Tag Archives: synagogue

Commentary on the Command to Fellowship: A Jewish Interpretation of Hebrews 10:23-25

Yesterday, reader ProclaimLiberty (PL) commented on how he understands the meaning of Hebrews 10:25. Later, I responded by quoting Hebrews 10:23-25 and describing how I understand those verses.

The issue is whether or not Christians can take these verses as a general commandment to enter into fellowship with other believers. That is, does Hebrews 10:25 command us to go to church?

Maybe not, at least not exactly.

PL emailed me a detailed translation and explanation of Hebrews 10:23-25 rather than post it in a blog comment because he wasn’t sure how to deal with the needed typography. I think I can represent what he wrote correctly here in WordPress and I think it’s a much-needed perspective on addressing the pesky challenge of whether or not returning to Christian fellowship should be an imperative for me. I’ll continue to review Pastor Chris Jackson’s book Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church, but I thought this particular commentary was a worthy interlude.

Shabbat Shalom.


@James – Maybe you’ll see a bit more of what I meant in reading the following alternative translation of the Greek text of the Hebrews 10 passage (as I take each verse through the stages of transliteration, literal translation, and colloquial rendition):

23κατέχωμεν τὴν ὁμολογίαν τῆς ἐλπίδος ἀκλινῆ, πιστὸς γὰρ ὁ ἐπαγγειλάμενος:

Katechomen tin homologian tis elpidos aklini, pistos gar ‘o epangeilamenos:

Holding-tight/not-letting-go the saying/claim the [one of] expectation/anticipation [hope or fear] not declining, faithful/trustworthy for/[because of] the [ones] declaring/promising:

Let’s hang on to the claim that we anticipate unflaggingly, because those who declared it to us were trustworthy:

24καὶ κατανοῶμεν ἀλλήλους εἰς παροξυσμὸν ἀγάπης καὶ καλῶν ἔργων,

Kai kata-no-omen allilous eis paraxusmon agapis kai kalon ergon,

and consider one-another unto spurring-on [paroxysms, spasms] love/good-will and good efforts/deeds [mitzvot],

and consider how to spur one another onward in hesed and mitzvot,

25μὴ ἐγκαταλείποντες τὴν ἐπισυναγωγὴν ἑαυτῶν, καθὼς ἔθος τισίν, ἀλλὰ παρακαλοῦντες, καὶ τοσούτῳ μᾶλλον ὅσῳ βλέπετε ἐγγίζουσαν τὴν ἡμέραν.

Mi egkataleipontes tin episunagogin eauton, kathos ethos tisin, alla parakalountes, kai tosouto mallon, ‘oso blephete engidzousan tin emeran.

not abandoning the gathering-together [under the same roof; around the synagogue] ourselves, just-as/seeing-that custom/ethos/habit/practice [of] some, but summoning/exhorting [one another], and so-much/all-the-more, as-far-as/how-much you see approaching the day.

Not abandoning the synagogue meetings [or the prayer minyans], as some have done, but rather calling and encouraging [one another], all the more, as you see daylight approaching.

[Note that this last phrase is an expression of hope that the situation will improve, possibly even invoking the anticipation of that “day” when Messiah ben-David will appear to set all things right.]

Note that this comes out just a bit different from the NASB rendition you cited.

As you can see, my colloquial rendition represents how I envision a modern MJ reflection of the first-century Jewish readership would perceive this passage. As I see it, the Hebrews writer was not exhorting his readers solely to hang onto their faith in Rav Yeshua as the messiah, but to continue in their Jewish praxis and to similarly encourage other beleaguered messianists to do likewise, because of the promised hope that Rav Yeshua would return to set right all the issues and persecutions they were facing, and that they would be found faithful when he came. I’ll turn your attention to a question that appears in Lk.18:8 – of which I will render the final phrase as: “But when the Son-of-Man comes, will he find faith in the Land [of Israel]?”). Note that while most English translations will say “in the earth”, rendered literally from Greek, the word reflects a cognate in Hebrew between “earth” and “aretz”, both of which may refer to the planet, to dirt, to a plot of land, or to the Land of Israel. Given Rav Yeshua’s dedicated focus on the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (cif:Mt.15:24), I infer that the Land of Israel is the intended primary focus of this question. If he will find faith anywhere on planet earth, Israel is the first place he should be expected to look. It is this question that I believe impels not only the writer of Hebrews but also my inference that the passage was intended to encourage these first-century messianists to remain solid witnesses that their trust in Rav Yeshua as messiah strengthened them as Jews and that they should share this strength and encouragement with fellow Jews who would likewise wish to be found faithful when the messiah should appear in Judgement.

ShabbatNow, extracting from this exhortation to Jews some sort of generalized principle for non-Jews raises the question about what non-Jewish affiliates should be expected to be doing while awaiting the messiah. Certainly they should be encouraging one another to do good deeds of all kinds, including their support for Jews to “be all they can be”. Of course, the practice of such encouragement is much facilitated by gathering together and interacting for fellowship, for meals, for worship, and for teaching, in whatever venues may be available. This may include virtual ones via the internet, though virtual meal-sharing is rather insipid, and it’s virtually impossible to pass the ‘humus around the table. [J] Nonetheless, one may recognize the truism that sharing such encouragement would tend to protect its participants from growing spiritually weak and falling away in apostasy, hence there is a valuable recommendation to offer against isolation. As you point out, that’s not exactly your problem, since you engage in a great deal of virtual interaction, receiving both encouraging and critical responses. The writer of Hebrews was rather far removed from any ability to comment on the merits or demerits of fellowship that lacks the benefit of ‘humus and falafel. But let’s not whine that we can’t dine together.


The Return of the Pesky Challenge

Every other Sunday, a friend of mine and I have coffee together and talk about whatever. Some of what we discuss is religion (his beliefs are close but not exactly the same as mine), but we talk about everything else under the sun, too. So, as he reminded me, we can’t strictly define our conversations as “fellowship” in the Christian (or Messianic) sense.

And that concerns him.

Many of you know that after a two-year experiment in attending a local church, I found it necessary to leave church again. For sometime now, I’ve pondered joining some sort of virtual religious community via the Internet, but I know that virtual relationships can’t take the place of face-to-face connection and communication with human beings. It’s just not fellowship in the truly realized sense of a community of faith.

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, my wife (who is Jewish, not Messianic, and who does have community) asked if I missed having a congregation to go to (and I am pleased that she seems to be making attending services at Chabad on Shabbat a regular thing). I have no idea what brought that comment up, but I played it off like it wasn’t an issue. Most of the time it’s not, at least consciously, and I relegate the idea to some dark closet in the back of my mind. But then Sunday before last, my friend challenged me over coffee.

He really, really thinks I should be in religious community. He isn’t the only one. I receive emails occasionally from people who believe I should not set aside fellowship indefinitely. In principle, I agree, but as a matter of practicality, I have nowhere to turn for two basic reasons:

  1. I have no idea how to go “church shopping” and the very idea of randomly visiting churches in my area hoping to get lucky and find a theological match is not even slightly attractive.
  2. The effect of my going to church has on my wife.

infinite_pathsI sometimes receive what I feel are mixed signals from her. I know that she believes I should be in community too, but she’s already embarrassed by having a Christian husband, and my being in Christian community only makes it worse. I used to struggle within myself every Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for church while she was staying at home and being uncomfortable with the thought of my going (not that she’d say anything about it, of course).

And the one time I went to Easter services just about crushed her. I could see it on her face, in her eyes, as I walked out the door. I guess it would do that to any Jewish wife of a Christian husband.

I’m not doing that to her again.

Which led me to download a book (it was a special deal from Amazon so I got it for free) called Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church by Chris Jackson. Jackson is a Pastor who uses his book as a forum to talk about how damaging church experience can be to some people (including him), and damaging to the degree that people don’t (necessarily) leave the faith, but they do leave their churches in droves.

I can relate.

But I don’t relate to most of the reasons these people are leaving. I wasn’t kicked out, scorned, called a “sinner” or “demonic” or anything like that. The Pastor, who I had become friends with and who knew exactly what my doctrinal position on the Bible was (and is), directly contradicted everything I believe and called a Messianic faith a “misuse of the Law“.

He had to have known how I’d feel listening to his sermon.

(I should note at this point that I have no ill feelings for the Pastor, leadership, or members of the church I used to attend. I met many genuinely kind and caring people, all of whom were serving God and other people in their walk of faith with Christ. But in the end, I was an elephant in a roomful of gazelles. I was never going to fit in.)

I’m only about a quarter of the way through Pastor Jackson’s book, but it’s an easy read. At the end of each chapter there are study questions, so I guess the book can be used in small groups of people who have all felt alienated by their local churches (or “the Church” with a big “C”).

I guess I’m looking to see how others have responded to this situation and I’m finding that (of course) I’m not a typical Christian. It’s not just a matter of being burned by some snobby clique at one local church (although that also happened to me back when I first came to faith). If that were the case, I could just go to another church, since the theological dissonance between me and other Christians would be slight (if it existed at all since I’d be blissfully ignorant of everything I know now).

But standing on the foundation of the Jewish Bible and declaring myself a Messianic Gentile (in two parts), means that my theology and doctrine differs significantly from the vast majority of people you’ll find in most churches on any Sunday morning.

chris jackson
Pastor Chris Jackson

However, for lack of any other course of action for the reasons I specified above, I’m going to work my way through Pastor Jackson’s book and see if there’s anything he presents that I can somehow adapt. Jackson seems sincere, reasonably transparent, friendly, and approachable. But knowing myself as I do and getting a sense of who he is in his writing and on his blog, I suspect he’d drop me like a hot rock if we ever entered into conversation and I told him exactly what I believe about the New Covenant, the Bible in general, God’s promises to Israel, and the specific sort of “connectedness” we Gentiles have to all that through Messiah (Christ).

I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post called How to Read the Bible if You’re Not Jewish, highlighting the focus of scripture on national Israel and the Jewish people and not so much the rest of the world (that is, the goyim).

The uncomfortable truth of the Bible in general and my faith in particular is that I continue to find myself where I left off at the end of this missive. Both church and synagogue (and I would be fine with Jewish community if it could be with my wife) of any variety are out-of-bounds for me and as concerned as some people are for me because of that, I simply see no viable option.

I’m sorry to keep revisiting old ground. It’s not like I’m the only person without community. Both Gentiles and Jews find themselves in this situation as part of the consequence of being Messianic. I’ll keep reading Pastor Jackson’s book and post my thoughts about it here in the coming days, but this is as much in God’s hands as it is mine. I’m still trying to decide of He’s painting me into a corner or if I’m the one doing it.

Here’s the link to Part One of my book review.

Doing It Right

My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.

-Gail Goldberg
“Christians and Jews Sharing Shabbat in the Delta”

Derek Leman on this blog Messianic Jewish Musings, refers to himself as:

…a rabbi, writer, and speaker at the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, Jesus and Torah, temple and atonement.

That last part about being at an intersection probably describes any Jew or Gentile who is involved in the Messianic movement in any sense, for we hold views and convictions that aren’t exactly typical in more normative Judaism or Christianity. In fact, we end up getting into plenty of arguments with just about everyone because we don’t fit into anyone’s convenient religious mold.

But Gail Goldberg’s article attracted my attention because it shows a portrait of Jews and Christians “doing it right,” of laying aside the ancient apprehension and animosity and for one brief evening, sharing the Shabbat in a synagogue in peace.

People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.

beth immanuel
Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship

This isn’t describing a Messianic anything. These are Jews and Christians outside our little movement who nevertheless, found a bridge by which they could cross a two-thousand year old gap and find some common ground. There could be a majority of Christians amid Jewish community and no one felt threatened.

Ms. Goldberg’s article finishes with:

That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse (Ilse Goldberg, Gail Goldberg’s 86-year-old mother-in-law) in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.

The Messianic Jewish movement purports to share a common Messiah and a common God between Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of the Master, and yet we see a lot of friction and many separate ways of attempting to operationalize our “union”. Some Jews who aren’t Messianic like my friend Gene, find it necessary to point out the rather stark differences between Messianic Judaism/Christianity and Orthodox Judaism, which, whether he means to or not, continues to drive a wedge between Jew and Christian.

But as we’ve seen in the quotes above, it doesn’t have to be that way.

But this isn’t the only example:

We moved to the Czech Republic eight years ago to serve God and our new community and I had expectations of what life would be like. When I stand in the synagogue now on Friday nights, looking out at our growing group of spiritual sojourners singing and praying in Hebrew, Czech, and English, I am taken aback by what God has done. He has demolished my expectations and from the rubble built something worthy, something glorious.

My husband and I had just started being observant. We started slowly, first lighting candles on Shabbat, then observing festivals. He began to wear his kippah, I would cover my head during prayer. I started learning Hebrew and to sing the prayers in my new siddur. Each tentative step brought me closer to my heritage and closer to the way I found to truly express my love for God. As we strolled one day through the medieval alleyways of Cesky Krumlov, we stumbled upon a synagogue, hidden away off the beaten path. It was just finished being reconstructed and I felt a leap from within me. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could sometime light the Shabbat candles here at the synagogue?”, I whispered in my heart and ever so quietly to my husband. It was as if saying the words too loudly would damage them extinguishing the hope that had been lit..

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

This was written by Krista, one of Derek’s students, for his blog post A Synagogue in the Czech Republic. You can click on the link to get the whole story, but here’s what I want to show you:

Ours is an inter-faith group. All are welcome. “Isms” are left at the door. Though the service is conservative and very traditional, there is an atmosphere of family here, humanity seeking the Creator and learning how to worship together. Many who come are Christian, Baha’i, Hindu, Jewish and agnostic. We save the discussions for the café which used to be the Rabbi’s house. Ruth remembers it as it was when her dear Rabbi lived there. Now we sing and pray and talk about deep topics there over tea and cake. I invite those who might want to delve deeper to our house for once a week gatherings, Mussar and Bible Studies. As a Messianic Jew, I share my thoughts and beliefs about Messiah during these group times at our home.

I’m not saying every synagogue, Messianic or otherwise, has to be this way, but here we have two examples where in Jewish religious and community space, not everyone was Jewish and in the latter case, there was acceptance of a Messianic Jew as a Jew by non-Messianic Jews and by many other faith traditions including Christianity.

Krista also wrote:

This burgeoning community is in need. We have just filled out the paperwork to be recognized as a Jewish Community by the Ministry of the Interior.

Unfortunately, it was suggested that this Czech synagogue was pulling a “bait-and-switch” since Krista describes it as an interfaith community, but in his response to that comment, Derek said that:

Gene is wondering if a bait and switch is going on in Cesky Krumlov and I answered that: no. The people there are happy with an interfaith community and there is nothing deceptive about it.

Derek also said to Gene (sorry to keep bringing you up Gene, but I can’t avoid it in this context):

Your idea that Jews don’t like Christians or that Jews want to keep Jesus away with a ten foot pole, just isn’t true. Maybe your journey away from Jesus into Orthodox Judaism colors your perception. Most Jews are open to all sorts of things, including Bahai and Buddhism. People who insist on sharp borderlines do not represent most people in the world who take joy in learning from many streams of religion, philosophy, arts, politics, etc. If you were to approach these people and say, “This is bad, you shouldn’t do it,” I think they’d ask who the heck you think you are. Now having said that, the services in the synagogue are simply Jewish prayers and songs. The groups that meet at other times are not in the synagogue. It is called Interfaith. Some people like it. You might not be one of them.

I found that statement slightly ironic given that within Messianic Judaism, there are voices who advocate for a sharp division between Gentiles and Jews, and at times I’ve been one of those voices.

sky bridgeBut there’s got to be someplace where we too can build our bridge, stand together in a common place, break bread together, and find a mutual peace.

Maybe Gail Goldberg’s synagogue in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Krista’s shul in Cesky Krumlov are giving us just a tiny peek into the world of the Messianic Kingdom of peace. Maybe someday we can all learn to “do it right.” Someday, we can put aside our differences and while being distinct, also as one bow our knee to One God.

Upon Considering a Virtual Community

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish physician who spent the years of the Second World War in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, related, “I remember my dilemma in a concentration camp when faced with a man and a woman who were close to suicide; both had told me that they expected nothing more from life. I asked both my fellow prisoners whether the question was really what we expected from life. Was it not, rather, what life was expecting from us? I suggested that life was awaiting something from them.”

The person who feels despair and discouragement is asking the wrong question. He asks what the world is giving him. As soon as he changes his question to what is the good that he can do, he will always be able to find an answer.

(Gateway to Happiness, p.374)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“What Does Life Want From You?”
Daily Lift #260

Recently, blogger Judah Gabriel Himango wrote an insightful article called Stop your religious whining! (Lighten up, we live in an amazing time!) He addressed what I’d call “the petty (religious) slights of the hyper-sensitive” and his blog post encourages us to appreciate all that God has provided to us personally and in the world around us.

This got me to thinking about all the complaining I tend to do and what’s really supposed to be important.

My previous blog post Is Messianic Judaism Shrinking Because Almost All Other Judaisms Are Shrinking has received a lot of attention (almost 150 comments as I write this). It addresses an important aspect of religion: community.

Messianic Jewish community is problematic on a number of levels. One of the “problem” issues is the matter of including Gentiles in Messianic Jewish religious and community space. How many Gentiles do you allow into a Jewish space before it ceases to be Jewish? How can the Jewishness of Messianic Judaism be protected? How can Messiah remain central in the minds, hearts, and faith of the Jewish and Gentile believer and still have Messianic Judaism emphasize the centrality of Jewish identity in Jewish community?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions, and they are questions that Messianic Judaism and the various individuals and organizations involved continue to struggle with.

However, there’s another important community issue Messianic Judaism faces: isolation.

Face it, depending on how you define an authentic Messianic Jewish synagogue, such communities are few and far between. I can think of three or four off the top of my head, but at least one of them, Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, is lead primarily by non-Jews, although there are some Jews who are members (If I’ve gotten this wrong, please feel free to correct me).

One of the things it says on the Beth Immanuel website is that it provides “Messianic Judaism for the Nations”. It is a community that strongly adheres to traditional synagogue practices and halachah (to the best of my ability to assess such things) and yet is inclusive of the Gentiles in Messiah who regularly or occasionally worship there.

I’ve attended events at Beth Immanuel exactly twice, but since Hudson, Wisconsin is quite a distance from Idaho, I only rarely have the opportunity to make the trip over there.

I think the closest authentic Messianic Jewish synagogue is located in the Puget Sound area and beyond that, I know of one in Virginia and another in Massachusetts.

messianic judaism for the nationsI’ve listened to quite a few of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons on the Beth Immanuel audio page and one of the things said on the recordings when introducing each lesson, is for the listener to consider donating to their congregation as a “virtual member.”

What is it to be a virtual member? I don’t know that there’s anything formal about it except donating and consuming audio and video teachings streamed over the Internet. In fact, on Beth Immanuel’s Community page, it says:

Beth Immanuel is not a building, it is people. We are a community of disciples seeking to care for and nurture one another as our lives intersect on the common path of discipleship.

Because the Torah cannot be functionally lived outside of a community context, we are mutually dependent upon one another. This means learning to get along with each other even when we don’t always agree on every point. Community means working through the difficulties and acknowledging that, in the end, we really are family.

At Beth Immanuel, we are dedicated to making community happen. Several families live within walking distance of the congregation building. We regularly host one another in our homes on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. On Saturdays, we share a community meal after service. We keep the building open until after sunset so that we can enjoy common fellowship, prayer and study throughout the Sabbath day.

We desire to be known as disciples of Yeshua of Nazareth by our love for one another.

That would seem to preclude even the concept of being a “virtual member,” since community is defined by the direct contact of the people involved in their congregation. Community is particularly identified as those families who live within walking distance of Beth Immanuel, and families who host each other in their homes on Erev Shabbat. That’s pretty hard to do over the Internet, even with webcams and Skype.

On their Why Do We Exist page, it states in part:

Beth Immanuel provides a venue of worship and a community of support for Jewish and Gentile believers alike. We are here for those drawn to practice Messianic Judaism–the historical mode of Christian faith. We are dedicated to teaching and living out the Jewish Roots of our faith in Messiah.

Again, that “venue of worship and a community of support” requires a physical rather than a virtual presence.

Several months ago, I was offered the opportunity to contact the Rabbi at a Messianic Jewish synagogue (located thousands of miles away) and initiate a process that would admit me as a virtual member. I was assured that it would be very interactive and beneficial and I have no reason to doubt the word of the person who kindly contacted me with this suggestion.

This occurred last year right before the High Holidays and I decided to wait until after they were over, figuring the Rabbi and his synagogue would be very busy preparing for and conducting services for the Days of Awe.

And after they were over, I waited some more, turning things over in my head and trying to figure out what my needs really are and what’s important to me.

Which leads me back to the quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin I placed at the top of this missive.

It occurred to me that my own sense of isolation isn’t really as important as I’ve imagined it to be. Certainly, there are many Messianic Gentiles who live great distances from any community that could adequately serve their needs. And more importantly, there are many Messianic Jews who live very far from communities which could fully serve their needs. Some live in areas of the country that have little or no Jewish community at all, let alone Messianic Jewish community.

If Messianic Jewish community exists primarily to serve Jews, who am I to complain because I, as a Gentile, live nowhere near such a shul.

My primary role as a Messianic Gentile isn’t to get my “fix” of “Jewish stuff,” but rather, to do what I can to promote Jewish observance of Torah, particularly among (but not exclusive to) Messianic Jews. I’m well pleased that my wife, who is Jewish and not at all Messianic, is taking Hebrew classes at the local Chabad synagogue and attending other Jewish community events (and she’s even studying Tanya). This is as it should be, and if I can’t participate, the least I can do is stay out of her way and let her continue to explore her own Jewish identity and practice.

hopeI’ve decided that the best thing for me to do is to open my hand and let go my “need” for community. I left church after a two-year sojourn because of the extreme dissonance between their core doctrines and mine, and I knew I couldn’t meekly sit by Sunday after Sunday, and listen to teachings that I believe are detached from what God’s true intent is for the Jewish people and national Israel, even though this church and its staff and members were doing many other fine acts of tzedakah (charity, justice).

I can’t imagine a church environment that would have me let alone serve my needs, but remember, it’s not about serving my needs, but rather, finding what good I can do in the world. I don’t have to belong to a church or synagogue to do that. It’s a mission that we all share as disciples of the Master.

We are only isolated to the degree that we isolate ourselves from God and the performance of deeds of kindness and compassion. It’s almost never about what you can get from another person or any particular community or institution. It’s about what you can give back. That’s not virtual, it’s real.

The Lone Wolf and the Elders

Just listened to a little of David Rudolph’s sermon entitled “Why Zakenim??” About 13 minutes into it, he mentions that there are some One Law interlopers at Tikvat causing trouble. What kind of trouble?

They’re talking about One Law (which is sin enough apparently) but they’re also trying to get people to sign a petition to remove David Rudolph from office.

These One Law interlopers apparently feel that there is enough grass roots support for this to occur.


For the record, I had nothing to do with this…but naturally I support it. The ironic thing is this: the message is about Zekenim at Tikvat. But Rudolph recently caused virtually all of the elders to leave. They’re now meeting at Grove Ave. Baptist Church on Saturday mornings. Why Grove? I have no idea except that I think it’s odd OUT OF ALL THE CHURCHES IN RICHMOND they chose the one where my family visits.

-Peter Vest
from “One Law Revolt at Tikvat Israel”
Orthodox Messianic Judaism blogspot

I periodically engage Peter, both in the comments section of his blog and in this one, about topics of mutual interest. Most of the time, we disagree, which is fine, but occasionally, he comes up with an opinion to which I must respond with a more detailed message. His commentary regarding Rabbi David Rudolph and the Tikvat Israel Synagogue is one of them.

In his blog post and subsequent comments, Peter makes it seem as if Rabbi David is running a “one-man show” as sole leader of the synagogue, and that a significant minority among the members of the synagogue are circulating a petition to have him removed because he opposes what has been called a One Law theology, which this group apparently wants to see put in place as Tikvat Israel’s official theological position.

Except that when I actually listened to Rabbi David’s sermon Why Zakenim or “Why Elders,” I got a completely different impression.

The link I just posted leads to a podcast of the sermon. It’s about twenty-five minutes long, so if you’ve got that amount of time, you might want to listen to the entire presentation for context.

This sermon is part of what Rabbi David calls the “Messianic Jewish Discipleship 101” series, which seems a compelling subject in and of itself. In this sermon, Rabbi David presents his view in support of congregational elders with passages taken primarily (but not exclusively) from the Apostolic Scriptures or what most Christians call the New Testament.

I won’t break down each and every part of the sermon for you. Like I said, you can listen to it for yourself, but in brief, R’ David presents a definition of the role of congregational elders in three parts:

  1. Shepherds to guide the flock
  2. Shepherds to guard the flock
  3. Shepherds to judge matters related to the flock

I was on the board of elders for a small congregation for several years and I can attest that we were called upon to fulfill all of those roles. When I attended a local Baptist church, the head pastor and the board of elders also fulfilled these functions. In listening to R’ David’s sermon, I discovered that he is part of a three-person board and additionally has another person acting as a Rabbi-in-training, so R’ David isn’t acting as a “one-man show,” in spite of what Peter intimated on his blog as I quoted above.

the shepherdThe portion of the sermon relevant to Peter’s blog post has to do with elders as guards (and probably as guides). It seems there were two incidents that had recently occurred at Tikvat Israel. The first had to do with a single individual who was visiting the synagogue for Shabbat services and handing out religious materials, apparently in contradiction to the official position of the congregation. R’ David was away that day, and his Rabbi-in-training, also named David, saw what was going on and gently (according to the sermon) redirected this individual to the congregation’s bookstore and some materials more in keeping with Tikvat Israel’s theology and doctrine.

The second incident had to do with another visitor who had the chutzpah to pass around a petition among the members calling for Rabbi David’s removal from leadership, apparently because R’ David does not support a “One Law” theology, and this individual wanted to see the Rabbi replaced with someone who supported One Law.

It’s important to note here that R’ David in his sermon clearly differentiated between visitors and members in the synagogue. In both of these cases, it seems that lone visitors were coming in from the outside and “disturbing” (my word, not David’s) the members of the congregation, rather than a minority group among the members calling for Rabbi David to step down.

The sermon didn’t give any details as to the reaction of synagogue members to the petition in question, but R’ David did encourage the members to speak up when they encounter someone from the outside (or apparently inside) who is making statements or actions that are in opposition to the formal standards of the congregation. R’ David was careful to say that differences in opinion aren’t really the problem. The problem is with individuals who attempt to cause division and disunity in the congregation. This is part of the function of elders in the synagogue (or church), to guard the flock from “disturbing” theologies or doctrines coming in from the outside.

If you go to the Tikvat Israel website’s About page and scroll to the bottom, you’ll see items labeled “What We Believe” and “Position Papers”, and R’ David encouraged the members listening to his sermon to redirect anyone promoting “strange doctrines” to those materials so they could become familiar with the standards upon which the congregation is based.

I had a similar experience at the small Baptist church I mentioned before, where I attended services for about two years. The Pastor and I became well acquainted and we spoke regularly about our different theological and doctrinal views. At one point, I took our differences a step too far and criticized one of his sermons on my blog. He didn’t take kindly to that, nor the fact that I had leant someone at his church my copy of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series (on audio CD) What About the New Covenant.

Although, I could have remained at the church, I would have had to censor myself both in congregation and on my blog and I made a decision not to do that. I ultimately chose to leave the congregation, not because I thought poorly of anyone (quite the opposite, there are many good and kind people in that church who are authentically serving God) but because their doctrine and mine were pretty far apart in a number of key areas. I wouldn’t be serving God by remaining as a disruptive influence, regardless of my motives.

Please notice that while I admit to lending teaching material that stands in opposition to local church doctrine to one of the church’s members, I didn’t start passing around a petition to get anyone removed or otherwise oppose the head pastor or any of the church elders in authority. That would have been at least improper and at worst insane (though not in the clinical sense).

In retrospect and particularly after listening to Rabbi David’s sermon, I can see how the church’s pastoral staff and board of elders were fulfilling their function in relation to me since I represented a doctrinal position that was in conflict with their official position. If they were willing to listen to my ideas and perspectives and volunteer to consume any resources I was able to provide, that’s one thing. But if I was deemed to be an element that might contribute to disunity and discord, then the elders had a responsibility to draw my attention to that behavior and expect some changes on my part.

Which is exactly what happened.

David Rudolph
Rabbi David Rudolph

The result was that I decided to leave church and seek other avenues for community or association. Given all that, those two individuals who entered Tikvat Israel for the purpose of introducing doctrines contrary to the synagogue’s official position should expect the elders to address this issue and said-individuals could either decide to stay without trying to “rock the boat” significantly, or they could decide to do what I did and leave the congregation.

The only difference is that I attended that church for two years and, from what I got out of R’ David’s sermon, the two individuals involved were not regular attenders and certainly not formal members.

The moral of the story is that you don’t have to think exactly in the same way as the worship community you attend, but remember that the congregation has a group of elders who are responsible to guide and guard the sheep. Although I don’t see myself in such a light, I very well could have been perceived by some to be a “wolf in the fold”. If I find myself in a “fold” where I am incompatible with the rest of the “sheep,” it’s the job of the elders to inform me of that and it’s my job to decide how to respond as a person of good conscience and as a disciple of the Master.

I think the individuals cited in Rabbi David’s sermon needed to do the same.

What is it to be in a Community of Faith?

Being ignored is very dismissive and disrespectful, especially if you claim to have a relationship. I think all of us desire to be understood and that our contributions are useful, not just feigned interest when your real intent is to build a relationship only for the purpose of setting the other person straight. Yes, the Christian need to maintain a semblance of agreement and avoid conflict and the hashing things out that might be useful is discomforting, but that is the way it is.

from a comment on What I Learned in Church Today: Anti-Gentilism and Crypto-Supersessionism

This speaks to the theme I was discussing on that particular blog post as well as on Old Wine Made New, which is a continuation of my exploration of my role in the church and more fundamentally, who am I?

As much as I’d like to think that I’ve backed off of being arrogant or even disingenuous in my rationale for returning to church, I don’t think I’ve progressed very far. In reading Chaya’s comment though, I realized (or was reminded) that in my case, there are three possible motivations for being in church (although they can certainly overlap):

  1. Seeking community with fellow believers.
  2. Seeking an encounter with God.
  3. Seeking to share my unique perspectives with other believers.

Number three is the one I tend to lead with and the one that has gotten me in plenty of trouble. It’s this part of what I refer to as the Tent of David process that is the most difficult to implement. Actually, the toughest part is to find the right balance between competing priorities in being at church, and I think the balancing point is in a different place for each person.

As I’ve learned before, it’s important to establish yourself as a member of the community, otherwise, no one will take you seriously. I’ve been “standoffish” as far as becoming a community member goes, especially if it requires formally joining the local church. I realize that Pastor Randy has privately taken me through the curriculum he presents in his “new member” classes. Needless to say, I don’t agree with not of the “particulars” of the Baptist or Fundamentalist Church, so I could hardly become a member in good faith.

But being a committed member of the community is a basic requirement that must be fulfilled prior to offering anything in the way of a perspective on a theology or doctrine that differs from the Evangelical Christian norm. Certainly a Messianic Jewish viewpoint on theology and doctrine can be considered quite outside the traditional Christian norm.

But then, I’ve been cheating myself, since one of my major issues, at least within my own mind and heart, is how I lack “like-minded community” in my little corner of Southwestern Idaho. By not joining community, I’ve been denying myself community and thus remaining isolated, at least in terms of face-to-face transactions from fellow believers. Sure, I can show up at church, participate in the worship services, and go to Sunday school afterward, but that’s not community, it’s attendance.

I go out of a sense of obligation, out of a sense that this church is where God wants me to be for some reason, as if I may still have a purpose there, but then, I can’t tell what that purpose might be. For about the first year give or take a month or two, I thought I had a purpose. I spent a lot of face time with the head Pastor and I thought we were building a dialog that could result in at least the introduction of some material from a Messianic point of view.

But it didn’t work out that way. Periodically, someone will pull me aside to ask a few questions or complement me on my participation in Sunday school, but that’s pretty hit and miss.

All of these musings are against the backdrop of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Annual Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin which, as you read this, has just ended. While I’ve struggled with my participation at the conference in the past, in my heart, Beth Immanuel or some place like it is more who I am than a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian church.

This isn’t to say that going to church for a Christian is bad, it just isn’t really “me.” And even then, if being a square peg in a church of round holes had some purpose or meaning, then being different would be OK, especially if, among all the differences, I could find a common “meeting place” with the other people in the church community.

Sometimes I feel like the character “Uncle Martin” in the old TV show My Favorite Martian (1963-1966). I look like everyone else, but the internal differences are remarkable.

I recently read an article at the Rosh Pina Project called The mature Messianic Jewish believer is also a disciple. Writer Dror discussed the variability of Jews in the Messianic Jewish movement who nevertheless, should be considered part of the community. The issue revolved around Jewish Torah observance:

There is a school of thought within Messianic Judaism that teaches that Messianic Jews can only truly be “Messianic” if they are also Torah observant. A sharp divide is made between Messianic Jews who do keep Torah, and those who don’t – with those who don’t even compared to Bin Laden!

Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

I’ve been reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, which is about the history, development, and activities of the Chabad in connecting with largely secular Jewish people and bringing them closer to the Torah through performance of mitzvot and association in Jewish community. Regardless of what you may think of the Chabad and what they do, they have a single-mindedness of purpose and are remarkably inclusive of Jewish people, regardless of background or knowledge.

Messianic Judaism struggles with this issue because, in my opinion, at the same time it is attempting to present Yeshua as the Messiah to non-Jesus believing Jews, it is also trying to establish itself as a Judaism, observant in the mitzvot, knowledgable in Talmud, and everything that every other religious, ethnic, and cultural Judaism is.

I can understand why Messianic Jews want to be taken seriously as a “Judaism”, alongside the other accepted Jewish religious movements. Some Messianic Jews seek to shore up the boundaries of Messianic Judaism by explicitly stating that practitioners must keep Torah. They go too far. People can get carried away with an idealistic vision of a religion accepted even by the Orthodox world, and end up using harsh language against secular Messianic Jews.

Yet only perhaps 13% of Jews worldwide could really be described as Torah-observant, which leaves the 87% of non-observant Jews whom Yeshua still loves. I would imagine that at least 87% of Messianic Jews are not Torah-observant, and it would be weird to have a Messianic Judaism that pretends this huge non-observant majority does not exist or is somehow worth dismissing.

This struggle isn’t my struggle to the degree that I’m not Jewish and have no meaningful input in the Jewish world, Messianic or otherwise, but it does define a parallel issue among the Gentiles involved in the Messianic Jewish movement (who are the majority of members in the movement, at least in western nations).

While many aspects of Torah are found in messianic Judaism as a unique expression of our Jewish faith in the Messiah, we do not believe that the Gentile church, or Gentile Christians universally, are called to the same expression as us. In fact, it is the unity of Jew and Gentile in Messiah, in spite of our cultural diversity, which glorifies God in the body of the Lord, via the one new man. (Eph. 2:15). In our view, therefore, it is wrong to admonish Gentile believers universally to think that they need to observe the Torah. It is clear, furthermore, that the Apostles dealt with this precise question of Gentile Torah observance and answered it on point in Acts 15. All of this will be discussed further in this paper.

-from “One Law, Two Sticks, A Critical Look at the Hebrew Roots Movement,” pg 4
A position paper of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS) Steering Committee, January 15, 2014

The reception of such a statement among non-Jews involved in some aspect of the Hebrew Roots movement is generally not accepted very well and is often understood as the Torah being completely applied only to the Jewish people and having no relevancy for non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) at all. This is a basic misunderstanding as the above-quoted paper states:

At times, this can be rather ambiguous, as the term “Torah” (law), of course, has different meanings depending on context….

Generically, the term “Torah” is often thought of as a set of laws providing a moral code for right living. Although there are such commandments in the Torah, the moral law is a very limited part of Torah, and is not a good basis for understanding what Torah is. While the Torah does contain certain moral laws given to Israel, it was not in fact, given in order to be the ultimate moral statement and standard of God to humanity for ethics and basic right v. wrong living. The Torah does not purport to be such a statement. While there clearly are universal moral laws in the Torah, there are many aspects of the Torah that have nothing to do with morality, and which therefore are not intended to be universal. For example, the commandment to Israel to wear tzitzit (Num. 15:38), or to be circumcised (Lev. 12:3).

The Torah does not approach being an exhaustive, all-encompassing, moral code. In fact, Paul’s assertion in Romans 2:14 states:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.”

-ibid, pg 5

In fact, much of the Torah applies to all of humanity but the Torah uniquely applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of the ancient Israelites who received the Torah from God through Moses as Sinai as the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant between God and Israel.

God gave the law at Sinai, creating a unique nation. There are things given in the Torah which are unique to Israel. Above all, the actual revelation at Sinai was not the law, but rather, the lawgiver. In fact, God not only gave the law at Sinai, but God revealed Himself unto the people Israel. (See Ex. 19 and 20). The Jews from the most ancient times have understood this.

-ibid, pg 6

Mount SinaiA Gentile believer’s obligation to the Torah is more involved and complicated than it would seem on the surface, especially when accessing an Evangelical Christian (low) view of “the Law”. Nevertheless, no one is trying to minimize or marginalize the Gentile participants in Messianic Judaism or those who have discovered the “Hebrew Roots” of the Christian faith.

But what does this have to do with my sense of Christian community or lack thereof? Plenty. Actually, it has more to do with my sense of community within the Messianic Jewish movement, even though that community is remote.

In reading Fishkoff’s book about the Chabad, I came across a bit of dialog attributed to an older Jewish gentleman, a businessman, who had become involved in Chabad activities and who had been encouraged to perform some of the mitzvot, including laying Tefillin. He found it compelling to increase his observance, at least to some degree, but he admitted, “I still work on Shabbos.”

I’ve read in any number of Jewish sources, that Judaism relative to the mitzvot is not an absolute. In Christianity, we are taught that Judaism is an “all or nothing” religion. Either you perform all of the mitzvot and perform them perfectly, or you are condemned by God. It’s the rationalization for us to say that Jews cannot keep the Law perfectly (who could?) and therefore, they need to abandon the Law entirely and accept the free gift of grace and salvation from Jesus Christ.

But that’s not how observant Jews see themselves, and certainly not within the Chabad framework. In fact, Jews who have grown up in other branches of Orthodox Judaism complain, according to Fishkoff, that Chabad services are too elementary and that the Chabad siddur (prayer book) is laced with English translations of the Hebrew and Hebrew transliterations for Jews unfamiliar with Jewish worship. That’s great if you’ve been a secular Jew all of your life and are uninitiated in the synagogue service, but if you have been raised an Orthodox Jew, it’s bound to be slow and frustrating.

But all of these people along the scale of observance and familiarity with Torah and Talmud are Jewish and all of them are universally in covenant with God. That needs to be understood by the rest of us (Gentile Christianity). The expectation is to strive to be better without necessarily ever becoming perfect. In Judaism, God is a gracious and forgiving God, not a harsh taskmaster.

Evangelical Christianity, for its part, is also lenient relative to any expectation of “performance” by its constituency, but there are expectations nonetheless, though they tend to center around things like church activities, tithing and other giving activities, church and classroom attendance, and so on. Ironically, Evangelicals, at least some of them, perform more “Torah” than you might imagine, such as visiting the sick, giving to charity, donating food items to the hungry and those organizations that feed them, praying for the well-being of others, both in the church and beyond, and so on.

churchBut what about me? That is, what about the “Messianic Gentile” or one who self-identifies as such? I work on Shabbos, not at my job, but I typically do my lawn work. I try to spend as much of Saturday as possible reading the Bible and studying, but my wife, who is in fact Jewish, does work on Saturday. So does my Jewish daughter. And I’m likely to have some sort of “honey do” list to complete on Saturdays.

My wife will light the Shabbos candles for Erev Shabbat but typically she doesn’t invite me to be a part of the event. We eat “Leviticus 11 kosher” or as the local Chabad Rabbi calls it, “kosher-style,” but we’ve never kashered our kitchen. My wife doesn’t always fast for Yom Kippur. She rarely attends Shabbat services.

Neither one of us lead what you might call an “observant” lifestyle. Now how that works in my wife’s Jewish experience is between her and God and I will not question how she chooses to live out a Jewish life.

But identifying as a “Messianic Gentile,” what does Messianic Judaism expect of me? Some have said that Gentiles are “invited” to extend their observance beyond the minimum required by the Acts 15 ruling, but depending on who you talk to, some people in Messianic Judaism (more of the Gentiles than the Jews) are a little stiff about what you do and don’t do.

It gets even worse in some (but not all) Hebrew Roots communities to the point of “legalism,” and as we saw from the Rosa Pina Project quote above, if you’re a Messianic Jew and you aren’t scrupulous in your observance, you can be open for some harsh criticism.

I say all this to illustrate the challenges in establishing and maintaining community, regardless of what that religious community might be. While I find that I missed attending this year’s Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel, some part of being there is intimidating. I worry about fitting in sort of the way I worry about fitting in at church. The theology and doctrine taught at Beth Immanuel is more in line with my personal beliefs, but what about my practice? And at church, although my practice isn’t much of an issue, what about my theology and doctrine?

A believer is someone who believes Yeshua is the Messiah.

A disciple is someone who believes Yeshua is the Messiah, and is making a serious attempt (although it will be weak and flawed in many ways) to conform his life to the ways and teachings of Yeshua. As well as his behaviour and attitudes changing, his conceptualising of faith will change and he will begin to understand concepts which were initially tricky, like Yeshua died in our place, Yeshua is divine, and we need to work on our hearts to produce spiritual fruit.

See the difference?

Mature disciples who meet regularly with other disciples will strengthen their faith, and may or may not choose to observe Torah in order to supplement and enhance this spiritual journey. Yet at its core, this is a personal choice.

-Rosh Pina Project

Regardless of who you are, Jew or Gentile, as a believer in and disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), it ultimately is less about what you do as who you are in relationship to God through Messiah. The relationship, the walk, the interaction, is where it all starts. Performance of the mitzvot, however you want to define that, is the outgrowth, the expression, the fruit of that relationship in faith, but how many of the mitzvot you perform and how well you perform them doesn’t define you as a disciple, since each person negotiates his or her relationship with God.

I’m convinced that people of faith are far more judgmental of other people of faith than is God.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of community, it only gives us the means to dodge the judgmentalism of other people in our community (or sometimes outside of it).

I suppose part of my issue of community within the church is my own judgmentalism, how I view Christian viewpoints on Israel and Judaism and why they don’t conform to my own. As I’ve said several times before, it is arrogant presumption to believe Evangelical Christians would have any desire whatsoever for some outsider to breeze into their church and tell them what’s what. How dare I judge their theology and doctrine and yet bristle when they judge mine?

coastI feel caught in the middle, between my struggles with Christian theology and Messianic practice. But those are community issues. The real issue is whether or not I’m a believer or a disciple. If the former, then it’s all about what I know about God and if the latter, then my heartfelt desire should be to know God. If I am truly seeking to know God, then everything should flow out of that pursuit and whatever community of faith I find myself in should judge me, for good or for ill, on that basis.

In turn, I should judge myself on what my goals really are. They should never be about changing anyone’s mind for only God does that. If I am a disciple, my single goal should be to draw nearer to God through Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus). From that, everything else will come.