Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is a time to review the past and look at where you’ve come in life. It’s a preparation for the upcoming “Days of Awe”—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—when we resolve to do better this year than last.
The theme of Elul is return to your essential self—a.k.a. teshuvah—helped along by prayer and charity. “The King is in the field,” they say, meaning that the G‑dly spark within you is much more accessible, as long as you search for it.
The month of Elul on the Jewish calendar begins this coming Sunday, September 4th. As the quote above testifies, it’s a month of preparation and personal reflection as the High Holy Days rapidly approach.
Two years ago, I wrote a rather lengthy blog post regarding the impact of Elul on both Judaism and (potentially) Christianity. Since then, things have changed a great deal.
I suppose if Christians have a “month of preparation” it occurs in the spring at the approach of Easter.
But I’ve always appreciated the formality of Judaism in endeavors of self-examination, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.
I suppose Catholicism has its rituals and ceremonies as well, but I’ve never found them particularly Biblical or attractive (though I know some will disagree with me on this).
As non-Jews, whether we call ourselves disciples of Yeshua or Christians, we don’t really have a lot of access to the Days of Awe unless we make that access for ourselves. That requires more from us as individuals, a greater personal dedication to approaching the Throne of God, abasing ourselves, praying for the strength to turn around, to turn back toward Him.
We don’t have a community (most of us, anyway) that embraces a specific praxis focusing on the path of returning to God or trying to find Him in the first place.
A few days ago, I wrote a fictional short story about a man struggling between discovering God and hiding from life. Ultimately, it’s God who finds him, and in a rather unusual venue, certainly not in a church.
I think that’s where many of us are much of the time. If we really make the effort to connect to God what will it say about who we are? Will we even like what we discover?
In observant Judaism, every day during the month of Elul, except for Shabbat, the shofar is sounded after morning services as a sort of “wake up call” to prepare for Rosh Hashanah or the New Year. Usually when writing a message such as an email or blog post, Jews will finish with the phrase “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”.
Psalm 27 is added to the morning and afternoon daily prayers.
There are other customs and the link I provided above to Chabad will render that information if you’re interested.
For a Jew, a relationship with God is personal, but it’s most often expressed in community. Christianity has community as well, but technically, it is represented by many people, by the nations, whereas Jews are a single people, a specific nation called out by God.
The Jewish religious calendar maps out the practice of a Jew and I suppose, depending on your denomination, your church has its own traditions and rituals as well. I’ve never found Christian traditions satisfying, though.
We don’t have the shofar blowing and it would probably seem strange to our friends and family if we started ending our missives to them with “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”.
If any of us choose to follow the prayers, we can acquire the siddur of our choice through any online Judaica store. There are probably some Messianic siddurim available. I imagine a Google search would yield appropriate results.
Thus we could follow the tradition of adding Psalm 27 to our personal prayer time. Just be mindful of context. After all, we are not Jews and we are not Israel.
According to the Chabad, selichot are prayers asking God for forgiveness. Christians believe that once forgiven, always forgiven, so this isn’t always a common practice in many churches.
My wife, who is Jewish, says that rather than being depressing because of the emphasis on sins and judgment, the High Holidays are exhilarating. God is offering to hit the “reset button,” so to speak, to lay out a brand new, squeaky clean year for His people Israel. Jews have a unique opportunity annually, to live the next year better than they did the last.
But according to the Bible, forgiveness and redemption are available for the non-Jew as well, and from a Christian perspective, it’s our devotion to Yeshua (Jesus) that allows us to access those blessings. However for people like me, who are non-traditional and Hebraically oriented in our theology, if we choose to use the month of Elul in a manner similar to the Jews, we have to create the context and practices for ourselves.
Both Christians and Jews know they can ask for forgiveness at any time of year, however, for Jews, the month of Elul is a time to concentrate on what they’ve done for the past year, to right wrongs, ask for forgiveness from those people they have offended, and to ask for forgiveness from God.
We may not belong to Jewish community, but as private individuals, we could choose to adopt some of what the Jews do during Elul anyway, though more spiritually rather than too closely mimicking Jewish praxis.
In the past, I’ve written about community for the “Messianic Gentile,” but my experiences over the past few years have taught me it’s not really available for the vast majority of us either physically or emotionally. Sure, we can create our own groups, but anyone who’s tried to run a small congregation or even a regular home Bible fellowship can tell you how difficult it is to maintain over the long haul.
Besides, trying to figure out how to have a “Hebraic” praxis for non-Jews while avoiding treading too heavily on Jewish identity and particularity isn’t easy. I’ve fought in those wars in the past and have concluded for personal reasons that since I’m not Jewish, I shouldn’t walk that path. It’s too much like stealing another person’s clothes and then wearing them as your own.
And trying to do any of this in a traditional Christian setting in most cases won’t be practical, since the “Hebraic” praxis will be alien in that context. In fact, it might be received by Christian peers adversarially.
So more and more, this is a blogspot about the individual non-Jew who is neither fish nor fowl, who doesn’t fit in either world, and yet can’t adjust his or her perspectives on the Bible to “get along” with a more traditional congregation, whether Christian or Jewish.
From that perspective, while the month of Elul and all that it holds is communal for the religious Jews, for the rest of us, well, those few who are like us, it remains individual, at least until the Messiah returns.
The title of today’s little missive will probably rub at least some people the wrong way, but hear me out.
Living with a Jewish wife, a non-Messianic Jewish wife, one who shares absolutely no common theology with me, is sometimes quite illuminating. Last week, the oldest son of the local Chabad Rabbi and Rabbitzen had his Bar Mitzvah. Apparently, I’m quite ignorant about all this, since I thought it would be on Shabbos.
Not so (although there was another related event on Shabbos). It was on Thursday. There were a ton of Jews from Crown Heights (Brooklyn) who came for the affair. My wife helped cook tons and tons of kosher meals since Boise is hardly the center of a thriving Jewish community, thus Kosher is hard to come by.
My wife is very protective of her Judaism and her Jewish community. The occasional “Messianic” (Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t really matter to her) who shows up at Chabad kind of rubs her the wrong way. Fortunately, the Bar Mitzvah was by invitation only, so it was unlikely to attract the casually curious or the Messianic who wanted to dive a tad deeper into actual Jewish life.
By the way, one of the people she’s protecting the local Jewish community from is me. I’m never quite sure if my asking something like, “How did the Bar Mitzvah go” will be perceived as genuine interest or as an intrusion (fortunately the former in this case).
Processing all this over the past several days, and doing a lot of detailed lawn work while the missus was at Shabbos services (all day in this case, there was a lot of “hobnobbing” to do), I realized that maybe it’s a good thing I’m not Jewish.
Really, I can’t stand being stuck in a crowd, particularly made up of (mostly) people I don’t know, for a long period of time. If, for some strange reason, my wife had asked me to attend with her, I’d feel like the proverbial fish out of water. I’ve read some books on the Rebbe and the Chabad, but I’m sure I’d fit in at a Chabad Bar Mitzvah about as much as a Pepperoni and Canadian Bacon pizza.
The missus is about as much of an introvert as I am, so when she finally came home from Shabbos services and the subsequent activities around 5 p.m., she was wiped out. I don’t blame her.
I don’t blame her for not including me in her Jewish life, either. The more I’ve disconnected myself from any formal association with Messianic Jewish groups, the more I have begun to realize that maybe I never belonged in the first place. Of course, I belong in a church about as much as a nudist in a nunnery, so I’m not saying that traditional Christianity is an option for me either.
I am saying that a Gentile (well, me anyway) attempting to adopt Jewish practices is kind of like putting a cat in a doghouse. One of these things is not like the other.
My wife showed me a photo of the Bar Mitzvah boy. Wow, what a young face. He was also wearing one of those black fedoras and a black jacket, which seemed strange on a kid that age. But then again, I’m not Chabad or even Jewish. Even if I discovered some long-lost family secret that my mother was Jewish, while halachically, that might make me Jewish, at almost 62 years of age, I would still lack a lifetime of Jewish experience.
In other words, I’d still think and feel like a Goy.
I think it’s OK for me and people like me to not pretend to be someone and something we’re not. It’s OK not to engage in what I’ve heard called “Evangelical Jewish Cosplay”.
I don’t think I have a Jewish soul, and I don’t think I’ve got long, lost Jewish ancestors, and I don’t think I’m a descendent of one of the lost tribes or any of that stuff.
I hang onto my current understanding of the Bible because it’s the one that makes the most sense. That’s why I’m about as welcome in a Christian Bible study group as a quart of Vodka at an AA meeting. Sooner or later, I’m going to say something that will be perceived as a threat.
Just showing up in a traditional Jewish venue would be enough to be looked at askance since I’m a Christian (what my wife calls me, not necessarily how I see myself).
Like I said, it’s easier and better to avoid trying to be something you’re not, especially since you’ll (I’ll) stick out like a clown at a funeral. Oh, for a time I can “blend into” a Church setting, but only until I open my mouth.
If religious community is important to you, then I hope you’ve got one where you are accepted for the person you are. I hope you fit in.
For those of you who don’t, welcome. That’s my world. That’s the world of a lot of us who hold to an alternate view of the Bible’s overarching message, particularly the actual meaning of the New Covenant. Some of you have found enough fellow “oddballs” within driving distance that you have formed your own groups. That’s good.
But we’re pretty strange ducks, and sometimes there isn’t a significant number of like-minded oddballs around to get together with.
Besides, within our own little sub-group, there are numerous sub-sub-groups who are just different enough to where we’re not going to get along for one reason or another.
And then, there are those folks who are just plain “out there”.
So, if you have ever gotten that feeling that you don’t fit in, no matter how hard you try, maybe you’re trying too hard to belong in the wrong place. Instead of having that make you feel disenfranchised, maybe you should feel grateful.
Thank you God for making me who I am, even if that sort of person isn’t very common, and even if that person isn’t always easy for others to understand. The downside is you don’t have a small Bible study group to go to every Wednesday night (at least not without starting a theological “knife fight”). The upside is you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. All you have to do is be the person you are.
One of the difficulties…that Christian theologies have not really grasped, is that Rav Yeshua’s gentile disciples don’t actually participate in any covenant whatsoever. Perhaps that is why they invent fictitious covenants. What they have instead of a covenant is an individually-based responsibility to rely on HaShem’s unchanging character and graciousness. They must trust HaShem Who wishes all humanity to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, as Rav Shaul wrote to Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:3-4. They, and their children, and their children’s children, each must approach HaShem as trusting individuals. They may pass to their children a heritage of knowledge about how to trust HaShem, but each must choose to embrace and employ that knowledge afresh in their own lives. They may form collective communities of faith-filled individuals, and they may covenant with each other to serve HaShem, but they do not possess a collective responsibility under a covenant with HaShem in which HaShem has bound Himself by His Oath.
I’ve written about the “connection” (or lack thereof) between Gentile believers and the New Covenant many times before, and I agree with ProclaimLiberty (PL) that we non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) are not named participants in the New Covenant (see Jer. 31, Ezek. 36), and thus we have no stake in those covenant promises.
That might come as a shock to some of you.
But through Hashem’s grace and mercy for the human race, He has allowed any of us who attach ourselves to Israel through our Rav to benefit from some of the blessings of that covenant.
We know that Hashem wants all human beings, not just Israel, to come to a knowledge of Him, to become His servants, to worship Him alone as the God of Israel:
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.
–Isaiah 45:23 (NASB)
For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
–1 Timothy 2:3-4
These are just a few scriptural examples illustrating God’s desire for all people, both Israel and the nations, to be devoted to Him.
But what PL wrote made me think. The Jewish people are collectively Israel, and the covenants apply to all Israel. Yes, each individual Jew has his or her own responsibilities to fulfill under covenant, but ultimately, God doesn’t covenant with each individual Jew, but with all of them, past, present, and future.
A Jew is the only person to be born into a covenant relationship with God whether he or she wants to.
Not so with the rest of us.
Except for the Noahide covenant, which Hashem made with all living things, we are born into no relationship with God at all. If we want a relationship with Him, we have to choose that for ourselves and then act on it (not that the Spirit of God can’t send us certain “prompts”).
Good thing we have free will to make that choice.
But then I thought about the “Church,” which is something of an artificial construct, so I dug back into the concept of the “ekklesia”.
— n , pl -siae
1. (in formal Church usage) a congregation
2. the assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state
[C16: from Medieval Latin, from Late Greek ekklēsia assembly, from ekklētos called, from ekkalein to call out, from kalein to call]
I tend to think of the ekklesia in its broadest sense, as that world-wide body of people, Jews and Gentiles, who have answered the call of Rav Yeshua to follow his teachings and draw nearer to Hashem. For Jews, this is the next “evolutionary” step or the next logical extension of their covenant relationship with Hashem, since Rav Yeshua is the mediator of the New Covenant.
For non-Jews, we are allowed to draw near to Israel and be “grafted in” (and being grafted in to the promises doesn’t make us Israel) to stand alongside Israel within the body of the ekklesia so that we can benefit from many of the blessings of the New Covenant.
Here’s where things get blurry.
PL describes we non-Jews as coming to Hashem through Rav Yeshua individually. It is true that in the Church it’s said that “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” This means that even if you are a Yeshua-disciple, your kids may not be. They don’t inherit a relationship with God just because you have one.
This is the exact reverse of a Jew’s covenant relationship with Hashem. When Jewish parents have a child, that child does inherit a covenant relationship with Hashem by virtue of the fact that he or she has Jewish parents (or a Jewish mother in the case of my children).
As non-Jews, one-by-one, we come to faith and trust in Rav Yeshua and it is our custom to gather together with other individual non-Jewish believers in a congregation to worship and fellowship. In and of itself, a “church” is an expression of part of the world-wide ekklesia, the larger body of Jewish and Gentile believers.
PL said of we non-Jewish disciples:
They may form collective communities of faith-filled individuals, and they may covenant with each other to serve HaShem, but they do not possess a collective responsibility under a covenant with HaShem in which HaShem has bound Himself by His Oath.
I believe this is true, but it’s still difficult to reconcile with emotionally. Reading this statement, makes me feel disconnected and unattached.
I know my attachment is symbolic and metaphorical, even though it has real, tangible results, but it draws a sharp distinction of what happens when Jews gather together in a synagogue on Shabbos, and what happens when Christians come together in church on Sunday.
The former are bound not only to each other but to Hashem by covenant, a formal, specified, and direct relationship between Israel and their God. We “Christians” voluntarily covenant with each other and are beneficiaries of the kindness of the God of Israel, though we have no formal relationship with Him.
It made me realize just how fragile that relationship is.
Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
I believe being born into a covenant relationship with Hashem has a cost. If you are Jewish and choose to disregard the covenants and your responsibilities relative to them (Shabbat, kosher, davening, tzedakah, and so on), I believe that at the judgment, there will be consequences. None of my children are even slightly religious and my wife’s observance is “so-so” and I worry about that.
As far as being “natural branches,” I don’t know their state at present. But I do know that even as they are, they are still members of the covenants simply because they’re Jewish.
I’ve heard it said that Judaism isn’t an all or nothing religion, so every time my wife does go to shul, davens, lights the Shabbos candles, or observes other mitzvot, I’m pleased. But there’s always more to do.
Even a secular Jew is a Jew, and even being non-observant, has a relationship with Hashem (even if they’re totally unaware of it).
We non-Jews, on the other hand, though we don’t have a formal relationship with Hashem, also don’t have as many rights and responsibilities. We get a lot of the same benefits (the Holy Spirit, the promise of the resurrection in the world to come, the love of Hashem, prayer) without the obligations shouldered by collective Israel (and there’s no other way to think of Israel except “collective”).
But our “attachment” to that metaphorical olive tree isn’t as secure as is Israel’s. The covenants are a lock. They don’t go away just because Israel as a whole or any individual Jew is not observant. The only thing that changes are the consequences, one set for obedience, and another set for disobedience.
For the rest of us, we need to watch our “Ps and Qs” so to speak. As Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) wrote (Romans 11:18), if we are arrogant and put “the Church” ahead of Israel, we can easily be knocked off the root. The root (and I believe one way to look at the root is as Israel’s covenant relationship with God) supports us, not the other way around.
The root belongs to Israel by covenant right, and we Gentiles are merely “resident aliens” among Israel (metaphorically speaking). We have no rights. We are granted guest status just because God’s a “nice guy,” so to speak. Not that God would do it, but if any one of us gets out of line, God could blow us off the root with a (metaphorical) sneeze.
That should make you feel a little insecure. I feel a little insecure.
But that’s not the end of it. PL finished his comment this way:
Curiously enough, because HaShem is faithful to those who place their trust in Him, and because He values the voluntary commitment of people who cling to His precepts without the demands of a covenant (as described of the foreigners in Is. 56), gentile disciples may benefit practically in a manner that is very similar to the benefits promised to Jews under the covenant. The advantages possessed by Jews, which Rav Shaul described to the Romans in the third chapter of his letter, are still very much valid and effective, and “grafted-in” wild gentile olive branches have no reason to boast of their position relative to native acculturated Jewish branches on his metaphorical olive tree of faith, but the wild branches are no longer merely fodder to be fed into a fire. One does not require a covenant to accept HaShem’s benefits, but one should not be jealous merely because someone else (namely the Jewish people) does have one. In fact, one may be grateful that HaShem’s covenantal faithfulness toward Jews demonstrates that He may be trusted even without a covenant. And this enables gentile disciples also to pursue faithfulness in response to HaShem’s gracious provision of all manner of blessings.
We non-Jewish disciples are living proof that God can be trusted beyond the covenant promises to Israel. Covenants are highly formal and specific agreements between two parties, but every word the comes from the mouth of the living God is trustworthy, carved in stone, immutable, unchangeable, and utterly reliable.
We may only come to God one-by-one as non-Jews outside of the covenants, but we are more than just individuals. We are part of something greater. We voluntarily come to Hashem, and we may voluntarily covenant with each other when we gather together, but we are more than just a group of individuals. We are members of the ekklesia and we make up a huge portion of the ekklesia alongside of Israel. We are different from the sum of our parts because the grace of God has made us children and family of the Most High.
As a centrist movement, Conservative/Masorti Judaism strives to reconcile ancient ideas with modern understandings. Utilizing this approach, twenty years ago, a group of Temple Emunah members, led by Barbara Palant, began to consider how we could become a more welcoming community—one that embraces interfaith families while still adhering to our time-honored traditions.
Following the Rabbinical Assembly’s practice, Temple Emunah has adopted the phrase “K’rovei Yisrael” to refer to those individuals who are part of our community and part of a Jewish home, though they are not personally Jewish. The term literally means “those who are close to [the people of] Israel.” K’rovei comes from the word “karov,” meaning “close;” krovim means “relatives.” K’rovei Yisrael are distinct from non-Jewish friends and extended family members who might visit our community or our congregation for a Bar Mitzvah or for some other reason. K’rovei Yisrael are also different from non-Jewish relatives of Temple Emunah members who choose not to be involved in our synagogue community.
-Rabbi David Lerner
Welcoming K’rovei Yisrael at Temple Emunah Today TempleEmunah.org
I saw a link to this webpage posted in a closed Facebook group for “Messianic Gentiles”. I don’t recall the actual context involved, but if you look at the content of Temple Emunah’s webpage for “K’rovei Yisrael,” you can see they have rather liberal social and religious tastes, and in this particular instance, are outlining the roles and responsibilities of intermarried non-Jews who are part of their synagogue “family”.
I can see why this would be appealing to a group of Messianic Gentiles, but this only works under certain circumstances, the circumstances outlined in Rabbi Lerner’s brief missive. It only works if you are not only regularly attending a (Messianic) synagogue that is primarily a Jewish space that permits Gentile involvement, but also, that you are married to a Jew.
Of course that second qualification could be adapted such that you are a regular attendee and while not intermarried, have nevertheless bound yourself to Israel through devotion to Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) as the coming Moshiach, and to Hashem, God of Israel.
Rabbi Lerner’s welcome to K’rovei Yisrael is very enthusiastic and encouraging, offering many opportunities for synagogue participation by non-Jewish “family members,” but I wanted to focus on the limitations he presented:
Out of respect for our traditions, K’rovei Yisrael should not participate in rituals with the Torah including:
Aliyot, opening/closing ark, and performing hagbah or gelilah (lifting or rolling/dressing the Torah).
Wear tefillin. If K’rovei Yisrael want to learn more about tefillin for educational purposes, they are invited to speak with me.
Recite any prayer that fulfills the ritual obligation of another person; for example, reciting Kiddush over the wine or another blessing for the community.
Recite b’rakhot, sign the ketubah as a witness, or read the ketubah as part of the ceremony at a Jewish wedding.
Hold committee chairmanship or board member positions, or vote at congregational meetings (per policies of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism).
To me, this makes perfect sense. Rabbi Lerner may be offering an extraordinarily generous opportunity for intermarried non-Jews to be part of synagogue community, but at the end of the day, even if you live in a Jewish home as a non-Jew, you’re not Jewish, which means, even if you share devotion to Rav Yeshua with the Jews in your community, there are just certain things that belong to the Jewish people because of their covenant standing with Hashem.
Here’s a little more from R. Lerner’s article:
The areas that become challenging are those where K’rovei Yisrael are symbolically enacting a ritual that signifies their commitment to our tradition, which would not be accurate. For example, when Jews take an Aliyah to the Torah, they are not merely standing at the Torah; they are acting out a drama that reflects their relationship to the Torah. First, they are called up with their Hebrew name, something that K’rovei Yisrael do not have. Second, an Aliyah is ascending to the Torah, accepting the Torah as the binding force for living your life.
R. Lerner speaks more about Jewish tradition, but for me, what he’s describing is the covenant relationship with God that a Jew possesses over the non-Jew.
I’ve written at length about particularly how the New Covenant was made specifically with the House of Judah and the House of Israel, and if we non-Jewish Yeshua-disciples are able to reap some of the blessings from that covenant, it’s not because we are named parties, it is only because Hashem has grace and mercy toward us.
Most of us (non-Jews) who are intermarrieds, if we found ourselves in such a synagogue, out of respect for the Rabbi, out of respect for the Jewish synagogue community, and particularly out of respect for our Jewish spouses, we would be more than happy to accept the limitations along with the opportunities being offered.
However, as Yeshua-believers, if we find ourselves in a Jewish community of Yeshua-believers, somehow we think that doesn’t matter anymore and we have been elevated to equal covenant status with the Jews. So we want to be called up for an Aliyah, we want to wear a tallit gadol, we want to lay tefillin, we want to be counted as part of a minyan.
It seems that at least some groups believe Yeshua-faith is a license to abrogate the unique and exclusive covenant relationship that Israel and the Jewish people have with Hashem. Is this what our Rav, the once and future King (so to speak), Moshiach, the Jewish Messiah wanted when he called upon Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) to become the special emissary to the Gentiles?
It hardly seems likely, for it represents a gross betrayal of everything God did for Israel by covenant.
Ironically, in some ways, this is exactly the sort of betrayal that both normative Judaism and normative Christianity believe Paul is guilty of. Except, Christians don’t look of it as guilt or betrayal, just replacement, inclusiveness, or whatever you want to call it.
The split between Judaism and Christianity did not come about simply or quickly. It was a complex process which took some one hundred years, starting from the crucifixion [of Jesus], and which had different causes and effects depending on whether it is looked at from the point of view of Judaism or Christianity. Further, the question of legal status as seen through Roman eyes also had some relationship to the issue.
The article is relatively kind to early “Christianity” as a Jewish movement with an unusually liberal policy regarding Gentile admission. However, it does describe the Christian view of what caused the schism to the massive influx of non-Jews who did not see themselves as part of Jewish community. So…
…the New Testament redactors had clearly decided that they were no longer part of the Jewish people. Therefore, they described Jesus as disputing with all the Jews, not just some, as would be appropriate to an internal Jewish dispute. Once Christians saw Jews as the “other,” it was but a short step to the notion that all Jews were responsible for the rejection of Jesus and, hence, for the failure of his messianic mission to be fulfilled.
This perspective has echoed through nearly twenty-centuries of Church history and fuels much of how Christianity interprets Rav Yeshua’s relationship to his fellow Jews today. And yet, even a casual reading of the Gospels by someone who is not inculcated in Christian exegetical tradition will illustrate…
In the earliest Gospel texts, which picture Jesus as debating issues of Jewish law with the Pharisees, no hostility is observed. The crucifixion is said to have been carried out by the Romans with the support of some (apparently Hellenized) priests.
In other words, the Gospels we have with us today show Rav Yeshua having what Jews would consider perfectly normal and acceptable debates with fellow Jews on matters of halachah. This remains perfectly normal and acceptable behavior within religious Judaism today. It’s a matter of the Jewish “us” arguing with the Jewish “us”, not “us against them”.
Even for we Gentiles who accept that Christian theology and doctrine is based more on traditions that were originally created by those early non-Jewish “Church fathers” who sought to separate their newly created religion from the Jewish scriptural understanding, the Jewish people, and Judaism, it can sometimes be difficult to escape our past. We still sometimes tend to give in to the old habits and attitudes we were taught in our churches.
We still have a tough time understanding that “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28) means that we are all equal in God’s love, in receiving the Holy Spirit, in having a place in the world to come, without it also meaning that there are absolutely no covenant distinctions between the two groups.
However, all of this only becomes a problem at the intersection of Jews and non-Jews in (Messianic) Jewish religious community.
It’s a moot point for those of us not in community, Jewish or otherwise. Also, as I briefly explored in another recent blog post, there seems to be a movement of sorts among Messianic Jews in Israel to become participants in more normative Jewish synagogue life with the goal of being integral members of those communities (to paraphrase PL’s comment on the matter).
While this strengthens the ties between Messianic Jews and the larger Jewish community in the Land, by necessity, Gentiles will not be involved, so again, the points I brought up regarding the aforementioned “intersection” become moot.
And as Rabbi Lerner wrote in his article to K’rovei Yisrael:
The blessings themselves indicate how integral the Torah is in our lives and that we have been given a unique destiny as Jews to live by its ideals, bringing them fully into the world.
I know that many of us, when we became involved in Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism, or whatever opened your eyes to the more “Hebraic” nature, not only of the Tanakh (Old Testament), but especially the Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament), we became attached and even enamoured with Jewish community, such that we actually had access to, as well as Jewish praxis, ritual, and tradition.
There are a lot of non-Jewish people who were dismayed, discouraged, and even insulted when various Jewish and Gentile pundits in Messianic Jewish space (including little ol’ me) basically said, “Back off…some Jewish stuff just doesn’t belong to you.”
If the movement in Israel for Messianic Jews to integrate into normative (Orthodox) Jewish community takes hold, and especially if it becomes the model for Messianic Jewish practice in other nations, including the U.S., then opportunities for non-Jewish participation in Messianic Jewish community dwindle.
This doesn’t particularly affect me. I’ve accepted it in my life, but for others, it may come as quite a blow. Of course, all this is just speculation and at least in the U.S., authentically Jewish Messianic synagogues which service a majority Jewish population are not especially plentiful.
But for me, it again emphasizes that Judaism as such isn’t the primary interface by which we non-Jewish disciples access our Rav or access the God of Israel (though I’m still fond of my “Jewish lens”). This is probably what the early non-Jewish disciples in the Apostle Paul’s day and soon after experienced. You have a religious structure that is uniquely by and for Israel and that affords Israel a covenantal relationship with God, as well as a rich lifestyle of Torah practice, but so much of it doesn’t include the rest of us. How could Judaism possibly be an anchor for us?
The answer, almost two-thousand years ago, was for the Gentiles to leave en masse and to develop a brand new Gentile-focused religion: Christianity. But now, for whatever reasons, many Christians are leaving the Church in pursuit of some aspect of Judaism as they understand it, whether it’s formal conversion, becoming a Noahide, Hebrew Roots, or Messianic Judaism.
But that puts us right back where we came from, so to speak. Christianity, as it has turned out to be, doesn’t accurately understand why the centrality of Israel is so important in God’s redemptive plan for the world, and those of us who have figured it out, leave the Church because of that. But increasingly, there’s less and less room for non-Jews who are attracted to Israel, and who want to attach themselves to Israel and thus to Israel’s God to find a place among Israel, even as “resident aliens,” at least as far as I can tell from my little corner of Idaho.
It would be easier for me, as a Gentile husband to a Jewish wife, to find a role in Jewish community in Rabbi Lerner’s synagogue (assuming my wife attended and desired my participation) than it would be for me to have a role in Messianic Judaism, at least if the goal is for Messianic Judaism to become an increasingly integral part of larger (Orthodox) Judaism and Israel.
On the one hand, that’s where Jews need to be, among other Jews in Jewish community. That’s why I’m delighted that my wife does that, both in our local Reform/Conservative group and with the Chabad. But on the other hand, we Gentiles in Rav Yeshua are facing the same dilemma that we faced in the First Century C.E.
My personal answer is to give up the identity crisis and to develop my relationship with my Rav in isolation (with the help of the Internet, of course). What I say, think, do, and believe in private affects no one, except to the degree that I write about it on this blog. And even then, you can choose to read or not read what I produce. Your decision.
But my answer isn’t everybody’s answer.
I get that Messianic Jews are Jews and I understand, having my wife as a living example, what that means. I also get why some Messianic Gentiles are looking to Noahides as a model for how to define themselves. For both Christianity and Judaism, community is extremely important and it provides a lot of support and encouragement.
But I also understand that the natural consequence of all this is that we non-Jewish Yeshua disciples who will never fit in at a church and who possess this peculiar “Judaically-aware” perspective on the meaning of the Bible, the meaning of Messiah, and the meaning of Hashem’s overarching plan of redemption for Israel, and through Israel, the world, are left with the option of either somehow forming our own communities of “Gentile-focused Messianics” or go it alone.
I’m sure God has an answer to all this, and I don’t doubt that when Messiah physically rules Israel and the nations from his throne in Jerusalem, that he will enact laws and practices to address these questions, but in the present, in order to preserve (Messianic) Jewish identity, community, and unity, the rest of us have to figure out how to do something else by going somewhere else.
I don’t know if the following applies, but I’ll include it anyway, just in case:
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares,
“Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
I originally found the meme on Facebook but it led to James F. McGrath’s blog (which is at Pathoes and thus cluttered with too many ads that slow the blog page from loading in the browser) where he doesn’t say that much more about it. All McGrath commented on was this:
The quote was circulating on social media recently, and so I thought it should be turned into a meme. I made the one above and scheduled the post. Then yesterday I saw that Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented had made their own meme with (a truncated version of) the quote. And so I am including that one too, below. I am glad Heschel’s words are getting this much attention just in time for Evolution Weekend, for which they seem especially appropriate.
See also Jim Kidder’s post on the attempt of the Discovery Institute to do precisely what Heschel criticizes.
At its core, Christian life is set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer. An unbroken circle, in the words of an old hymn.
Maybe that’s the problem, assuming it’s true. If the rituals, sacraments, and Sunday school lessons don’t connect to anything but the life you lead on Sunday morning and evaporate immediately afterward, then religion is no more relevant to your day-to-day existence than watching an hour-long television show once a week. In fact, given how much attention entertainment is given in our culture, that TV series may actually be more relevant, since it has a much wider audience, thus giving you more people to relate to through the show.
In the latter story, the first question it says millenials are asking is “Is our church real or relevant?”
I guess the question I’d respond with is “Are you real or relevant?”
OK, that was a tad snarky, but hear me out.
In any human endeavour, it can be said that you will get out of it what you put into it. I think that extends to the world of religion and faith as well. If you want a “relevant” relationship with God, you have to seek it out. It’s not just going to happen.
Sure, God can do anything including override your free will, but experience and the Bible teach me that He’s not going to do that. He requires much, and we only find relevancy and a sense of our faith being real when we respond, not just for a few hours on Sunday (or on Saturday if you’re Jewish or otherwise attend a synagogue), but for seven days a week during each waking moment.
I know, I know. Easier said than done, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t attend to the desires and requirements of God every time I take a breath. It’s too easy to get distracted by our jobs, home life, taking kids to soccer practice, dozens and dozens of mundane tasks where, in order to be mindful of the living God, we must make the extra effort to turn to Him, even as He’s waiting for us to do that.
I think the problem with the perceived lack of relevance of religion in modern life is the misunderstanding on what religion is. Yes, part of it has to do with ritual, and particularly for observant Jews, set times for prayer, gathering with a minyan, blessings upon donning a tallit and laying tefillin, blessings before eating, different blessings depending on what you’re eating, blessings after eating, blessings over lighting the Shabbos candles, blessings over…
I’m making Judaism sound rather cumbersome, but only to make a point.
If that’s your total vision and understanding of your religion, it’s going to eventually get either really boring or a less-than-mindful habit that you practice by rote. Perhaps comforting, but ultimately meaningless.
Christians do this too, it just isn’t called “ritual”. Go to church, get greeted at the door, chit-chat with a Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other until the service starts, go through the ritual of the service, listening to announcements, standing and sitting, singing, greeting the people around you when you’re told, putting money in a plate, more music, listening to the sermon (maybe even taking notes but more often than not just zoning out), going to Sunday school (or not because it’s boring and you have better things to do), agreeing with the standard party line during class and not asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to…
That’s really tedious as well. No wonder there’s a mad rush to leave for Sunday brunch afterwards and then maybe get in a quick game of golf.
I know you’ve heard this before and I know I’ve said this before in a number of different ways, but it’s one of those messages I believe needs to be repeated often.
Because if decades ago, Rabbi Heschel could recognize this problem, and in this day and age, the problem seems worse than ever, just dropping the message into a single blog post and walking away isn’t going to have much (or any) impact.
Is your church or synagogue boring, not real, irrelevant? Maybe that’s because you are. If you want something more out of your religion, start putting more into it. Stop acting like religion is something you’ve just added to your pre-existing life, and start acting like you can’t live without an active, pulsating, moment-by-moment encounter with God.
Easier said than done, I know.
I can’t tell you exactly how to do all that. I’m still figuring it out for myself. This is as far as I can take you, assuming this is territory you want to explore.
I know what I’m about to say is full of trap doors, but your relationship with God isn’t wholly dependent on ritual and religious celebrations. It’s more about stopping whatever you’re doing right now and turning toward God. Then it’s about doing that again as often as you can.
It’s about seeing human needs all around us as opportunities to serve God in a real, meaningful, and relevant way. Donate food to a food bank and your old clothing to a homeless shelter. Visit a sick friend at their home or in the hospital. Comfort the widow who has just lost her husband. Donate clothing, toys, and any other necessary items to foster children.
If you want your religion to be real and relevant, live a real and relevant life. I said I didn’t know how to take you any further, but all of the suggestions I made in the previous paragraph are based on what the Bible says God wants us to do.
If your religion is boring, it’s because of you. If you’re religion is relevant, same answer. All you have to do is listen to God and your faith will never be boring again.
Our problem is we don’t always listen. For some of us, we listen so infrequently that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) what God’s voice sounds like.
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).
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.
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.
And 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.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman