My response to Richard Nichol’s Case for Conversion pamphlet reflects the views of the Executive Committee of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America and the Steering Committee of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues. I am opposed to any conversion process for Gentiles within Messianic Judaism. While recognizing the challenges of identity that Gentiles face in the Messianic Jewish community, I believe that these challenges can be addressed in ways that conform to scripture, and I do not believe a conversion process conforms to scripture.
The New Covenant grants to congregational leadership no authority to convert Gentiles to Judaism, consequently calling them Jews. The clear and consistent pattern of the New Covenant is to help God-fearing Gentiles to find their identity as fellow heirs with their Jewish brethren in Messiah. The example which Dr. Nichol gives concerning Timothy is not warranted by the text. He uses historical scholarship to show that Timothy was not considered Jewish in the First Century, even though his mother was Jewish. Therefore, according to Nichol, Rav Shaul must have converted him from being a Gentile when he circumcised him. The text at question (Acts 16:1-4) is below:
Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek. And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.
Does anyone seriously think that Paul would have circumcised Timothy if his mother was not Jewish? Just as the Samaritans (whose lines were not “pure”) were considered children of Israel in Acts 8 before the outpouring on the Gentiles in Acts 10, so this act of circumcision by Paul was not an act of conversion but of recognition of Timothy’s right as a son of Israel to be called a Jew. He just needed to be circumcised to claim that right.
The New Covenant is not just silent on Gentile conversion. Conversion is contrary to the principles and practice outlined in scripture. To underline an argument from silence, Nichol gives an illustration of a son who is living with a girl and protests to his mother that weddings are not mentioned in scripture. But this argument does not apply to Gentile conversion. After all, the principle of the holiness of the marriage covenant before God and man is clearly in the Biblical text. In contrast, the process of turning Gentile believers into Jewish believers is not reflected even in the spirit of the text. Though 1 Corinthians 7:18 is not about conversion per se (after all, Jews could not “convert” to physical uncircumcision), it reveals a pattern Shaul followed. Gentiles could participate in some Jewish practices if they so chose, but they were not “called” to enter the covenant given to Abraham for his physical descendants. And we in Messianic Jewish leadership have not been granted authority to call those who are not physically descended from Israel Jewish. We may claim this authority, but God has not granted it.
In his pamphlet, Nichol surmises that, in general, the Jewish community will respond well to a formal conversion process within Messianic Judaism. He may be able to give a few examples of people that he has interviewed, but I firmly believe that the opposite would occur. The practice of Messianic Jewish conversion will be seen as the ultimate deception. And, in a sense, it will be.
It is one thing to claim that Messianic Jews are still Jewish.
We can point to scripture and First Century rabbinic perspectives for evidence of that. But taking upon ourselves the authority to call Gentiles Jews, apart from, and independent of, the rest of the Jewish community, will be likened to printing counterfeit money. The mainstream community Jewish will say that we are simply calling Gentiles “Jews.” And they will be right. Some in Messianic Judaism might say that this will help transform us into a “legitimate” Judaism. Not only will that not occur, but we will be perceived as even less legitimate. I believe that the consequences for our already shaky relationship with the wider community would be disastrous. In short, conversion would not result in open doors of any kind with the wider Jewish community but instead would represent a huge set back.
Nichol takes pains in his pamphlet to emphasize that we are a Jewish movement and not a “primitive form of Christianity.” While it is true that we are indeed a Jewish movement, I would hope that Dr. Nichol would agree that we are also a part of the universal body of Believers. The question must be asked, “How would the Gentile part of the body interpret this step?” I believe that the impact of taking even a few born again Gentile believers and calling them Jewish will cause confusion about exactly who we are and what we are doing. We will be seen as developing into a sect. It does not matter whether we apply the process carefully or sparingly. Doing it at all is like being a little bit pregnant. And this will not be lost on the Christian families (and those families’ pastors) of the Gentile (or “former Gentile”) members of our congregations. The Gentile church will recognize that this is far afield from our original vision of calling our Jewish people to fulfill their spiritual destiny through a personal relationship with Yeshua HaMashiach. And they will be right. In addition, they are not ignorant of the authority that scripture does not grant. They will question our claim for this authority to convert Gentiles to Judaism. In addition, they will question our motives for doing so. Our validity as a movement will be diminished. I would not want to explain this practice to a supportive group of pastors while in the process of communicating the Messianic Jewish vision. I suspect that not many Messianic rabbis would. It would monopolize precious time and be a costly distraction from our primary vision.
Much time is given in Nichol’s pamphlet to the confused identity of Gentiles in our synagogues and to a need for “integrity” among believers in our midst who desire to practice Jewish rituals. “Integrity,” is something that he defines as the restriction of a number of Jewish practices to Jews and “converts.” The observance of these practices by “unconverted” Gentiles in our synagogues lacks integrity, according to Nichol. I hold to a different perspective.
In response to Nichol’s concern about what the Jewish community thinks concerning Gentile participation in Jewish rituals, there is no consensus in modern Judaism about who is restricted from many of these practices. My male Gentile school friends were permitted and even expected (out of respect for their Jewish surroundings) to wear a tallit at my Bar Mitzvah in a traditional Conservative Jewish synagogue in 1963. Scriptural meanings about the tzitzit aside, this is not unusual. Of course, we all know that Gentile men are expected to wear a head covering in certain Jewish spaces. The Kotel is one such place. I have witnessed Gentile relatives of Jewish children reciting the translation to the Torah blessings in traditional synagogues.
It is true that in the wider Jewish community Gentile children do not share in the Bar and Bat Mitzvah tradition. I also am aware that we must be very clear that the Gentile children participating in this are not themselves Jewish, but are identifying with the people of Israel. We must be equally up front with the children themselves and with the entire congregation. We have sought to be clear about this in our synagogue, and as a result Jewish visitors have generally responded very well. While examples like this may present a challenge, the answer is not to put the entire Gentile family of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah through some kind of conversion process.
At Beth Messiah Synagogue in Cincinnati, the Gentiles know that they are Gentiles. We have taken on the responsibility of helping their children know who they are and how they fit in. I realize that this is not easy work, and we could all be better at it. But it is our task to assist these precious people to find and fulfill their ministry call in the context of our congregations.
Nichol says that the standards for conversion should be high and that they should be rare. But I know that in our synagogue if I were to open this door and restrict participation of Gentiles in important aspects of our service until “conversion” had taken place, some fully committed Gentiles would line up to follow the first few who walked out the door. Other Gentiles would refuse conversion, complaining that what I am doing is unscriptural. The practice would prove extremely divisive, splitting the congregation into more classes. Nichol points out that implementing the practice of restricting major aspects of participation to Jews and “converts” will be controversial and should therefore be phased in slowly. I will not have to face that challenge because I will not restrict fully committed serious minded Messianic Gentiles from full participation in all aspects of congregational life. And I believe that is the way every healthy Messianic Jewish synagogue should be.
As Nichol points out, there are awkward aspects of Messianic Jewish ministry when it comes to things like the identity-designation Gentiles should claim. In other words, what should a Gentile member put down in a space for religion when the choices are Jewish, Christian, Moslem, etc.? If there is a space for “other,” perhaps that is an option for someone who does not feel comfortable putting down simply “Christian.” But an unscriptural conversion process is not the answer. There are some aspects of Messianic Jewish ministry that we have to either live with or work through creatively.
I often hear from leaders presently opposed to conversion that it will eventually occur. They are resigned to the inevitability of the process and have decided that they will be able to live with it. They may even feel that the benefits will someday outweigh the drawbacks. I have a real problem with this thinking. Conversion of Gentiles to Messianic Judaism should not represent the future of our movement. I would not look forward to a Messianic Judaism in which it was practiced. It would be more than a distraction from our call to our people. As stated above, my comments reflect the views of the Executive Committee of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America and the Steering Committee of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues. I can say with some confidence that our organization will not embrace this practice at any time in the future. God does not change, scripture does not change, and our stand on this issue will not change either.
Michael Wolf (B.A., Temple University) has been the Rabbi of Beth Messiah Synagogue, Cincinnati, Ohio since 1977. He is a past President of the MJAA, and currently sits on the Board of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.