I am not Orthodox.
There. I said it.
Yes, I look like I am. I have a full beard, I am the rabbi of a traditional synagogue and don’t eat anything not kosher. But I am finally comfortable enough with myself and my Judaism to come out and say what has been lying underneath the surface for so many years.
I just can’t classify myself anymore as an Orthodox Jew.
Truth be told, as I look at the membership list of my congregation here in suburban Long Island I feel that none of my community is really Orthodox either.
Please allow me to describe to you my journey on how I reached this conclusion.
-Rabbi Mendel Teldon
“I Am Not Orthodox”
Opinion piece written for
The Jewish Week
And so begins the (you should pardon the expression) “unorthodox” commentary of Rabbi Teldon about Jewish identity from his particular perspective. I must admit, when I read this article, the first thing I thought of was Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann’s article in the most recent issue of Messiah Journal called “The Jewish People are Us – not Them” (read my review of the article for more details).
As his story progresses, Rabbi Teldon relates how, during one Erev Shabbat meal in his home, he asked his (Jewish) guests, “Do you consider yourself Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, None of the above or Other?”
The first guest thought for a few moments and said “I’m not sure. My parents were Conservative, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi, but our kids went to a Reform temple for nursery. I didn’t fast on this past Yom Kippur but my daughter’s upcoming Bat mitzvah is going to be done by an Orthodox rabbi.”
The next guy said he is Reform since currently he is not a member at any temple but he takes his family to a Reform temple in Westchester every year for the high holidays. Since his parents are on the board of directors they get a good price on tickets so it is worth the schlep. Also, while he hadn’t studied much lately, he feels that his beliefs are more in tune with the Reform movements ideas of Tikun Olam.
The third scratched his head and said, “My friends ask me this same question when they hear I am a member at an Orthodox congregation. My response is “Other” since I don’t fall into any of those categories.”
Not being Jewish, I have no real basis for evaluating the question much less the answer, except in relationship (perhaps) with Dr. Dauermann’s article. Dauermann also discusses the nature of Jewish identity and the vital necessity of Messianic Jews to relate first and foremost as Jews. That point dovetails quite nicely with what Rabbi Teldon says next:
That is when it suddenly hit me.
I am not Orthodox since there is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew. As there is no such thing as a Reform Jew or Conservative Jew.
These terms are artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes ignoring the most important thing about us all. We share one and the same Torah given by the One and same God.
That is, from my point of view, the essence of what Rabbi Dauermann was communicating in his article. Jewish identity is more than just a label, it’s more than just whether or not you were Bar Mitzvahed by an Orthodox Rabbi, attend the High Holy Days in a Reform shul, and have your kids go to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue. Jewish identity is transcendent across all of these “labels.”
Of course, the Jewish people sharing affiliation across those different Jewish institutions or religious streams might have a problem with a Messianic Jew attempting to enter their spectrum of Jewish experience (and I just violated Rabbi Dauermann’s “Us, not them” emphasis).
I was also reminded of this:
We are on more solid ground if we attempt to define the term “Messianic Jew” – a Messianic Jew is simply a Jewish person who believes in Yeshua. Messianic Jews have all sorts of theological views, ranging from attending shul weekly and treasuring Yeshua in their hearts as a crypto-faith and living out a more Orthoprax Judaism, to attending a Pentecostal church every week, and simply maintaining an awareness of their Jewish identity.
“The shape of the Messianic Jewish movement”
rosh pina project
But all this introduces a level of complexity into the equation of Jewish identity and Jewish community. When trying to explain these concepts to my Pastor a few weeks ago, he asked me if Messianic Jews had more in common with Judaism or Christianity. He was getting at the idea that in Christ, we are all “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) and are saved through Jesus on the cross, while most streams of Judaism deny Christ as Messiah and as the Son of God.
I don’t think I can adequately answer such a question without being Jewish. I don’t have a lived Jewish experience and a unique identity as a part of Israel. In Christianity, we are taught to revere Jesus above all else and our culture and identity is defined by our beliefs.
Jewish identity and covenant relationship with God is established at birth (with the exception of those who convert to Judaism, “Jews by choice”) and, as Rabbi Teldon said, are defined by the Torah and by God. Any Gentile can enter or leave Christianity, but a Jew is born a Jew and even if they reject that heritage, they can never leave and become an “unJew”.
Historically, as Rabbi Dauermann brought out in his article, Jews have always been required to make a choice when coming to faith in Yeshua as Messiah. Either surrender all Jewish identity, practice, and culture, or forget about becoming a disciple of Jesus and lose (or never attain) your salvation.
I seriously doubt that any Christian past or present has any idea what they were asking of Jewish people who desired to have a relationship with the Jewish Messiah. How can you ask a Jew to leave his covenant people in order to honor the capstone of Jewish history, the Messiah, Son of David, who is utterly devoted to his covenant people Israel?
Then we come to a recent debate in the blogosphere on Jewish apostasy, and by that, I mean Jews who previously were believers within a Messianic Jewish context, denouncing Jesus and re-entering another Jewish religious community. General Christian and Hebrew Roots consensus says that any Messianic Jew who desires to live a completely Jewish lifestyle in honor of his fathers, in honor of the Torah, and in honor of Messiah significantly risks leaving Yeshua-faith because, somehow, living as a completely observant Jew among completely observant Jews and focusing on Messiah are mutually exclusive experiences.
Rabbi Teldon’s commentary may seem heartwarming when applied to any other Jewish population, but Christians consider having Messianic Jews making transitions across multiple corridors of (non-Messianic) Judaism as a severe threat which will result in those Jews leaving Yeshua-faith for “dead” Jewish worship. Even many Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots movement who believe as non-Jews, they are obligated to “observe” Torah, are at least hesitant about if not actively critical of Jews in Messiah who want to actually live as Jews and among Jews. Go figure.
I wrote a review a few days ago on one of John MacArthur’s presentations at his Strange Fire conference, and at the end of my review, I brought into question who Christians should be focusing upon, God the Father, Jesus the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Christianity, including Hebrew Roots, insists that the only valid focus of Christian faith must be Jesus Christ, but if that’s true, do we simply disregard the God of Genesis, the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, and the God of Moses? Even at the end of all things, the Bible specifically mentions only “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:3).
I don’t see how it can be reasonable to ask a Jew to stop being Jewish in order to worship the God of Israel and Messiah, Son of David, King of the Jews. What are Jewish families in Messiah supposed to do, shop at the mall on Saturday afternoon and serve shrimp at their daughter’s wedding?
Oh, not everyone thought Rabbi Teldon’s article was heartwarming. Here are a couple of comments from the blog post:
Dear Rabbi Mendel,
Will you daven in a shul that is not Orthodox? Will you sit next to a woman who is also davening, and consider yourself yotse? Will you pray in any shul, regardless of denomination? Do you recognize those with non-Orthodox smicha as rabbis? Do you count women in a minyan? Will you daven, in tefilla b’tzibur, if there are women forming the minyan of ten? Will you share a pulpit with a woman who is a Rabbi in doing a wedding, or leading a service? I imagine that you would say yes to all of the above, since you have publicly claimed you are not an Orthodox Rabbi. If you cannot say yes to all of the above, I encourage you to publish an apology and a detraction of your public statement about being not being an Orthodox Rabbi. If you cannot say yes to all of the above, to claim one is not Orthodox is both disingenuous and inaccurate.
And another comment…
What do you expect? He’s a Lubavitcher. For Lubavitchers, every other Jew from unaffiliated to Satmar is classified as either Lubavitcher or not-yet-Lubavitcher. Everyone is conversion fodder to them. If one regards O/C/R as affiliations, he’s not affiliated with any of the other Orthodox orgnaizations – Lubavitch institutionally does not join with other Jewish institutions.
Except that Orthodoxy, according to R’ Micha Berger, is not a movement, but an attribute a movement can have. OU, Agudah, Lubavitch organizations, they’re all Orthodox because of their adherence to certain ideas. IOW, this is a marketing move. Since R’ Teldon finds that his congregants eschew labels, he’ll eschew labels too. Doesn’t change what he believes.
In the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, the concept of Jewish identity is fiercely discussed, but it’s obviously a matter of concern among all of the other Judaisms as well.
I think Rabbi Teldon has the right idea. I think that the core of being Jewish must cut through all other distinctions. When the Nazis came for the Jews, it didn’t matter what the synagogue affiliation (if any) of their victims were. Jews were simply herded into cattle cars and taken away as slave labor or to the gas chambers.
While there may be some “bumps in the road” between different Jewish streams regarding who is or isn’t considered Jewish, no other form of Judaism attracts masses of non-Jews like Messianic Judaism. This has been a really BIG “bump in the road” for Jewish Messianics who desire a truly Jewish life and worship experience.
Derek Leman, who like many other congregation leaders in the Messianic movement, oversees a congregation of mostly non-Jews, and yet he also sees the need for “Jewish” Messianic Judaism, as he blogged recently. Naturally, his blog post generated a lot of discussion in the comments section, since many non-Jews associated with the movement and certainly most traditional Christians, are at least confused about why Judaism is such a big deal, to outright offended at the suggestion that Jews converting to Christianity is not God’s real plan for them.
Gentile involvement in Messianic Judaism, although well established historically, results in an interruption of Jewish community that Rabbi Teldon and those at his Shabbos table couldn’t possibly imagine. And yet, without Gentile Christian involvement and support, the vast majority of Messianic Jewish communities would not be able to exist. On top of that, most Jewish people I know in the Messianic movement originally came to faith within a Christian church context. It would seem that continued Christian Gentile involvement or crossover into Messianic Judaism is inevitable, regardless of the other problems this raises.
But God, one by one, calls back each of His Jewish children to stand before Him at Sinai and to recall the Torah of their fathers. God speaks to each Jewish person, reminding them of who He is and who they are in Him.
The apostle Paul probably understood this dilemma best. He was a Jew, a Pharisee, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, zealous for the Torah, the Messiah, the Temple, and Hashem. And yet, he associated with many, many Gentiles. Yes, he always went to the synagogue first whenever he entered a town in the diaspora, and he told of the good news of Moshiach to the Jews first, and also to the Gentiles.
And yet, the Biblical record testifies that as Paul lived and eventually died among the Gentiles, he never compromised who he was as a Jew, nor was he required to make such a heinous compromise by Messiah in order to be an emissary to the Gentiles. If anything, Paul’s Jewish “credentials” underwent the most strenuous scrutiny and the apostle clung to who he was as a Jew with outstanding fidelity (see Acts 21 and subsequent chapters for multiple examples).
It was a difficult road to walk, and it is no wonder that Jews in the Messianic movement today struggle to find a path. If only it could be as Rabbi Teldon relates. If only the binding link between all Jews could be Hashem, and Torah, and the promise of Messiah, who is realized among Messianic Jews. A Messianic Jew living as a Jew among other observant Jews should never violate zealousness for Moshiach at all. It never once dimmed Paul, the Jewish emissary to the Gentile’s vision of the Messiah King.
I know both Christians and Jews will disagree with me in all that I’ve said. But when I read the Bible and factor in the historical, cultural, linguistic, and yes, Rabbinic (proto-Rabbinic) context of Paul’s world, that’s how I see him. I see Paul as a shining example that a Jew who is zealous for Torah does not have to compromise his observance or his Messianic faith in order to honor the King and to worship Hashem.
Messiah is the lynchpin, the capstone that holds all believers together, Jewish and Gentile alike, but there is a dimension possessed by Jews in Messiah that we non-Jewish disciples, by definition, cannot apprehend. God created at Sinai an identity and an experience of what it is to be Jewish in community with other Jews that is unique to the living descendants of Jacob. The Messiah means a great deal to Christians, and we would be hopelessly lost and separated from God without him. But he is even more than all that to the Jewish disciples.
Messiah is the culmination of the prophesies from the Tanakh which all speak of the personal, community, and national redemption of all Jews and of Israel. Messiah is the link that allows the people of the nations to come alongside Israel and share in the prophetic blessings. To demand that a Jew in Messiah stop being Jewish and stop participating in Judaism is to deny Biblical prophesy, deny God’s sovereign plan for Israel and the world, and frankly, when we are dumb enough to make such a silly demand, we Gentiles are shooting ourselves in the foot (remember, the Jews would offer sacrifices to God for the atonement of the nations of the Earth, and the Romans destroyed that atonement in 70 C.E.). Without Jewish Israel and Judaism, what links us to Messiah and to salvation at all?
Someday, Messiah will be the capstone, not only for the (mixed) body of Messiah, but for all Jews everywhere, as they flock to Jerusalem to celebrate the return of the King. We Gentile believers will also celebrate, but it is our job to help conduct the exiles back to their Torah and their Land in accordance to the will of our Master and the will of Hashem.
The party will be first and foremost for the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, the Holy people of God who He gathered to Himself at Sinai. We of the nations who are called by His Name are grafted in by a faith learned from Abraham and through the grace of Messiah and the providence of God.
Rabbi Teldon ended his article with these words:
When we are able to focus on the fact that while we have differences but a family truly remains connected eternally, it will reconfirm what we already knew: Am Yisroel Chai!
There must be a way for this to be accomplished also for Messianic Jews, because they too are part of the family, regardless of other differences. Paul is part of that family, as are James, Peter, John, and for that matter, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Messiah is part of that family, and he leads that family and that nation, for he is, first and foremost, the Jewish King.
How can Gentile believers in the Church not understand that being Jewish is a gift and demand that Jews return that gift to their Father in Heaven in exchange for Gentile Christianity? Someday what Rabbi Teldon describes will become an overwhelming reality in a way we cannot possibly imagine. Someday Messiah will bring all of his people, all of Israel home. And on that day, I and my other non-Jewish brothers and sisters will line the highway leading up to Jerusalem and loudly, jubilantly applaud the return of the lost remnant of Judaism, and cheer in joy and gratitude that the will of God has finally come to pass…
…and we will bless God that we among the nations were allowed to humbly be a part of it all.