Gentiles in MJ: Summary and Response to Carl Kinbar

I started a conversation about Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish movement. I stated from the beginning that I accept the binary ecclesiology found in the writings of Mark Kinzer. That is, I believe it was the intention from the beginning for the body of Messiah to have a Jewish wing and a Gentile wing with some crossover.

In my first post on the subject, titled “Warning: This is a Long Post on Gentiles in MJ,” I advocated for full inclusion of Gentiles in Messianic Judaism with certain provisos (such as: they must buy into the Jewish vision, they must see MJ as Judaism, they must participate out of a connection to Jewish people, and there should be no Gentile rabbis). I used the historical precedent of Godfearers in Second Temple Judaism and the Torah precedent for the Sojourner (Ger), who was even allowed to bring a sacrifice to God’s holy altar (Num. 15:15-16).

Carl Kinbar, Provost at MJTI (mjti.org), responded with an essay so eloquent and persuasive that I posted it today as “Carl Kinbar on Gentiles and Torah and History.”

Carl raised some challenges with my thesis, especially with my use of the Sojourner in Torah and the Godfearer in Second Temple history. Here is a summary of Carl’s points:
1. We are omitting for the moment new realities imposed by Yeshua’s incarnation and the extension of the kingdom to non-Jews.
2. Sojourners (gerim) were not merely allowed to keep Torah, but required to, as they were permanent residents with the Jewish people.
3. The issue with Sojourners is not being in the land, but living with Jews, so that it parallels any Gentile today living with the Jewish community and desiring to be one among them.
4. The Sojourner in later Judaism became the Convert (Proselyte), not merely a Godfearer.
5. Godfearers, as far as we know, were not members of synagogues, but merely attenders and supporters.
6. Godfearers and Converts were a tiny minority (Roman statements about vast Jewish influence are likely exaggerations).
7. Godfearers play no role and Converts only a small one in Rabbinic Writings.
8. If a Korean Church had only 20-30% Koreans in it, one might question their Korean identity.
9. If Gentiles join a mostly Gentile congregation, then they are not joining something Jewish, and hence are not parallel to the Sojourners.
10. For this whole thing to be legitimate, Gentiles as Godfearers or potential Converts must see themselves as guests in a Jewish world, not equal participants ready to change social structures and leadership.
11. We are not free to make our own definitions of Jewish identity.
12. If a Gentile joins a Messianic Congregation, Torah is not then optional to him or her. The Sojourner must keep Torah.
13. Majority Gentile Congregations should prayerfully consider better ways to handle issues regarding Jewish identity.

Carl’s arguments are persuasive and well-researched. He does raise some issues that call into question my thesis that Gentiles can and should find full inclusion in Messianic Jewish Congregations. However, I think Carl has overstated the case on some of his points. I agree with #1 and wonder how kingdom extension to the nations should impact our congregational roles. I am delighted with point #3. I agree with #5 and admit that Second Temple Synagogues were not as inclusive of Gentiles as Messianic Congregations are. I certainly agree with #11. Yet on Carl’s other points, I wish to offer some challenges:

On Point #2: There is a problem with saying the Sojourner (Ger) was required to keep Torah. Several verses of Torah disprove this. Deuteronomy 14:21 permits the Sojourner to eat meat found dead, something forbidden to a Jew. Exodus 12:48 and Numbers 9:14 are easily read as meaning a Sojourner MAY choose to eat the Pesakh, not that he or she must. The Sojourner is curiously not required to dwell in booths at Sukkot. The Sojourner is not equivalent to a Native in the Land, but has equal right to Justice in the land (this is how I take the oft-repeated refrain in Torah about one law for Sojourner and Native).

As for point #4, I know less than Carl about Rabbinic Literature, but I think I am right in saying the Sojourner is interpreted in Rabbinic Literature as being a Convert. I see some problems with that, not least Deuteronomy 14:21. How can a Convert be allowed to violate Torah? I think a Godfearer is a much better parallel with the Sojourner.

I must disagree with point #6. It was not merely Romans, but also people like Josephus who claimed the number of Godfearers was legion. Some have declared that 10% of the Roman Empire was considered Jewish and that this large number is only possible because of a large number of Godfearers.

As for point #7, it is easily explainable. I am not surprised that the rabbis speak little of Converts and less of Godfearers after the First and Second Jewish Revolt. Being Roman by birth could not have been popular.

Point #8 is misleading. Korean culture is far less permeable than Jewish life. Intermarriage may be the only door into Korean life, but God built conversion from the beginning into Jewish life as a possible way to join with Israel. Therefore, I would not be surprised, as we approach the last days, to see the prophetic picture coming to pass: congregations full of Gentiles learning Torah. I simply think we must teach these well-meaning Gentiles (I am one) what Jewish life really means. It would be tragic if we allowed Gentile enthusiasm, a prophetic sign, to ruin Jewish identity, a Torah calling.

I can agree with point #10 if it is slightly reworded. I do not think Gentiles should come into MJ planning to change of influence vision and direction. But I think Gentiles can grow into leadership once their understanding of the vision of MJ has grown. I simply cannot abide by an apartheid Messianic Judaism. Forgive me if the term is offensive, but I think you understand my meaning. (I am not implying that Carl in any way advocates a kind of apartheid.)

Finally, a few words about point #13. The congregation I lead is 70% non-Jewish. I agree with Carl that we need to find ways to handle certain Jewish identity issues. One example is how to handle the Torah blessing. It assumes the one uttering the blessing is part of the Covenant People who received Torah. I think we should consider an altered blessing that allows Gentiles to bless the Torah in truth and with integrity. In a subsequent phone conversation with Carl, we agreed that this is something that would best be handled by a consensus of Messianic rabbis. We need a standard for the community and not to have every congregation doing its own thing.

I will continue to mull over Carl’s challenges. I still consider my position tentative. I am advocation Full Gentile Inclusion With Strong Jewish Identity. I am taking issue with Limited Gentile Inclusion, a model in which Gentiles may not read Torah or wear a tallit. I continue to feel the Sojourner was not a Convert, as evidenced by Deuteronomy 14:21 and Exodus 12:48, and yet a Sojourner could approach God’s holy altar. Therefore, how can I prevent a non-Jew from reading God’s Torah in the congregation? They have drawn near. They have learned Hebrew. They have prayed with Israel. They are Sojourners, Godfearers, and Potential Converts. I know, I am one of them.

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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3 Responses to Gentiles in MJ: Summary and Response to Carl Kinbar

  1. Carl says:

    Derek, thanks for posting my response and for your thoughtful reply. Once again, I appreciate your humble spirit and ability to re-examine your views. There were a couple of my points that were not accurately reflected in your summary, though it could very well be that I did not express them carefully enough.

    Anyway, my intent was not to engage in an ongoing dialog, since I simply do not have the time for it. After all, each point is worthy of a full-length post! I would be happy to discuss these things with you in person (maybe in Chicago) or by phone at some time.

    BTW, I concur with Dan Juster’s view that “a Messianic Congregation is one with a majority Gentile population and a Messianic Jewish Congregation is predominantly one made up of Jews.” This is a very realistic and healthy way to use the word ‘Jewish.”

  2. Leah says:

    Hi Derek, it’s really cool to read your blog! Your honest wrestling with identity, inclusion, and leadership within the MJ movement is inspiring and thought-provoking.

    I too have been wrestling with the issue of Gentiles in the MJ movement. As a Jew from an Orthodox background, I found that faith in Yeshua helped break the “enmity” (ie prejudice) against Gentiles that I had grown up with. It was exciting when I first tried praying and studying Torah with Christians, eating with them, and inviting them for Shabbat. On the other hand, when I began attending an MJ congregation, it shocked me to discover that one of the cantors and the man who blew the shofar weren’t Jews or that inter-marriage between Jewish and Gentile believers was completely normative. I seriously considered leaving the MJ world then, and had my congregation not been such a rabbinicaly-affirming, liturgically-Jewish place, I probably would have. I have an affectionate feeling for Christians of all stripes, and enjoy visiting various churches, but in an MJ congregation, I want to experience a Jewish service where I can at least fulfil my halachic obligations–like kriyat haTorah and shofar.

    However, I also believe that the developing MJ halacha should not become stuck in the rabbinic “apartheid” mentality, (I agree with your word choice). There is something deeply morally unfair about the exclusion of a person from reading the Torah publicly simply based on his or her national origin. And if saying the blessing “asher bachar banu” (“who has elected us”) would be considered inappropriate for a non-Jew, then why not replace it with a different bracha, one that reflects the place of Gentile believers envisioned by the MJ community? As an example, the Reconstructionists have changed the aliya blessing to reflect their theology that Israel is “brought close” to God but not uniquely “elected”; and when a Gentile spouse goes up to the bima for the Bar Mitzva of his child, he recites a blessing in English thanking God for “bringing me into relationship with the Jewish people.” Why couldn’t the MJ world develop such alternative brachot, one for Jews who were “elected” and one for Gentiles who were “grafted in”? Or even better, one bracha for both, that says we were all “elected and called” in Messiah, who is the living expression of Israel’s Torah?

    Every area of halacha deserves individual attention when it comes to traditional Jewish/Gentile boundaries and the changes that are appropriate for communities in the Body of Messiah. The main question that should be pondered is the level of hiyyuv (obligation) under halacha that differentiates Jews and Gentiles. There are “Messianic” communities who believe that both Jews and Gentiles become Israel in Messiah and are therefore equally obligated in Torah (the Two-House or Efraimite Movement, and others). Then, there is the majority of Christians and evangelical “Messianic Jews” who believe that neither is obligated in Torah because Messiah has created a new kind of Israel where traditional categories of hiyyuv no longer apply. The kind of Messianic Judaism promoted by Hashiveinu, on the other hand, makes the rabbinic distinction between Jews, who are hayyav (obligated) in Torah, and Gentiles, who are not. That distinction seems to be affirmed by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. However, both Rabbinic Judaism and the original Messianic Jewish coucil also affirm that certain mitzvot ARE obligatory for Gentiles–like the “sheva mitzvot bnei Noach” (7 Noahide Laws) or the 4 prohibitions in Acts against “food pollutted by idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, and blood” (Acts 15:20 and 15:29). It would make a lot of sense for the current MJ halachic council to make rulings regarding those mitzvot that should be obligatory for Gentile believers (like the 10 Commandements?), those that should be optional, and those that perhaps should be restricted. That would help clarify their halachic status within the MJ community.

    Regarding the category of “ger”, because the Torah makes seemingly conflicting statements on the issue, the rabbis interpreted that there were two kinds of “ger”: One, the “ger tzedek” (“righteous proselyte”) also called a “Ben Noach” (Noahide); and two, the “ger toshav” (“resident alien”). Derek, you focused on those verses that clearly spoke about a “ger toshav,” a Gentile who had a closeness with Israel, her land, and her God, but not the same level of hiyyuv in mitzvot; while Carl focused on the Torah’s immerging category of “ger tzedek” or full proselyte. I don’t know the history of how these categories actually developed and played out in the life of Ancient Israel and whether the rabbis were right or wrong in the way they read the laws about “gerim” in the Torah. All I know is that their categories make a lot of sense and are fundamental to the way traditional Judaism sees Gentiles. I think these categories would also be helpful for a Messianic Judaism of the Hashiveinu kind. Gentile believers in the MJ communities can be seen as fundamentally “gerei toshav,” and that should give them a status of hiyyuv that is definite and real, but not as stringent as that of born Jews and “gerei tzedek.” The “God-fearer” category is best applicable today to all Christians (and perhaps more broadly, all monotheists), who may come to visit an MJ congregation, but who do not “dwell” among us.

    In today’s Jewish world, there are millions of Jews-by-Choice, “gerei tzedek,” who have successfully integrated themselves into the Jewish mainstream. God loves these geirim and we too are commanded to love them and treat them equally (Lev. 19:33-34 and Deut. 10:18-19, etc). There is also a nascent movement of Gentiles who believe in Rabbinic Judaism and see themselves as Noahides. These Noahides often come from Christian backgrounds and are attracted to Rabbinic Judaism for many of the same reasons that Gentile Christians become attracted to Messianic Judaism. Both groups feel that Israel and her God are true and want to “walk in his ways.” They just disagree about whether the New Testament is an authentic continuation of the Tanach and a reliable source of theological and/or historical truth. But fundamentally, both Rabbinic Noahides and Messianic Gentiles are trying to cleave to Israel and Torah so that through them (or through the Messiah who embodies them), they may better cleave to God. I think that we who embrace the Messianic model of truth based on the N. T. writings, are obligated to love Gentile believers dwelling in our midst and encourage their worship and growth in Torah and Messiah, whether they form a majority or minority in their congregations. This can be done without blurring the halachic distinction between them and Jews and, at the same time, without creating an apartheid mentality either, as Isaiah cautions: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people…'” (Is. 56:3). In my mind, the best way to do this is to reclaim and fully embrace the status of “ger toshav” or Noahide in a Messianic context.

    One positive outcome of redefining Messianic Gentile believers as Messianic Noahides would be to give their children who are raised in the MJ community a clear identity and a paradigm for relating to Messianic Jews and to Gentile Christians. A child of Messianic Noahides would know what mitzvot in the Torah she is expected to keep (to be determined by the halachic council) and what mitzvot are optional, and she would look forward to her Bat Mitzva ceremony when she could be confirmed as a Messianic Noahide. The child would also be taught, of course, that she has no obligation to become a “gera tzedek” (in fact, Paul strongly discouraged this), and that it’s not her level of hiyyuv, but rather her faithfulness to Yeshua, that reflects her status in God’s kingdom. A Jewish child in an MJ congregation would know that his obligations in Torah are more demanding that those of Messianic Noahides, but that both are ultimately under the grace of God in Messiah. When the Messianic Noachide girl and the Messianic Jewish boy would meet and decide to get married, it would be helpful to have clear halachic guidelines about what happens to the status of the family and the children. Here is where Paul’s vision of “one new man out of the two” (Eph. 3:16) can be applied perfectly. The two–Noahide and Jew–become one flesh when they get married, and thus “the Torah of commandemnts and regulations” which forbids intemarriage is abolished. Perhaps at that point, the couple may choose whether they want to raise their children as Noahides or as Jews, or maybe the rule should be always Jews. But at least it wouldn’t be a choice between Torah and no Torah.

    Anyway, these are just some thoughts I’ve had on the issue. I wonder what you think.

    In Messiah,
    Leah

  3. Ralph says:

    Derek,

    You raised a interesting point with the phrases “I am prepared, however, to lead my congregation to be Jewish in practice and theology”. and “They rightly ascertain from the first meeting they attend that we are Jewish”. These statements bring out that even though a person may not be a Jew, that he may have a theology and practice that is identified and recognized as “Jewish” by others — even the wider Jewish world. And although upon investigation some may conclude that since the majority of your members are not Jews, that you are not a congregation of Jews, but just a bunch of Gentiles doing Jewish things, they still recognized that there are things that are culturally and theologically and practically identitied as Jewish, whether or not the practitioner is a Jew.

    In reverse, but similarly, one could have a congregation of believers in Jesus, where the majority are Jews and yet have a service, expression, and lifecycle that is identified by others as non-Jewish.

    The thing is that even though there is a people-orientation to the word “Jewish” in saying something is Messianic Jewish, there is just as strong a theological-orientation to the term as well. We would not call a congregation of Fundamental Baptist who are all Jews, Messianic Jewish. We may say that they are a congregation of Fundamental Baptist Jews or Jews who are Fundamental Baptist, but their theology would preclude that congregation from being Messianic Jewish in most MJ circles.

    Although Carl’s has raised some thought provoking questions on sharing his view of what can be called Messianic Jewish, his perspective is problematic. He speaks of defining a MJ congregation based on the Majority of its ethnic membership. If it is majority Jewish then it can be a Messianic Jewish. If it is majority Gentile, he calls for them to find their way to dropping the jewish off their identity. I have to wonder what he would call a 50-50 congregation?

    I have to wonder if this count is base on attendance or what is on the books? If one had a congregation that the majority were Jews, but only by a few numbers, one could find that from Shabbat to Shabbat your congregation could bounce back and forth from being Messianic and Messianic Jewish, depending on who showed up from week to week!

    Consider the following scenario. What if one had a congregation of almost equal number of Jews and Gentiles. Lets say a small congregation of about 40 people —21 Jews and 19 Gentiles. Lets say they are Jewish in content and lifecyle — torah orientation and the works. They take a congregational trip to visit Israel. (Maybe with the UMJC next year). And the Jews in the congregation decide to make aliyah after the visit. Their Gentiles brothers help them to make aliyah — supporting them with prayers and money. There are hugs and kisses and bitter/sweet tears as the Gentiles say goodbye to their Jewish brothers who are boarding El Al for Tel Aviv on a Thursday morning. Later on that week, rhe Gentiles gather on Shabbat morning as they have done for many years to have their Shabbat congregational service. What kind of service should they have? What kind of congregation are they? I would expect them to continue in the way they worshiped before – in a Messianic Jewish way — their identification with the land of Israel and its people, especially their connection to their former Jewish congregants that now live in the land. These Gentiles have been grafted into the Olive Tree in a practical way that will forever be etched into their psychological and sociological fiber.
    Why should they now look for an new way to worship?

    Although you know that you and I have different perspectives on some issues, I am in agreement with you in your current stance of taking issue with Limited Gentile Inclusion, especially in reading from the Torah.

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