No topic has stirred so much passion on this blog and similar blogs than the place of non-Jews within Messianic Judaism. The cliché about more heat than light has sometimes been a valid assessment of the discussion. And I am not claiming to have risen above the fray in all cases.
There are a few happenings impelling me to develop more theology on this subject.
First Fruits of Zion, in Messiah Journal, will run an interesting article in a soon-coming issue, an article by Seth Dralle which puts a little history-of-Messianic-Judaism perspective behind the issue of non-Jews in this movement. MJTI professor of New Testament studies, David Rudolph, is working on some theological and ethical implications of a bilateral ecclesiology which he calls “bilateral ethics.” A member of my congregation turned me on to a conservative rabbi who actively seeks out Gentiles in Messianic Judaism for conversion to Conservative Judaism. hear rumors of a major Messianic organization defining an interesting category with historical and theological promise for Gentiles in Messianic Judaism (but I am not at liberty to discuss this as yet).
On top of these recent happenings, a commenter or two of late have asked me to rethink and redevelop my thoughts on Gentiles in Messianic Judaism.
There are two directions for going about this problem that I am finding more and more unhelpful.
The first is a direction I have been guilty of uncritically following myself on many occasions. As I am in process of conversion through the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (ourrabbis.org) it has been all too easy for me to take a line that is too limiting for Gentiles in our Judaism. “Just convert ‘em all,” is not a line I have actually stated, but in some old blog posts I have no doubt written in ways that leaned this direction.
If you were to search the Gentile category here at Messianic Jewish Musings you would also find that I have contradicted myself. At times I have been an advocate for a prophetic inclusion of Gentiles in MJ. At other times I have implied that there was little or no place for Gentiles here.
The first unhelpful direction is “keep the Gentiles out and let us maintain our ethnic purity!” If they must come “let them be converted.”
I am all for conversion. I think that many, many Gentiles in this Judaism are candidates for conversion and I hope to see the success of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council on this matter.
But there is another unhelpful direction, which I have spoken against many times. It is an uncritical position in which non-Jews assume that in Messiah Yeshua they have now come to occupy the role of Israel in the world.
The taglines for this view include, “We are grafted in,” and “We are children of Abraham,” and, “We are Ephraim.”
The problem with using these kind of statements to defend a Gentile takeover of Jewish identity is that even the ones which are true (the first two) were never intended to be used that way. The New Testament has a complex take on Gentiles and their relationship to Israel, a view which we call Binary Ecclesiology (Yeshua’s congregation has a Jewish and a Gentile mission, which are unified and yet distinct). Many times people believe that one true statement (“we are Abraham’s children”) completely captures the essence of an idea, while omitting the interplay of other equally true ideas (“let no one take away your freedom”).
The second unhelpful idea is “move over Jews, we have come to occupy your place.”
Notes on Some Inclusive Movements in Mainstream Judaism
In the coming weeks I plan to develop a number of statements working toward a theology of an inclusive Messianic Judaism, a Messianic Judaism that sees a place for Jews, Intermarrieds, and Gentiles who share the calling of Messianic Judaism.
For now, I would like to share two instances of a more inclusive view in contemporary mainstream Judaism.
The first is a Conservative rabbi in Skokie, IL, named Jonathan Ginsburg. He has a host of videos on youtube about conversion. In his tags he uses Messianic Judaism. In other words, people searching Messianic Judaism on youtube will run across videos by a Conservative rabbi who wishes to offer them conversion (assuming they are ready to depart from viewing Yeshua as Messiah and as divine).
Rabbi Ginsburg is proactive in seeking converts. He has no problem believing that Judaism will be improved by an influx of Gentiles. He reads the traditions of Judaism and takes a different tack than many other rabbis. Many, out of concern for a loss of Jewish identity, have not taken seriously the streams in historic Judaism that favor conversion. Being reticent, many rabbis have adopted a policy of discouraging converts.
Not so Rabbi Ginsburg. He hangs his shingle out on numerous websites, including jewishconversionchicago.com. On the site he lists a few reasons he believes are valid for conversion. And a few items on his list bring to my mind the thousands of Gentiles in Messianic Judaism and its offshoots (Hebrew roots, One Law, Two House, and more).
Ginsburg’s number one reason for conversion: “You are and have been a ‘spiritual seeker’ and Judaism seems to be fulfilling to your spiritual needs.”
This is very similar to the reason many Gentiles have for being in the movement: “You are a spiritual seeker and the Torah seems to be fulfilling to your spiritual needs.”
If you asked me last week I would have said, that is insufficient reason for Gentiles to be in Messianic Judaism. But Rabbi Ginsburg’s opinion has made me think. Perhaps a person’s motivation begins with Torah and hopefully, over time, a love for the people of Israel comes along as well.
Another rabbi whose work has me interested is Gary Tobin of The Institute for Jewish and Community Research as well as Bechol Lashon (jewishresearch.org and bechollashon.org). I have on order two of his books: Opening the Gates and In Every Tongue.
Gary Tobin demonstrates that Judaism has never been about ethnic purity, either conceptually or in practice. The modern tendency to discourage conversion is not the historica attitude of the Jewish people, he argues. Jews in every place come to resemble the surrounding peoples through intermarriage and conversion.
In Opening the Gates, Tobin is calling for Jewish synagogues to pursue Gentiles via participation and conversion. He argues that Judaism should be in every tongue and people group. Judaism will only be enriched by the inclusion of people from all ethnicities and cultural groups.
I am enthusiastic about an inclusive Messianic Judaism. I believe that this is not a free-for-all anything-goes proposition. I am committed to a binary ecclesiology and to the eternal role of Israel as God’s revelatory people.
I think as we define and sharpen our theology of inclusion, Messianic Judaism will be the leader in this area of Judaism. And we will do this without overstepping, without Galatianizing the churches, without abdicating the centrality of Israel in the divine plan of mutual blessing. It will be a realization that in the Jewish mission of Yeshua’s congregation, many from the nations have been called to join in alongside.