Tag Archives: Orthodox Judaism

When Israel Conquers the World

Nistell
Rabbi Jacoob Ben Nistell (Times of Israel)

Taking a glass half-full approach to the extraordinary saga of the “rabbi” who duped a Polish community for years about his Orthodox credentials, but who turned out to have been a Catholic ex-cook, Poland’s chief rabbi noted endearingly Thursday that nobody in Poland would have pretended to be a Jewish religious leader just a few decades ago.

The deception achieved by Ciechanow-born Jacek Niszczota — who passed himself off as Israel-born Rabbi Jacoob Ben Nistell to the satisfaction of the Poznan Jewish community that utilized his volunteer services — is indicative of a growing interest within Poland in its once-large Jewish community, which was almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust, Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said.

“Who, 30 years ago in this country, would have pretended to be a rabbi, to say nothing of 70 years ago?” Schudrich asked.

Schudrich added that he had met Niszczota/Nistell a few times, and always found him to be “very sweet and smiley.” Still, he stressed, it was not good that the man misrepresented himself…

-from “Poland’s chief rabbi finds comfort in saga of Catholic impostor who fooled community”
The Times of Israel

I actually lifted this quote from the Rosh Pina Project (RPP) which was quoting from the “Times,” and as far as I understand it, RPP meant the reference to be a criticism of Messianic Judaism, or at least those portions of the movement (perhaps One Law/Hebrew Roots) that allow non-Jews to function as “Rabbis”.

But I saw something different here. Just as Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich suggested, why would a non-Jew, a Catholic, pretend to be a Rabbi?

The article doesn’t describe Niszczota’s motivation, but I wonder if it’s the same one that, to a much lesser degree, attracts Christians out of their churches and into the Noahide, Messianic Jewish, or One Law/Hebrew Roots movements?

There seems to be something about Judaism that a significant subset of Christians find more attractive than their own faith.

As far as many Noahides are concerned, the disconnect between how the Church interprets the Old and New Testaments results in their rejection of Christianity and Jesus Christ altogether, and pulls them into an Orthodox Jewish understanding of the role of Gentiles in a world created by God.

christian at kotelTo one degree or another, Messianic Gentiles and One Law Gentiles “split the difference,” so to speak, and find a way to integrate the Old Testament (Tanakh) and New Testament (Apostolic Scriptures) within a more “Judaic” framework. The type and degree of Jewish praxis varies quite a bit among these populations, since there’s no one external standard defining who we are and what we’re supposed to do within any sort of “Jewish” community space.

However, I did find another opinion, or rather a link to that opinion, that was posted in a closed Facebook group for Messianic Gentiles:

With children, at least someone was already obligated to foster their growth in Torah and observance. R. Auerbach now extends this idea to non-Jews. Beyond specific Noahide laws, he assumes all non-Jews are obligated to accept the fact that the world was created for the Jewish people [he does not explain further: I think he might have meant only that the Jewish people set the tone for the world, not that we’re the central purpose of existence. To me, that’s the implication of his following comments].

Recognizing Jews’ role in Hashem’s world means recognizing that Torah scholars, and especially a consensus of Torah scholars, are our best way of knowing what Hashem wants us to do. That’s as true for non-Jews as for Jews, so that a decree by Torah scholars should sound to them as if they’ve been told the Will of Hashem.

Technical questions of lo tasur as a Biblical obligation aside, non-Jews have to listen to the Torah leaders of the Jewish people for this reason [that might be only when there’s a formal body of Torah scholars, debating and voting on their decisions]. Such powers should extend to confiscating money and making decrees, as it does for Jews. Although in the non-Jews’ case, they’d be listening out of their own awareness that they are required to, not (again) a formal halachic obligation.

-R. Gidon Rothstein
“Children and Non-Jews’ Personal Obligations”
TorahMusings.com

Granted, this is a minority viewpoint within Orthodox Judaism, but it does exist. It also presupposes Gentile recognition of Rabbinic authority, which must be something of a rarity. I can’t imagine in my wildest fantasies, for example, the Head Pastor of the little Baptist church I used to attend going along with any of the above.

And yet, whether you’re a Noahide or Messianic Gentile in Jewish community, to one degree or another, you are accepting Jewish Rabbinic authority (One Law Gentiles, not so much).

For the Noahide, it’s a foregone conclusion that whether in the synagogue or their own communities of non-Jews, they must accept Rabbinic authority because it is the only thing that defines them.

Who am IFor Messianic Gentiles, it’s a lot more “messy”. First of all, there is no one definition of what it is to be a “Messianic Gentile” among Messianic (or other) Jews. Secondly, a lot of us don’t live anywhere near a Messianic Jewish community (at least an authentic one), so we lack an actual Jewish lived context in which to operate. Finally, depending on who you are and how you understand what “Messianic Judaism” means, your acceptance or rejection of various areas of Jewish authority and Rabbinic legal rulings will flex quite a bit.

There is one final thing to consider. In the Messianic Age, when King Messiah is on his throne in Jerusalem, and the peoples of the world live in nations that are all servants of Israel, we will indeed be under Jewish authority. I don’t know what that will look like relative to Orthodox Judaism, but my guess is that said-Jewish authority will look more Jewish than most Gentiles would be comfortable with, especially more traditional Christians.

Something to consider as Pesach (Passover) approaches.

If You Think Being a Messianic Gentile Is Tough, Try Being a Messianic Jew

Jewish Israelis are deeply divided societally, religiously and politically, and are to a large extent tightly stratified within their particular societal sector a new report by the Pew Research Center has shown.

The survey showed that there is very little inter-marriage between haredi, religious-Zionist, traditional and secular Jews, and little societal interaction between the different sectors as well.

The deep division in Israeli society was highlighted by findings that show that Israeli Jews in general are about as uncomfortable for their children to marry a Muslim as secular Jews are for their child to marry a haredi person and vice versa.

-by Jeremy Sharon | March 8, 2016
“Pew poll: 48 percent of Israeli Jews support transfer or expulsion of Arab Israelis”
The Jerusalem Post

israeli jews
DEMONSTRATORS GATHER in Sakhnin, October 13, 2015. (photo credit:JOINT ARAB LIST)

I came across this news article in my Facebook feed, and it reminded me of my recent blog post Attached and Yet Unattached which mentions a group of Messianic Jews in Israel who desire to become an integral part of normative (Orthodox) Jewish synagogue life.

The article and Pew poll highlights just how isolated the different parts of Jewish society in Israel are.

Secular Israelis comprise the largest sector, totalling 40% of Israel’s total, population, traditional Israelis are 23%, religious-Zionists 10%, and haredim were 8%, while 14% of the population is Muslim, 2% Christian, and 2% Druze. In total, the Israeli population is 81% Jewish, 19% non-Jewish.

According to the study, 95% of Haredi Jews and 93% of secular Jews have a spouse from the same subgroup, while 85% of religious-Zionist Jews have religious-Zionist spouse.

Traditional Israelis were the only sector to have a somewhat higher rate of intermarriage with other Jewish groups, with approximately 33% of traditional Israelis marrying a religious-Zionist or secular Jew, and 64% of this group marrying within their sector.

In other words, Jews tend to stay socially within their own particular population and rarely have friends or marry outside their groups.

Messianic Judaism isn’t mentioned as a Jewish population group in the article, but I did wonder about that 2% Christian group. Of course, there are normative, non-Jewish Christians in Israel, but, from any other Jewish groups’ perspective, would Jews who are known to be “Messianic” be considered Christian?

My guess is “yes,” and if so, I’m sure that causes dismay among those Messianic Jews to no end.

Stuart Dauermann
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann

Which brings us back to the idea of Messianic Jews integrating into Orthodox synagogues and communities as an effort to become living examples to wider Jewish community in Israel (and any place else)  that they are us, not them.

But the Jerusalem Post article, if it is at all accurate in representing Israeli Jewish society as it truly is, indicates that this is easier said than done.

Of course, even though these sub-groups of Jewish Israel differ widely from one another and barely associate with one another, on some level, they consider each other Jewish…I think.

It’s difficult for me to tell as an outsider not only to Judaism but to life in Israel.

But I do know that Israel’s Chief Rabbis and the Rabbi of the Kotel oppose any government decision to formally recognize Reform Judaism, so it’s possible that Orthodox Jews in the Land (and elsewhere) may not consider Reform Jews as Jews, or at least consider them on the same plane as secular Jews.

And all this might be what’s fueling some Messianic Jewish groups in Israel to breach social barriers, so to speak, by associating and folding into Orthodox Jewish community, to be “us,” not “them.”

I wonder how (or if) that’s going to work. On the one hand, if these Messianic Jews are “undercover” and do not reveal their devotion to Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) and their revelation of him as Messiah, and assuming they are observant to the same degree and manner as the communities they join, then they will likely succeed in becoming part of larger religious Judaism.

On the other hand, they will not have a regular relationship with a community that recognizes our Rav and acknowledges the revelation of Yeshua returning as King Messiah to fulfill all of Hashem’s promises to Israel.

When I made the decision (which I’ve done a few times over the past several years) to live without community, I received many kind emails and other communications telling me that it was a risky business standing apart from a Yeshua-believing congregation.

I know after leaving Hebrew Roots some years ago, my “plan A” was to attend Chabad services and/or classes with my Jewish wife.

However, she wasn’t anxious to include her Christian husband in her Jewish religious and social life, and ultimately, that plan went down in flames.

Tent of DavidMy “plan B,” after much consideration, was to do a sort of Tent of David integration into a small, local Baptist church, even after being warned by a good friend of mine that the effort was doomed to failure as well.

I stayed with the church for two years until the Pastor, frustrated with me “digging in my heels” as he put it, and remaining steadfastly devoted to my perspectives on the Bible, Israel, Messiah, and Hashem as a Messianic Gentile, gave a sermon on misuse of Torah, which included the belief that the Sinai covenant was still fully enforced upon the Jewish people.

That felt like a very personal and public rebuke.

I blogged my disagreement, which came with consequences, and ultimately decided it was in Pastor’s, the church’s, and my best interest for me to apologize and then exit Christian community entirely.

But Christian community isn’t Jewish community. Jews belong with other Jews. I don’t know how Messianic Jews are going to fully meld into Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, but I guess they’ll find out. It just seems that if the boundaries between the different sub-groups of Israeli Jews are so rigid, that penetration of said-boundaries is going to be rather difficult.

In theory, I could walk into any church in my community and be immediately welcomed. As long as I kept my big mouth shut or only mouthed the “party line” supported by that particular church as “sound doctrine,” I’d be OK.

Of course, the obvious barriers, besides me keeping my flap shut and not blogging on each and every church experience that rubbed me the wrong way, are not being able to invite people from church over to my house because it would make my wife uncomfortable, attending church at all because (she would never stop me or breathe a word of dissent about me attending) the very act of my going to a church would emphasize that she’s “sleeping with the enemy,” so to speak, and my attending Christmas and especially Easter services, would totally devastate her.

But outside of my home life and my highly specific theology, there are (or should be) no barriers to me attending church and being accepted, at least in my own little corner of Idaho.

jerusalem at nightFor Messianic Jews in Israel, it seems as if they have an especially tough row to hoe, so to speak, again, at least according to the Jerusalem Post news story.

I’ve written plenty about the struggle for we “Messianic Gentiles” in establishing our own roles and responsibilities relative to Messianic Judaism as well as to each other, but we need to be mindful that Messianic Jews also face a very similar challenge in relation to larger Judaism, especially in Israel, but also everywhere else.

Why should devotion to Israel and to Rav Yeshua be mutually exclusive for a Jew? It shouldn’t be, except that nearly twenty centuries of enmity between Christianity and Judaism has made it so.

A Partnership of Christianity and Orthodox Judaism?

A group of prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel, the United States and Europe have issued a historic public statement affirming that Christianity is “the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations” and urging Jews and Christians to “work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.”

-Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D
“Orthodox Rabbis Issue Groundbreaking Declaration of Affirming ‘Partnership’ with Christianity”
BreitBart.com

Actually, I heard about this a few days ago but according to one Jewish source, this is to be dismissed as a “bunch of interfaith liberal rabbis” attempting to mollify Christians (and Muslims) by (hopefully) having everyone “make nice” wi one another.

I didn’t think anymore about it until I saw the BreitBart.com article on Facebook, however, since BreitBart isn’t known to be unbiased, I thought I’d look for other news sources covering the story.

pope francis
2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea

Apparently, this is associated with something I wrote recently regarding how the Vatican has changed it’s stance on converting Jews. It’s not that the Roman Catholic church has ceased all efforts to share their version of Jesus Christ with Jewish people, it’s simply that they state they no longer have a specific mission to the Jews. They also (apparently) now believe that Jews have a covenant relationship with God without first having to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Messiah.

Anyway, I found a couple of other sources, one being The Times of Israel and the other being Christianity Today.

The Times of Israel story says in part:

In its statement, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians,” the rabbis who signed the statement “seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters.”

“It is a groundbreaking statement,” Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn said. “It’s the only statement I know of by an international Orthodox body that talks about the practical and theological relationship with the Roman Catholic church after Nostra Aetate.”

Rabbi Korn, who lives in Teaneck and Jerusalem, was one of the drafters of the statement, which was published by the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, an interfaith center in Israel founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Rabbi Korn is the center’s academic director.

Of course, an organization called The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) would have a vested interest in promoting good Jewish-Christian relations, so this statement can’t be a complete surprise.

epelman rosen
Image: Alessandra Tarantino / AP Images / Rabbi Claudio Epelman and Rabbi David Rosen

But just as the Catholic statement previously issued does not represent formal policy of the Vatican, the Christianity Today (CT) story made this observation:

While the Jewish statement is a signpost of improving Jewish-Christian relationships, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a consensus among Jewish rabbis, Orthodox rabbi Yehiel Poupko told CT.

“No major Jewish Halachic (Jewish legal) authority has signed the statement,” he said. “And Jewish thought has, for centuries, emerged not from individuals signing letters but from a long, slow process of scholarship that builds communal consensus. This statement did not do that. In addition, complex theological issues do not readily lend themselves to full expression in short sentences presented in brief public statements.”

In other words, steps are being taken in the right direction (seemingly), but nothing is official. This won’t change things as much as some folks wish it would. However, the CT story added:

But it isn’t meaningless.

“The statement is a very real indication that the Orthodox rabbinate is grappling with how to understand Christianity in an era when Christianity is reaching out to Judaism and has repented of its sins against us,” he said.

The warm relationship between Jews and evangelicals is still in its infancy, Poupko said. “We are feeling our way, and this statement should not be viewed as a consensus, let alone a final statement. Rather, it’s an indication of the theological and intellectual ferment in the Orthodox rabbinate about Christianity.”

Christianity—and Islam, for that matter—are actually Jewish success stories, he said, “because Christianity and Islam use the Torah, and as a consequence, people who would now be pagans have knowledge of and are in relationship with the one God.”

I suppose this goes along with something I quoted yesterday from this source:

By the way, Maimonides states that the popularity of Christianity and Islam is part of God’s plan to spread the ideals of Torah throughout the world. This moves society closer to a perfected state of morality and toward a greater understanding of God. All this is in preparation for the Messianic age.

But as the CT article points out:

Experts told CT that neither statement wipes out the significant theological differences between Christians and Jews.

brickner
David Brickner – Jews for Jesus

Not only that, but as you might imagine, a number of Christian evangelical organizations are rather put out by both the Vatican’s statement and that of (possibly) CJCUC:

Jews for Jesus executive director David Brickner was more forceful, calling the Vatican’s position “egregious.”

And…

Jim Melnick, international coordinator of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE), agreed.

However, the CT article ended with a quote from Jason Poling, a “co-convener of the national Evangelical-Jewish Conversation:”

But the theological divide shouldn’t stop the Jewish-Christian conversation, he said. “Jewish-Christian relations can only be enriched by the participation of colleagues like these Orthodox rabbis who recognize theological pluralism as a phenomenon without embracing it as doctrine.”

Curious, I went to the CJCUC site to read the actual statement. The statement includes seven somewhat lengthy points so I won’t quote them here. You can click the link and read them for yourself, along with a list of the Orthodox Rabbis who signed it (electronically).

The bottom line? I’m not sure there is one, at least nothing particularly dramatic. At best, I’d have to say this is part of the slow evolution the Christian and Jewish worlds are experiencing as we enter into the “birthpangs of the Messiah,” anticipating the events that will lead to war and destruction which will bring Israel to the brink of non-existence before the Messiah returns to bring victory, redemption, restoration, and justice.

Non-Jews and the Mitzvot: A Brief Commentary On One Orthodox Jewish Perspective

Moshe also does not need me to clarify for him. Nonetheless, I think his point is unexpected and worth considering, in that he is saying that many mitzvot aren’t inherently valuable, they’re only valuable as part of a particular relationship with Hashem. It’s not that he objects or is bothered by non-Jews doing them, he’s saying that in these areas, the differences between Jews and non-Jews are such that these actions are literally meaningless for them.

-Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein
“Do Non-Jews Get Reward for Mitzvot?”
Torah Musings

Now before anyone flips out, I want to say that I found a link to this article on Facebook, and that “Torah Musings” is an Orthodox Jewish venue, so please take that perspective into consideration. In fact, their About states in part:

Torah Musings is a window into the Orthodox Jewish intellectual’s world, providing sophisticated but popular textual studies, important news stories and associated commentary from the perspective of an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually open and halakhically conservative.

rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein

Further, the disclaimer at the very bottom of Rabbi Rothstein’s article says:

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

Again, please keep in mind that the contents of this write-up, including the portions quoted here on my blog, are crafted within the conceptual and intellectual confines of Orthodox Judaism and are the educated opinions of R. Rothstein specifically.

So don’t lynch me or hang me in effigy just for reporting something I find interesting and, I believe, relevant.

Almost three months ago, in an effort to distance myself from some of the angst we find in certain corners of Messianic Judaism regarding Gentiles, identity, and mitzvot, I wrote and published What’s Yours is Yours. Really, if a Gentile in Jewish space is a problem, I’ll bow out.

Among other related articles, I also subsequently published Should Non-Jews Study the Torah and I concluded “yes,” with the proviso that studying Torah did not make one automatically obligated to perform each and every possible mitzvah described therein.

But having, to the best of my understanding and ability, examined the Messianic Jewish viewpoints (yes, there are more than one) as well as Hebrew Roots’ and Christianity’s opinions on the topic, how can I resist investigating how this Orthodox Jewish Rabbi answers the question he has asked?

As you can see from the above-quoted paragraph, R. Rothstein, in examining the “original responsum, Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 6;2,” states that Moshe’s opinion would be that while we are not forbidden from performing the mitzvot, because many or most of them are directly linked to the (Sinai) covenant relationship Hashem has with the Jewish people, laying tefillin, wearing tzitzit, or building and living in a sukkah are simply meaningless to us relative to actually fulfilling these mitzvot, because non-Jews, even those living as Noahides, are not part of that covenant.

solomon's templeIs that the final word?

R. Rothstein reviewed the opinions of multiple authorities and they all differ somewhat in how strict they rule in this area.

1. Schepansky had noted that Rambam, in his Mishnah Commentary to Terumot 3;9, explained that even though non-Jews are not obligated in giving terumah, they still get reward for doing so, which is why the terumah they designate qualifies as actual terumah.

2. Moshe labels it one of the exceptions, donations to hekdesh (anything having to do with the Temple) and charity, examples he proves from the Talmudic assumption that Balak is rewarded for his sacrifices and Baba Batra 4a’s view that Nevuchadnezzar’s giving charity was effective. Non-Jews are also rewarded for appropriate speech, as Rashi says on Bereshit 19;39, where Lot’s younger daughter was more circumspect about her son’s paternity. Nevuchadnezzar also gets rewarded for the three steps he takes to hear the word of Hashem.

Those are all examples of non-Jews taking intuitively decent and good actions. When it comes to that which the Torah nonintuitively legislates for Jews, such as Shabbat, holidays, tefillin, tzitzit, sukkah, lulav, shofar, kosher, shatnez and anything like that, R. Moshe reverts to his view that these mitzvot only have value as a Jewish response to Hashem’s command.

This suggests that certain mitzvot might actually have meaning when performed by non-Jews, such as making an offering at or donations to the Temple (which currently does not exist), or other actions that any reasonable person would intuitively understand are morally good or right. On the other hand, those mitzvot that we would not intuitively realize are good, such and laying tefillin or donning a tallit gadol when praying, actions that are specifically associated with the Jewish people and their (Sinai) covenant relationship with Hashem, simply mean nothing to Hashem when we perform them, because we non-Jews stand outside the (Sinai) covenant.

Orthodox JewsI know pretty much who is going to object to all this, but please remember that these opinions are coming from an Orthodox Jewish source, so you can’t necessarily hang blame either on me or on any authorities existing within Messianic Judaism.

You’ll need to click the link I provided above to get the full gist of what R. Rothstein has composed, but he does cite other authorities who believe a non-Jew may receive a reward for performing mitzvot voluntarily, although this probably doesn’t include the previously mentioned observances specifically associated with Judaism. Some have even suggested that the non-Jew may receive a greater reward, but this is a minority opinion and possibly considered erroneous by the majority of authorities.

The article concludes:

In that sense, R. Moshe is actually being more lenient towards non-Jews, in that in his view they are not missing out on a good. For R. Moshe, a non-Jew who keeps the Noahides is doing all s/he should do, not just all the Torah happened to let him or her know about. It’s not that they are too benighted to know the wonders of our mitzvot, it’s that those mitzvot don’t apply to them, unless and until they decide to convert.

In other words, it is understood that Gentiles may recognize the beauty of all of the mitzvot once we study Torah and become aware of them, however that recognition goes not make us obligated unless we choose to convert to Judaism.

This is more or less what I’d expect given an Orthodox Jewish perspective, and is actually more liberal than I would have previously imagined.

Now the question is, from the viewpoint of disciples of Rav Yeshua and my understanding of our graciously being allowed to partake in some of the blessings of the New Covenant by Hashem’s mercy and through the symbolic sacrifice of our Rav, does this change anything as far as non-Jewish disciples, the mitzvot, and their significance?

That’s the $64,000 question.

And it’s one that A) I’ve answered before, and B), that I don’t intend to hash out again in this blog post.

rainbowI am writing this “mediation” and providing links to the source material because I find it fascinating that Orthodox Judaism would even pose the question for serious, scholarly debate. If it’s a question that Orthodox Jewish authorities find necessary to ask, given that they see non-Jews as subject only to the covenant Hashem made with Noah (see Genesis 9), how much more so should it be a question within Messianic Judaism, given that Hashem has allowed even the non-Jew to become a disciple of Yeshua by mercy and grace?

You can read other articles Rabbi Rothstein has written for Torah Musings as well as at the Orthodox Union (OU) and The Times of Israel to gain greater insights into his perspectives.

I know this will probably ruffle someone’s feathers, but really, I’m just publishing this as a matter of interest as to how wider Judaism considers a matter that is, from my point of view, highly relevant to non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and who are or have been involved in either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots communities.

Is Messianic Judaism Shrinking Because Almost All Other Judaisms are Shrinking?

James (and Chaya) …. what I am seeing today and I already saw that in my messianic days, on the other hand, is another trend, other than than just Gentiles being the majority in MJ places. There are virtually no new Jews coming into the Messianic movement. In my experience as someone who founded and helped run a sizable congregation that was very Jewish in orientation and in a very Jewish area, most of those who did come tended to be older (middle-aged and higher), all intermarried and very assimilated and they tended to migrate from one messianic place to another. There were virtually no young halachially Jewish people around, may be one (and he was mentally unstable and soon went back to the Baptist church no matter how hard we reached out to him). Most of the teens and twenties folks were either 100% Gentile or children of Jewish fathers. Other local messianic congregations nearby were in even worse shape, and I live in a state where there hundreds of thousands of Jews and tons of synagogues of all sorts. I addressed that on my “messianic” blog on numerous occasions. I am also seeing more and more former MJ’s (and messianic Gentiles) leave the messianic movement, in the last 5 years, many returning to Judaism or converting. I attribute it, in part, to much wider availability of information through internet, to aging of the Jewish messianics that are not being replaced by new blood and to the influx of the Gentiles.

-Gene Shlomovich
from his comment on my blog post
Much Ado About the Oral Law

I’m not quoting Gene to put him on the spot (not sure I’d be able to do that anyway) but only because I needed a quote that intimated that Messianic Judaism is neither a Judaism nor a viable religious movement because it contains relatively few halachically Jewish members and most of them are intermarried. Gene also emphasizes that the Jewish leaders are older and that few if any young Jews are joining the movement.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is because of the following:

If you leave out the Orthodox, 71.5% of American Jews marry outside the faith. Only 17% of children of intermarried couples will marry a Jew, and the largest block of American Jews under 40 are the unaffiliated. As Steven Weil, from the Orthodox Union, pointed out, “With a birthrate of only 1.9 children and an astoundingly high intermarriage rate, American Jewry is on a train speeding headlong into self-destruction.”

-Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith
“The Intermarriage Taboo”
Aish.com

It seems that the issues of intermarriage, assimilation, and lack of a younger Jewish membership aren’t exclusive to Messianic Judaism. However, let’s pursue the following:

On the other hand, the Orthodox are thriving. 83% of Orthodox Jews stay Orthodox. The birthrate among Orthodox Jews is significantly higher than most other religious groups (4.1 children per adult). Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said “Orthodox Jews will eventually likely be the majority of American Jews.” 60% of Jewish children in the New York City area live in Orthodox homes and that number will only increase.

It would seem as if the only group of Jews who are thriving and growing, at least in the U.S., are Orthodox Jews, specifically in the New York City area, which to the best of my knowledge, is one of the largest concentrations of Jewish people in this country.

JewishThat suggests the problem with Messianic Judaism attracting a larger Jewish base population and matters of intermarriage may not entirely be simply because of Yeshua-faith and a large Gentile membership (although those are certainly contributing factors), but also indicative of a much larger problem in western Jewry.

Of course that’s a lot to assume from a single article published on the web, but it does bring up the question of what Orthodox Judaism is doing that all of the other Judaisms (including Messianic) aren’t.

According to a study published by the Pew Research Center as reported by The Jewish Daily Forward:

The study’s numbers suggest that the Orthodox birthrate in the United States is far higher than that of most other religious groups. Pew found that Orthodox Jews averaged 4.1 children per adult, while America’s. general public averages 2.2 children. The Orthodox number is higher than the average for Protestants (2.2) and Catholics (2.4). Hispanic Catholics (3.1) come close, but still fall short.

Certainly a high birthrate is a significant variable but what keeps the younger population within Orthodox Judaism as they become adults and especially as they start families of their own?

“Orthodox life is very, very different than a conventional lifestyle,” said Alexander Rapaport, 35, a father of seven. Rapaport lives in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Boro Park and runs the soup kitchen network Masbia. He described a social structure designed to encourage and support large families — and that structure has apparently succeeded in more than doubling its share of the Jewish population in less than two decades.

That’s more anecdotal rather than hard data, but conservative communities that espouse adherence to traditional values and have strong internal support systems tend to transmit those values across multiple generations with relatively little “mission drift.” You see this especially among Chasidic Jewish groups such as the Chabad.

The price such groups pay, if you want to think of it in those terms, is the inability to “blend in” with the prevalent culture. In other words, such Orthodox Jewish groups do not bow down at the altar of Political Correctness, even the liberal religious variety.

(As an aside, I should point you to an article I recently read called The Challenges of Parenting an Openly Gay Orthodox Teen to illustrate that Orthodox Judaism also has “shades of gray” woven into its fabric. If it matters, the source website Kveller.com is socially and religiously liberal, so their viewpoints will be biased accordingly.)

Which may be why most or all of the other Judaisms are struggling to maintain their unique identity in a multi-generational fashion beyond “bagels and lox,” as Rabbi Coopersmith put it. To further quote the Rabbi’s article:

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, got into a lot of hot water last week, when a copy of a speech she gave to a Florida branch of the Jewish Federation went public. She had to retract her words in order to calm things down.

Her party affiliation is irrelevant here; it’s not hard to imagine a Republican figure issuing a similar retraction. Outside of Orthodox circles you cannot come out and say that intermarriage and assimilation is a problem. It has become a taboo subject. In a not so distant past, stopping intermarriage and assimilation was the rallying cry used to garner support for Jewish outreach initiatives. Federations used the term “Jewish continuity,” to imply that the Jewish people have something of unique value worthy of preserving. Today it is likely you’ll be attacked for bigotry and racism and that rallying cry will more likely push Jews away.

Go to Aish.com to find out what Ms. Schultz uttered that was so terrible, but suffice it to say, it’s not popular in most branches of Judaism, let alone within many Christian groups (in my opinion), and certainly not in the view of American secular egalitarianism, to believe and publicly declare that maintaining the uniqueness of Jewish identity along with cultural and religious Judaism is not only a big deal, but absolutely vital to the continuation of the Jewish people as a people.

And yet, in spite of its apparent shortcomings, including a lack of Jewish membership and including a lack of a young Jewish presence, Messianic Judaism has repeatedly raised a loud and persistent voice requiring and demanding the protection of religious, cultural, and halachic Jewish identity within its communities.

IntermarriageAnd Messianic Judaism has been shot down from all sides for daring to say such a thing, just as was Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the aftermath of her statements at the Democratic National Committee. Ms. Schultz was forced to retract her “offending” words to calm the outrage leveled against her.

It used to be a taboo for Jews to marry outside, but now the taboo in many Jewish places is to dare to criticize intermarriage. More’s the pity (and I say this as an intermarried person).

Can Messianic Judaism afford to do the same as Ms. Schultz did to placate its critics and further risk the survival of Messianic Judaism as a wholly Jewishly-oriented community?

I’m not proposing any answers, but I think it’s important that, according to the data I’ve presented here, Messianic Judaism is suffering a crisis that is very much the same as many other Judaisms apart from the Orthodox.

I’m probably going to regret this, but for this one blog post only, I’m opening up comments. I may close them down just as fast, and I remind everyone that as the blog owner, I’m a benevolent dictator, not the leader of a democracy. Commenting here is a privilege I grant, not a right you possess. Keep that in mind when you keyboard your responsive missives and press the “submit” button.

Is There More Than One Right Way To Be An Observant Jew?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. And I know that the Orthodox way has its charm, its appeal, but the cost of living like the old days in this postmodern world is very high. This article is about the real price of being Orthodox in Atlanta and completely following the traditions.

-Derek Leman
as quoted from Facebook

I don’t mean to be unkind to Derek, but my impression of the above-quoted comment is that keeping an Orthodox lifestyle is “quaint, ” impractical, and largely unnecessary for Jewish living. Maybe I’m getting Derek all wrong, but I think he’s missing the point.

But first things first. Derek is commenting on an article written by Asher Elbein for Tablet Magazine called Grappling With the Rising Cost of Being Orthodox.

Here’s a sample:

For Orthodox Jews everywhere, the cost of being observant has always been high; day schools, kosher food, and housing have always been expensive. But those costs have risen dramatically in recent years. And for residents of Toco Hills (a Modern Orthodox enclave near Atlanta, GA), where housing costs have climbed even as the recession has lowered people’s incomes and reduced their savings—and many breadwinners have lost their jobs—the costs have become a major burden. According to Rabbi Ilan Feldman, leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, a grand shul at the center of the community, 100 of the 600 families living here are on federal or local assistance, a number that has risen gradually but consistently since 2010.

The article highlights Tzivia Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew and an unemployed single mother.

Her mother is helping out, Silverstein says, and she’s getting some child support from her husband, but making ends meet is a continuous struggle. Most of her time is now spent looking for work, preferably something steady, like bagging or cashiering at a local grocery store. But finding a position that doesn’t require weekend time has been difficult. “That’s been a classic challenge of American Jewry, you know?” she said. “Do you work on Shabbat or not? You have trouble earning money because you can’t work on Saturday, and you have to take off for holidays.”

In the Facebook conversation regarding this article, Derek commented that Conservative Judaism “is a good middle ground,” but is this really such an easy choice, like choosing which food items to put on your plate at the local Golden Corral restaurant? Although Tzivia was born into a Reform home, many Jews are born and raised in Orthodox Judaism. It is, for them, more than a “lifestyle.” It’s a life.

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.

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

Even in other branches of Judaism, the Orthodox (and there’s more than one expression of Orthodox Judaism, from Modern to Chasidic) are looked at somewhat askance. They are seen as rigid, judgmental, archaic, and even uneducated. Many hold to a very literal understanding that the Earth is 5,774 years old (the current year on the Jewish religious calendar is 5774).

Orthodox JewsOn top of that, the Orthodox are considered the most “rule heavy” expression of Judaism and, as the Tablet Mag article attests, being Orthodox and strictly observant is very expensive.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Jews are wealthy or even comfortably middle-class. Some Jews, like Tzivia Silverstein, are barely making it. But what else is Orthodox Judaism? Let’s return to Shimon Rosenberg’s answers:

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.

I’ll admit to experiencing a certain amount of dissonance between the Tablet Mag and Aish articles, since you’d think Rosenberg’s Orthodox Judaism would somehow step in and help out Silverstein to the degree that she could acquire a job with an adequate income and not struggle so hard to make ends meet.

I also experienced the same dissonance with how Sue Fishkoff described the Chabad in her book The Rebbe’s Army in relation to some of the experiences my wife has had with the local Chabad Rabbi and Rebbitzen (no, they’re not bad people, but they are human, not the morally and ethically superhuman people Fishkoff often described in her book).

But the costs involved in living Orthodox in Toco Hills continue to rise and there’s only so much help available for lower-income Jewish families:

Many Orthodox families, especially those on the lower end of the economic ladder, simply can’t keep up with the prices. So, they turn to underground charities like Yad L’Yad, an Atlanta-based organization that works exclusively with the area’s Jewish community. According to Esther Pranskey, the organization’s head, the number of recipient families more than doubled when the recession struck and has continued to rise steadily. More than 30 families—including the Silversteins—currently receive provisions of flour, rice, pickles, and other essentials. While basic, the deliveries help ease the pressure. The Silversteins rarely go out to eat, and their meals aren’t extravagant affairs, but they stay fed and they stay kosher.

shabbosBut as Rosenberg attests in his continuing chronicle of his daughter’s birth, there are other occasional helpers:

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.

The Tablet Mag article doesn’t exactly end on an up beat, but it does describe why being Orthodox isn’t just a casual choice:

“I know it’s not the smart thing to do,” Wittenberg said. “I’d love to sell my house and move out somewhere cheaper. There’s not a day goes by when my wife and I don’t talk about it. But I’m a baal teshuvah. I’m choosing to be observant. And if I’m going to struggle through this Torah, then my kids need to have friends. They need to be in the community.”

For Silverstein, it comes down to value instead of cost. In terms of personal and spiritual fulfillment, she says, the neighborhood pays for itself. As heavy as the expenses are, they are necessary sacrifices for belonging to the community. “I see maybe one movie a year,” she said. “I choose to put my kids through religious school instead of buying a nicer car. It’s astounding, the amount of money that other people have, to spend on things like renovating their house or buying a bigger TV. To me, my most important relationship is with God. The material world is a means to an end.”

I’d love to copy and paste all of Rosenberg’s write-up here but I’ll restrain myself to its ending as well:

After two weeks in the hospital, the doctors told us we could go home. In the end, they said they would monitor her condition, but over time it would likely go away on its own.

Our two kids at home were delighted at the return of their baby sister. They helped her and cared for her and nurtured her. As a parent, there’s no better feeling than seeing your children care for one another. Likewise, when God watched how my community took care of my family in our time of need, I think He too had that parental pleasure, so to speak.

I wish I could thank my community publicly for everything that they’ve done but I am writing this under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of my family. But I know that my community doesn’t want a public thank you. They were just doing what they do.

That is the Orthodox community I know.

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

Getting back to the Facebook commentary, why would being Orthodox seem to be such as casual selection (and I apologize if I’m mischaracterizing the motives or intent of Derek and the others dialoging in the thread)?

One person made the following comment:

I think Yeshua will be a conservative Jew. Orthodoxy is more interested in keeping Torah( or the rabbinical interpretation of Torah) with rigidity. Creating it to be a burden, and simple works that do not bring us closer to Hashem . Reform is too liberal, and mostly a social club than a house of worship. I believe all Jews want to serve Hashem,they just have different interpretations on how to do it. The MJ I attend leans towards the conservative tradition.

I suppose we all have our own theories on what sort of Judaism Yeshua (Jesus) will advocate and teach upon his return (although Christians probably don’t imagine he’ll practice Judaism at all), but we are operating in a vacuum. We don’t know that Messiah will formally support a currently existing branch of Judaism. But if you read Matthew 23:1-3 as I do, you see Jesus not only agreeing with the teachings of the Pharisees but stating that they had the right to issue binding halachah (legal rulings) for their community, which apparently included Yeshua’s disciples.

That would at least hint that in the future Messianic Age, he will support a more strictly observant lifestyle which probably will include a variety of traditions such as Netilat Yadayim (ritual hand washing). That’s a guess, but I hope it’s an educated guess.

Of course modern Messianic Judaism, like all of the other more normative Judaisms, doesn’t represent a single, overarching identity or philosophy. Derek is affiliated with the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) which he describes as “the oldest (and best) network of Messianic Jewish congregations in the U.S.” If you go to the Introduction page of the Standards section of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, which provides the oversight for the training and ordination of UMJC Rabbis such as Derek, you can find a PDF document called Standards of Observance which outlines in some detail the “worship, ethics, education, (and) halakhic standards” established by this body. Without going into exquisite detail, those standards seem largely to be Reform with some elements of Conservative Judaism.

I don’t doubt that those particular standards were selected with the majority Gentile attendance of UMJC synagogues in mind. Although I know more than a few non-Jewish people who have basically run out of their churches and into a Messianic Jewish lifestyle of one sort or another, almost all of them are not observing halachah to the level of an Orthodox Jew or anywhere near it.

Messianic Judaism is even now just beginning to emerge into its own as an authentically Jewish expression of Yeshua-faith, but it has a long way to go. As a relatively new branch of Judaism (I realize I’m going to receive a lot of “push back” by calling Messianic Judaism a Judaism at all), it’s still trying to “find its feet,” so to speak. UMJC is only one organization representing Messianic Judaism and its codified standards only apply to the affiliated Rabbis and synagogues under the UMJC banner. Other Messianic Jewish groups (as opposed to One Law/One Torah, Two House, Ephraimite, or Sacred Name groups) may follow different standards, either established by a different umbrella organization or at the level of the individual synagogue/congregation.

Even within those groups, Jewish individuals and families may hold to varying degrees of observance, some more stringent and some less than their faith communities. I’ve found that to be true of many of the Jewish families who attend the local Reform/Conservative shul. I’ve heard some people there comment that they think the Rabbi is “too religious”.

Modern IsraelI say all this not to be unkind to Derek, anyone who has conversed with him on Facebook, the UMJC in particular or Messianic Judaism in general. I am saying that religious Jews all over the world make decisions about what being observant means to them and what their duties to Hashem are in this world.

Both Wittenberg and Silverstein in the Tablet Mag article say they’ve made their choices and that being Orthodox, though sometimes a terrific financial struggle, is worth it to them. They seem to join with Rosenberg in saying that the community life of Orthodox Judaism is woven not just across the collective community, but in each of their individual lives, binding one Jew to another.

Even watching my Jewish wife, who has a fairly relaxed observance, particularly compared to Chabad, relate to other Jews and to the Jewish community (regardless of synagogue affiliation) testifies to this bond between Jews, a bond I can’t be a part of and admittedly don’t really understand. Although my wife wasn’t raised even as a secular/cultural Jew (long story), the “Jewish connection” seems to come from her very DNA and is firmly anchored to her soul. It just needed an expression which my wife has since discovered.

So while I can recognize, at least on the outside (far, far outside) looking in, that living as an Orthodox Jew can be a struggle, I can also see that it has many rewards. I certainly don’t see the justification in criticizing a Jewish person’s decision about how to be a Jew. I know if I tried that with my spouse, she’d promptly explain to me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t need my advice or permission on how to be Jewish (that happened exactly once and I’ll not cross that boundary again).

I apologize if I’ve ruffled feathers, but we must admit that in the present world, there seems to be more than one acceptable manner by which an observant Jew can live as a Jew. When Moshiach comes and teaches Torah, then we will know more.

In the meantime, we should not criticize the level of a Jewish person’s observance, especially if it’s more strict than our own (or rather than another Jew’s observance). The world, including the Christian world, has tried for thousands of years to destroy the Jewish people and Judaism using many and varied means. The current method of choice is assimilation by reducing the Jew’s observance and sense of Jewish identity to zero or close to it, thereby turning that Jewish person into a Gentile with Jewish genes.

I know no one has suggested this, but it’s the natural result of telling a Jew not to be so “religious.”

Utilize every opportunity to become aware of the Almighty’s kindness. This awareness will motivate you to emulate the Almighty and make the attribute of kindness an integral part of your personality.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin