the very early Jewish disciples of the Master we find in the Apostolic Scriptures, but we also have to remember that nearly two-thousand years of Judaism stand in between these two groups of Jews. And certainly by any comparison, those ancient and our modern Messianic Jews in no way resemble today’s Evangelical Christians.

The second reason is similar to the first. We Gentiles in Messiah, who associate ourselves with Messianic Judaism in terms of how we understand and study the Bible and the function of the New Covenant, are not opposed to Jews practicing Judaism in the manner of their forefathers. We have a different vision of the primacy of Israel in the current age and into the Messianic Era. We know that Yeshua is the center of God’s plan of redemption, that God’s redemption emanates from Yeshua to Israel, and only then, from Israel to the nations.

This understanding is only rarely found in any corner of mainstream Christianity, thus I refer to us as Messianic Gentiles to communicate the distinction, not to deliberately separate ourselves from the (much) larger ekklesia of Christ among the Gentiles, that is, the Christian Church.

So are we Messianic Gentiles guilty of the rebellion of Korach in seeking a role in Messianic Judaism?

Based on the initial criteria I cited at the top of this blog post, that Korach deliberately separated himself from his Israelite fellows in order to cause strife (at least according to Midrash), how can we say we have separated ourselves from Messianic Judaism if our intent is to join them, albeit as Gentiles and not Jews?

It seems more apparent that we’ve separated ourselves from the local church and from historical Christianity so it’s very likely if we are rebelling, it is against the Christian Church, not Messianic Judaism.

Mount SinaiBut what about the supposition I’m adapting from Korach, that we Gentiles are every bit as Holy to God as are the Jewish people, thus no role possessed by Jews should be denied us?

It’s difficult to make a direct comparison because Korach and his group were Levites and Israelites, so they had that in common with Moses and Aaron. We Gentiles don’t have tribe and ethnic identity in common with the Jews in Messianic Judaism. We can’t separate ourselves from something we never were in the first place.

That’s an important point because the Sinai Covenant, and for that matter the New Covenant, are both made exclusively with the Jewish people. The disciples from the nations aren’t named subjects to those covenants. It’s only by the mercy and grace of God that he has preordained “every knee will bow” and indeed, that Gentiles turning to Hashem en masse, is a rock-solid indication, based on scripture, that the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven into our world is imminent (but “imminent” in the timing of God, not necessary by the human calendar).

So if any Gentile were to claim equal rights to the Sinai and New Covenants as members and citizens of Israel, it would be the height of hubris, and indeed, pride and arrogance are things that Korach has been accused of throughout the ages. If any of we Messianic Gentiles made such a demand, we’d be on par with Korach, cut from the same cloth.

But that’s not what most of us are trying to do. We’re not claiming the Torah for our own. We are not calling Moses our Father and maybe not even our Teacher (apart from the veiled implications of Acts 15:21).

What we do want to know is, given our particular orientation as Gentiles standing on the foundation of the Jewish Bible, who are we, where do we belong, and what should we be doing?

Of course, as part of the exceptionally long dialogue on my aforementioned blog post and particularly my conversation with Rabbi Kinbar, our “place at the table” may have to be self-defined. The various leading organizations that can truly be termed “Messianic Judaism” have their hands far too full managing their own definition, identity, and role.

Korach disputed the validity of Moses and Aaron as God-assigned leaders of the Children of Israel. Are we Messianic Gentiles questioning the leadership of Jews in Messianic Judaism? Can there be a Judaism without Jews? If we non-Jews want to be part of Messianic Judaism, are the Jewish people our leaders and are we trying to “take over” Messianic Judaism from them?

Those are a lot of loaded questions.

If there are Messianic Jewish synagogues that are by and for Jews in Messiah only, then we don’t have a seat at that table and we don’t belong. If we don’t belong, they can hardly be our leaders.

If there are Messianic Jewish synagogues that welcome non-Jews as adjunct members or resident visitors and if those synagogues are led by a majority Jewish board of directors, then the board are our leaders.

synagogueThat gets a little complicated since, for instance, the local combined Reform/Conservative shul in my corner of Idaho has both Jews and Gentiles on the board, although, of course, the Rabbi is Jewish.

In a comment made by Rabbi Carl Kinbar recently:

At the same time, MJ leaders share the responsibility. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that few congregations made up preponderantly of Messianic Jews will grow large enough to support their leader full-time.

Virtually all Messianic congregations where individuals (Jew or Gentile) simply walk in the door and stay, are largely (sometimes almost completely) Gentile in make-up. This is especially true of congregations in areas where there are few Jews to begin with. Jewish practices are usually, or perhaps inevitably, reconfigured to the point of being somewhat unrecognizable. Most MJs who take their Judaism seriously feel quite alienated in that kind of environment. They also feel the need to guard themselves lest they speak or act “too Jewish” and thus offend the Gentiles (and some other Jews, too). As a traveling speaker, I have experienced enough Messianic congregations to know what I’m talking about.

That said, no congregation that walls itself in can be spiritually healthy. Congregations that have a distinct vision must have a strong and persistent determination to maintain living relationships with those who have a different vision, theology, or idea of congregational fabric.

P.S., I also believe that it is not viable, in the long term, for largely MG congregations to restrict leadership positions to Jews even when there are equally or more qualified MGs. It will not work sociologically or psychologically. A large percentage of MG children who mature in that kind of environment will leave as soon as they can. (emph. mine)

I can only imagine the matter of leadership is managed on a community-by-community basis. Thus the question of who leads and who follows is highly variable depending on whatever congregation you are attending. Synagogues with a majority non-Jewish membership will likely have a significant Gentile presence on the board, while Messianic Jewish shuls made up of a majority of Jews with only a few Gentiles (non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members perhaps) might have few to no Gentiles on the board and most certainly a Jewish person in the role of Rabbi.

In any congregation, there has to be a method of leadership whereby the members feel they are represented by such leadership. In many churches and synagogues, board members are elected by popular vote, and it is the board that hires the Pastor or Rabbi, who then is an employee of the institution and who can even be fired by the board if necessary (or their contract can simply not be renewed once it becomes due).

I’ve been in a congregation, a very organizationally unsophisticated one, where there were multiple attempts, some successful, to lead a hostile takeover, a sort of bloodless coup, either deposing the previous leader out of hand or causing a split in the group.

This is not uncommon among small but growing Hebrew Roots congregations, but it’s also been known to happen in full-fledged Christian churches (I have no idea if splits happen in mainstream Jewish synagogues since I have no direct experience).

It’s always ugly and never serves to sanctify the Name of God.

messianic judaism for the nationsSo are we Messianic Gentiles rebels with or without a cause?

I would say no. Not if we aren’t intending to take control of something that isn’t ours, that is, the covenant inheritance of the Jewish people. We have a right to seek out our own identity and role as long as the identity and role we desire doesn’t already belong to another group.

I think this is why some within Messianic Judaism would rather the Gentiles all stay in the Church, because it solves this pesky problem by using the already existing identity for Gentile believers as Christians within the Church and Jewish disciples as Jews within Judaism.

But not all Jews in Messiah agree, and as far as my experience goes, most Messianic Jewish groups in the United States have a large if not a majority Gentile population.

So I suppose as long as we Messianic Gentiles aren’t plotting to overtly or covertly take over whatever Messianic congregations we are attending, then we aren’t rebels. Of course, any group in a congregation that attempts a takeover of said-congregation outside of the formal rules would be considered rebels, regardless of the ethnic make up of the house of worship.

So if we’re not taking over Jewish synagogues and we’re not claiming the Torah and Israel to be who we are equally along with the Jews, then no, we aren’t rebels, usurpers, or thieves. We are just pilgrims on a trail, traveling a path, searching for who we are in Hashem and in Messiah.

We may never find out who we are in Messianic Judaism or in direct relation with Messianic Jews. But as I wrote just recently, we have every likelihood of discovering who we are in Messiah, and then helping and supporting Jewish Torah observance and community in anticipation of the return of Messiah and the establishment of his Kingdom in Israel and among us all.

The Necessity of Messianic Jewish Community

Orthodox Judaism is the approach to religious Judaism which adheres to the interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah as legislated in the Talmudic texts by the Tanaim and Amoraim and subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim.

-from the Wikipedia page on Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is not a unified movement with a single governing body, but many different movements adhering to common principles. All of the Orthodox movements are very similar in their observance and beliefs, differing only in the details that are emphasized. They also differ in their attitudes toward modern culture and the state of Israel. They all share one key feature: a dedication to Torah, both Written and Oral.

-from Jewish Virtual Library

Note that the image above and all other images of Jewish people in this blog post are not specifically Messianic Jews. I say this so there will be no mistaken attributions assumed.

There have been some conversations going in the discussion sections of a number of my blog posts. They’re too numerous to reference here, but the general themes have to do with Messianic Jewish community, the role of Gentiles within a Messianic Jewish community space, Bilateral Ecclesiology, and just how “Jewish” Messianic Judaism should be.

Opinions span a broad spectrum as the Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots movements do themselves, but this morning, I read a rather interesting article that got my attention:

The Orthodox Jewish community has a certain mystique.

Whether it’s because we look, act or believe differently, people are intrigued by stories about the Orthodox Jewish community. Media outlets often oblige but whenever I read these stories, they don’t quite resonate with me. They don’t look like the Orthodox community I know. So I’d like to share a few things that happened to me over the last year that give a more accurate insight into the real Orthodox Jewish community.

My wife and I have experienced fertility problems. We thankfully had been blessed with two children but as they grew older we had been trying for some time to have another child to no avail. One day I was speaking with my rabbi about our situation and I conveyed to him that my wife and I wanted to pursue fertility treatments but because of the steep cost, we were having second thoughts. A few days later my rabbi said that he spoke with an anonymous individual with means in the Jewish community who had agreed to sponsor fertility treatment for young Jewish couples if they could not afford it. He would not know who we were and we would not know who he was. He was motivated purely out of a sense of loyalty to the continuity of the Jewish People.

That’s the Orthodox community I know.

-Shimon Rosenberg
“The Orthodox Community I Know”
Aish.com

As I read through Mr. Rosenberg’s story about “the Orthodox Community I know,” I was struck by how different this would probably seem to most people who aren’t part of this community, and especially to Christians. Even those Christians who are supportive of the Jewish people and of Israel, don’t always understand (how could they?) Orthodox Judaism in general and the devotion of individual people in Orthodox Judaism to their community, lifestyle, and commitments in specific. And even most Jewish people who are not Orthodox don’t always understand the Orthodox.

Seven years ago, had I encountered the woman I am today, I would have pitied her: long sleeves and an ankle-length skirt in the middle of summer; no driving, writing, talking on the phone or cooking from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; recently married to a man she’d never touched — not so much as a peck on the cheek — until after the wedding. I’d have cringed and dismissed this woman as a Repressed Religious Nut. Now my pity — or at least a patient smile — is for that self-certain Southern California girl I was at 25.

-Andrea Kahn
“What’s a Nice Cosmo Girl Like You Doing With An Orthodox Husband?”
Aish.com

See what I mean?

Christians especially see Orthodox Jews as rule-bound, rigid, odd (to say the least), and on a path that will certainly lead them to Hell. After all, no one can be made righteous through their own acts as we see here:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Isaiah 64:6 (NASB)

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

On that point, Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post called Our Deeds Are Not Filthy Rags which illuminates this matter and adds quite a wrinkle to the traditional Christian interpretation of the Isaiah verse. Also, Jacob Fronczak’s article “Sola Fide” in the latest issue of Messiah Journal deepens the exploration into this important topic.

I’m not trying to create a commentary on the nature of “salvation” and the differences between Christianity and Judaism, I’m just saying that we can’t automatically dismiss how Orthodox Jewish people (or any Jewish community) see their own relationship with God.

My friend Gene Shlomovich made a similar observation today on his blog:

So, the reason G-d chose Israel is because He already loved them and has promised their forefathers that He will take care of them. Does it make Jews somehow better than any other people? Not at all and it’s not the reason behind G-d’s love for Israel. After all, one parent’s child is not inherently better than a child of another parent. Your child is no more deserving of love than someone else’ – she is just yours. G-d loves Israel not because He has some grand plan and purpose for Israel (even though He does) or because Israel will proclaim her G-d and His Torah to all nations (which she certainly will). Neither did G-d set His affections on Israel because, as Christianity claims, “Israel was chosen to give birth to Jesus” and “to give nations the Gospel”, a useful tool that can be discarded once the chief purpose has been accomplished. No, these are all conditional reasons. G-d didn’t set His love on Israel because Israel was somehow capable of earning G-d’s love by her performance. Instead, G-d loves Israel because He loves Israel – that’s all there’s to it.

Depending on which denomination of Christianity you belong to or to which Christian doctrine concerning the Jewish people and Israel you adhere, you may actually believe that God still loves Israel and has future plans for her, but it’s really all about “the Church.” God may still use Israel, but their relationship isn’t what it once was, and God really loves the Church best.

I’m oversimplifying that viewpoint of course. I don’t have time to go into all of the details and you don’t want to read a ten-thousand word blog post.

But look at this:

Nine months later we gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.

The excitement began early Friday morning and as the day progressed I started thinking about Shabbat. What would we eat? How would I recite Kiddush? Light candles? I remembered hearing about an organization called Bikkur Cholim which means “visiting the sick.” It’s a volunteer-driven charity that looks after the needs of people in hospital. I called them and within a couple of hours someone came to our hospital room with literally bags of food, grape juice for Kiddush, electric candles to serve as Shabbat candles, even spices for havdallah. The food is free and the person delivering it is a volunteer. In the few moments I had to speak with him I learned that he was just a regular guy — an accountant — who takes off Fridays from work to volunteer for Bikkur Cholim. I asked him why he does it and he replied simply that it’s what God wants of us.

That’s the Orthodox community I know.

-Rosenberg

I’m talking about not just God’s love for Israel, but within the Orthodox Jewish community, one Jew’s love for another as well as the community’s love for one Jewish family.

I asked him why he does it and he replied simply that it’s what God wants of us.

Jewish Man PrayingThat’s the Orthodox Jewish community most of us, particularly in the Church, don’t see.

No, I’m not saying Orthodox Judaism as a practice or a community is perfect. The fact that it contains human beings means it will, by definition, be imperfect, just as any other form of Judaism will be imperfect, just as any of the estimated 41,000 Christian denominations and their members will be imperfect, just as any human community anywhere across time and space was, is, and will be imperfect.

Jews don’t need to be perfect for G-d to be on their side – G-d already loves them as His own people and nothing can ever change it. No doubt, He has disciplined us when we sinned, and He did that many times. However, at the same time, He’s very merciful. He promised that He will not be angry with us forever (Isaiah 57:16). As that Deuteronomy prophecy promised us G-d Himself will “circumcise” the hearts of all Israel after He brings them to the Land. When He does, all Jews will be Torah-observant, to the last one.

-Shlomovich

The statement that Jews don’t need to be perfect for God to love them, particularly in Orthodox Judaism, might take some Christians by surprise. It is generally thought by some of the Christians I know that Jews believe they have to perform the mitzvot perfectly in order to please God.

Again, I’m steering clear of the whole “salvation” issue, and I’m instead talking about love. Please don’t try to “bust my chops” about Christians being saved and Jewish people not being saved. It’s not what I’m writing about and I won’t approve any comments on the topic.

But what does all this have to do with Messianic Judaism?

It has been argued by many non-Jews affiliated in one way or another with Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots, that the “Jewishness” of Messianic Judaism should be toned down a bit. Those Jewish people in the Messianic movement who advocate for wholly Jewish communities for disciples of Yeshua as Messiah are putting Judaism first and Messiah second. I myself have quoted Troy Mitchell of Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship as saying:

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

Of course, I usually aim that quote at non-Jews who are so enamored with Jewish practices that they leave faith in Jesus entirely and convert to Judaism, usually Orthodox Judaism. You’d think, given that, I wouldn’t be trying to paint such a rosy picture of Orthodox Judaism here.

But, on the outside looking in, we often criticize things we don’t understand. It’s easy for Christians or just about anyone else to be critical of Orthodox Judaism because we are outsiders. We aren’t like them. We’ve been taught that we should never be like them, and if we tried (by converting or otherwise affiliating with the Jewish community), we would lose our salvation and God’s love.

From an Orthodox Jewish point of view (not that I have that point of view, I just quote articles), God loves Orthodox Jews and, referencing Shimon Rosenberg, Orthodox Jews love each other.

Applied to the Jewish people within the various circles of Messianic Judaism, they are also loved by God and they are also Jews who love each other, both within their specific Jewish communities, and identifying with larger and even worldwide Jewry. That doesn’t mean Yeshua plays second-fiddle to Messianic Judaism anymore than Hashem plays second-fiddle to Orthodox Judaism. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems like an Orthodox Jew’s devotion is to the “rules” first and the will of God second, but as I quoted above:

I asked him why he does it and he replied simply that it’s what God wants of us.

The mitzvot, especially those that are performed for the well-being of other people, are done because ”it’s what God wants of us.”

JewishMost non-Jews in Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, and probably not a few Jewish people in those groups believe that it’s unBiblical, racist, and just plain wrong for Jews in Messianic Judaism to desire a community that is primarily or exclusively Jewish. The fact that Gentiles are “grafted-in” to the Jewish community, once called “the Way” and are considered equal co-participants in God’s love make it almost unthinkable that God would still reserve a “specialness” for the Jewish people and that God would not only tolerate but expect that Jews feel a “specialness” for each other.

Gentiles feel excluded by this sentiment among believing Jews. They (we) feel like we are rejected, inferior, second-class citizens, and “back of the bus” riders traveling on the road to the Kingdom.

To counter this, I can see at some point, a Messianic Jewish writer composing and publishing a small article called ”The Messianic Jewish Community I Know,” describing why it is important to have such a Jewish community for Messianic Jews. Granted, the uniqueness of Messianic Judaism when compared to the other Judaisms in our day (or historically), makes it more difficult to operationalize Jewish community within the larger community of disciples of Messiah, and I think we’re still working that out.

But the consequences of failing to support Jewish community within Messianic Judaism can be (and have been) disastrous.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

Romans 11:13-16 (NRSV)

According to Mark Nanos in his classic text The Mystery of Romans, the problem Paul was addressing in his letter were Gentiles who were flaunting their “freedom” (not being obligated to Torah observance to the level of the Jews) to the Messianic and non-Messianic Jewish populations of local synagogues in Rome, acting as a “stumbling block,” especially for the non-believing Jews who, because of Gentile arrogance, were inhibited from considering, let alone accepting, faith in Yeshua.

While the Nanos view would be considered controversial by many Christians, it does explain Paul’s rather harsh rebuke or even threat (Romans 11:21) to the “grafted in” branches. Paul was passionate for his people, the Jewish people, even his opponents, and Paul said he would surrender his own salvation if it would save some of them (Romans 9:3).

The Jewish PaulPaul never abandoned his people and God never abandoned Israel. We, as non-Jews, may not understand Jewish “choseness” but it exists. We, as non-Jews may not understand the need for Jewish people to have community specifically within a wholly Jewish context, but it exists. I live it out. I live with a Jewish wife. She needs to be a part of our local Jewish community and even though it is sometimes uncomfortable for me, she needs for me to not be a part of that community.

Admittedly, other intermarried couples share synagogue life, even within Orthodox Judaism (look at Chabad), but given my background in Hebrew Roots and my current relationships within different aspects of Messianic Judaism and normative Christianity (and the fact that our little corner of Idaho makes it difficult to be anonymous), it’s best for her that we have a clean line separating me from that part of her life.

I think it’s because I can see that line on a highly personal level and that I’ve gone through the struggle of making it OK for that line to exist and even to be necessary for my Jewish wife, that I can see the necessity for an exclusively Jewish community within the body of Messiah, too.

Humanity, when completely unbound by G-d’s Laws, when unrestrained by fear of Him, when viewing their fellow human beings not as created in G-d’s image but as an unprofitable animals to be destroyed is at its absolute worst. Unshackled from the divine, humanity is driven to satisfy the desires of its lower, animalistic nature. In such a state, human beings have the capacity to do much evil in their rebellion against the Almighty. Since there’s nothing they can do to G-d Himself, evil people can only resort to rejecting, despising and destroying everything that G-d loves and holds dear. This is why, I believe, Jews have suffered so much during the Holocaust and have been an object of hatred everywhere they went and to this very day. Their identification as the people loved and chosen by G-d has made them the perennial target for the worst humanity has to offer.

-Shlomovich

Gene wrote that in response to the question, ”If G-d is with Jews, why did the Holocaust happen?” Maybe I’m being extreme applying it to the current context, but I believe just because we don’t always understand the relationship God has with the Jewish people and that the Jewish people have with each other, we shouldn’t discount it, either. And as Christians, we absolutely should do nothing to destroy Jewish people and Jewish community. We have been warned.

In Jeremiah 31:3, God said to Israel ”I have loved you with an everlasting love,” and in John 13:34, Jesus gave his Jewish disciples a new commandment to love one another as he loved them. Christians generally apply that “new” commandment to themselves (ourselves), the commandment of self-sacrificial love, but I don’t want to set aside the immediate context in which Jesus uttered these words. He was talking to Jewish disciples within his Jewish community. He knew each and every one of them would suffer and all but John would die in excruciating ways for the sake of Heaven. That’s the kind of love the Jewish Messiah and Rabbi from Nazareth wanted each member of his Jewish community to have for all the other Jewish members.

Again, that doesn’t mean this commandment doesn’t have wider implications, but even Paul, the emissary to the Gentiles went ”first to the Jew” (Romans 1:16 for instance), because the Gospel message, the “good news” of the Kingdom of God, belongs first to the Jew and then also to the rest of the world.

In a comment on one of Derek Leman’s blog posts, I said:

That gets back to the one statement you made among your list of questions: “Maybe what they were impassioned about was the hereafter, the blessed age to come, not so much the Messiah.” In my opinion, the focus really wasn’t so much about the afterlife or eternity, but the restoration of Israel under the Messianic King, who would return the exiles, rebuild the Temple, teach Torah, and bring peace to all the nations of the world, with Israel as the head.

That’s something to be impassioned about in my humble opinion.

Christian and JewishIt’s not comfortable to belong to a group where certain members are more special than you are, especially if their being special has to do with an inborn trait such as, in this case, being Jewish. There’s no way to acquire being Jewish except through conversion, so we can never attain that particular position of being special. We can never fully belong to that group in a way that is identical to what the members of that group have between each other.

We Christians balk at that, in part, because anyone can become a Christian and Jewish Christians in the church (as opposed to Jews in Messianic Judaism) are just like everyone else, identical in role, function, and identity. That’s actually not a good thing, and I have had more than one Jewish person tell me that Jewish conversion to Christianity is just finishing the Holocaust that Hitler started.

Which is a really good reason why Messianic Jewish communities for Messianic Jews is so important and so necessary.

I have no desire to participate in any attempt to remove Jewish people as a distinctive people and community from the face of the Earth. That would be like wanting to remove the Jewish identities and specialness of my wife and three children, and frankly, I wish they were more observant and more mindful of their distinctiveness as Jews. This isn’t to say that I don’t want them to also embrace Messiah, but that’s out of my hands for lots and lots of reasons. I must trust in God that He loves my wife and children, not just because He loves human beings, but because He loves Jews.

Paul said “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). He also said ”If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy” (Romans 11:16), meaning (I believe) if the first fruits, that is, the first Jews to come to faith in Yeshua are holy, all Jewish people, all the branches, are holy. While the Church struggles with the plain meaning of that text, I find it gives me some strength and assurance that God won’t throw the Jewish people in general and my Jewish family in specific under some cosmic bus just for giggles. I trust the Apostle Paul that he was using those words to caution arrogant Gentile believers in the Jewish synagogues in Rome that the calluses on the Jewish heart for Messiah will one day be made smooth and they will be healed.

In the end, all I have is my faith in God that, for the sake of the Jewish people, my Jewish people, my family, they will also be healed and saved.

In the meantime, I accept that there are some places my wife must go that I cannot and should not follow. And as objectionable and offensive as some members of my readership (and beyond) find the term “bilateral ecclesiology” and the concepts behind it, I ask that you try to see Jewish people and Jewish community requirements from my point of view, even if you can’t see it from theirs.

When the Jewish People are One

Rabbi Mendel TeldonI am not Orthodox.

There. I said it.

Yes, I look like I am. I have a full beard, I am the rabbi of a traditional synagogue and don’t eat anything not kosher. But I am finally comfortable enough with myself and my Judaism to come out and say what has been lying underneath the surface for so many years.

I just can’t classify myself anymore as an Orthodox Jew.

Truth be told, as I look at the membership list of my congregation here in suburban Long Island I feel that none of my community is really Orthodox either.

Please allow me to describe to you my journey on how I reached this conclusion.

-Rabbi Mendel Teldon
“I Am Not Orthodox”
Opinion piece written for
The Jewish Week

And so begins the (you should pardon the expression) “unorthodox” commentary of Rabbi Teldon about Jewish identity from his particular perspective. I must admit, when I read this article, the first thing I thought of was Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann’s article in the most recent issue of Messiah Journal called “The Jewish People are Us – not Them” (read my review of the article for more details).

As his story progresses, Rabbi Teldon relates how, during one Erev Shabbat meal in his home, he asked his (Jewish) guests, “Do you consider yourself Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, None of the above or Other?”

The first guest thought for a few moments and said “I’m not sure. My parents were Conservative, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi, but our kids went to a Reform temple for nursery. I didn’t fast on this past Yom Kippur but my daughter’s upcoming Bat mitzvah is going to be done by an Orthodox rabbi.”

The next guy said he is Reform since currently he is not a member at any temple but he takes his family to a Reform temple in Westchester every year for the high holidays. Since his parents are on the board of directors they get a good price on tickets so it is worth the schlep. Also, while he hadn’t studied much lately, he feels that his beliefs are more in tune with the Reform movements ideas of Tikun Olam.

The third scratched his head and said, “My friends ask me this same question when they hear I am a member at an Orthodox congregation. My response is “Other” since I don’t fall into any of those categories.”

Not being Jewish, I have no real basis for evaluating the question much less the answer, except in relationship (perhaps) with Dr. Dauermann’s article. Dauermann also discusses the nature of Jewish identity and the vital necessity of Messianic Jews to relate first and foremost as Jews. That point dovetails quite nicely with what Rabbi Teldon says next:

That is when it suddenly hit me.

I am not Orthodox since there is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew. As there is no such thing as a Reform Jew or Conservative Jew.

These terms are artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes ignoring the most important thing about us all. We share one and the same Torah given by the One and same God.

That is, from my point of view, the essence of what Rabbi Dauermann was communicating in his article. Jewish identity is more than just a label, it’s more than just whether or not you were Bar Mitzvahed by an Orthodox Rabbi, attend the High Holy Days in a Reform shul, and have your kids go to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue. Jewish identity is transcendent across all of these “labels.”

Of course, the Jewish people sharing affiliation across those different Jewish institutions or religious streams might have a problem with a Messianic Jew attempting to enter their spectrum of Jewish experience (and I just violated Rabbi Dauermann’s “Us, not them” emphasis).

I was also reminded of this:

We are on more solid ground if we attempt to define the term “Messianic Jew” – a Messianic Jew is simply a Jewish person who believes in Yeshua. Messianic Jews have all sorts of theological views, ranging from attending shul weekly and treasuring Yeshua in their hearts as a crypto-faith and living out a more Orthoprax Judaism, to attending a Pentecostal church every week, and simply maintaining an awareness of their Jewish identity.

-Dror
“The shape of the Messianic Jewish movement”
rosh pina project

IntermarriageBut all this introduces a level of complexity into the equation of Jewish identity and Jewish community. When trying to explain these concepts to my Pastor a few weeks ago, he asked me if Messianic Jews had more in common with Judaism or Christianity. He was getting at the idea that in Christ, we are all “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) and are saved through Jesus on the cross, while most streams of Judaism deny Christ as Messiah and as the Son of God.

I don’t think I can adequately answer such a question without being Jewish. I don’t have a lived Jewish experience and a unique identity as a part of Israel. In Christianity, we are taught to revere Jesus above all else and our culture and identity is defined by our beliefs.

Jewish identity and covenant relationship with God is established at birth (with the exception of those who convert to Judaism, “Jews by choice”) and, as Rabbi Teldon said, are defined by the Torah and by God. Any Gentile can enter or leave Christianity, but a Jew is born a Jew and even if they reject that heritage, they can never leave and become an “unJew”.

Historically, as Rabbi Dauermann brought out in his article, Jews have always been required to make a choice when coming to faith in Yeshua as Messiah. Either surrender all Jewish identity, practice, and culture, or forget about becoming a disciple of Jesus and lose (or never attain) your salvation.

I seriously doubt that any Christian past or present has any idea what they were asking of Jewish people who desired to have a relationship with the Jewish Messiah. How can you ask a Jew to leave his covenant people in order to honor the capstone of Jewish history, the Messiah, Son of David, who is utterly devoted to his covenant people Israel?

Then we come to a recent debate in the blogosphere on Jewish apostasy, and by that, I mean Jews who previously were believers within a Messianic Jewish context, denouncing Jesus and re-entering another Jewish religious community. General Christian and Hebrew Roots consensus says that any Messianic Jew who desires to live a completely Jewish lifestyle in honor of his fathers, in honor of the Torah, and in honor of Messiah significantly risks leaving Yeshua-faith because, somehow, living as a completely observant Jew among completely observant Jews and focusing on Messiah are mutually exclusive experiences.

Rabbi Teldon’s commentary may seem heartwarming when applied to any other Jewish population, but Christians consider having Messianic Jews making transitions across multiple corridors of (non-Messianic) Judaism as a severe threat which will result in those Jews leaving Yeshua-faith for “dead” Jewish worship. Even many Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots movement who believe as non-Jews, they are obligated to “observe” Torah, are at least hesitant about if not actively critical of Jews in Messiah who want to actually live as Jews and among Jews. Go figure.

I wrote a review a few days ago on one of John MacArthur’s presentations at his Strange Fire conference, and at the end of my review, I brought into question who Christians should be focusing upon, God the Father, Jesus the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Christianity, including Hebrew Roots, insists that the only valid focus of Christian faith must be Jesus Christ, but if that’s true, do we simply disregard the God of Genesis, the God of Abraham,  the God of Jacob, and the God of Moses? Even at the end of all things, the Bible specifically mentions only “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:3).

I don’t see how it can be reasonable to ask a Jew to stop being Jewish in order to worship the God of Israel and Messiah, Son of David, King of the Jews. What are Jewish families in Messiah supposed to do, shop at the mall on Saturday afternoon and serve shrimp at their daughter’s wedding?

Oh, not everyone thought Rabbi Teldon’s article was heartwarming. Here are a couple of comments from the blog post:

Dear Rabbi Mendel,

Will you daven in a shul that is not Orthodox? Will you sit next to a woman who is also davening, and consider yourself yotse? Will you pray in any shul, regardless of denomination? Do you recognize those with non-Orthodox smicha as rabbis? Do you count women in a minyan? Will you daven, in tefilla b’tzibur, if there are women forming the minyan of ten? Will you share a pulpit with a woman who is a Rabbi in doing a wedding, or leading a service? I imagine that you would say yes to all of the above, since you have publicly claimed you are not an Orthodox Rabbi. If you cannot say yes to all of the above, I encourage you to publish an apology and a detraction of your public statement about being not being an Orthodox Rabbi. If you cannot say yes to all of the above, to claim one is not Orthodox is both disingenuous and inaccurate.

Thank you.

And another comment…

What do you expect? He’s a Lubavitcher. For Lubavitchers, every other Jew from unaffiliated to Satmar is classified as either Lubavitcher or not-yet-Lubavitcher. Everyone is conversion fodder to them. If one regards O/C/R as affiliations, he’s not affiliated with any of the other Orthodox orgnaizations – Lubavitch institutionally does not join with other Jewish institutions.

Except that Orthodoxy, according to R’ Micha Berger, is not a movement, but an attribute a movement can have. OU, Agudah, Lubavitch organizations, they’re all Orthodox because of their adherence to certain ideas. IOW, this is a marketing move. Since R’ Teldon finds that his congregants eschew labels, he’ll eschew labels too. Doesn’t change what he believes.

judaismIn the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, the concept of Jewish identity is fiercely discussed, but it’s obviously a matter of concern among all of the other Judaisms as well.

I think Rabbi Teldon has the right idea. I think that the core of being Jewish must cut through all other distinctions. When the Nazis came for the Jews, it didn’t matter what the synagogue affiliation (if any) of their victims were. Jews were simply herded into cattle cars and taken away as slave labor or to the gas chambers.

While there may be some “bumps in the road” between different Jewish streams regarding who is or isn’t considered Jewish, no other form of Judaism attracts masses of non-Jews like Messianic Judaism. This has been a really BIG “bump in the road” for Jewish Messianics who desire a truly Jewish life and worship experience.

Derek Leman, who like many other congregation leaders in the Messianic movement, oversees a congregation of mostly non-Jews, and yet he also sees the need for “Jewish” Messianic Judaism, as he blogged recently. Naturally, his blog post generated a lot of discussion in the comments section, since many non-Jews associated with the movement and certainly most traditional Christians, are at least confused about why Judaism is such a big deal, to outright offended at the suggestion that Jews converting to Christianity is not God’s real plan for them.

Gentile involvement in Messianic Judaism, although well established historically, results in an interruption of Jewish community that Rabbi Teldon and those at his Shabbos table couldn’t possibly imagine. And yet, without Gentile Christian involvement and support, the vast majority of Messianic Jewish communities would not be able to exist. On top of that, most Jewish people I know in the Messianic movement originally came to faith within a Christian church context. It would seem that continued Christian Gentile involvement or crossover into Messianic Judaism is inevitable, regardless of the other problems this raises.

But God, one by one, calls back each of His Jewish children to stand before Him at Sinai and to recall the Torah of their fathers. God speaks to each Jewish person, reminding them of who He is and who they are in Him.

The apostle Paul probably understood this dilemma best. He was a Jew, a Pharisee, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, zealous for the Torah, the Messiah, the Temple, and Hashem. And yet, he associated with many, many Gentiles. Yes, he always went to the synagogue first whenever he entered a town in the diaspora, and he told of the good news of Moshiach to the Jews first, and also to the Gentiles.

And yet, the Biblical record testifies that as Paul lived and eventually died among the Gentiles, he never compromised who he was as a Jew, nor was he required to make such a heinous compromise by Messiah in order to be an emissary to the Gentiles. If anything, Paul’s Jewish “credentials” underwent the most strenuous scrutiny and the apostle clung to who he was as a Jew with outstanding fidelity (see Acts 21 and subsequent chapters for multiple examples).

It was a difficult road to walk, and it is no wonder that Jews in the Messianic movement today struggle to find a path. If only it could be as Rabbi Teldon relates. If only the binding link between all Jews could be Hashem, and Torah, and the promise of Messiah, who is realized among Messianic Jews. A Messianic Jew living as a Jew among other observant Jews should never violate zealousness for Moshiach at all. It never once dimmed Paul, the Jewish emissary to the Gentile’s vision of the Messiah King.

I know both Christians and Jews will disagree with me in all that I’ve said. But when I read the Bible and factor in the historical, cultural, linguistic, and yes, Rabbinic (proto-Rabbinic) context of Paul’s world, that’s how I see him. I see Paul as a shining example that a Jew who is zealous for Torah does not have to compromise his observance or his Messianic faith in order to honor the King and to worship Hashem.

Messiah is the lynchpin, the capstone that holds all believers together, Jewish and Gentile alike, but there is a dimension possessed by Jews in Messiah that we non-Jewish disciples, by definition, cannot apprehend. God created at Sinai an identity and an experience of what it is to be Jewish in community with other Jews that is unique to the living descendants of Jacob. The Messiah means a great deal to Christians, and we would be hopelessly lost and separated from God without him. But he is even more than all that to the Jewish disciples.

Messiah is the culmination of the prophesies from the Tanakh which all speak of the personal, community, and national redemption of all Jews and of Israel. Messiah is the link that allows the people of the nations to come alongside Israel and share in the prophetic blessings. To demand that a Jew in Messiah stop being Jewish and stop participating in Judaism is to deny Biblical prophesy, deny God’s sovereign plan for Israel and the world, and frankly, when we are dumb enough to make such a silly demand, we Gentiles are shooting ourselves in the foot (remember, the Jews would offer sacrifices to God for the atonement of the nations of the Earth, and the Romans destroyed that atonement in 70 C.E.). Without Jewish Israel and Judaism, what links us to Messiah and to salvation at all?

Capstone archSomeday, Messiah will be the capstone, not only for the (mixed) body of Messiah, but for all Jews everywhere, as they flock to Jerusalem to celebrate the return of the King. We Gentile believers will also celebrate, but it is our job to help conduct the exiles back to their Torah and their Land in accordance to the will of our Master and the will of Hashem.

The party will be first and foremost for the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, the Holy people of God who He gathered to Himself at Sinai. We of the nations who are called by His Name are grafted in by a faith learned from Abraham and through the grace of Messiah and the providence of God.

Rabbi Teldon ended his article with these words:

When we are able to focus on the fact that while we have differences but a family truly remains connected eternally, it will reconfirm what we already knew: Am Yisroel Chai!

There must be a way for this to be accomplished also for Messianic Jews, because they too are part of the family, regardless of other differences. Paul is part of that family, as are James, Peter, John, and for that matter, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Messiah is part of that family, and he leads that family and that nation, for he is, first and foremost, the Jewish King.

How can Gentile believers in the Church not understand that being Jewish is a gift and demand that Jews return that gift to their Father in Heaven in exchange for Gentile Christianity? Someday what Rabbi Teldon describes will become an overwhelming reality in a way we cannot possibly imagine. Someday Messiah will bring all of his people, all of Israel home. And on that day, I and my other non-Jewish brothers and sisters will line the highway leading up to Jerusalem and loudly, jubilantly applaud the return of the lost remnant of Judaism, and cheer in joy and gratitude that the will of God has finally come to pass…

…and  we will bless God that we among the nations were allowed to humbly be a part of it all.