This weekend I had a rare and uncomfortable experience. I felt a need to protect a boundary at synagogue. In the process I had several congregants witness the event and had productive follow-up conversation with them.
The actual incident was relatively calm, no shouting, but the conversation was tense. It really doesn’t seem possible to protect a boundary at times without making people feel rejected, no matter how good your intentions may be in bringing up boundary issues or how careful you try to be in showing respect while being firm.
So why do it? Why not just live and let live and let everyone do as they please? Are there principles that transcend peaceful community and hospitality? Can a little conflict sometimes be called for?
Before I get into the exact boundary issue that came up, it would be instructive to describe my friends (congregants, we are a congregation of friends) who witnessed the event and with whom I discussed this at length afterwards. It was late on Shabbat, around 5 p.m. and only a few families were still hanging around. These three men are all people I know well and who represent our synagogue community well.
One is a Torah-keeping, knowledgeable non-Jew who never puts on airs, who respects Jewish identity, who does not dress frum, and who is clear in his interaction with people that he is not Jewish. He has become over the last year a close friend, a loyal friend, and is a teacher in our synagogue.
Another is a non-Jew with a Jewish wife who is Messianic. Their whole family is involved in leadership at the synagogue. He is a close friend, someone who shares a hobby with me (table-top wargames of the science fiction variety). He has a very Christian outlook, resisting some Jewish ideas, and is definitely an independent thinker. Yet he respects the diversity in our synagogue and in his own family. While disagreeing with some traditional aspects of Judaism, he is a mature person able to fit into a community without losing his independence.
The third observer of my boundary-keeping chutzpah yesterday is a very observant Jewish man who is Messianic. His family is one of the two or three most observant in the synagogue. The standards of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (ourrabbis.org) are actually relaxed and a bit liberal to him.
Now, after all that setup, what was the boundary issue I had to address yesterday?
Primarily, I was attuned to an individual who came wearing tzit-tzit (Jewish ritual fringes) on his clothing but no kippah (skullcap). He sported an Orthodox looking beard and the tzit-tzit had the blue cord (techelet).
I have been asked by other rabbis if I get visitors like this as often as they do. No, I do not. Maybe I exude some sort of “I am not a One Law advocate” pheromones that keep people like this away. Truly there is a congregation in our city that is exactly the place for non-Jewish, One Law, we-make-up-our-own-Judaism people. I suppose these types usually go there and don’t visit our synagogue.
Now, mind you, we do not exclude people who think in One Law ways from our synagogue. We have wonderful members of our community who think in a One Law sort of way. The issue is not ideology, but rather identity.
That is, these visitors yesterday would not have earned a boundary-keeping talk from the nervous rabbi (me) if it had not been for their crossing a boundary of identity. The person I talked to crossed two:
(1) He wears tzit-tzit in public with no kippah (I’ll explain this below).
(2) He is a non-Jew who dresses as a frum Jew (note: there is another type of clothing-style issue that we rarely encounter, but which Messianic rabbis call “biblical characters,” people who think MJ is about dressing like the first century — thank God we’ve almost never had to deal with this issue).
The principle is that some non-Jewish Torah-keepers would eradicate the Chosen People by defining Jewishness as irrelevant..
In case anyone thinks I am worrying about a non-existent problem, let me tell you: these gentlemen in the parking lot of the synagogue said it themselves. Here are a few examples of things they said as we debated the issue:
I didn’t say I was Jewish. God told me I was part of Israel.
When you are grafted into Israel by faith in Yeshua you are part of Israel. Haven’t you read Ephesians?
I don’t wear a kippah because that is man-made.
God said there is no longer Jew or Gentile and Gentile means pagan, so of course I am not a Gentile.
I am a descendant of Jacob. You don’t have to be Jewish to be from Jacob.
There can be no doubting God’s love both for Israel as the Chosen People and those from all nations as his children. But I do doubt, repudiate, oppose, and challenge any notion which erases God’s covenant blessing through Israel and which says it has ceased, is not presently operating, or has no future relevance.
This issue is of signal importance for MJ. Will we allow our synagogues to be filled with people who believe God does not keep his covenant with Jewish people? Will we allow this kind of replacement theology (Torah-keeping non-Jews replace Israel)?
Three Conversations from Three POV’s
My friend who is non-Jewish, Torah-observant, and respectful of Jewish identity had this to say:
At first I thought you were being a little hard on them. I thought maybe they thought like I do. But as the conversation unfolded, I saw you had them pegged accurately. They really were anti-Jewish.
What are some differences between our visitors and this friend? Well, for one thing, my friend wears his tzit-tzit privately, not publicly. He wears a kippah in worship, but not in public places. He is clear in conversation with people that he is not Jewish. His ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) is evident in his lifestyle and in conversation.
My other friend, who is very Christian in outlook, but with a commitment to some of Torah (the parts found in the Bible), but whose wife is Jewish (and his children), has a different POV. He was puzzled and surprised by the distinction I had made:
I don’t get it. You let non-Jews in service wear the tallit (prayer shawl, which has fringes), but you have a problem with someone who wears fringes in public and is not Jewish. Also, you used to practice only the Torah that is written, but over the years you’ve incorporated rabbinic rulings. So you allow Jewish weirdness, but you exclude Gentile weirdness?
I responded that I allow the wearing of tallit because it is temporary and can also be seen as a worship custom. But wearing fringes all the time is a sign of Jewish identity. This didn’t satisfy my friend. He still thinks I am being inconsistent. That’s all right. My friends are free thinkers. May there be more such free thinkers in the world.
Finally, my observant Jewish friend, who is fairly new at our synagogue, weighed in with his opinion. He thanked me for challenging these visitors. It turns out he had already had a conflict with one of them earlier in the day when he tried to bring the issue up himself:
I was offended. Any observant Jew would be offended by someone not Jewish wearing tzit-tzit and dressing frum.
So, now, dear readers, Let’s discuss this issue (with civility, with respect if we disagree, and for the purpose of mutual learning). Is there a boundary which non-Jews should not cross? If so, where are its lines?
I have a few rabbi friends who draw the line much more sharply than I. No non-Jew can make an aliyah or wear a tallit. I can make a case for non-Jews being able to pray along with Jews about being chosen. I can make an argument for wearing tallit in worship, but not tzit-tzit in public.
But I want to hear from you.