Knowing that I am doing some soul-searching and thinking about the theological and practical issues of Messianic Judaism as a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, David Rudolph, Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at MJTI (mjti.com), encouraged me to read Opening the Gates by Gary Tobin.
Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. You can find out more about his work at jewishresearch.org and bechollashon.org.
This book could be very useful for anyone in the Messianic Jewish community who wants to understand the dynamics of identity and how it relates to community in our Jewish context. Jews in our movement will benefit from a wise and informed view of the causes of insecurity and fear about Jewish identity. Non-Jews in our movement will understand what it means to be part of a Jewish community and what conversion is all about.
It should not take much imagination as you read below to see typical responses between Jews and non-Jews in Messianic Judaism reflected in the larger picture of the Jewish community’s response to tribal decline.
In summarizing the first chapter, it is my hope to create some interest in and discussion about Opening the Gates and to see some progress in the discussion about how Messianic Judaism can deal with the problematic issue of a Jewish movement that is mixed with non-Jews in a manner that has up till now lacked any vision or plan for integration. Let’s form that vision.
Tobin’s Controversial Starting Point
If you read Jewish press or websites or follow contemporary Jewish books, then you know that the leading topic is intermarriage and declining involvement in Judaism. While I think Judaism has not declined as drastically as Christianity in America, still with so small a community the effects of Jewish decline are felt quickly.
The typical line is, “Fifty percent of Jews marry non-Jews and we are losing all our children to intermarriage.”
Tobin’s controversial starting point is to say there is no intermarriage problem:
The Jewish community is hysterical about Jews marrying non-Jews. The language of tragedy and despair pervades analysis and discussion of what is called the ‘intermarriage crisis” in America today. . . . Even as we debate its origins, Jewish organizations and institutions are scrambling to devise and implement programs to resolve the intermarriage crisis before it is too late. But they are doomed to fail, because there is no intermarriage crisis in the United States today.
Tribal, Institutional, and Individual Loss
It is a fact that intermarriage went from near zero in the 1950’s to about fifty percent in the 1990’s. Jewishness is one of the stronger examples of tribal identity and many Jews in America feel that their tribe is shrinking and are in despair. Tribal affiliation, explains Tobin, is about continual contact with people who share experience, values, and interrelationships.
People who intermarry worry their elders as they appear to be people lost to the tribe. Or if they are not lost to the tribe themselves, surely their children will be. They choose to go outside the tribe and marry one of the others. This arouses fear of Jewish extinction. Tobin notes that extinction is not a possibility to be lightly dismissed.
There is also a sense of institutional loss and Jewish synagogues and organizations experience both declining numbers and the sudden intrusion of non-Jews.
Jews are outnumbered in society, surround by non-Jews on a daily basis. It used to be a safe haven for a Jew to be at the local JCC or synagogue or federation meeting. But now, people are bringing their non-Jewish spouses and children to these affairs. As Tobin says, people are threatened when “Jewish space is no longer exclusively Jewish.”
Finally, there is individual loss. Many cannot think about larger solutions when they themselves are in pain over children who have left the tribe. Parents think if they had only been “more Jewish” their kids would not have left. A visceral reaction is to make the tribe more closed rather than more open to stem the tide of eroding tribal population.
Many, out of their personal pain and fear, build a wall to keep their non-Jewish in-law out. This reaction, it seems to them, is a way to help the tribe.
The Real Issue: Defining Jewish Identity in a Pluralistic Society
We no longer live in an age where parental decisions about religion and community will define the life-patterns for the majority of descendants. We live in an age where religion and affiliations are things chosen more so than born into.
[my thought: This is a change the importance of which cannot be overstated for both Judaism and Christianity.]
Tobin describes the need very well:
We have not yet formulated a set of beliefs, behaviors, and institutional structures that define what it means to be a Jew in the pluralistic society that we ourselves have helped to build.
Assimilation or Integration?
There is a false alternative offered to most Jews: assimilate or segregate.
But segregation is not going to happen outside of the Orthodox community. Nor is segregation desirable [my thought: neither from a Torah point of view or a sociological one].
The real choice is between assimilation and integration. What does Jewish identity look like integrated into our multi-cultured, multi-faith society?
Integration is, as Tobin says, “maintenance of a distinct set of beliefs and behaviors and adoption of some beliefs and behaviors in the host culture.”
The first real culprit in Jewish decline, says Tobin, is low birthrate. Non-Orthodox Jews have the lowest birthrate in America. Jewish population in America was propped up for a time by immigration from the former Soviet Union and from Israel.
The second culprit is a lack of model for an integrated Jewish identity. Born Jews are insecure in their Jewish identity and so how much more the children of intermarriage. As Tobin says:
The real threat to our future is the Jew who perceives little meaning in Judaism and who who chooses to carry little that is Jewish into the union.
Tobin says there is a culture of complaining instead of a culture of joy in the Jewish community. You are more likely to hear people complaining about eating too much matza at Passover than imparting the transcendence of the Seder or of Shabbat.
Tobin calls for American Jewry to find a new confidence. Judaism and Jewish life is rich and something to be desired. It is not something to complain about or give outsiders the idea is a burden to be avoided.
Opening the Gates to Jews-by-Choice
Tobin is ultimately calling for a welcoming and encouraging into Judaism the many non-Jews who are drawn to it by marriage or religious choice. Instead of the common practice of discouraging converts, Tobin says it should be encouraged.
He is not talking about active proselytism, but offering information and welcoming those who seek it.
He likes the idea of newspaper ads, websites, radio ads, and so on offering classes and events for seekers.
He believes that Judaism always has been a tribe open to new recruits and that Judaism will be enriched by the addition of people from all cultures around the world. If the model is integration and not segregation, Judaism will flourish, he says.
Tomorrow: Implications for Messianic Judaism.