Rejoinder to Responses to Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism

I must begin by thanking Kesher, and my esteemed reviewers, for awarding Postmissionary Messianic Judaism such serious attention. I can only hope that the book will receive similar treatment within our movement as a whole, as well as within the wider Christian and Jewish worlds.

I have learned much over the years from these six respondents, and, I am happy to report, these respondents show that I am still learning from them. It would be a pleasure to engage in a concentrated discussion of all the points raised. However, given the number of responses, and the range of topics they cover, I will restrict myself to a few general comments, and to one issue that is central to the thesis of Postmissionary.

The main criticisms contained in these responses concern questions or perspectives that are inadequately addressed or accounted for in Postmissionary. Thus, Peter Hocken thinks my ecclesiology requires a deeper grounding in Christology and pneumatology and would be strengthened by a more pronounced eschatological orientation. Douglas Harink suggests that I give insufficient attention to the novelty of Yeshua’s person and message for Israel, especially as it would work itself out in the sphere of Jewish social and political life. David Stern and Mitch Glaser fault me for failing to emphasize the centrality of the land of Israel for Jewish identity. Kendall Soulen believes that the unity of the Messianic Jewish community and the Christian church calls for more extensive treatment and for practical recommendations toward making it a reality. All my Messianic Jewish reviewers call for a clear statement of my views regarding the salvation of individual Jews who lack explicit Yeshua-faith. These are valuable insights that will help me as I seek to develop and refine my thinking in coming years. I am also comforted to hear that, at least for these respondents, 310 pages of Kinzer was too little rather than too much!

I must admit that sometimes the criticized omissions or imbalances were deliberate. For example, while Daniel Juster agrees with me in seeing historical Jewish suffering as having a redemptive significance, he also contends that this suffering must be seen in part as divine judgment. Of course, I concur with this view. To reject entirely the connection between suffering and judgment would be contrary to the united testimony of Scripture and Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, given the goals of my book and its intended audience, I chose to emphasize the former rather than the latter. Similarly, Juster concedes the point that rabbinic tradition does have a measure of authority—but he criticizes me for failing in Postmissionary to underline the truth that Messianic Jews must deal with a “dual authority structure,” in which apostolic authority takes precedence. I agree with Juster in seeing Messianic Jews as living under dual authority—but, once again, given my goals and audience, I chose to highlight one of the two poles. On these matters, Juster and I would likely disagree on the proper way of balancing the complementary truths. We do not, however, disagree on the complementary truths that must be upheld.

What strikes me most about these six responses to Postmissionary is not the list of questions, topics, or perspectives that evidently demand further attention. I am far more impressed by the apparent widespread agreement with my core thesis: the church and the Jewish people are one two-fold community that has suffered a debilitating schism, and the healing of this schism requires the re-establishment of a community of Torah-observant Yeshua-believing Jews who take their place in the midst of the wider Jewish world. As Hocken notes, I elaborate this thesis as five ecclesiological principles:

1. the perpetual validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people; 2. the perpetual validity of the Jewish way of life rooted in the Torah, as the enduring sign and instrument of that covenant; 3. the validity of Jewish religious tradition as the historical embodiment of the Jewish way of life rooted in the Torah; 4. the bilateral constitution of the ekklesia, consisting of distinct but united Jewish and Gentile expressions of Yeshua-faith; 5. the ecumenical imperative of the ekklesia, which entails bringing the redeemed nations of the world into solidarity with the people of Israel in anticipation of Israel’s—and the world’s—final redemption.1

From the perspective of the Christian theological tradition, this represents a radical and novel vision of the nature of the ekklesia and its relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. If the Messianic Jewish movement and its friends were able to rally around this vision and present it forcefully and persuasively to the Christian world, our position in relation to that world could change drastically. The measure of apparent agreement on this thesis displayed by these responses to Postmissionary suggests that such a unified vision and witness is in the realm of possibility.

In the six responses, I discern only one objection to my core thesis. Mitch Glaser articulates the objection as follows:

Kinzer argues that Messianic Jews lived Torah observant lives during the New Testament period. As such, he believes that Jewish believers today should follow that precedent. However, the hermeneutical method Kinzer uses to arrive at this conclusion is overly simplistic. Jewish believers in the New Testament period did lead Torah-observant lives, as that was the typical Jewish lifestyle of the day. This does not mean that this lifestyle choice was consciously made for theological reasons. Rather, their Torah observance was probably motivated by anthropological reasons, meaning that their example is not determinative for this issue.

Because this point is central to the overall argument of Postmissionary, and because it is also central to any attempt to provide a normative definition of Messianic Judaism, I want to address it here at some length.

Glaser acknowledges that first-century Jewish Yeshua-believers observed the Torah. However, he proposes that they did so because that was the way Jews of their day expressed their Jewish identity. Glaser implies that identification with the Jewish community is a normative value that can be inferred from the witness of the apostles; but he believes that the mode of expressing that identification could vary from generation to generation, and from community to community. Unless we are living in an Orthodox enclave, the witness of the apostles might actually lead twenty-first century North American Messianic Jews to reject traditional Torah observance, since only a small percentage of American Jews live an observant lifestyle.

In contrast, my argument in Postmissionary implies that Messianic Jews are obligated to maintain Jewish religious practice, even if the overwhelming majority of Jews cease to do so. In fact, Postmissionary implies that our mission as Messianic Jews involves bearing witness to Yeshua as one who perfectly embodies covenant faithfulness and who summons Jews back to a renewed life of Torah-observance. Therefore, just as we must confess our faith in Yeshua in order to be true to our calling, despite the contrary beliefs of other Jews, so also must we live in fidelity to Torah-based Jewish practice, despite the laxity of such practice in the wider Jewish community. This is a point of fundamental importance for us as Messianic Jews, and I am grateful to Glaser for the opportunity to address it directly and clearly.

I would like to examine this question by looking first at Matthew, then at Luke-Acts, and finally at Paul, to see whether these writings reveal a theological motive underlying the Torah observance of first-century Jewish Yeshua-believers.

As I state in Postmissionary, “The Gospel of Matthew presents Yeshua as the definitive teacher of the Torah.”2 In line with later rabbinic tradition, Matthew presents Yeshua the Torah-teacher as distinguishing between greater/heavier and lesser/lighter commandments. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19; see 23:23). He introduces this distinction in order to assert that the former take precedence over the latter in situations where obligations imposed by the commandments conflict with one another. At the same time, Matthew presents Yeshua as insisting that the lesser/lighter commandments retain their authoritative status as divine directives for the Jewish people:

As I argue in Postmissionary, “For Matthew, Jewish practice [e.g., Sabbath and holiday observance, dietary laws, circumcision] constitutes an integral part of the lesser/lighter commandments of the Torah.”3 This means that Matthew sees Jewish practice as an indispensable and enduring element within the Torah. Thus, the motive for its observance is “theological” (i.e., a divine commandment) rather than “anthropological” (i.e., a neutral social practice that has value as an expression of communal solidarity but no intrinsic significance or obligatory status). Moreover, the book of Matthew provides no grounds for asserting a fundamental change in the requirement of Jewish Torah-observance or its theological motive as a result of the death and resurrection of Yeshua.

The book of Acts provides the definitive portrait of the early Jewish Yeshua-movement as Torah observant. Does the author inform us of the motive for this observance? He does so in the book’s companion volume, the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins his two-volume opus by describing a pair of devout, Torah-observant families, Zechariah and Elizabeth (and their son, John), and Joseph and Miriam (and their son, Yeshua). Zechariah serves as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, fulfilling the responsibilities incumbent on a descendant of Aaron according to the Torah. Joseph and Miriam scrupulously comply with the requirements imposed by the birth of their firstborn son (circumcision and redemption of the firstborn), and also bring him to Jerusalem as a young man for the pilgrim feast of Passover. Why do Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Miriam act as the do? Luke conveys their motivation without a trace of ambiguity: they lived “blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord,” and did “everything required by the Torah of the Lord” (Luke 1:6; 2:39). The book ends just as it begins, with a group of faithful Jews caring for Yeshua (now, in his death), and doing so in compliance with traditional Jewish Sabbath practice. Why did these Jewish women respect the Sabbath? Luke informs us of their motive: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). They were not simply conforming to communal custom, but were consciously obeying a divine commandment.

Like the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts emphasizes the Torah observance of the community of Jews that gathered around the person of Yeshua, now raised from the dead. Like the Gospel of Luke, this emphasis remains from beginning to end. In the absence of any indication to the contrary, we should presume that the motive for such observance in the second book is the same as in the first: obedience to the divine commandments. And, in fact, there is absolutely no indication in Acts that the motive for Torah observance has changed as a result of the death and resurrection of Yeshua, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Jewish Yeshua-believers are “all zealous for the Torah” (Acts 21:20)—a strange way of describing those who are complying with Jewish customs in order to fit into their local setting, and who would have had no reservations about abandoning Torah observance if most of their contemporaries had chosen to do so.

The reading of Paul that I present in Postmissionary supports a theological rather than an anthropological motive for Torah observance among Jewish Yeshua-believers. I describe Paul’s teaching in the form of a syllogism:

Major Premise: All those who are circumcised should remain circumcised (i.e., should accept and affirm their circumcision and its consequences) [1 Cor 7:17-20]

Minor Premise: All who are circumcised are obligated to observe the Torah (i.e., live according to the core Jewish practices rooted in the Torah) [Gal 5:3]

Conclusion: All those who are born as Jews are obligated to live a Torah-based Jewish way of life.4

When Paul writes, “Every man who lets himself be circumcised . . . is obliged to obey the entire Torah” (Gal 5:3), he clearly refers to a theologically determined link binding circumcision and Torah observance. Therefore, Paul agrees with Matthew and Luke in seeing Torah observance as normative for all Jews, regardless of whether the wider Jewish community is complying with this norm.

I imagine that Kendall Soulen will find that the above paragraphs suffer from the same deficiency he discovers in Postmissionary itself: I once again focus on the obligation of substantial Torah observance for Jewish Yeshua-believers (which he agrees is important), and ignore his challenge to offer a more developed case for bilateral ecclesiology in solidarity with Israel. My reason for this emphasis, both here and in Postmissionary, is threefold: 1. The entire Messianic Jewish project, at least as understood and practiced by the Messianic Jewish congregational movement outside the land of Israel, stands or falls on this point; 2. Many within the Christian Church have rejected supersessionism in principle, and affirmed the irrevocable covenant with Israel, while at the same time failed to uphold the normative role of Torah observance for Jews after the death and resurrection of Yeshua; 3. The theological case for bilateral ecclesiology in solidarity with Israel, upon which Soulen hopes I will elaborate further, itself hinges on the objective obligation of substantial Torah observance for all Jews, Yeshua-believing or otherwise. If this obligation exists, then it must be lived out in a supportive communal context—which means that Messianic Jews must have their own communal sub-grouping within the ekklesia (i.e., bilateral ecclesiology). If this obligation exists, then it must also be lived out in continuity with all those who share the same obligation, and who have transmitted an embodied form of that obligation from generation to generation— which means that Messianic Jews must share fully in the life of the wider Jewish community (i.e., solidarity with Israel).

Before concluding, I would like to comment on the reservations some of the respondents express regarding the implications of a “postmissionary” form of Messianic Judaism. I chose this provocative term because I was speaking to Christians, who have generally related to us as a missionary extension of the Evangelical church. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and mainline Protestants have viewed us with disdain because of this perception, while conservative Evangelicals have been willing to support us because of it (despite our suspected “legalism”). I wanted a title for the book that would immediately challenge the presuppositions of my readers about the nature and role of the Messianic Jewish movement, and its relationship both to the Christian church and to the Jewish people.

My intention was not to suggest that Messianic Jews should set aside the obligation to bear witness to Messiah Yeshua, in both word and deed. In a strictly theological sense, neither Israel nor the Christian church can cease to be “missionary” without losing its own identity. God has established a relationship with a people, and that people has a mission in the world to reveal God and God’s ways to all creation. Believing that the “fullness of God dwells bodily” in Yeshua (Col 2:9), Messianic Jews cannot divorce their witness to God from their witness to Yeshua. Therefore, our “inner mission” to our fellow Jews must include at its heart our expressed conviction that Yeshua is the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah.

However, I do think that this “inner mission” must entail a radical reconfiguration of the traditional evangelical missionary model—which is another reason why I have adopted the term “postmissionary” to describe the type of Messianic Judaism I am envisioning. If we truly affirm the irrevocable covenant with Israel, the centrality of Israel within the divine plan, and the enduring obligation of Torah faithfulness for all Jews, then our “mission” among contemporary Jews, who often lack faith in God, commitment to the preservation of the Jewish people, and the practice of a Torah-based way of life, must involve more than a call to believe in Yeshua for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. As stated above, Postmissionary implies that our mission as Messianic Jews involves bearing witness to Yeshua as one who perfectly embodies covenant faithfulness and who summons Jews back to a renewed life of Torah observance. In effect, our mission—as servants and representatives of Yeshua—is to help awaken Israel as a whole to its own mission: to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Finally, I must end, as I began, by expressing my gratitude to Kesher and to my capable reviewers. If Postmissionary continues to stimulate the sort of discussion that has occurred in this volume of Kesher, the years of loving labor that went into its composition will be more than justified.


Notes: 
  1. Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 264.
  2. Ibid., 59.
  3. Ibid., 60; This is demonstrated by Yeshua’s use of Hos 6:6 in Matt (9:13; 12:7). This verse (“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”) is a prophetic critique of Israel’s sacrificial system when it is viewed as a substitute for rather than an expression of the righteous conduct required by the covenant. In its original context and in Matthew, the verse means: “Mercy is more important than sacrifice.” In Matthew, Hosea 6:6 serves as biblical grounding for Yeshua’s distinction between greater/heavier and lesser/lighter commandments—the former dealing with matters of right conduct in human relationships (“mercy”), the latter with matters of ritual law (“sacrifice”). In Matt 12:7 Yeshua applies Hos 6:6 to the proper understanding of Sabbath observance. Caring for the legitimate needs of others fulfills a greater Sabbath commandment (“it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” [Matt 12:12]) than does refraining from minor forms of labor. Nevertheless, both are genuine Sabbath requirements. It is thus evident that Yeshua treats matters of distinctive Jewish ritual practice as (lesser/lighter) commandments that remain authoritative for his Jewish disciples.
  4. Ibid., 72-73.

 

Mark S. Kinzer, Ph.D., is an ordained rabbi in the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, spiritual leader of Congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and president of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He is also an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 
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