On Messianic Conversion
Several years ago I was invited to speak at the international conference of the UMJC where I had the opportunity to meet both Messianic leaders and congregants. The preceding year my book, Messianic Judaism appeared, and I was asked to reflect on ways in which Messianic Judaism might be able to gain greater acceptance in the Jewish community. I stated that I thought it would be helpful if Messianic conversion were introduced; my argument was that the process of conversion is normal within the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish world. Why, I asked, should not Messianic Jews follow the same procedure of acceptance into the Jewish fold?

O N M ESSIANIC C ONVERSION

By Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Several years ago I was invited to speak at the international conference of the UMJC where I had the opportunity to meet both Messianic leaders and congregants. The preceding year my book, Messianic Judaism appeared, and I was asked to reflect on ways in which Messianic Judaism might be able to gain greater acceptance in the Jewish community. I stated that I thought it would be helpful if Messianic conversion were introduced; my argument was that the process of conversion is normal within the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish world. Why, I asked, should not Messianic Jews follow the same procedure of acceptance into the Jewish fold?

Following the conference. I edited Voices of Messianic Judaism (Lederer, 2001) which contains a wide range of essays written by members of Messianic Judaism dealing with a number of central issues, including conversion. “In Conversion of Gentiles—No Way,” Michael Wolf, the rabbi of Beth Messiah Synagogue in Loveland, Ohio, contends that there is no basis in Scripture for such a practice. Further, he stresses that conversion would bring about considerable confusion to Messianic Judaism and an accusation from those whom Messianic Judaism seeks to reach. “The utter lack of acceptance in the Jewish community of the Gentiles we would convert,” he writes, “added to the lack of a clear scriptural model for our authority to convert Gentiles, produces a dissassociative factor in relation to the Jewish community.” 1 Conversion of Gentiles, he concludes, ‘”does not confirm our belonging to the peoplehood of Israel but, instead further distances us by creating a distinct entity not connected with the rest

1 Michael Wolf, ‘Conversion of Gentiles—No Way’ , in Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed., Voices of Messianic Judaism, Lederer, 2001, pp. 137-138

2 Ibid., p. 138

3 Rich Nichol, Welcoming Non-Jews into Messianic Jewish Space: The Case for Conversion, Ruach Israel, Needham, Mass., 2005, p. 13

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p. 27

6 Ibid.,

75

of the people. 2 By contrast, Rabbi John Fischer of Congregation Ohr Chadash in Clearwater, Florida, in “The Legitimacy of Conversion” adopts a more accepting approach, focusing on the needs of Messianic Gentiles. There are many Gentiles, he points out, who have associated themselves with Messianic synagogues. Some have been ridiculed and shunned by their families. In his view, as long as these individuals evidence a high level of Jewish commitment, they should be welcomed into the Jewish community:

For such people, who have demonstrated their commitment, have invested their lives in the Messianic Movement, and are clear about the call of God, there should be an accepted means of acknowledging their call, commitment, and longing. 3

Arguing along similar lines, Rabbi Richard Nichol of Ruach Israel in Needham, Massachusetts, in his stimulating “Welcoming Non-Jews into Messianic Jewish Space” maintains that Messianic Gentiles should be allowed to convert to Judaism if they are truly dedicated to the Jewish way of life:

It is an act of love as is all legitimate boundary-making and boundary-keeping. It is true in the realm of citizenship and it is true in the realm of faith.

Offering conversion is a matter of love. Yet, he stresses that such love requires standards of acceptance. “We would suggest,” he writes, “that one way to love Israel is to protect her boundaries, not conferring citizenship to non-citizens in a casual or slipshod fashion.” 4 Conversion of Messianic Gentiles, therefore, should only occur if high standards are set and conversion should be performed through a Bet Din:

A Bet Din or rabbinical court is the means whereby candidates for conversion are evaluated and accepted...According to practice, a team

p. 24

7 B. Kravitz, The Jewish Response to Missionaries: Counter Missionary Handbook, Los Angeles, 1996, p. 9

8 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Messianic Judaism, London: Continuum, 2000, p. 2134

of three Jews including one ordained rabbi, constitutes a Bet Din. It is in this forum that the difficult, ambiguous and challenging cases are decided. It is here that legal precedents are set and a body of case law gradually develops. 5

In making the case for conversion, Nichol notes that most Jews will not accept Messianic conversion. Yet, he believes this is of little concern since in social situations with other Jews, when one is asked about one’s religion, all that is necessary or appropriate for the convert is to say, “I’m Jewish.” Usually, no questions are asked since in contemporary society there are many branches of the Jewish faith. It is not polite to pry into other peo ple’s religious convictions, and generally it is not done. In modern America, he writes, “the problem of Messianic Jewish legitimacy is not very acute on an every day basis.” 6

Like Richard Nichol and John Fischer, I agree about the necessity of conversion within a Messianic context. But, it must be acknowledged that these con verts will not be accepted into the Jewish community. Over the last few decades, all branches of mainstream Judaism have been fiercely critical of Messianic Judaism. Critics of Messianic Judaism insist that it is impossible to remain Jewish while accepting Yeshua as Messiah and Lord. In their view, the use of the term “Messianic Jew” is a deceptive attempt to represent converted Jews as Jewish. A typical response to Messianic Judaism is reflected in the view of B. Kravitz in The Jewish Response to Missionaries: A Counter-Missionary Handbook.

Numerous “Hebrew Christian” leaders dishonestly refer to themselves as “rabbis” and to their places of worship as “synagogues.” These tactics are employed in an attempt to render their version of Christianity more palatable to the Jews they seek to convert. 7

Such attitudes are deep-seated, and Messianic Jews need to recognize that the vitriolic condemnation of Messianic Judaism is an intractable problem. In my book, Messianic Judaism, I sought to provide an overview of the history, beliefs and practices of Messianic Judaism, and it was my intention to allay the fears of many non-messianic Jews. In this regard, I emphasized that those who accept plurality within contemporary Judaism should not be alarmed by the emergence of a segment of Jewry that embraces Yeshua. As I wrote:

Jewish pluralists know that it will not be easy for the Jewish community to come face to face with itself and to recognize that Messianic Judaism is no more inauthentic than other forms of contemporary Jewish life. Many Jews will need to overcome subconscious feelings of antipathy towards rural values as well as hostility to evangelical fundamentalism... . Rather than engaging in bitter and acrimonious criticism of one another’s religious viewpoints, the Jewish people need a new framework for harmonious living, one which will serve as a remedy for the bitter divisions that have split the community into warring factions since the Enlightenment. 8

Such a hopeful plea has largely fallen on deaf ears. In various quarters I have been criticized for such openness. The president of Hebrew Union College, as well as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, for example, were publicly critical of my views. Jews for Judaism castigated me on their website. This is disappointing, but not surprising. The Jewish world is not yet ready to embrace any form of Judaism in which Yeshua plays a central role, even though non-theistic Jewish religious systems— such as Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism—are generally accepted within the Jewish community.

Given such reluctance, it is inconceivable that Messianic converts will be welcomed into the Jewish fold. Yet, in contrast with Michael Wolf, I believe this is not a reason to abstain from converting Messianic Gentiles who seek to be identified as Jews: Dr. Nichol is right to point out that there are good reasons for conversion to become a standard procedure within the Messianic community. Messianic converts will be regarded as Christians by the Jewish community as a whole, but within Messianic Judaism they will be perceived as Jews. When Reform Judaism emerged in the 19th century, Reform conversion was condemned by the Orthodox. Today, Reform converts contin ue to be regarded as Gentiles by Orthodox Jews. In Israel, Orthodox rabbis press for a change in the Law of Return so that non-Orthodox converts will not be permitted to settle in the Holy Land.

This situation has not affected Reform Judaism’s attitude towards conversion, nor should such attitudes deter Messianic Jews from converting the faithful. Jewish identity should be avail able to all those who genuinely desire to become Jewish, including those who regard Yeshua as their Saviour.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a native of Denver, Colorado, was educated at Williams College and was ordained a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion where he earned a doctorate in divinity. He has served American congregations in Alabama, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Colorado, as well as in Australia, England and South Africa. He received a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and taught Jewish theology at the University of Kent, Canterbury. He has been a visiting professor at the universities of: Essex, Middlesex, St. Andrew's, and Vilnius. Dr. Cohn-Sherbok is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales at Lampeter, and is the author and/or editor of over 70 books.

 

 
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