The Conversion of Gentiles

Messianic Judaism has tended to be future-oriented since its first appearance (or re-emergence) on the stage of modern history. This future orientation has two aspects: generational and eschatological. We are concerned that we not only have Jewish children, but Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren as well. As we pray daily in the synagogue, “as for me, so also for my descendants,” we want them to live and love their Jewish heritage, traditions, and faith. However, as there is a clear anticipatory dimension in classical Judaism, so also it is with us. We eagerly await the arrival of Olam HaBa, the Messianic Age, and the reign—for us, the return—of the Messiah. This is the core of our vision for the future, and to some degree, it shapes our vision of the future.

 

As the ancient prophets of Israel pictured an important role for the goyim as part of that future, so should we. At both the beginning and end of his prophecy, Isaiah (2:3–4; 66:22–23) predicted a time when Gentiles would worship according to the principles of Torah and in keeping with the Jewish traditions alongside the Jewish people at the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah mentioned Gentiles observing holidays such as Sukkot (14:16–19), and he described a striking situation (8:20–23). People around the world ask to accompany Jewish people to Jerusalem to worship God. It appears that some of the Gentiles would worship not only with Jews, but as Jews; they would have “a place and a name” among Israel (Isa. 56:5).

Isaiah’s and Zechariah’s prophecies are part of our future, as many of us understand it. Since that is so, it should also become an essential part of what we envision for Messianic Judaism. This includes, for the Gentiles, “a place and

* This article is adapted from the chapter “The Legitimacy of Conversion,” by John Fischer, in Voices of Messianic Judaism, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed. (Lederer Books, 2001).

a name” among us. However, in order to envision the future properly, we should consider the past and present.

In dealing with this significant issue, Rabbi Richard Nichol did a masterful job of presenting the case for conversion. His Welcoming Non-Jews into Messianic Jewish Space takes a profound, pastoral and practical approach to the subject of Gentile conversion in Messianic Jewish communities. While concurring with both his approach and conclusions, this article approaches the topic from a somewhat different perspective.

In 1978, several people from our Messianic synagogue pursued Judaic studies at a well-known Jewish college. Many of the professors knew that we were Messianic Jews. One professor (also a rabbi) suggested that Messianic Judaism would demonstrate it’s credibility as part of Judaism in general when it had a viable, active process of conversion. Some within Messianic Judaism would argue that it is high time for this. Others—as indicated by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) majority position “Conversion of Gentile Believers”—have serious difficulty with this proposal. They raise several objections to conversion.

Since the UMJC paper remains the most clearly articulated Messianic Jewish argument against conversion, it is appropriate to address their concerns. The first objection raised states: “Despite inferential, contrary arguments, a clear biblical emphasis plus serious practical problems should prevent the UMJC from promoting any such conversions.” Several things need to be noted. First, the arguments against conversion are just as “inferential” as those supporting it. Unfortunately, “inferential” is a highly prejudicial term as used here. Second, to label one’s own position “clear” and “biblical” is both clever and soothing, but it is also self-serving. Those supporting the opposing position would also argue that their own position is based on “a clear, biblical emphasis.” Third, “serious practical problems” must be addressed, but they can be overcome.

The second concern addresses conversions through other forms of Judaism, and is, therefore, largely tangential to the issue discussed here. The third point cites 1 Corinthians 7:18 as evidence that “specifically addressed the issue of conversion.” While many use this passage in this way, it by no means, “specifically addressed the issue of conversion.” The context and commentators are quite clear on this. Verses 1–7 deal with whether or not to marry and with marriage responsibilities. Verses 8–11 include recommendations to both unmarried and married people regarding marriage. Verses 12–16 instruct people how to deal with unbelieving spouses. Verses 17–24 give the underlying rationale (with several types of examples) for remaining married if possible. Verses 25–28 include Rav Shaul’s suggestions to the unmarried. Verses 29–35 contain his reasons for remaining unmarried. Verses 36–40 conclude with guidelines for those who do, in fact, get married. In other words, the entire chapter deals with marriage, not with conversion. In addition, if verse 18 is an instruction not to convert, then by implication and context, verse 21 counsels slaves against obtaining their freedom. In such a case, in the book of Philemon, Rav Shaul contradicted himself because he urged the very opposite, that the slave Onesimus should be freed. 1 Corinthians 7:18ff. is counseling that Yeshua’s followers be content in whatever circumstances they find themselves (vv. 20–24). This is precisely the message of Philippians 4:10–19 as well. Further, if 1 Corinthians 7:18 ff. truly instructs Gentiles not to become Jews, then the passage, in context (v. 24), also equally strongly instructs the unmarried to remain single. In other words, if this text is used against conversion, it must also be used against marriage, and we should therefore counsel all the unmarried among us to remain so. Finally, if 1 Corinthians 7:18 is a directive against conversion and circumcision, Rav Shaul himself violated it when he had Timothy circumcised.

The fourth objection to

Conversion

conversion states: “There is no example in the is unneces-B’rit Hadasha of a Gentile believer becoming a sary. But Jew.” It then describes Timothy’s circumcision

(Acts 16:1–3) as a “pragmatic measure.” Whether

that does

a pragmatic measure or not, it remains just such not make an example. To argue that Timothy was half-it unbiblical. Jewish because of his mother—as the position

paper does—misses an important matter. In the

Second Temple period, Jews circumcised their sons. If they were not circumcised, they were not Jews. This was one of the things the Maccabim had fought for, and established after their Hanukkah-producing victory, the right and responsibility of Jewish parents to circumcise their sons. Every Hanukkah celebration reinforced this principle. Earlier, Hashem himself had set the precedent. Abraham had to be circumcised (Genesis 17:10–14). In order to be part of God’s covenant with Abraham, each male must be circumcised. If they were not circumcised, they were not part of the covenant. This was Timothy’s situation. In fact, when Moses neglected to circumcise his son, the Lord threatened his life (Exodus 4:24–26). In addition, the term “circumcision” is used throughout the New Covenant as a synonym for being Jewish (1 Cor. 7:18; Philippians 3:3). So, when Rav Shaul had Timothy circumcised, he had him “officially” converted to Judaism. As to the fact of his being “raised according to the Scriptures,” implying that he was raised Jewishly, Gentile “godfearers” of that time did the same for their children (Fischer 2000, 172).

With the fifth concern of the UMJC position paper there should be no disagreement: “Gentile believers who feel a strong identity with the Jewish people may join Messianic synagogues, participate in congregational life, and thus express a high degree of identification without actually becoming Jews.” Conversion is unnecessary. But that does not make it unbiblical.

The sixth objection indicates that Messianic conversions “would not be recognized in Israel nor among the majority of the Jews” outside the Land. This is undoubtedly true. But then again, these very same people do not recognize Messianic synagogues to be legitimate synagogues. In fact, some Jewish leaders are beginning to argue for the recognition of Messianic Judaism as an authentic part of the mainstream Jewish community (Harris-Shapiro, 1999; Cohn-Sherbok, 2000). As indicated earlier in this article, there are those in the larger Jewish community who expect, and even encourage, this process.

If it is argued that the rest of the Jewish community does not even fully accept its own converts now, it must be admitted that this is sometimes the case. However, there have also been many cases where converts have been warmly welcomed and fully accepted. As traditionally understood, “the convert is worthy of even greater honor than the one Jewishly born!”

The seventh point raises the issue of “a two-class mentality among Gentiles in Messianic synagogues.” Without sound instruction, there is such a possibility. However, as numerous Gentiles in Messianic Judaism have related, in many circumstances they already feel like “second-class citizens.” Because they feel this way does not mean that we should do away with Messianic synagogues or Jewish identity. In the same way, the “possibility” of a two-class mentality among Gentiles because of conversion should not keep us from making the procedure available. Sound, consistent teaching solves both problems. Consequently, rather than erecting a barrier between Jews and Gentiles in our congregations, the opportunity to convert may go a long way toward tearing down the subtle one that already exists in many circumstances. For example, how readily is a Gentile accepted as a congregational leader or ordained as a rabbi?

The final concern of the UMJC paper addresses a significant problem: “Even a non-obligatory conversion of Gentiles would be viewed as heretical by many in the churches.” However, many already view Messianic Judaism this way simply because of the existence of Messianic synagogues, the emphasis on Jewish identity, and the continued observance of Jewish tradition. On the other hand, as the editors of a Kesher article, “Halacha in Action,” perceptively reflected, while the concern is valid, it “. . . should not be weighed too heavily. If there is a clear biblical basis for a given policy, we must pursue it, even if many of our Christian brothers and sisters would misunderstand. We need to be careful that our halakha does not drift from the clear teaching of Scripture, as it seeks to accommodate the realities and limitations of modern life” (Dauermann, Kasdan, Nichol and Resnik 1997, 95).

So the question remains: Is there any teaching of Scripture, or are there any precedents within it that would support conversion of Gentiles? As it turns out, there are.

First, the Torah makes provision for “conversion.” In Exodus 12:48–49 the “alien living among you” (the ger) is given an opportunity to fully participate in Jewish life and observance if he so chooses. However, this requires a “conversion” process. He must be circumcised (v. 48). After this, “the same law applies to the native-born and the alien living among you.” In other words, both are now part of the same community. By this process, the alien has joined with—and has been joined to—the native-born. Together they live by the same standards (“the same law”). Deuteronomy 21:10–14 describes an analogous process for women (shaving her head, trimming her nails, and putting aside her old clothes). As the New International Version Study Bible perceptively notes at this point, these procedures are “indicative of leaving her former life and beginning a new life.” In other words, she has become an integral part of a new people and a new community. This was undoubtedly the process (since it is mandated by the Torah) that Rakhav later went through that enabled her to become part of Israel (Joshua 6:25) and part of David and Yeshua’s ancestry. Certainly Ruth followed the same path in carrying out her promise: “your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) She too, became part of the ancestry of David and Yeshua. In fact, from a classical Jewish perspective, “the most famous convert in the Bible is Ruth” (Epstein 29). This conversion-addition and its consequences are the point of Rabbi Eleazar’s statement in the Talmud. He teaches that God predicted that Ruth “would be grafted onto the tree of Israel,” who in turn would benefit (“be blessed”) by this (Yebamot 63a).

Building on the Torah, the prophets anticipate the times when large numbers of Gentiles would follow the lead of Rakhav and Ruth. Isaiah 56:3–8 speaks of the “foreigner” who “binds himself to the Lord” (v. 3), “keeps Shabbat” (v. 7), “holds firmly to my covenant” (v. 7), and offers acceptable sacrifices in the Temple (v. 7). The practices cited here are distinctly Jewish observances. Further, these people are not “excluded from his people” (v. 3), but are “gathered to the exiles of Israel” (v. 8). In fact, these Gentiles are given “a place and name” among Israel (v. 5). These terms indicate that they have a portion both in Israel, the land and in Israel, the people. Clearly, they have become fully part of Israel; they have converted. Earlier Isaiah had predicted (14:1ff.) that “aliens will join Israel and unite with the house of Jacob.” Moreover, this was forecast in a Messianic-millennial setting and context. In other words, there is a large-scale conversion of Gentiles still to come. Ezekiel 47:22-23 takes Isaiah’s eschatological picture a step further. The “aliens” who have become part of Israel receive land among the twelve tribes and an “inheritance” as part of Israel; they are completely and thoroughly incorporated into Israel. When in the time of Esther “many people of other nationalities became Jews” (8:17), that served as a precursor of things yet to take place.

Some well-intentioned people might object that the foregoing comes from Tanakh—the “older testament.” Therefore, so the reasoning goes, it no longer applies today. However, several of the passages discussed previously predict times and events still in our future. And, perhaps more importantly, the words of Yeshua and Rav Shaul are to the point. Yeshua reminds us that he does not set aside Torah and that none of the Scriptures will be set aside “until everything is accomplished” (Mattityahu 5:17–19). Not only does Rav Shaul say that “Scripture is for our instruction” (2 Timothy 3:16–7), but he informs us that observing Torah is part of honoring God (Romans 2:23) and living according to the Ruakh (Rom. 8:4). Therefore, since Tanakh (the “older testament”) is still valid, then conversion is valid.

Acts 15 and the book of Galatians may seem to present difficulties for this position. However, it is important to note that the issue there was mandatory circumcision (conversion) of Gentiles; the issue under discussion here is their voluntary conversion. Allowing Gentiles the opportunity to convert is far different from expecting that they do so. It should be further noted that denying the appropriateness of conversion to Judaism subtly suggests that Jewish identity has an essential qualifying (or disqualifying) genetic or racial component. That is simply not true. Anyone who strolls through the streets of modern Jerusalem will encounter Jewish people from nearly a hundred different ethnic or racial backgrounds. In addition, if it is acknowledged that conversion is legitimate for the larger Jewish community, then it is equally so for Messianic Judaism. If it is valid for Gentiles to become Jews in the former situation, then it is as well in the latter.

Throughout this discussion, one issue must be kept clear.

The issue is not whether Gentiles should or must become Jews to attain full status in the Body of Messiah. All Messianic Jews agree this issue was settled by the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem... . The issue is whether or not it should be possible for willing Gentile believers to identify more closely with the Jewish people by voluntarily converting. –UMJC Position Paper

In other words, the issue is not, as often inaccurately portrayed, that Messianic Judaism should “promote” conversions. The issue is whether they should allow for legitimate conversion and recognize it.

There are numerous Gentiles who have thoroughly associated themselves with Messianic synagogues—often with considerable sacrifice. Some have even been ridiculed and shunned by their families for taking their stand with us. A considerable number of Gentiles have made significant contributions to the life and growth of our synagogues. Most of them are quite comfortable and satisfied with participating in synagogue life and activities as Gentiles. However, as a result of their involvement in Messianic Jewish life, some have been more deeply drawn to Jewish traditions and observances, as was the case with the ancient godfearers. In many cases, they have evidenced a higher level of Jewish commitment and observance than many of the Jewish people in our synagogues. They long to identify with our people in a more thorough way, and they sense a calling from God to do so. For such people, who have demonstrated their commitment, have invested their lives in Messianic Judaism, and are clear about the call of God, there should be an accepted means of acknowledging their call, commitment, and longing. There should be a recognized way for them to more completely identify with us as a people. Such a conversion would in no way convey a higher level of spirituality or acceptance by God, and all those involved must be very clear about this. However, this process would allow such individuals to identify more closely with the Jewish people. Perhaps, a natural consequence may even be the clarification of Jewish and Gentile identity issues. It would then be clearer as to just who is defined as Jewish among us. This in turn might reduce the danger of the blurring of Jewish-Gentile distinctives and distinctions that could threaten the identity and integrity of Messianic Judaism.

There is a further consideration. Messianic Judaism can continue to deny to mature, committed Gentiles the possibility of following the leading of the Ruakh of God by converting. However, by doing so, we risk the danger of appearing, and being, like an exclusive club based on genetic/racial qualifications. We may well be perceived as saying: “Jewish identity is just for us; you can’t have any!” In this way, we may just “project” elitism and exclusiveness toward others.

What would—or should—be the impetus for a Messianic Jewish conversion? As argued above, there is legitimate biblical precedence. It is a Jewish thing to do. In Proselytism in the Talmudic Period, Bernard Bamberger traces the history of the conversion process in Judaism and the enthusiasm with which it was practiced until its abolition by the Christianized Roman Empire in the Talmudic period. The influential and respected Rabbis Yochanan and Eleazar concur that the reason God allowed the exile of the Jewish people from Israel was to multiply the number of converts. In other words, conversion is viewed as a very desirable and positive outcome of the Galut. Although forcibly dormant for centuries, this positive opinion of active conversion to Judaism has re-emerged in recent Jewish history as well. In 1978, Rabbi Abraham Schindler, then President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (until recently changed, the name of the Reform Jewish congregational organization in the United States), challenged Jewish people to reach out religiously to their non-Jewish neighbors in a sensitive but active way. This call was reissued by his successor Rabbi Eric Yoffie in 1996. More recently, the website of the Jewish Outreach Institute suggested that conversion is good for the Jewish community. Further, inviting Jewish people, but not non-Jews, into Messianic Judaism may well reinforce the sense in the Jewish community that Messianic Judaism is simply a deceptive front for moving Jews out of the Jewish community and into Christianity. An authentic process of conversion to Judaism, in that case, would convey a commitment to Jewishly strengthen the community rather than diminish it.

Although a case can be made for conversion, care must be taken to prevent a “bandwagon effect” and to deal with those for whom Jewish identity is simply a fad or “fashionable.” Strict guidelines must be established, and stringent checks must be applied to test commitment. In this process we would do well to be as rigorous and selective as the Orthodox. That would filter out immature or over-enthusiastic believers who may be tempted to convert and “play Jewish” for a while for whatever incorrect, hasty, or shallow reason that might spur them on. And, following the pattern of traditional conversion, leaders could repeatedly discourage initial inquirers to filter out the more casual and less committed and to test the commitment and call of the serious-minded and Spirit-led.

Further problems and issues may arise along the way, but within this guarded, and carefully-monitored, framework of conversion, they can be addressed as they are encountered. It appears that it is time for Messianic Judaism to take a step toward its future, a step toward fulfilling Isaiah’s prediction (14:1) that Gentiles “will join Israel and unite with the house of Jacob.”

Bibliography

• Bamberger, Bernard. Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. Hoboken: KTAV,

 
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