Ours has ended up in Tampa, Florida, on this day of our conversion ceremony. A Dutch-German pastor’s kid (my wife) and a former agnostic, turned Christian, turned Messianic with no real ethnic or religious heritage (me) along with their children (most raised their whole life in increasing degrees of Jewish sanctity) enter the waters and emerge as members of the tribe.
Contemporary ideas of what Jewishness means have a thousand false trails. Some think it is a religion, but have trouble reconciling the fact that many irreligious people are famous as Jews (Freud, Marx, Einstein, and we could name thousands more). Some think it is an ethnicity, but how do we explain the many intermarriages and famous conversions of history? Caleb the Kenizzite (the Kenizzites were an Edomite clan) is one of the most prominent Jews in the Torah, but was not born a Jew at all. Moses’ wives, numbers one and two, were neither of them Jews by birth.
The first part of what it means to be a Jew is defined in Torah quite simply: to be born into the chosen tribe (which was later divided into more tribes). From Abraham the tribe was further defined through Isaac and then through Jacob. Jews are descendants of Jacob. To be Jewish is to be born.
But why, then, should people be able to enter into the family of Israel via conversion? It happens in Torah without a clear rationale. A mixed multitude follows Israel out of Egypt. There is no mention of them later. One very real possibility is that they were absorbed into the people of God. It happens by choice and by grace.
We don’t know the story of Caleb’s incorporation into the tribe of Judah. We simply know that he was always known as the Kenizzite, even after he inherited a portion of land in Judah.
We know a bit more about the levels of Gentile approach to Judaism in the Second Temple period. Many came near without closing the distance completely, the God-fearers who rejected idols, took on some or all of Torah, and who became very near to the Jewish people — supporting the local synagogue and joining in the culture. Others became proselytes. In the New Testament, in Acts 6:5, there is Nicolaus the Proselyte one of the leaders in the Jerusalem Yeshua-movement. In a prominent place in rabbinic tradition there is Sh’maya and Avtalion, the teachers of Hillel and themselves the heads of the early proto-rabbinic movement. Onkelos, the famous translator of Torah into Aramaic, was a convert.
My family has encountered a number of different levels of resistance to what we are doing. A few religious Jews have remarked that Messianic Jewish conversion is invalid. A Hebrew Christian leader said, “Derek, you’ll never be a Jew.” Christians who hear my story tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. I’d imagine some think the idea is crazy while others are open to transformations they may or may not understand.
One sad and unusual source of resistance comes from various streams of Messianic Judaism. In some of these streams, all Gentiles are part of Israel through faith in Yeshua. So conversion is offensive, implying that other Messianic Gentiles need a process and a ceremony to be legitimate. In others, conversion is something invented by the rabbis and all things rabbinic are suspect. This position is self-contradicting, since these very same Messianics practice many rabbinic innovations knowingly or unknowingly. There are varied reasons some make a biblical case against conversion. Many cite 1 Corinthians 7. Yet somehow, they did not cite 1 Corinthians 7 when they decided to change their status from single to married. The text only seems to condemn those who make choices deemed unnecessary, but whatever Paul meant about remaining single is unimportant.
It’s all fine to us. We’re not doing this to please everyone or really anyone. We’re doing it in the eyes of God and in rejoicing with our community of Messianic Jews in the Hashivenu stream.
People ask us why? Why do we want to be Jews?
There are many false assumptions.
Some think we’re doing it to be extra holy, to get that super-stamp of divine favor, the mythical double blessing (Jewish and a follower of Jesus too). Some think I am doing it merely as a bona fide for my career as a rabbi (and I made a statement that a rabbi ought to be Jewish, and took heat from a number of bloggers who said this was my primary reason). Some might even think we’re doing it because somehow we don’t see Gentile relationship to God as equally vital and powerful.
None of these are true and, for the record, the nearness of God to those of the nations who draw near to him is every bit as real and joyous as God’s nearness to children of Israel. The election of Israel was always intended to draw God’s children from the nations into nearness with him.
We’re doing it because Jacob’s people have become our people. Where Israel goes, we will go. Where Israel lodges we will lodge.Where Israel is persecuted, we will be persecuted. Where Israel is buried, there we will be buried too, so do not ask us to turn aside or stop following. May the Lord do so to us and more if even death parts us from Israel.