I am vacationing in Cocoa Beach, an interim stop along the way to Miami and the UMJC annual conference (Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, umjc.net). If I pass an exam — not a comprehensive, but an exam in my final area for qualification — I will be ordained on Saturday (July 25). As far as I know, I will be only the fourth of fifth person to receive smicha under the new system of credentials. We are going to need to see those numbers increase greatly in coming years if Messianic Judaism is to have a healthy future.
My path to Judaism is not orthodox (pun intended, but in all seriousness, my story is not normative). As I find we all need stories and to see the stories of others, I mean this little autobiographical sketch only as a means of sharing a story, and not as though I am suggesting my story is more important than anyone else’s.
I was not born Jewish. I was not raised with any religious or spiritual teaching in my home, though I have lived in Georgia almost my entire life (South Carolina for elementary years and Illinois for undergrad school). Many would assume a man from Georgia who talks about Jesus and the Bible must have been raised Southern Baptist. The only encounters I had with Baptists were the one or two times my mother sent me with a neighbor to Vacation Bible School (I won a prize for answering the most questions right about a Bible story, even though I didn’t know anything of the Bible or attend church like many of the other kids — a sure sign I would grow to be a Bible scholar!).
My path to Judaism began when, as an undergrad at Georgia Tech (the first of two undergrad schools I would attend), I picked up a Bible and started to read. I had no idea what was inside. Literally, I thought there might be fairy princesses and unicorns. I found myself drawn to it as I worked through Genesis and Exodus and eventually into Samuel and Kings. I was in a fraternity with a lot of Jewish brothers. And it hit me that this was the ancient history of the people to which my friends (loosely) belonged.
The next part of my journey, which would seem to have nothing to do with Judaism, was reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I was already a giant Tolkien fan and had naively read the Narnia books with no inkling of their Christian allegorical nature (inkling, get it?). I devoured Mere Christianity and eagerly remain a Lewis devotee.
I picked up Mere Christianity a skeptic and two or three hours later I put it down a weeping believer in Jesus.
Again, in a path that surely must lead far, far away from Judaism, I accepted an invitation that very week to visit a Baptist church, a famous one at that (Charles Stanley and First Baptist Atlanta).
The next step was probably the most decisive. The Baptist Sunday School teacher urged me to read the New Testament (horrified that my only reading up to that point had been in the Old Testament, the inferior book taking up space in the Christian Bible).
It was in the very first pages of the New Testament that one foot got planted in Judaism and has never been removed. Jesus was Jewish. Soon I met a Jewish Christian and a circle of people at First Baptist interested in Jewish roots. I found out Jesus was Yeshua and though the array of teachings I heard over the years was confusing and contradictory, I was introduced to the stream of Jewish faith in Yeshua.
The next twenty years I will summarize very concisely. I went to Bible college to study Judaism and the Old Testament. I saw myself as a Christian missionary to the Jews. I am not proud of everything I did, said, and thought in those years, but I learned a great deal on the ground, face to face with Jewish people. In an odd way, I was moving myself into the Jewish community and identifying more and more as a Jew, even while I was trying to persuade Jews to leave Judaism and join a church!
After grad school (Emory University, M.T.S. in Hebrew Bible), I was working as a missionary in Atlanta and growing increasingly dissatisfied with the missionary posture toward Jewish friends and acquaintances. How could I encourage these Jews to abandon something their families had held onto for thousands of years in order to follow a Jewish Messiah in a Gentile manner? My mission, like others, paid lip-service to Jewish identity and continuity, but it was a joke and I knew it more with each passing year.
Eventually, not feeling that the only Messianic work in Atlanta was for us, I came to the conclusion that I should start a group myself. Although I love to teach and study, I have some well-known leadership limitations, such as a lack of attention to details, an emotionally volatile nature, and an inability to keep myself at arm’s length and avoid wearing every thought and emotion on my sleeve.
My family and I were far more Jewish now, though neither my wife, nor I, were born Jewish. We wanted a Jewish community that followed Yeshua.
I made a great mistake. Not having a Jewish background, I spent about six weeks attending Orthodox Jewish services to learn a little more about Judaism. I should have spent a year or even six years attending various synagogues, and Reform and Conservative as well. At the time, I identified Judaism with Orthodox Judaism only.
Because of my lack of experience, I knew almost nothing. I knew Hebrew because I studied Hebrew Bible in college. I knew Jewish beliefs and practices from my experiences of a limited nature in Messianic Judaism and my friendships with Jewish families (though they were usually pretty ignorant of Jewish life themselves).
So, I was leading a Messianic Jewish synagogue and I did not know how to chant the Alenu!
The UMJC is what saved me from myself. The meetings with other rabbis, the friendships that developed, and the learning from mentors in the UMJC is where I learned how to live a Jewish life and how to lead others.
In the eight years since I started Tikvat David, I have had little help locally in learning and building a Jewish communal life. Most who have come my way have brought little knowledge with them. The Jewish congregants at Tikvat David have mostly not been the type who could teach me new areas of ritual life or worship. I have made many mistakes (in a few places, our melodies have a distinctive nature — the result of my musical innovation in the early years when I found it difficult to learn some of the melodies of communal prayer).
As I celebrate with my friends in the UMJC in Miami, I am coming full circle. If I pass the exam and all is well, as UMJC colleagues lay hands on me and impart a chain of tradition from Moses until the present, I have come home. To me, at least, there are many evidences I was bound up with the destiny and life of the Jewish people from the beginning. I am grateful for the great leaders who have built and sustained the UMJC and made this possible for me, for my synagogue family, and for my wife and children. May God increase our tribe within the congregation of Israel!