It may seem strange to consider Judaism a missionary religion. Yet the Pharisees are described as “compass[ing] sea and land to make one proselyte.” (Matthew 23:15) Rabbinic Judaism, the product of these Pharisees, saw in Abraham and Sarah the models for those who converted non-Jews to Judaism, speaking of them as “making souls.” (Cf. Gen. 12:5)
The proselyte was viewed with special favor. Unlike the Israelites at Sinai the proselyte had come under the wings of the Divine Presence without the impetus of thunder and lightning. Conversionary activity, however, diminished as Christianity gained power and proscribed conversion to Judaism. Even so, there were notable conversions to Judaism in the medieval period.
In the modern period with the advent of “Outreach” in the Reform Jewish community, there is renewed interest in presenting Judaism as an attractive option to those outside of Judaism who might be interested.
-Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky
“Judaism as a Missionary Religion,” p.14
Chapter One: At Sinai Moses Received the Torah
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics
This isn’t the only time in the first fourteen pages of this book that the authors quoted from the Apostolic Scriptures (favorably), which is something of a surprise in a (non-Messianic) Jewish publication. I’ve also read similar commentaries in the past on the historic and arguably modern interpretation of Judaism as “missionary.”
Of course, it’s well-known that the Chabad have a very active and even aggressive outreach process, but this is usually directed at non-observant or minimally observant Jews. They aren’t actively trying to convert Gentiles to Judaism although, on occasion, they will encourage non-Jews to observe the seven Noahide Laws.
I’ve been thinking about Messianic Judaism across multiple generations, especially as applied to non-Jewish members or adherents otherwise known as “Messianic Gentiles.” I’ve read a couple of blog posts over the past few days, both written by “Hebrew Roots Gentiles,” discussing the desire to pass their beliefs on to the next generation.
This is really difficult to do.
Even in modern Judaism and Christianity, there is no guarantee that your children will follow in your footsteps. Sure, it’s more likely in Orthodox Judaism for your children to continue in an Orthodox lifestyle, but in Reform Judaism, it’s not such a big step from there to becoming completely secular and even assimilated. There are also plenty of Christians whose children leave the faith. It can be truly said that God has no grandchildren. We each negotiate our own relationship with our Creator, regardless of who our parents are or what they believe and practice.
OK, that’s not exactly true for Jewish people. Even a secular and assimilated Jew is still a Jew. Jewish people are the only population to ever exist who are born into a covenant relationship with God, whether they want to be or not. I believe at the end of the age, each Jew who chose not to respond to the covenants will have to give an accounting to God.
Yes, the rest of us will too will have to give an account, but it won’t be the same since no non-Jew is born automatically having a specific set of obligations to God based on a set of covenants made thousands of years ago.
And in Messianic and Hebrew Roots communities, the problem is compounded.
A few years back I attended the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel in Hudson, Wisconsin. There were a number of families there, both Jewish and Gentile, who were discussing matchmaking. That is, they were concerned about who their children were going to marry.
This wasn’t idle chatter. Some of the younger generation present at the event were approaching or already at marriageable age. There were even suggestions being made as to which two young people to match up (much to the discomfort of the young people present who were being discussed).
There are just tons and tons of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues of various denominations and branches available almost everywhere on Earth. A Christian desiring to marry a Christian companion might not have any more difficult a time at finding an appropriate mate than any given atheist. For Jews it is probably the same, given access to a sufficiently large Jewish population (here in Idaho, it would definitely be more of a chore).
But what about Messianic Jews and Gentiles? At least in the U.S. and Canada, there aren’t that many communities to choose a proper companion from. Do you marry a Christian and call it good? Do you marry a (non-Messianic) Jew and give up your faith in Yeshua (Jesus)?
I’ve known more than a few young adults, Jewish and Gentile, who are Messianic and who either took many years to finally find a good match or who are still waiting for him or her to come along.
Messianic Judaism is a missionary religion but with a twist. It’s main focus is or should be to spread the good news of Messiah to other Jews.
For instance, on the main page of the Tikvat Israel website, it states:
Where Jewish people and their families & friends can experience a Jewish service & community while believing Yeshua (Jesus) is Messiah.
Gentiles are hardly excluded but the outreach and call to faith is definitely directed “to the Jew first,” so to speak.
I think many “Messianic Gentiles” self-select our way of life. I’ve heard endless stories from people who used to go to church saying that what they were being taught from the pulpit just wasn’t satisfying and didn’t seem to match up with what the Bible actually says. I think we’re all attracted to a more Jewish interpretation of the scriptures for a variety of reasons. Many of us are intermarried with Jewish spouses and so are exposed to religious and cultural Judaism as a matter of course. And many “Hebrew Christians” have returned to the Torah by way of Messianic Judaism and brought their non-Jewish family members with them into the movement.
But while children don’t have much say about which church or synagogue their parents take them to, as these young people grow into adulthood, they have plenty of say over their lives.
I know in my own experience, as soon as I was old enough to tell my parents I wasn’t going to church anymore, I did, and I didn’t see the inside of a church as a worshiper for decades.
My own children went through a series of religious “encounters” starting with church, then a Hebrew Roots group, and then the local Reform/Conservative shul. They all eventually exited out of Yeshua-belief and then just about anything that resembles Jewish observance. Except for some approach to keeping Biblically (but not halachically) kosher and ethnically identifying as Jewish, they have no relationship with God as Jews.
I don’t doubt that Gentile and Jewish believers will continue to be drawn from their churches to Messianic Judaism and/or Hebrew Roots. Thus generation after generation of adults will enter these movements and learn something about some “Hebraic” method of interpreting scripture, gaining a more Jewish apprehension of the Messiah, the Gospel message, and the function of the New Covenant. But what about our children?
I don’t have a solution, but I do have a joke:
Three rabbis were talking over regular Sunday morning breakfast get-together.
Rabbi Ginsberg says, “Oy! We have such a problem with mice at our schul. The shammos set out all kinds of baited traps but them keep coming back. Do either of you learned men know how I can get rid of these vermin?”.
The second rabbi, Rabbi Cohen replied, “We have the same problem at our synagogue, we’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators but the problem still persists. Any suggestions?”.
The third rabbi, Rabbi Slosberg looked at Rabbi Ginsberg and Rabbi Cohen and told the following story. “Rabbis’, we had the same problem with mice at our synagogue, we tried traps, exterminators, even prayers; nothing worked.”
“Then one Shabbos after services were over a brilliant idea came into my mind. The next shabbos I went to the synagogue about and hour before services started. I brought big wheel of yellow cheese and placed in the center of the bima. Well, soon tens of mice appeared on the bima and headed for the cheese. While they were feasting on the cheese I Bar-mitzvahed all of them.
I never saw them in Schul again!
The reason that’s funny is because it’s tragically true. As much as you as parents try to teach your values to your children, someday, they have to make a decision as adults whether to make your values their values. Sometimes they decide “yes,” but they can also say “no” and choose their own path. The only way a person is truly drawn to God is by God.