Tradition: A Fictional Dialogue

The following dialogue is a sort of response to Geoff Robinson, who commented on my last blog post about the myth of being pro-Jewish while remaining anti-Judaism:

You are confusing ordained means with something good in and of itself. Islam may be the ordained means for keeping certain ethnic groups together in order to receive blessings from God. I’m still not too keen on Islam. Rabbinic Judaism is anti-Messiah. Period.

Gerald does not exist but is a fictional character who thinks along the lines indicated in Geoff’s comment.
……………………………….

Gerald is a worker in a Christian mission to the Jews. For several years he has been a mentor to Dan and Cindy, an intermarried couple. Dan is Jewish and Cindy came from a Southern Baptist background. Gerald and his mission have helped Dan and Cindy make a firm commitment to faith in Jesus and have provided mentoring both in person and through a regular publication which Dan and Cindy receive. The message to Dan and Cindy is, “Your family is Jewish because of Dan’s ethnic heritage. Be committed to Christ as a Jew and maintain your Jewish identity in the home while being an example in your Baptist church of Jewishness and faith in Jesus.” Jewish identity to Gerald’s organization is an ethnic and cultural heritage to be maintained in the family separated in most ways from the rest of the Jewish community.

Derek is a Messianic congregational leader who has been a mentor to intermarried couples as well. Derek provides an environment for Jewish life that encourages being part of the Jewish community. Derek’s congregation believes that Jewish identity is more than culture or ethnic heritage. Jewish identity is a covenantal family relationship to God through the Torah and the people of Israel. Derek does not encourage Jewish followers of Jesus to belong to churches. This is not due to any disrespect for churches, but a feeling that Jews fulfill covenantal obligation to God together in community and not in isolation from the Jewish people.

Derek and Gerald are having coffee because Gerald has a concern about Derek and his congregation. Gerald thinks Derek is detracting from a Christ-centered focus by emphasizing Jewish life and especially for teaching about rabbinic literature and interpretation.

Derek: Gerald, without rabbinic Judaism, there would be no Jewish community today. God has used rabbinic Judaism to preserve his people. There is no ongoing Jewish identity for people who withdraw from Judaism and make up their own traditions.

Gerald: You are confusing ordained means with something good in and of itself. Islam may be the ordained means for keeping certain ethnic groups together in order to receive blessings from God. I’m still not too keen on Islam. Rabbinic Judaism is anti-Messiah. Period.

Derek: I see what you are saying. But you are mistaking my meaning. I don’t mean to say that my argument is, in itself, sufficient proof that rabbinic Judaism is the right path for Messianic Jews to follow. If the argument from history was all I had, I would have to throw in the towel and admit you had defeated me.

Gerald: So, you like my argument. [smiles] Why don’t you just admit that rabbinic Judaism is anti-Messiah and encourage your people to find their identity in a local church?

Derek: I don’t just have the history of the past twenty centuries behind me, but I have contemporary experience as well. Isolation from the Jewish community leads to loss of Jewish identity, usually in one generation or in two at most. There will be exceptions, but studies bear me out on this. The people you are locating in churches primarily identify with their churches. A few Jewish observances in the home are not enough for them to maintain their Jewishness long-term. Their children will marry people from the church or denomination. Their grandchildren will have little or no idea that grandma and grandpa were Jewish. Your method makes Jesus the end of Jewish identity.

Gerald: You place so much value on Jewish identity. Believing in Christ matters so much more. Paul said that was all rubbish compared to faith in Jesus.

Derek: Even if I were talking about Irish identity or Japanese identity or any cultural heritage you like, I would say you are undervaluing it. Christ is not a destroyer of culture and heritage. Why should we encourage people to disassociate from their customs and ethnic people to follow Jesus? That sounds like the paternalism in the Christian missions movement that associated the Christian message with a certain kind of music or clothing. That attitude led to islanders wearing three-piece suits and singing 19th century European music.

Gerald: We’re not pushing any kind of culture on people.

Derek: Oh, but you are. You are encouraging Jews to assimilate into the cultures of the local churches. You are encouraging isolation from Jewish life and enculturation usually in an evangelical Christian setting.

Gerald: But that is the way of Christ. Evangelical church life is the place where God is most at work.

Derek: I don’t deny that God is at work in the lively faith and communal worship of evangelical churches, but one size does not fit all. Jesus isn’t Walmart. And the culture of evangelicalism is not the right place for Jews. It is not even the right place for all Christians. And besides all that, Jewish life is in a different category than ethnic heritage. Jewishness goes deeper for Jews than Irishness goes for Irish men and women.

Gerald: I know that you are going to say . . .

Derek: But it has to be said. Jewish faithfulness to God’s Torah is a command, not just a culture. Jewish life continues through circumcision and involvement in the Jewish community and following God’s ways in the Sabbath and feasts and holy days of Israel.

Gerald: We encourage our people to keep Passover and Sukkot . . .

Derek: But not in the way of Judaism and not in relationship with the Jewish community. You encourage people to do these things in their home while identifying primarily with evangelical Christian life.

Gerald: I still say your argument that rabbinic Judaism is a God-ordained tradition for Jewish believers in Jesus is illogical and harmful.

Derek: That is not really where our disagreement lies. If that were our only disagreement, we’d be a lot closer.

Gerald: It’s the disagreement we’re talking about at this moment, isn’t it?

Derek: Not really. Our disagreement comes prior to the discussion of rabbinic tradition and Jewish faith in Jesus. Before we ever had this discussion we came from different points of view that are incompatible. You don’t believe that God continues to command Jewish life. You don’t believe the Torah continues, but that it has been eradicated in Jesus . . .

Gerald: Not eradicated, fulfilled . . .

Derek: But by “fulfilled” you mean “eradicated,” whereas I think Jesus had something else in mind when he said, “Do not think I have come to eradicate the Torah.”

Gerald: Well, you’re not going to get me to agree on that point.

Derek: Exactly. So as long as you believe that Jewish identity is nothing more than a cultural heritage, you will follow your practice and I will follow mine. But you have a contradiction in your belief that you should find troubling. [pauses expectantly]

Gerald: Which is . . . ?

Derek: You believe it is God’s will that Israel should remain until the time of Jesus’ return and yet you work against that very belief. Apart from Torah, Israel will disappear.

Gerald: Even if I agreed with that, we are talking about rabbinic Judaism, not the Torah itself. People can keep Torah without the rabbinic traditions.

Derek: I’d like to see you try.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Talmud and Tradition, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Tradition: A Fictional Dialogue

  1. danieltrevino says:

    Mr. Leman,

    I appreciate your efforts to inform Christians about how Jewish identity is destroyed by assimilation. There is one thing that you forget to address, that is that different Jewish communities express Judaism in different ways. That is were the Messianic confusion comes from.

    Many Messianic leaders who grew up Jewish do not know much about Judaism to begin with and create a false dichotomy. We just have to look at some of the J4J testimonies to see that.

    Judaism is not only a covenantal relationship with Hashem. Is an ethno-religious civilization that is expressed in a particular way of life and a particular way of thinking.

    A deeper understanding of Judaism is needed before we move on into debates about practice and belief.

    The Christian and Messianic communities are stuck in evangelical eschatological models that are also paternalistic toward Jewish survival.

    Claiming to be worried about Jewish redemption the Messianic community as Torah-observant as it wants to be is full of contradictions and problematic approaches to Jewish things.

    After dialoguing with Mr. Aaron Ebby and seeing his willingness to engage difficult identity issues. I hope you and I can have a more diplomatic conversation as well. I am still shocked that the way to show that we are speaking within the same terms is for me to agree with Christian doctrinal positions.

    Blessings and peace,
    Daniel T. Messianic Judaism Quest

  2. judahgabriel says:

    A very interesting post, Derek. Thanks for this.

  3. Thomas says:

    Hey Derek, Nice dialogue. With regards to the statement at the end: “You believe it is God’s will that Israel should remain until the time of Jesus’ return and yet you work against that very belief. Apart from Torah, Israel will disappear.” That’s what I was getting at in my post that you had trouble understanding. It is Christians who believe that the nation state of Israel is a necessary entity to fulfill God’s plans that need to answer your charge about rabbinic Judaism being God’s means to preserve Jewish identity. This is mainly an Evangelical position as you imply but not all Evangelicals would hold to that point of view.

  4. geoffrobinson says:

    I still don’t feel you are understanding the point that just because something was ordained for a particular purpose that doesn’t exempt the particular means from critique or analysis. It can still be rejected. And every aspect of it doesn’t have to be rejected, which I’m sure you would agree given that no rabbinic authority would accept your conversion as authentic.

    But getting to the ongoing role of Torah. I really think you need to buy Marc Shapiro’s excellent work “the Limits of Orthodox Theology”. The chapter on the eternality of the Torah is worth the price of the book alone.

    What Shapiro clearly shows is that the traditional Chrisitian understanding of either modifications to the Torah or the elimination of many Torah regulations is perfectly at home with traditional Orthodox thought. So in a great irony, your complaints are against a perfectly rabbinic point of view. Rabbinic and one that makes better sense of many New Testament passages.

    • Geoff:

      This is not the first time you have hinged your rejection of Jewish covenantal obligation on Marc Shapiro’s book.

      I interpret the tradition somewhat liberally myself (I wonder if you understand this). Shapiro’s critique, it sounds to me, is against Orthodoxy, which approaches the tradition differently than I do.

      Even so, this is a debate about matters which come later. The prior issue is this: do you believe Israel today has a calling to be true to Torah? There is no “Torah of Messiah” which exists as a replacement to the original Torah (if you say there is, could you please tell me where to find it?).

      Derek

    • Geoff:

      You refer to “the traditional Christian understanding of either modifications . . . or elimination.”

      Christian tradition is diverse and wishy-washy on these points. There is no unity on them. New Testament scholars consider this issue a field of debate, not a field of solid tradition.

      In fact, many Christian scholars are in favor of a Torah-based faith walk for Jews who believe in Jesus.

      Perhaps you are only reading certain kinds of theologians and commentators and not reading others.

      Derek

  5. danieltrevino says:

    Derek,

    The problem lies in the fact that evangelical Christians continue to perceive the world of faith solely through the prism of evangelical Christian models and experiences. Christians and even Messianics fail to realize that their spiritualized interpretations should never be allowed to diminish the tangible reality of a people.

    The Jewish people alone have a right to determine and establish outlines and patterns of Jewish behavior and identity based upon the covenantal expressions and structures provided for in the Torah.

    Christian evangelicals for all their possible purport, nor any other Christian group, Protestant or otherwise have a right to alter Jewish identity and self-definition.

    While Christians can argue all they want about theoretical implications about “who is Israel”- the reality is that on the ground in the lives of individual Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews, non-Jews simply do not have a “dog in this hunt.”

    This being the case, having a group of Jews who is not accepted by the rest of the community embrace you as one of them only adds to the illegitmacy of the Messianic movement.

    Using definitions that support your perspective is very convenient.

    What about traditional Jewish perspectives?

    How come halakha is not being mentioned?

    If being Jewish is about joining a people (only) why is it so difficult to do that in mainstream Judaism?

    Instead of saying Judaism is biblical, we should say that the bible is Jewish and Judaism is the Jewish interpretation of the bible. The terms biblical, rabbinic or medieval are historical terms not types of Judaisms.

    Daniel T.
    http://www.MessianicJudaismQuest.com

  6. sidefall says:

    Daniel,

    I’m not sure where you are going with your comments. The work that Derek’s colleagues (Mark Kinzer and Stuart Dauermann in particular) have done over recent years has gone a long way to create a messianic judaism that is authentically Jewish and not hebraicised christianity.

    As someone who is familiar with both worlds, I think it’s fair to say that the foundations have been laid and the building is going up. The evangelical christian worldview has definitely been left behind.

    It is precisely because they feel that Jewish people should be defining themselves that they’ve been thinking through the issues. Traditional jewish perspectives and halacha form a major part of their approach, which you would know if you were fully aware of it. But, as you said in your first comment, the Jewish community has varying approaches here.

    The issue about “joining a people” is that there is a strongly-held conviction, based on scripture, that gentile believers in Yeshua are not required to become Jewish. Hence the current feeling is that this should be the exception, not the rule.

    And there is no universal agreement about mihu yehudi – who is a Jew – so I don’t think you can use that as a weapon to knock messianics. There is increasing evidence that observant messianics are being accepted by k’lal israel by virtue of their lifestyle.

    But let me ask, who are you? Are you recognised as a leader? If so by who and since when? What is your education? Have you had anything published? And are you part of a wider grouping?

    If the answers to these questions are “no”, then you really shouldn’t be lecturing Derek.

  7. geoffrobinson says:

    Well, I keep mentioning Shapiro’s work because it is a necessary antidote to people who feel that the eternality of the Torah is only denied because of supercessionist blinders.

    Shapiro’s book is without a doubt the most important book that hasn’t been read by the Messianic community.

  8. B Z says:

    Derek,

    I am interested in what your experiences are in regard to being in a relationship with the Jewish community. Is your congregation able to be actively involved with the Jewish community in Atlanta? Are you able to individually?

    Personally I have usually found that the general Jewish community wants no part of Messianic involvement. While you might feel that this has to do with evangelizing efforts, the fact remains that, at least in my experience, once it is revealed that I believe in Jesus as the Messiah they will withdraw from me.

    I have seen this even without actively sharing anything. If you are around another Jewish person at some point it seems inevitable that they will ask, “so what synagogue do you go to?”, or “what type of synagogue do you go to?” “Is it Orthodox?” “No.” “Conservative?” “No.” “Reform?” “No.” “Well, what then?” “Messianic.” “Oh.” And the conversation immediately screeches to a halt.

    Unless my experiences are somewhat unique and out of the ordinary, it seems like that alone makes it rather difficult to have a relationship with the Jewish community. So without arguing the points of your post, I am, I guess, moving to the next step and asking how does a relationship with the Jewish community work?

    Once again, it seems to matter less how we have gotten here, but more about where do we go from here, as it seems practically impossible to be who we are as Messianic Jews and be involved with the Jewish community.

    I think events from Israel with the burning of New Testaments and the terrorism perpetrated against the son of David Ortiz show how difficult it can be to be in relationship with the Jewish community, so that kind of prompts my question. Thanks,

    B”H

    • B Z:

      First, I need to address a fallacy in your comment and question. You say that the two incidents in Israel involving radical hatred of Messianic Jews and Christians by extremist Jewish sects discourages you from fellowship with the Jewish community in your area. This cannot be true. I don’t know about your city, but at the local JCC and other Jewish venues where I live, there is no fear of an exploding Purim basket or of Christian literature being burned. You cannot associate the Jewish community with the extreme acts of a few which happen on rare occasions.

      Second, and with great apology to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses everywhere, we have to remember the Jewish community is about as enthusiastic about mingling with Messianic Jews as most Christians (and non-Christians) are about mingling with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We are perceived as people with a sales agenda. As long as we are feared as having the socializing motives of a local Amway distributor, we are going to be unwelcome (“hi, nice to meet you…we’re having a party at my house next month and you’re invited…”).

      Third, I do participate in the Jewish community. I do not wear my faith on my sleeve. I do not come with an agenda. I do not think that it is effective or helpful to bring up controversial matters with mere acquaintances in Jewish space. Those who befriend me discover my faith easily enough. And the only people who care to listen to my ideas are those who know me or know enough about me to care what I think.

      Fourth, on a few occasions I joined a minyan (prayer group) and let the rabbi know in advance I was Messianic but had no intention of conversing with those in the minyan. I came to talk to God with the community and not to sell a message. I don’t believe any good would come from attending minyan and meeting people to talk with them about Yeshua. To talk with them about Yeshua, I would need to meet them through another venue.

      Some will say I should be more open about my faith and try harder. I have lived that life before. I did it for 5 1/2 years and it never produced anything but discord. By contrast, in meeting Jewish friends on more neutral ground or on Messianic ground, I have found very little discord.

      Participation in a community involves respect for that community. I respect the wishes of the Jewish community of Atlanta not to be confronted in Jewish space with controversial and complex topics such as Yeshua as the Messiah. And in my experience, the Jewish community welcomes all who come to participate in good faith and with respect.

  9. sidefall says:

    B Z,

    In my previous comment, I mentioned about observant messianics becoming more accepted by the wider Jewish community.

    My source for this was two papers by Gavriel Gefen in Israel, which can be found at:

    http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/25_2_PDFs/Recontextualization%20Gefen.pdf

    http://mjti.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=28&Itemid=49

    He describes a different approach to the congregational movement, but you’ll find it very interesting.

  10. B Z says:

    I did not mean to indicate that the events of the extremist Jewish sects in Israel as a discouragement, but just to show something similar to your remarks about the Jewish community looking at us with as much enthusiasm as they would have with some other groups. My intention was to exhibit how far that distrust can go to indicate that it seems like there is a long road to really being in a relationship with the Jewish community. I also am in the Atlanta area and I have no fear of these things happening here anytime soon.

    In my examples (which were just friendly encounters such as colleagues at work or at the local Judaica store), I was not coming with an agenda, yet unless I become dishonest about it, it still seemed to cause a disconnect.

    Certainly I and other I know have been involved at some level with the Jewish community, but that seems to be more as an anonymous face in the crowd rather than someone participating in a relationship. Being part of a group at a rally for Israel is a great thing, but I was thinking that being in a relationship with the Jewish community as being something more than that. Being part of a minyan seems to be closer and I would be curious as to what would happen if larger numbers of Messianic believers started to try and become a part of things like that and what the reaction of the Jewish community would be.

    I was not trying to be in any way contentious, but rather to see how you live this out and what kind of difficulties you encounter in attempting to do so and then lastly as a congregational leader how do you advise your congregation to do so and if there is any way for the congregation body to be a part of that Jewish community.

    I just know what I and others I know have experienced both here in Atlanta and in San Diego and that these things have happen not while sitting at a table (or standing on a street corner) passing out tracts. I understand that you might feel that those passing out tracts have caused this tension (and that may be true to some extent), but my goal is to not focus on that, but on how does one make this connection with the Jewish community and if it is possible to be successful, especially in large numbers.

    Once again sorry if I made it seem like any involvement with the Jewish community could be dangerous. That was not my intention.

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