One of several books I am reading is Gary Tobin’s Opening the Gates, a call for mainstream Jewish denominations and organizations to engage in proactive conversion. His call is for synagogues to welcome rather than turn away the numerous non-Jews who show some interest in Judaism, whether due to intermarriage or through intellectual or spiritual searching.
Recently I summarized the first chapter of Tobin’s book here. The main reaction I got was members of the tribe saying, “Slow down.” I certainly understand why. And as I reacted to these comments more than once, I reminded people that Tobin’s suggestions are for the mainstream Jewish community and I was not suggesting that we in Messianic Judaism can simply apply them directly.
Mainstream Judaism is in a different place than Messianic Judaism. The differences include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Obviously I think the biggest difference is the joy and peace we have in our realization that Yeshua is Messiah. This lends an ardor to Messianic Judaism that is sometimes lacking in mainstream Judaism. Yet it is two other differences that bear more directly on the question of how to incorporate non-Jews into Messianic Judaism.
On Some Differences Between Mainstream and Messianic Judaism
Mainstream Judaism, particularly Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues, suffer from some level of identity insecurity just like Messianic Judaism does. Many adherents of these synagogues do not feel “Jewish enough.” There is, consequently, an unwillingness to encourage conversion. Diluting Jewishness is precisely what those insecure about their own Jewishness are afraid to do.
Yet the difference between mainstream and Messianic Judaism on this point is real: mainstream Judaism has every reason to have more confidence in their Jewish identity as it is already structured while Messianic Judaism must overcome a very real lack of Jewishness.
That is, mainstream synagogues, though feeling insecure in many ways, have nonetheless built Jewish space, Jewish life, and a Jewish ethic for their members that is clear and reproducible. Messianic Judaism, and I’m talking here only about the stream that is actually about Jewish people and Messiah, is still shrugging off its early Hebrew Christianity phase. Widespread mistrust of rabbinic literature, ignorance of history and tradition, and the inability to integrate in a truly Jewish manner our connection to both Christianity and Judaism still plague us.
The other difference I wish to highlight casts a more positive light on Messianic Judaism. We have a much greater ability to attract the non-Jew (I am speaking per capita, not total numbers, as our movement is obviously dwarfed by mainstream Judaism).
A Reform synagogue, if it set out on a decade-long program of welcoming all non-Jews interested in participating and in converting, would find it difficult to achieve a 50% ratio of non-Jews.
A Messianic synagogue, if it set out on a decade-long program of making non-Jews feel unwelcome and excluding them as much as possible from public ceremony, leadership, and liturgy would find it difficult to get their non-Jewish membership below 50%.
We offer the vibrancy of Yeshua-faith as well as the tradition and intellectual depth of Judaism. Untold masses of dissatisfied church-goers are interested in joining our communities.
Considering a Proposal from Tobin
Speaking about mainstream synagogues and their situation with regard to growth and inclusion, Tobin says:
Perhaps the greatest fear among those who wish to keep out the stranger is that the communal and ethnic ties are too weak to assist in-group inculcation and value-formation. Just as some Jews believe they are not religious enough, others may believe the community is not strong enough, distinct enough, or separate enough to absorb newcomers. Perhaps the community has been too weakened to identify the aspects of peoplehood that converts, through both the religious and the ethnic doors, would adopt.
Asking people to choose Judaism requires more of a sense of which identity and which behavior people are being asked to assume. Jews cannot advocate others joining their ranks without offering a set of values and norms. (pp. 50-51)
Tobin does not think that the mainstream Jewish community is actually too weak to incorporate non-Jews.
Yet we must admit, and this is what many of the Jewish commenters have been saying here on Messianic Jewish Musings, that Messianic Judaism is too weak to do well at incorporating large numbers of non-Jews.
The non-Jews among us, and I myself am not a born-Jew, must realize that if Messianic Judaism is to be about the remnant of Israel growing into Messiah and embodying the promise of Israel’s renewal, then Messianic Judaism must be a continuation of Israel and not a detour away from Israel.
This is the other side of the issue of inclusiveness in Messianic Jewish synagogues. Sure, we have plenty of reasons for incorporating and assimilating into our Jewish body the many non-Jews who understand the calling of Israel. Yet we also have a lack of Jewish strength which makes the insecurity of mainstream synagogues seem laughable.
Any theology of non-Jews in Messianic Judaism must not leave out this side of the equation. Any non-Jews demanding greater inclusion must understand and be part of the solution and not the problem.
Can these difficulties be overcome? Can Messianic Judaism bear the strain of weak Jewish identity further weakened by strangers who wish to redefine Jewish priorities? I do hope you will comment.