The Non-Normative Experiences of a Marginal Messianic Leader

Something Yaakov said got me thinking:

That being said… you did not in fact respond to all I discussed, namely the structural, organizational and MAJOR leadership chasm which exists in MJ – why is this? It seems noone in a position of leadership in MJ (I’m not referring to you) cares to address MAJOR structural and foundational elements essential for movement, development and growth.

I guess I didn’t realize it, but I, along with other up and coming rabbis, am expected to begin a life’s work of addressing this vacuum of leadership. That got me thinking about the question why. Yaakov wants to know why I haven’t done anything, why no one has done anything. Well, here are my rambling thoughts . . .

Six and a half years ago, I was nothing more than a dispensationalist Christian, a Christian who loves Israel and wants to see Jewish people coming to faith in Yeshua. I did not understand Judaism. I thought of it as a false religion, much like Luther did in the recent posts about Luther’s struggle.

I thought of Jewish traditions as a sort of window dressing to make our services “cool” and “Jewish relevant.” It was a big step for me when I learned how to chant Kaddish.

I came from a non-religious background, with no faith or God or scriptures in my home. My education as a spiritual leader started immediately after my turn to faith as an engineering student at age 19. I could have done worse than the school I attended, the Moody Bible Institute. It was a dispensationalist school. Dispensationalism is a variety of Christianity that loves Israel and sees Israel continuing as the Chosen People of God. That’s not bad, considering that most of Christendom rejects Israel’s place in God’s plan. A good friend recently heard in a Methodist pulpit, “They used to be God’s people, until the cross, and now we, the Christians, are God’s people.”

Anyway, back to that time six and a half years ago, when I started a little Messianic congregation from nothing. I didn’t know what I was doing. Thank God, I believed Israel had a place in God’s plan. But I knew little else. Judaism was foreign to me. So naturally I felt qualified to start a Messianic Jewish congregation!

I came into the UMJC (Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, see umjc.net) kicking and screaming. These people were hostile to some things that I thought were central to Messianic Jewish life. I used to think standing on a street corner and handing out pamphlets was a Messianic sacrament. I proudly wore a “Jews for Jesus” shirt at my first UMJC conference. I thought one rabbi in particular was going to punch me!

I got to know a group of men I completely mistrusted. They turned things upside down for me. They seemed to have all the wrong values. And, to top all that off, they got up early and had a minyan (saying the morning prayers of Judaism) each morning. I thought they were showing off their ability with Hebrew and their knowledge of Judaism. I disdained them.

For some weird reason I stayed. I began to morph. Judaism, as I learned it, was not what I thought it was. The prayers of the Siddur converted me to Judaism. More and more I learned that Messianic Judaism was not Jewish Christianity, but a Judaism.

I learned two things, primarily from my UMJC colleagues (really they are all older and more feeble than I am, so I should not call them colleagues). I learned that Judaism is God’s way for Jewish people and cannot be ignored. I also learned that the various forms of Christianity are not to be despised.

You see there are many marginal “Messianic” voices out there who are anti-Church. They view Messianic Judaism as a purer form of religion and the church as a semi-pagan institution. I have met non-Jews who are Messianic because they feel the church has been corrupted by paganism. These people talk a lot about Constantine, and they are partially right about him, but they are filled with mythical notions of a conspiracy theory to turn all Christians into gibbering idol worshippers.

More importantly for this discussion, I learned about Judaism from my fellow UMJC leaders. I learned that Messianic Judaism must first and foremost be a home for Jews.

Some people, like Shalom Bayit and Yaakov, think Messianic Judaism has a vacuum of leadership, and that these leaders are doing far too little to make Messianic Judaism a home for Jews.

That is not my experience at all. I think the movement is changing rapidly. The movement is leaving some people behind.

These allegedly absent leaders taught me a lot.

It helps to understand how far Messianic Judaism has come.

Although I am a marginal case, a non-Jew who started a Messianic Jewish congregation, there are some ways that my experience is not all that marginal. Messianic Judaism has spent its first three decades in the confusion of its evangelical Christian roots. After three or so decades, Messianic Judaism, in some circles, is becoming a Judaism.

Some people cannot be patient with that change. Some people think that Messianic Jewish leaders should be ashamed. Some people think that guys like me are doing too little. We are busy helping our non-Jewish constituency and ignoring the Jews, for whom Messianic Judaism should be a home.

I know I personally have come a long way in six years. And the movement has come a long way in thirty years. Thirty years is not long in the lifespan of a movement just as six years is not long in a person’s development.

Am I doing anything to make Messianic Judaism a home for “simple Jews”?

Just this week a dear friend, who is Jewish and has been involved for years in church life, said to me, “I want you to teach me how to be Jewish. I never learned it from my Jewish family and I haven’t learned it in church.”

Little incidents like this are happening all over the place. Leaders like myself are continually working with Jews and non-Jews and representing God and tradition to the people.

I am not an optimist, as those who know me can readily attest. Yet I am optimistic about Messianic Judaism becoming a force within Judaism. I am optimistic that the remnant of Israel in the last days is growing in understanding to be the people God is calling them to be.

It is largely happening due to the visionary leadership of a small group of Messianic leaders.

Far from calling this a vacuum, I would call it an amazing turn-around in leadership. So some people will be left on the sidelines, complaining, while others are doing the work.

All I can say from my marginal experience as a Messianic congregational leader is wow. What an amazing change I have been through and look forward to in days ahead.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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9 Responses to The Non-Normative Experiences of a Marginal Messianic Leader

  1. Shalom Bayit says:

    Derek:

    Please see my response to Carl below. I hope that my comments will serve as an explanation if not an apology and as I said to Carl, I hope this can be a learning experience for all concerned.

    I guess I didn’t realize it, but I, along with other up and coming rabbis, am expected to begin a life’s work of addressing this vacuum of leadership.<<<<

    I dont want to speak for Yaacov, but I never expected you to be able to solve this problem. We are simply looking for an acknolwedgement that it is a serious problem. (What more serious issue can there be?) And that the needs of Jews to be able to address the serious issues of apparantly conflicting covenantal requirements needs to be put on the front burner of this movement.

    As I have said multiple times, this is an issue that I think you should take up with your mentors and I hope that in the privacy of supervisory sessions, away from the limelight you can and will begin to question them about this.

    It is clear to Yaacov and myself that the problem is movement wide and really isnt about you and you dont need to be held responsible for it. However when we see that the priorities of the individuals you cite being conversion of Gentiles and exchanging papers with people who clearly are not a) sympathetic with these issues b) in the least knowledgable while at the same time not having any forum for discussion with “Simple Jews” for whom these issues of vital importance, it does lead to some legitimate questions which they (perhaps not you yet) will need to answer sooner rather than later.

    It should be of serious concern that serious Jews like Yaacov and myself have felt the need to leave MJ altogether in order to fulfill our responsibilities as Jews. Perhaps it is of concern to someone but we dont see that reflected in the priorities of anyone that we see in leadership.

    It is of interest that Gene has expressed concern about this and has attempted to persuade us to stay within MJ. I appreciate his concern and will attempt to dialogue with him. However it appears clear to me that we probably will have to respectfully go our separate ways as well as I still dont see how the very specific questions we raised and the dillemma we face is going to be solved in a short time.

    Six and a half years ago, I was nothing more than a dispensationalist Christian…. I could have done worse than the school I attended, the Moody Bible Institute. It was a dispensationalist school….. I got to know a group of men I completely mistrusted. They turned things upside down for me. …. Messianic Judaism was not Jewish Christianity, but a Judaism….I learned that Judaism is God’s way for Jewish people and cannot be ignored. I also learned that the various forms of Christianity are not to be despised….I learned that Messianic Judaism must first and foremost be a home for Jews.

    far too little to make Messianic Judaism a home for Jews….That is not my experience at all.<<<<

    I appreciate that some major changes have happened in your life. Your journey is impressive. However you came from a non Jewish background. This is not a criticism but a fact of life. You were able to without ambivalence attend Moody Bible insititute. And to continue with your training in MJ.

    These are all things which are not possible for a Jew. And if you are going to “minister” to Jewish people you need to be aware of these facts at more than a theoretical level.

    I want you to teach me how to be Jewish. I never learned it from my Jewish family and I haven’t learned it in church.”<<<

    I am glad to see you are having an impact on a Jewish persons life. That isnt whats at issue here.

    So some people will be left on the sidelines, complaining, while others are doing the work. <<<<

    This is an unfortunate way to frame these issues. I have heard this rhetoric before and I think it… well I wont characterize it either with the precision I was hoping for nor the choice words which come to mind. I hope you will reconsider and perhaps retract this. Its not a fair assessment.

    What an amazing change I have been through and look forward to in days ahead. <<<

    I wish you well both in continued change and in your days ahead.

    Note: I will try to be responsive to comments to this post as I am not as overwhelmed this week as I was the last few.<<<

    Smile. Sigh. I know the feeling.

    Merry Christmas to your family? I am not one of those who despises Christian tradition. Its a great thing for Christians.

  2. Maya says:

    Derek,
    I often read your blog, but seldom comment. However, I think that at least those in America have very short memories and expect things to happen all too quickly. If we look at the evolution of Judaism over the centuries, for instance, it obviously did not happen overnight. Messianic Judaism has come a long way even in the last fifteen years I’ve been researching and studying. I remember when I would just mention a book I was reading to fellow Christians and I was verbally attacked openly and severely for “going back to the Law”. Now, we have many people attending our yearly Passover Seders and when I teach and bring in historical and spiritual information regarding Judaism most people are fascinated and hungry to know more. It’s going to happen in its own time and there is no rushing it. I hope you continue on the path you’re on and that you do what G-d is calling you to do in your life. Your life, along with others in this movement, will all contribute together to move things forward. No doubt it will not all be totally sorted out until “the end” anyway. As for leadership, people are raised up over time. It all takes time.

  3. yochanan says:

    Good post Derek.

    I think that it is important to realize that the forming of a true Messianic Judaism for the future is a work in process and has come light years ahead even in the last few years.

    I think that the important thing for all of us to stay engaged. I am sad to see people who truly care about the future of Messianic Judaism willingly making a choice to leave, because it is not exactly as they want it to be right now.

    I share your optimistic outlook and I will do what I can to see that the future is bright for building a Torah faithful, Yeshua honoring Messianic Judaism for the future.

  4. Shalom Bayit…

    My primary concern for you was that you are not actively fellowshipping (by that I mean just getting together as brothers, praying together, worshiping together, serving together, reaching out the lost ship of Israel together…) with other Jewish believers in your area and that you feel that as a Jew you can only find spiritual fulfillment in the Yeshua-rejecting community.

    There are problems with MJAA and UMJC leadership (as there are MANY problems with Rabbinical Judaism and it’s leadership), but it doesn’t mean you have to join those organizations (I am not a member myself), or accept their leaders and their guidance. However, I believe that you should be part of a group of other believers (be it small or large, doesn’t matter).

    People who manage to stay in the unbelieving Jewish congregations can do so ONLY when they are either not known as Yeshua believers to the leaders and members of such synagogues, or that they keep very quite about their faith (or suffer the consequences) if they are known as such to some. In either case, Yeshua HaMaschiach the King of Yisrael, our Redeemer is minimized and relegated to a topic of discussion. How can this be so be when it was His blood has purchased us? How does being quite about Yeshua fulfill a duty of a Jewish BELIEVER?

    I would rather be cursed, spit on, and thrown out of a synagogue (as in fact happened to many of our Jewish brothers throughout history) for the sake of Yeshua and his Good News for Israel. I think that would have, at least partly, fulfilled my duty to HaShem(and my duty to Yeshua) as a Jew quite well.

    Shalom Bayit, and others… I would like to encourage you to either join a MJ congregation where your knowledge and wisdom of will benefit the new generation of Jewish believers and will allow you to worship and serve side by side with them, or if such not available, join or create a small MJ group of your own. You will never find a leader, a group or a person who agree with everything you agree (and this is certainly the case in the Chabad and Orthodox shuls you currently attend). It’s our duty as Jews who believe in Yeshua to be with other Jewish believers. We are part of the Body.

    Shalom in Maschiach,

    Gene

  5. Shalom Bayit says:

    Thanks for your advice Gene. I guess I have been misled by Stuart Carl and the others in the RC. I will rush to do Teshuvah and join my local MJ congregation right away.

  6. Marc says:

    “Some people, like Shalom Bayit and Yaakov, think Messianic Judaism has a vacuum of leadership, and that these leaders are doing far too little to make Messianic Judaism a home for Jews.”

    This hasn’t been my experience at all at least at my congregation, Beth Yeshua in Philadelphia. In fact it’s a 360 degree opposite.

    Marc

  7. Shalom Bayit

    You said – “Thanks for your advice Gene. I guess I have been misled by Stuart Carl and the others in the RC. I will rush to do Teshuvah and join my local MJ congregation right away.”

    I am OK with sarcasm… but I am not sure of what you mean by saying you were misled by the RC. I guess it’s something between you and them. In any case, RC doesn’t represent me or other believers (as much as they try), so I wouldn’t base my view of MJ on just whatever they may have told you.

    As for my previous reply. I was simply encouraging you to fellowship with other Jewish believers in your area. You don’t seem to think it’s possible, a good idea, or even HaShem’s will for you as a Jew to do that – to be with other believers. If you could see past the leaders and at your fellow Jewish brothers and sisters who need fellowship, encouragement, to worship together with those who relate to their experience as Jewish believers.

    If I understood you correctly from our previous conversations, you seem to think that it’s intellectually dishonest for you to be part of MJ, but not so to be a (mostly) undercover Messianic Jew within an RJ congregation. I would feel quite the opposite, frankly.

    Shalom Bayit, I apologize in advance if anything I said has offended you.

    Shalom,

    Gene

  8. Shalom Bayit says:

    Gene:

    I am really busy and will be leaving this forum. However I know you put a lot of thought into your comments and felt bad about leaving you without one last attempt at clarification.

    I am OK with sarcasm… but I am not sure of what you mean by saying you were misled by the RC…>>>>

    Gene. The thing about sarcasm is that.. you cant take part of it seriously! I will take the responsibility for making a lame joke and lets leave it at that.

    As for my previous reply. I was simply encouraging you to fellowship with other Jewish believers in your area. You don’t seem to think it’s possible, a good idea, or even HaShem’s will for you as a Jew to do that<<<

    Lets just stick with the first. I admit to being completely baffled about Hashems will. As a Simple Jew I ask you to pray for me to receive guidance in this area. I mean that and welcome that.

    If you could see past the leaders and at your fellow Jewish brothers and sisters<<<<

    I am not sure what you think I need to “see past”. I think some of these folks are fine people. Others are venal. I welcome the opportunity to associate with them. The problems as I have documented on this blog is that the time and way in which they insist on this “fellowship” taking place interferes with my obligations as a Jew. In particular this relates to my obligation to participate in a real Jewish minyan on Shabbos. I honestly claim to befuddlement about other issues but I strongly sense that THIS is possible, a good idea and Hashems will. For me and for all Jews.

    If I understood you correctly from our previous conversations, you seem to think that it’s intellectually dishonest for you to be part of MJ, but not so to be a (mostly) undercover Messianic Jew within an RJ congregation. I would feel quite the opposite, frankly.<<<<

    That as I said is what makes us different. We seem to be going around the issue like dogs running around a tree. Which reminds me of an old old old joke:

    The Russian Jew Woody Allen once said: “In Capitalist societies man oppresses his fellow man. In Communism its the other way around”

    But I digress.

    As I have said numerous times we appear to be in agreement on one issue: MJ forces this choice. Its a choice of two bad options. We have each apparantly chosen the lesser of the two evils from our own perspectives given our own reading of the scriptural priorities. I encourage you to read up on Torah and I promise to read up on NC.

    Shalom Bayit, I apologize in advance if anything I said has offended you.<<<

    Not at all. I think that to continue going round saying the same things might be an insult to my intelligence, your intelligence and everyone elses intelligence. We have said enough on these subjects to give everyone food for thought. I bid you farewell and the assurance that I am not offended by anything you have said here.

    Not that you havent been trying.. <grin

    (seriously I think you have been extremely courteous and patient despite our disagreements)

    besides there is always that other site. If I get the time, I will post there occasionally. You might yet have a chance to offend me more thoroughly over there!

  9. Shalom Bayit… see you in the Beth Avinu forums when you get a break from whatever it is you’re doing. I enjoy reading and discussing your posts here and there, and I’m looking forward to our future conversations and the resulting mutual enlightenment.

    Shalom Bayit, I feel for your predicament as well as for all of us, Messianic Jews. We are in an interesting point of history when it comes to Jewish believers in Yeshua. We have to make tough choices, but in accordance to his Word as He reveals to us. I pray that someday HaShem will lead both of us to be perfectly content where we are and be in the center of His will when it comes to worshiping, serving, and fellowshipping.

    I am learning more and more of what it really means to be a Jew. I am about to embark on serious personal education campaign and I am thinking about your recommendation to contact Carl Kinbar after the New Year’s to begin my studies.

    Shalom in HaShem

    Gene
    bethavinu.org/forums/

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