I was reminded of this at a recent interfaith wedding. Among the four or five cuisine items at the reception, one was shrimp and another involved prosciutto. Many Jewish people, it seems to me, consider it a badge of honor not to be different. The thinking seems to be: I may be Jewish, but I can assimilate and just be normal like everyone else.
Non-Jews in Messianic Jewish synagogues often approach lifestyle issues like ba’alei teshuvot (recent returnees to Jewish observance, a term for newly religious Jews who are usually more zealous than longtime religious). Meanwhile, Jewish members of Messianic synagogues often are ambivalent about matters of Torah living.
Having established repeatedly here at Messianic Jewish Musings that Torah living is not a requirement for non-Jews, we now consider another question entirely: to what degree is it proper for non-Jews to take hold of a Torah lifestyle by free choice?
Motivations and the Gospel
In considering this question, one place to begin is to clarify a few motivations and to comment on their effect on the question.
(1) Some non-Jews feel inadequate before God without Torah practices (Sabbath, holidays, dietary law, fringes, Jewish prayer, etc.). The extreme of this mindset are those who feel that only Jews/Israelites/Messianics are right with God. God does not accept ordinary people. The additional holiness of Torah practices is required to make someone kosher to God. The Bible calls this a denial of the gospel. Instead of Yeshua, this thinking looks to Torah strictures as a system of merit. The book of Galatians was written against such thinking.
(2) Some non-Jews feel rootless before God without Jewish traditions. There are two types in this category. First are those who have been living in communities with Jewish traditions for some time and cannot imagine giving them up. Second are those newly coming into Messianic Judaism from disappointment with traditionless, flavorless churches. For the first group, I will comment below about the status of those already in relationships with Messianic Jewish communities. As for the second group, see part 3 of this series in which I discuss options for non-Jews who want a more Judeo-Christian approach. Churches need to have more robust traditions. A lot of evangelicalism is as devoid as possible of tradition and ritual. This style of religion leaves many empty. But non-Jews tired of shallow and unintelligent worship need not look to Judaism for a solution.
(3) Many non-Jews are drawn to certain aspects of Torah living because these things are in the Bible. Wanting to be closer to God, to live as God’s people did in the Bible, it is natural for many to keep Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot as a return to biblical living. As I will clarify below, I don’t think this impulse is harmful if it is followed by an equally thorough education in the theology of Israel’s election and role in God’s plan.
(4) Finally, many non-Jews are drawn to Jewish people, to the history and meaning of Israel past and future. This is my own story. In the early days, for me, it was not Torah that drew me, but Jewish people, history, and culture. Matzah ball soup was as important, if not more important, to me than the holidays. I loved the land and people of Israel (based on one two-week trip which was formative for me). I loved “Fiddler on the Roof.” I read Jewish history and felt a kinship with this people. That is why I converted and became a part of the Jewish people. I did not feel inadequate as a gentile. I simply identified with the present and future destiny of Jewish people. I had a Jewish soul, as they say.
Re-Education for the Confused
Those who suffer from feelings of inadequacy, who somehow think God’s love is only for the Israelite, for the priestly people, for the Jew, need to be re-educated.
How can you study the Torah and think God only loves those who keep the Sabbath or the dietary law? Do you suppose that God loved Noah? He ate unclean meat (see Gen 9:3). Do you suppose Jethro was loved by God? Do you think Abraham was Jewish?
Those who feel they need Torah to be accepted by God should study Torah. They will find that Paul, in the New Testament, knew what he was talking about. And he said God accepts those who keep Sabbath and those who don’t (Rom 14:5-9). He said that no one should judge non-Jews for not keeping the holidays (Col 2:16-17). He reflected the Torah’s view of itself, as a covenant between Israel and God, not the universal way of God for all mankind.
Judeo-Christian Options for the Enthusiast
In our discussion in Part 3 of this series, the label Judeo-Christian emerged as a wonderful option for enthusiasts of Jewish roots who wish to incorporate some aspects of the Sabbath and holidays into their lives without taking on Jewish identity for themselves. Especially in the comments we talked about ways for Judeo-Christian enthusiasts to find community together through the educational materials of FFOZ (ffoz.org) and the Union of Messianic Believers (http://www.umjc.org/umb-mainmenu-105).
We agreed that, in some cases, starting new churches would be helpful. In other cases, membership in a local church could be supplemented by individual or group study. Fellowship could happen through the UMB, through FFOZ and similar events, and, of course, online.
Much discussion is needed about how Judeo-Christian enthusiasts can maintain a distinction between Jewish and gentile identities. Certain practices and prayers should be reserved as expressions of Jewish identity. How can philo-Semitic Christians practice some elements of Torah living without stepping on Jewish toes? This will be a future subject of attention at Messianic Jewish Musings.
Hesed for the Already-Affiliated
I don’t want to rehash old discussions, but we’ve talked many times here about the fact that Messianic Judaism opened its doors to numerous non-Jews over the years. Many are in community in our synagogues. Many are entwined in the lives of Jewish and non-Jewish synagogue members.
I want to be clear that I am not advocating asking gentiles to leave.
I am in favor of clarifying for newcomers to Messianic Judaism that this movement is about Jewish people expressing faith and devotion to Yeshua. Messianic Judaism is definitely a home for Jewish followers of Yeshua and for intermarrieds.
Are there legitimate reasons non-Jews would want to be part of the Jewish segment of Yeshua’s body? If you are neither Jewish nor married to a Jewish person, is there a meaning to belonging to a Jewish movement for Yeshua?
I do think there are and will be people called to be crossovers. These are people who wish to support Jewish redemption. They may not desire to convert, but they feel their place is in the movement of Yeshua’s renewal of the Jewish people. These people do not complain about being “second-class citizens.” They do not exhibit a desire to be de facto Jews. They are comfortable in their own skin and recognize the unique election of Israel at the same time as recognizing God’s redemption of the nations. They know that God’s relationship with Jews and non-Jews is equally one of love and hesed. They have no feeling of inadequacy because they were not born into the priestly, Chosen People.
They are secure in the equal but distinct calling they have as the righteous from among the nations. They harbor no suspicion that God loves the Jews more. And they still want to be part of Jewish renewal. And they will be willing, as Messianic Judaism develops practices for distinguishing Jewish and non-Jewish members in synagogues, to support distinction.
Conversion and Judaism
Finally, there are those who sense a deep kinship with the Jewish people and a calling from God to belong.
Conversion is something people debate from a New Testament perspective. It is not my purpose to go over the case for conversion here.
Conversion is also something rare and hard to get in Messianic Judaism. In mainstream Judaism, it is not difficult to convert. The desire to be Jewish is respected and with education and under observation, those who apply are accepted.
Messianic Judaism has an insecurity problem. Messianic leaders are afraid to welcome too many converts. It could appear to the larger Jewish community as though we do not take Jewish distinction seriously, that we are a conversion shop.
But I do hope we overcome our insecurity. I do hope we will be willing to show faithfulness to those whom the mainstream Jewish community would welcome as converts were it not for faith in Yeshua.