This post should not be read in isolation from previous ones in this series. If you are short on time, at least read “Part 5” here.
We have now come to the part of this series which some readers have eagerly anticipated. We are going to talk about legitimate reasons for non-Jews to remain in Messianic Judaism or even to seek out Messianic Judaism. In Part 7, I will explore the question, “Is non-Jewish use of Jewish ritual absolutely forbidden?”
But for now, we are in a great dialogue, as Jews and non-Jews, as those involved in MJ and those at the borders of MJ and those looking on MJ from afar either in Christian or Jewish communities. We are wondering about this phenomenon of non-Jews taking up Jewish ritual and belonging to Jewish communities. Let’s start with some preliminary matters:
(1) I have advocated, biblically and theologically, that we must protect ongoing Jewish identity and not allow non-Jews to assume a false or shallow pseudo-Jewish identity.
(2) I have advocated, biblically and theologically, that we must not undermine the truth that non-Jews need not live like Jews in order to be kosher to God. See the article on the left sidebar of my blog called “Acts 15” if you have no idea what I am talking about.
Now a few more preliminaries:
(3) Many people are in MJ for insufficient reasons. They simply could not find a church which rejected supersessionism (replacement theology) and which had a positive view of Jewish culture and law. For these people, I have recommended the forming of Judeo-Christian congregations (though many do not prefer that name, no one has suggested a better one).
Now I want to talk about two things: (4) Many non-Jews have been drawn to MJ for very good reasons or, having been drawn for insufficient reasons at first, have grown into the full MJ vision and (5) MJ can and should develop ways of being communities with Jews and non-Jews serving a single purpose.
Drawn to MJ For the Kingdom
There are three kinds of people who find Jewish spirituality powerful and enter into MJ. One kind is the Jew-at-heart-who-should-convert. A second is the spouse in an intermarriage with a Jewish man or woman or the child of one Jewish parent. A third is the believer convinced God’s power is at work in the Jewish community and who wishes, like a sojourner, to be near and involved.
As for the Jew-at-heart-who-should-convert, there are barriers preventing most from fulfilling their desire. First, some don’t know they should or could convert. They don’t understand Jewish identity, have been told that they can assume a pseudo-Jewish identity without converting, and they are confused. Second, some are in situations that make conversion difficult, such as spouses who would not join them (note: this is an important category which Mark Washofsky discusses in the context of Reform Judaism in his Jewish Living). Third, many are held in paralysis in a conflicted and struggling Messianic Judaism which barely has conversion options available and only to a very limited group of people (see ourrabbis.org). I myself fell into this category for years, many of them in confusion, until I fulfilled my calling and completed conversion with my family. (But just because this category is personal for me does not mean you should refrain from challenging me out of fear I will be offended).
As for the spouse in an intermarriage or the child of one Jewish parent, some may choose to convert at some point and others may not. I feel bound, as a rabbi and encourager of faith in my community, to serve these families regardless of the choices they make. I make an effort to have an environment in our congregation that is welcoming to Christian spouses as well as Jewish non-Messianic participants. MJ must be a place for intermarrieds, in my opinion, in ways that are closed to them in Reform and similar alternative environments.
The fact is, by the way, that many intermarrieds choose neutral, non-religious environments, such as the JCC, to enculturate their children. Oy, I wish they knew of mature, Messianic synagogues where the whole family would be served and where faith is expressed! (CLARIFICATION: I think our JCC is great, I just don’t want people to see it as a replacement for a faith community.)
As for the believer convinced that God’s power is greatly at work in the Jewish community, I believe this is a valid and legitimate desire to be near and involved with a Jewish community. This is the category I belonged to once before becoming a Jew-at-heart and then a convert. For many, this involves a belief that in the last days, people from the nations will draw near to Jews and join in Jewish ritual. MJ is a sign to them that the last days are approaching. For others, this is bigger than a last-days-are-upon-us sensation. It is about the Abrahamic covenant, about Israel as the source of blessing for all the families of the earth, and a sense that being near to and serving Jewish faith in Messiah is a desirable place to be. Christianity and its focus on the nations is very right, but some people want to be part of God’s focus on the elder brother, the firstborn, the Jewish community.
Of course, this last category may draw ridicule from purists whose vision of Messianic Judaism is Jewish-only. I haven’t sufficiently proved that this category is legitimate (I understand). Oy, I need a whole additional post (Part 8, perhaps?).
Building an MJ for a Diverse Community
What is needed to make an MJ work which is populated with Jewish and non-Jewish congregants?
First, keep in mind that I think entirely or predominantly non-Jewish congregations should move in the direction of being Judeo-Christian congregations and quit using the name Messianic. Jews who believe in Jesus chose the moniker Messianic first. The world (I think this is still true in spite of years of confusion) thinks Messianic means Jewish. So, many are in “Messianic” groups that ought to be Judeo-Christian congregations (feel free to coin a better name).
Yet, in those congregations in which it is possible and even likely that the Jewish community may come and see renewal of Judaism in Yeshua (what I define as real Messianic Judaism), how can we have a meaningful tradition which respects numbers (1) and (2) from the top of this post?
The answer is that we will need to form halachic standards that differentiate between Jews and non-Jews.
We need to get rid of bad and imprecise theology such as, “As a non-Jew, I see no problem reciting the blessing “who selected us from all peoples and gave us his Torah,” since God chose me in Yeshua and Torah is part of my scripture too.” No, this blessing is intended to articulate God’s irrevocable election of Israel. Non-Jews need a substitution in wording.
There are many such examples. Bar and Bat Mitzvah for non-Jews? A bris for non-Jews? Think about it.
We can do this, even though it is messy, even though those from mainstream Judaism will criticize us (so what, look at Jewish internal criticism on the whole), even though some churches will call us Judaizers (so what, look at the fights in Christendom and move on), and even though we continue to attract confused people.
We can patiently teach (1) and (2) and wait for people to get it. Meanwhile, I don’t blame non-Jews for drawing near to the Jewish community, for loving the idea of biblical Israel, for loving the actual Jewish community, for wanting to be close to God’s plan for the Jewish community. This very real and very good motivation should be absolutely separated from the divisive, false, and unhealthy forms of pseudo-Jewish identity promoted in the broader MJ movement.