Tag Archives: Peter Vest

Oneness, Twoness, and Three Converts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph

So if we synthesize what Rudolph is saying this is what we get:

(1) ethnic prioritization is Biblical even though it results in non-ethnic members feeling like “second-class citizens” (to use Rudolph’s phrase);
(2) just as Yeshua’s mission excluded non-Jews, Tikvat Israel’s mission excludes non-Jews, seeking to build a community from within the Richmond JEWISH community.

-Peter Vest
“David Rudolph to Gentiles: ‘Like Yeshua, Our Mission is to Jews, not Gentiles'”
orthodoxmessianic.blogspot.com

I don’t often interact with Peter let alone comment on his blog. I especially hesitate to write about his content on my blog since this type of conversation often degrades into the unresolvable debates our little corner of cyberspace is known for. Religious arguments can get very ugly.

But in reading Peter’s commentary on David Rudolph and Rudolph’s congregation Tikvat Israel, I wanted to learn more about the source of Peter’s allegations. Unfortunately, he hadn’t posted a link to his source material. Fortunately, Peter was willing to provide it when I asked, so I clicked the link he gave me and started listening to Rabbi David Rudolph’s twenty-minute sermon called Our Mission.

I don’t know Rudolph except through his writing and editing. I read the book he and Joel Willitts co-created, Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations and wrote a fairly large number of reviews of most of the different contributions to this book. Given that Rudolph’s co-editor and friend Joel Willitts is a Christian and that about half of the book’s contributors are Gentiles, it didn’t seem to me that Rudolph had some sort of bias against non-Jewish people.

Still, I was just slightly nervous about what I would hear when I clicked the “play” button on the recording. Actually, I didn’t find anything even slightly disturbing.

Is it OK to have a Chinese church?

That’s one of the questions Rudolph asked during his sermon. No one in his audience complained. I wouldn’t complain. I pass a Korean Christian Church every time I drive to the Meridian Public Library a few miles from my home. Often Christians who have a particular ethnic, national, and linguistic commonality will form churches on those platforms. I suppose I’d be welcome at the Korean church if I chose to go one Sunday, but likely I’d feel out-of-place since I don’t speak Korean and am not familiar with their cultural and ethnic practices. For the Koreans present however, it would be “home.”

Is it OK to have a Messianic Jewish congregation that has a mission specific to the local Jewish population? That’s just a bit more dicey, at least from the point of view of some Christians. I’ve attended the Reform/Conservative synagogue in my community and I wasn’t the only Gentile present (I suspect I wasn’t the only Jesus-believer present, but that’s beside the point), but I never lost the sense that this was a Jewish community. Nor would I, even in some moment of insanity, demand that the Rabbi be “inclusive” and adapt the synagogue to be more “Gentile-friendly.” In fact, that particular synagogue is already pretty inclusive, but as I said, it’s still Jewish.

Even the local Chabad synagogue will accept Gentiles, typically those who are married to Jews, although I’ve known some Christian Gentiles who have attended a number of the Rabbi’s classes. He’s OK with this on the principle of peace within the community, as long as the Gentiles don’t try to proselytize the Jews present.

But Messianic Judaism is unique in that it professes a faith in Yeshua, in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, a faith that is accessible to Jew and Gentile alike. Should Tikvat Israel’s mission be aimed generically at all human beings in the Richmond, Virginia area? Is it racism or bigotry to reach out only to the Jewish people in the vicinity? Is it racism or bigotry for the Korean Church in Meridian, Idaho to reach out only to the larger Korean community? Can the Korean church offer an environment that specifically meets the needs of the larger Korean community in a way that other churches could not?

No, it’s not racism and bigotry and yes, the Korean church can offer a specific and specialized environment that’s particularly friendly and adapted to Koreans. So it is with Jewish congregations, including Messianic Jewish congregations.

david_rudolphRudolph made a large number of what I considered convincing arguments about why it was OK for his congregation Tikvat Israel, to have a mission specific to the Jews in and around Richmond. For one thing, many Jews traditionally don’t feel comfortable in normative Christian churches, particularly those believing Jews who also practice Judaism as Jews, which many Christians don’t understand and which some Christians find offensive.

A Messianic Jewish congregation makes sense for Jews who are believers and who are observant Jews. Rudolph didn’t fail to acknowledge the Gentiles who attend Tikvat Israel as Gentiles who love the Jewish people and who desire to come alongside Messianic Jews within a Jewish context. Rudolph further said that if Gentile Christianity in general over the last nearly two-thousand years, had loved the Jewish people the way that the Gentiles in Tikvat Israel love the Jewish people, Jewish people wouldn’t have learned to be afraid of Christians and Church.

From an article Rudolph wrote, I know he believes in unity between believing Jews and Gentiles within a Messianic context and indeed, that believing Jews and Gentiles are interdependent. Based on many of the writings of the staff and contributors of the Messianic ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), I have experienced and commented on that interdependence.

I performed a wider search and came across a larger listing of Rabbi David Rudolph’s sermons including one called “We Need Each Other” (on the “Sermons” page, scroll down until you see a heading called “Unity”).

Rudolph’s sermon was focused on the following piece of scripture:

…by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace…

Ephesians 2:15 (NASB)

By odd coincidence, in reviewing some commentary by Pastor John MacArthur, I came across the following statement which seems to apply to the current circumstance:

Because the Bible would never tolerate a Jewish church and a Gentile church.That is the one thing that the Apostle Paul spent the last months of his ministry trying to resolve,trying to get those two together; and when he wrote Ephesians, he said, “The middle wall is…what?…broken down and they two have become one new man.” And my own belief is that it is ludicrous to have a Messianic Jewish temple, as much as it would be to have announced out here that this is the Grace Community Gentile church. Now, how do you think that would sit with Jewish people? They would say one thing. They’re anti-Semitic. See? There’s no reason for that.

Rudolph quoted well-known American biblical scholar Harold Hoehner as saying something similar (I’m copying this quote from an audio recording, so the accuracy of the quote here is only as good as my notes):

Paul referred to a whole new race that is raceless. Not Jewish or Gentile, but a body of Christians who make up the Church.

This is much like how MacArthur and my own Pastor see Ephesians 2 in particular and the identity of “the Church” in general.

0 RInterestingly enough, Rudolph once had a very lengthy conversation with Dr. Hoehner on Ephesians 2:15, and it should be noted here that Rudolph referred to Hoehner in very complementary ways and called him a “man of God.”

Rudolph suggested alternative ways to read this passage. I won’t go into all the details. You can listen to the twenty-five minute sermon yourself, since I provided the link. Briefly though, Rudolph felt that what was torn down was a specific set of ordinances that inhibited Jews from associating with Gentiles, particularly in relation to the Temple.

However, Rudolph emphasized that the body of Messiah is a single body made up of Jewish and Gentile members who remain Jewish and Gentile, much as how Paul described the Messianic body in Ephesians 5:21-33 and referenced Genesis 2:24 where one man and one woman both became “one flesh” and yet remained distinctly one man and one woman. The married “one flesh” does not delete or replace the man and woman any more than the body of Messiah, “the Church” replaces or deletes the identities or uniqueness of the Jews and Gentiles in the body.

We become what in Hebrew is called (forgive my faulty transliteration) “Besar Echad,” one flesh, a composite unity.

At the end of his sermon (and I’m skipping over quite a bit of content), Rudolph asked how Tikvat Israel’s “twoness” and “oneness” is expressed. The “twoness” is what you’d expect if you have any sort of familiarity with the more “conservative” forms of Messianic Judaism. Jewish people in Messianic Judaism and specifically at Tikvat Israel, should remain Jewish and not assimilate into Gentile Christianity. In fact, they should endeavor to become even more observant as Jews. The Gentiles in the congregation should not try to pretend to be Jewish but to come alongside their Jewish co-participants, and support and love the Jewish people and Israel.

The “oneness” exists most obviously at the “macro” level or the overarching expression of Messianic Judaism, but it can also be observed on the “micro” level of the Tikvat Israel community. In that community you have two peoples who are of one mind and one spirit, all working together to build a community for Yeshua with a mission to reach out to the larger Jewish community. To the degree that there are Gentiles present, then it should be obvious that Gentiles are also reached by and respond to this mission, but that is part of the interdependence of Jews and Gentiles within the Messianic body.

To understand the concept of Jewish/Gentile interdependence within the Messianic Jewish community, see my commentary on articles appearing in Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book. The relevant reviews are An Exercise in Wholeness and Interdependence or Collapse.

Rudolph summed up the point of his sermon with the four words of its title: We Need Each Other. The congregation of Jews and Gentiles broke out in spontaneous applause.

I don’t find anything bigoted, racist, or exclusionary about how David Rudolph describes Tikvat Israel. I do understand why Messianic Judaism needs to reach out primarily or even exclusively to the larger Jewish population. Reading the sermons of John MacArthur makes me appreciate how “dangerous” and even “hostile” many Christian venues are to Jewish believers who have chosen not to assimilate into a Gentile Christian lifestyle but who continue to be a part of the larger Jewish community, a part of national Israel, and to be loyal to their covenant connection to Hashem and Moshiach through the observance of the mitzvot.

jewish-davening-by-waterI’ve seen how important it is for my wife to be a part of the local Jewish community, especially since she was not raised in an observant Jewish home. It’s taken a lot of courage and struggle for her to even walk through the doors of a synagogue let alone become a functioning member. This is something that most Christians would never understand but something Jewish people comprehend all too well.

Here’s something else:

Many non-Jews, and increasingly many Jews as well, find Judaism’s stress on endogamy to be racist. That’s nonsense. Membership in the Jewish people is open to any human being who is willing to take on the same commitment as those who stood at Sinai. Judaism does not sanctify gene pools but rather commitment to a mission.

One need not be Jewish to serve God. Judaism is unique among major monotheistic religions in not viewing eternal reward as contingent on becoming Jewish. Yet Jews have always believed that they were chosen for a unique mission.

-Jonathan Rosenblum
“Yair Netanyahu and His Non-Jewish Girlfriend”
Aish.com

Most non-Jews are unconscious of the critical mission required to maintain the tiny population of Jews worldwide rather than let the Jewish people fall into extinction due to assimilation. This is an even more vital and difficult mission in the Messianic Jewish movement with its continual struggle to maintain Jewish distinctiveness in the face of overwhelming Christian (including Gentile Hebrew Roots) pressure to either make Messianic groups more “Gentile-friendly” by de-emphasizing Jewish identity or by demanding that all Jewish identity also belongs to the “Messianic Gentile.” While Rosenblum is unlikely to be Messianic, his assessment of the needs of the Jewish community is spot on and applies very well to Rabbi Rudolph’s mission and message.

While I expect men like MacArthur to be relatively “clueless” to this process, many Gentile Hebrew Roots practitioners, even if they have some familiarity with their local Jewish communities, operate on the same belief that, to use MacArthur’s words, “the Bible would never tolerate a Jewish church and a Gentile church.” Both Fundamentalist Christianity and Gentile Hebrew Roots (yes, I know I’m generalizing) demand the elimination of Jewish uniqueness either by forming “one church/congregation” of one homogenous “non-racial” group, or they play the “racism” card. There can be no “twoness” only “oneness,” no matter what the cost to the continued distinctiveness and even the continued existence of the Jewish people.

I’m sorry if something Rudolph said in a sermon seems distasteful to some non-Jewish (and even a few Jewish) people. Rudolph says he wants to do what Paul tried to do; break down specific barriers that prevent Jewish and Gentile fellowship within the body of Messiah, but all the while, first going to the Jew because of the covenant connection between Hashem and the Jewish people, and only afterward, also going to the Gentile with the good news of the Messiah, that all human beings can be reconciled to God without surrendering their nationality or identity, which includes Jewish nationality and identity, as well as what each of us possesses as people of the nations who are called by His Name.

Read more in Oneness, Twoness, and Three Converts.