To Convert or Not to Convert

A reader wrote in and suggested that I discuss some reasons Gentile Messiah-followers should not convert to Judaism. They suggested I have made my journey sound too normative and I could give people the idea that every Gentile who loves Israel and Torah should convert.

So, the following is a partly serious, partly humorous attempt to expound . . .

IT IS NOT SUFFICIENT TO SEEK CONVERSION TO JUDAISM . . .

…because I love matzah ball soup and good fresh bagels with a schmear. Everybody loves matzah ball soup (proven, scientific fact) and, provided the bagel is made old-style (the dough must be immersed in boiling water or steamed before baking), who could resist an artery clogging combination of white flour and the fattiest cheese-substance known to man? This hardly makes you a candidate for conversion.

…because I love chopped liver and gefilte fish. On second thought, you may actually be a candidate for conversion!

…because I have an ambition to win the Nobel Prize. Most of us have seen the chain email that shows how Jewish people have disproportionately won the Nobel Prize. You are too old to get started on winning your prize already anyway.

…because the Bible is written in Hebrew and Jewish people use Hebrew at synagogue and in Israel. Assuming you are a Christian, why not learn Hebrew anyway and find a church where the whole Bible (and not just Paul’s letters) is read and studied. You could start a trend in your area and maybe others will learn Hebrew too. Plus, you can visit synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Messianic) from time to time anyway for an intensive Hebrew experience.

…because Jews are the Chosen People and I never got picked for teams growing up. Christians are chosen people too, chosen for redemption, reconciliation, resurrection, and glorification. How much more chosen do you need to be?

…because I fell in love with the land of Israel and I want to make aliyah (citizenship). Christians make pilgrimages to Israel too, you know. And unless your conversion is Orthodox, you’re not likely to make aliyah anyway (I’ve heard that people are now having success with Conservative and Reform conversions, can anyone confirm?). In most cases, conversion through the big three entails implicit or explicit denial of Yeshua.

…because I like the Sabbath and holidays and kosher chicken. Here we are in a controversial place. It is my opinion (I wonder if I will get slammed for this) that Christians who wish to keep Torah identity markers for Israel can do so in a humble manner, anticipating the age to come. By humble, I mean keeping them in a way that does not imply you are Jewish. But there are some strong traditions in Judaism that Torah observance by Gentiles is offensive. I don’t think these traditions are the final word and I believe there are dissenting voices in the tradition (but at the moment I cannot prove my point, so I am out on a limb here). Still, loving Torah practices is insufficient reason to seek conversion.

…because “Christian” is a bad word to me, Yeshua was a “Jew”, and I want to be one too. The labels “Jewish” and “Christian” are both late terms. “Jew” first shows up in the book of Esther and there is meant “of the tribe of Judah or the tribes that dwelt in the land of Judah.” “Christian” first shows up in Acts 11:26 and the term signified followers of the Anointed One (Christ, Messiah). It is true that Yeshua was not a Christian, but Acts 11:26 suggests that Paul and other apostles would also have been termed Christians (while not in any way losing their status as Jews). In other words, the terms Jew and Christian are not mutually exclusive. And we should not let the intervening history of enmity color our understanding if what Christian really means: a follower of Christ, who is the Jewish Messiah. One more point: Yeshua did not teach that to follow him one had to be everything he was. Can women follow a male Messiah? non-Jews a Jewish Messiah? Homeowners follow a homeless Messiah? Lawful citizens follow a condemned criminal Messiah? Humans follow a divine-human Messiah?

…because I have Jewish ancestors. Now we come to a tricky one. I am largely ignorant about the traditions here (I don’t mind admitting ignorance). I seriously doubt there is any tradition which demands conversion as a moral imperative for those with Jewish ancestors. But many factors come into play here, including in some cases restoring family relationships. Other cases involve distant ancestors and the issues are not as urgent. For now, I will say that having Jewish ancestry is not all by itself a sufficient reason to convert (please, someone correct me if I have misspoken).

So, what is a sufficient reason or what are sufficient reasons to convert?

I cannot give a complete answer. I can only say this: conversion is about relationships to the people of Israel (the Jewish people) and not about theology, social status, holiness, salvation, imitating Messiah, protesting Christianity, or a thousand other invalid criteria. Intermarriage is the only slam-dunk case (though some would argue that conversion is not necessary in intermarriage either, a good subject for exploration).

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Interfaith, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to To Convert or Not to Convert

  1. jennbrooke says:

    Thanks for writing this. They’re all things that need to be said, and considered, and you did so with wisdom as well as a wit.

  2. “Christians who wish to keep Torah identity markers for Israel can do so in a humble manner, anticipating the age to come.”

    Derek, can you expound on that a bit? It sounds like you hold that Gentiles will live as de-facto Jews in the age to come (but not in this age), correct me if I am wrong in that assumption.

  3. Gene:

    Not as de facto Jews since the distinction is clearly upheld in the promise oracles of the prophets.

    But, I would hope that centuries of Jewish-Christian enmity and traditions developed in that enmity would not predispose Jewish interpreters against the grain of a prophetic theme about the age to come. That theme is exemplified in Isaiah 2 / Micah 4 and a host of passages about non-Jews not only learning Torah, but even serving as priests (Isa 66) and taking up residence in the land (Ezek 47).

    I have not seen how those who disagree with me handle these passages. I brought it up in the now infamous “We Must Welcome” post and I was rebuffed. But no one offered a contra exegesis of Isaiah 2, much less the other prophetic passages that develop this theme. Let me pre-empt some answers by saying, if we relativize or suggest that such passages are unrealized ideals, we undermine the thrust of promise in the prophets in a way that cuts off our own foot. So, the bar is high for Messiah-followers to deny Gentile Torah-observance in the age to come while at the same time upholding the promise of Messiah and the hope of life after life after death.

    Derek

    • Derek, in that case I see little variance between your view of Gentile relationship to Torah vs. that of Dan Benzvi. Both of you believe that ALL Gentiles will observe all of Torah and even use Jewish identity markers in the Age to Come and should do it today (why not start early?), but unlike Dan you hold that they shouldn’t do it too overtly (should they do this only when at home, but not within MJ synagogue or in public?) in this age for practical reasons only, to avoid offense and misunderstanding. Is that correct?

      Also, about two years ago I challenged your (what I found to be a view foreign to Judaism) interpretation of Isaiah 66 that in the Age to Come Gentiles will trump what Torah specifies as inheritable-ONLY status and will be allowed to become Cohanim and Levites (which would be in violation of Torah, since even regular Jews couldn’t become priests or levites unless born into these tribe). The standard Jewish reading is that when Gentiles are bringing Jews back to the Land, some of these JEWS are Cohanim and Levites, and they will be selected to serve in the Temple. To me it’s the most obvious reading of the passages.

  4. Cliff.C says:

    Another great post, thanks! A couple of thoughts FWIW… Of course, we know the Jewish people will retain their exclusivity as God’s chosen in the world to come; however, I think God’s people as a whole are just beginning to go through a purging of anti-Semitism right now (this will take a while LOL). In the age to come, or beforehand, the Christian population will return/is returning to holy things in the Bible. People will live, celebrate, and practice the religion of the bible and the Torah (the Torah will go forth from Zion…). Sabbath will be observed on an international level (Isaiah 56 especially, 58, seem to support this).

    The Jewish people were chosen to set the example, to be the priestly nation. Their status will FINALLY be respected, as it is becoming even now, and they will serve their own and the Nations as Hashem intended at Sinai. Gentiles can bring offerings, worship with Israel (though not obliged to either). That is what makes the age to come so special. Finally, all who worship God can do so, correctly and Biblically, and be at peace.

    I think this is relevant. Respectfully, what can we make of the following verses? Are these sojourners that Ezekiel foresaw converts? (I don’t know how to interpret, that is why I ask, not because I am assuming anything into this about Gentiles)

    22 You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. 23 In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, declares the Lord God.

    Sorry this got long, darnit. thanks…

  5. judahgabriel says:

    Amusing post, Derek.

    Speaking of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 (and I hope this isn’t too spammy), I have to mention John McKee’s new article on these very passages: The Torah will go forth from Zion. His study there is a scholarly, engaged study; I found it enlightening, perhaps your readers will, too.

  6. Rebecca says:

    “It is my opinion (I wonder if I will get slammed for this) that Christians who wish to keep Torah identity markers for Israel can do so in a humble manner, anticipating the age to come. By humble, I mean keeping them in a way that does not imply you are Jewish.”

    Derek – this is the best articulation of why I(a non-jew) keep Torah. Thank you!

  7. robyn says:

    You forgot that it’s not acceptable to convert for the jokes. (Remember that Seinfeld episode?) :)

  8. Good one, Robyn.

    It is not a sufficient reason to convert on order to be able to tell Jewish jokes or in hopes of being as funny as Jerry Seinfeld.

    Derek

  9. Gene:

    There are plenty of differences between my position and One Law/Hebraic Roots. So I hope you only wrote that out of a rhetorical desire to make a point forcefully.

    You could be right about Isaiah 66, but I suspect I have a chance of finding in the commentators some who are open to the Gentiles-as-priests issue. It would be a good project for me. This is not terribly more a stretch than the Egypt and Assyria as a second and third with Israel in the world to come. And meanwhile, the grammar of Isaiah 66 should be considered, so I will look into that.

    Even if you took that one off the board, you could not remove the entire prophetic theme of Gentiles drawing close to Temple and Torah in the world to come.

    Now, as to differences between my position and One Law / Hebraic roots, you force me to reiterate them by your insinuation:

    (1) Non-Jewish followers of Messiah are not Israel, but are now in the commonwealth of Israel.

    (2) Full Torah observance is neither an obligation nor a higher way for Christians.

    (3) Jews and Gentiles remain distinct in roles and equivalent in blessing.

    (4) The distinction will not disappear in the world to come.

    (5) Israel is the Chosen People through descendancy from Jacob and Israel’s election is free and irrevocable.

    (6) Christianity is not any more or less guilty before God than Judaism.

    Shall I expand my list, or will you concede that your characterizing me in the same camp with the expressed views of Dan Benzvi is inaccurate? Dan would also disagree with you, I am sure.

    Derek Leman

    • No offense was meant, I am not trying to “beat you up” or put you in the same camp as Dan, Derek. I am just trying to understand your position on Gentile Torah observance today vs that in the Age To Come. If full Torah observance and Jewish identity markers is what will characterize the lives of Gentiles in the Age to Come, and while it may not be absolutely required today, it may only natural and desirable for all Gentiles to start being Mosaic Torah observant today (and to take Jewish identity markers).

  10. IMO, Torah obervance by non-jews(like myself) should not be as a result of trying to be “jewish”. There are some well meaning gentiles that, when they discover the MJM, dive in head first, and try to be all things jewish, which we are not.

    I would suppose that causes some to want to convert very prematurely, for unhealthy reasons. Personally, I think conversion should be reserved for those who are well versed, level headed, and for the right reasons.(None of which applies to me)

    I also believe we are supposed to obey Torah laws in some capacity, but what capacity that is, is it’s self a hot subject.

  11. Ovadia says:

    Derek:

    As a prospective convert I can say this is all great stuff. It’s about ahavat Yisrael or nothing else.
    On the issue of conversions of people of Jewish ancestry, the Conservative movement has an imperative to convert the children of Jews born to non-Jewish mothers, but aside from that you are correct. However, rabbis do tend to appreciate bringing the descendants of Jews “back into the fold”.

  12. kendman1 says:

    Derek – I’ve read many takes on the “to be or not to be” topic of this type of potential convert, as well as others (ethnic mainstream Jew to Messianic Jew, ethnic Messianic Jew to Christian, ethnic mainstream Jew to Christian, etc… (Also, Jewish Christian or Christan Jew?, etc…) over the last several years. After doing much reading and thinking on the topic, I can never seem to establish totally solid, definitive, concrete personal theories on the subject.

    It’s just one of those things where you ask a hundred different people (in the Messianic Jewish community), and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Some things are grounded firmly in scripture, and others are open to interpretation.

    If there is a true definitive way of categorizing every single principle as relates to “who is what” and “what is who”, and “who should do what” (with regard to conversion) on this subject, probably only Hashem knows exactly for sure.

    “Trouble Maker” would appear to be correct in his summation (that Gentile Christians who formally convert to Messianic Judaism should be Torah observant in some capacity). But this topic will likely be kicked around from now until “Kingdom Come” with no definitive consensus reached.

    Regardless, Derek – your take was one of the most thoughtful, articulate, and yes – entertaining – pieces I’ve ever read on the subject. Thanks!

  13. wordmachine says:

    I believe that every follower of Yeshua should be a priest, but that’s only because I’m part of a ministry that teaches us that. I need to research the scriptures more to see if that’s biblical for everyone to be. I’ll send you a video that describes it, Derek. The video explains why I believe it.

  14. ronnie22 says:

    Am I not grafted into the vine? So in a sense I am Jewish..:) I get the same nourishment as the native vine, branch, fruit, right?

    I just discovered your blog and enjoy reading your post!

    Thanks

  15. jennbrooke says:

    If you graft an apple branch onto a fig tree, it stays an apple branch. It’s an apple branch that gains nourishment and life from a fig tree. There are some rare cases where hybridization occurs, but generally speaking the graft retains it’s characteristics. So, no, we’re NOT Jewish. We’re given life and nourishment through what God has achieved on behalf of the world through Israel (the Messiah, Yeshua). We’ve been allowed inclusion and given salvation, and therefore we have equal standing before God, through Yeshua, but it doesn’t make us Jewish.

  16. jennbrooke says:

    Thinking more about it, I would consider the rare instances where God is truly leading one to convert (like Derek’s family did) to be analogous to the instances where a branch may begin to take on the characteristics of the host tree, but again, it’s not the standard outcome, nor should it be the standard practice. This type of thinking really ends up being a form of Replacement Theology, where Gentiles think of themselves as “Jews” and “Israel” which, as a result, displaces the set apart identity of Israel and the Jewish people. Denying the differences makes about as much sense as proclaiming that females are male. There are God ordained differences in His Family and in our roles. Just as the body has many members, and those members have different roles, so do Israel and the grafted Gentile believers. Yet we are all one in CHRIST (not Israel).

    • Jennbrooke excellent reply you have took the words out of my mouth in your two last posts I made the exact same points to a well know Ephraimite on Facebook simple and without confusion. Blessings in Yeshua.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s