A Response to Dr. Nichol’s Case for Conversion
Undoubtedly, one of the vital issues facing modern Messianic Judaism has to do with the place of non-Jews who feel called to be part of our congregations. This, of course, is not a surprising issue when one considers that all branches of Judaism are faced with the same question. In the world of all the various branches of rabbinic Judaism, one solution has been universally practiced: a conversion process to enfranchise the non-Jew. My colleague, Dr. Richard Nichol, makes his appeal for a similar solution within Messianic Judaism. He makes some good points and well-thought observations as he surveys the past and current scene in Messianic Judaism. When all is said and done, however, I am still not convinced that any conversion process is right (or beneficial) for our distinct branch of Yeshua-affirming Messianic Judaism. In fact, I see the creation of several new problems by implementing a conversion program.
First, and foremost, is the case from the Scriptures themselves. Frankly, if the practice of conversion of non-Jews was found in the Scriptures, I would certainly endorse such an action. No doubt, there are cases where non-Jews joined themselves to the faith and practice of Israel, most notably Rut of Moav. While various levels of gerim (aliens/proselytes) are noted in Tanakh, it must be highlighted that the Scripture never describes a process of conversion whereby a Gentile becomes a Jew. Although Ruth makes her memorable confession that “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16), she is never called a Jew in the Book of Ruth. She is consistently identified as simply “Ruth” or “Ruth the Moabitess” even after her declaration (cf. 2:2; 2:21; 4:5; 4:10). Rabbi Nichol seems to equate Ruth’s confession with a much later process of conversion which has been developed under the umbrella of later rabbinic practice (page 15). I agree that there has always been and always will be certain non-Jews who have a calling to join closely with the Jewish people. The question we must ask is why the Tanakh is silent on an official conversion process that changes one’s ethnic status.
As Messianic Jews, we pay special attention to the later revelation through the New Covenant Scriptures. Here we find not only silence but seemingly direct exhortations which forbid a conversion process for Gentile believers in Yeshua. Rightly does Rabbi Nichol bring up such relevant passages as 1 Corinthians 7:18-21 and Acts 16:1-4 as Scriptures that seem to challenge the thought of Gentile conversion to Messianic Judaism? The Corinthian command seems abundantly clear. The uncircumcised “shouldn’t undergo B’rit Milah.” However, this injunction is distinguished by Rabbi Nichol from those groups of non-Jews who voluntarily desire to identify with the Jewish people. The comparison in the Corinthians context to slaves seeking freedom, if possible, is a dubious connection to the issue of conversion. Slavery is a societal and economic position, while conversion implies a change of religious or ethnic status. This must be why Shaul only mentions the flexibility in the specific case of the slave and not any potential convert, which begs the question: can anyone really change their ethnicity? Those who advocate a conversion process imply that via some course of study and strong commitment, one can be changed into a new status as a Jew. After all, rabbinic Judaism has been doing this for over 2000 years. Such logic should give all Messianic Jews pause. For if the rabbis of modern Judaism have the power, by God, to declare a Gentile to have become a Jew, then the same logic would mean that they too could declare a born Jew to no longer be Jewish. We Messianic leaders have been fighting hard over the years to convince our people that we are not converting to a new religion when we received Yeshua as our Messiah. Yet, by reverse logic, we are now discussing the option of Gentiles converting to become Jews? Above all, even that of rabbinic tradition, we must adhere to the simple Torah description of the first Hebrew/Jew, our father Avraham. Beyond the religious faith and cultural aspects of Jewish life, God told Avraham that He was making from him a new nation; that is, a people. From a biblical perspective, there has always been an essential physical aspect to Jewishness. It is the “seed” (quite physical) of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that makes up the Jewish people. If we minimize the physical aspect by allowing non-Jews to be transformed into Jews, then we ironically run the opposite risk of having our Jewishness denied by those who are opposed to our faith in Yeshua. I would propose that this is in fact the context of Corinthians and why there is such a strong warning against any attempted change in ethnic status.
I have even more questions in regard to Rabbi Nichol’s discussion of Acts 16. To assume that Timothy was not considered a Jew seems highly unlikely in light of the long-standing matrilineal doctrine within Judaism. Clearly, patrilineal descent was the accepted norm for much of biblical history as evidenced by the genealogies of the Scriptures. This seems to be the very reason that Timothy’s family background is described because it was the more debated case of matrilineal descent. If Timothy, therefore, is a Jew by birth, why the B’rit Milah as a young adult? Instead of Rabbi Nichol’s view that Timothy was a Gentile going through a conversion process to become a Jew, it is more plausible that Timothy reflects a common case of an assimilated Jew who later becomes more observant. The fact is that one is either born of a Jewish parent or not, and that such a connection determines one’s Jewish ethnicity irrespective of observance level. This is reminiscent of the biblical example where an entire generation of Israelis (born Jews no doubt) failed to be fulfilling the mitzvah of B’rit Milah until they entered the promised land as adults (Joshua 5). I would propose that this closely fits the later example of Timothy who, as a Jew with a Jewish mother, was circumcised at a later time due to the circumstances of his family life. Also highlighting the fact of his Jewishness, Timothy was brought up in his intermarried family not as a pagan but a Jewish child mentored in the “sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:15). All these details help us understand why Shaul would have no problem having his co-worker Timothy take the B’rit Milah while he adamantly refused (with agreement from the Jerusalem sh’likhim) to have a non-Jew, Titus, undergo the same sign of the covenant (Galatians 2:3).
I find that the weakest part of Rabbi Nichol’s proposal is the curious omission of perhaps the most important Scriptural statement on conversion of Gentiles; namely, Acts 15. The Messianic Jewish community already crossed this bridge some 2,000 years ago. It should not surprise us that the earliest development of Messianic Judaism also was confronted with this challenge of the place of non-Jews. Even though the demographics started out strongly in favor of the Jewish majority, it only took a couple of decades for the growing presence of non-Jews to present some of these exact challenges that we are discussing today. So, how did the Jewish founders of First Century Messianic Judaism handle the situation in their day? There is no mention of a process of Gentile conversion but simply an affirmation of the traditional cultural boundaries between Jew and non-Jew. The Jew was still expected to identify with covenant duties as clarified by the coming of Messiah Yeshua (Acts 21:20). Conversely, it was decided by the Jewish sh’likhim that the Gentile believers have a different set of duties and not the yoke of the Torah (Acts 15:10). Why would we think our generation would be so different from our earlier Messianic ancestors? And if they felt the need to leave the door open for some kind of optional conversion, why do we not see a single case of such a conversion in the Brit Khadasha? Are we to assume that such cases were actually happening with no need of mention or, as I believe, that there is no mention precisely because there was no conversion process within Messianic Judaism? It seems to me that we would do well to follow the model and practice of the sh’likhim that walked with Yeshua than to consider a contemporary practice that is built on a non-biblical foundation.
All of the above should lead us to question the validity of, and need for, a conversion process in Messianic Judaism. However, I do agree with many of the concerns and questions raised by Rabbi Nichol in regards to the practical issues of Jewish/Gentile relations in the Messianic synagogue. If conversion is not the biblical answer, how do we address these concerns in an authentic way?
I would propose that modern Messianic Judaism turn from the potential confusion of conversion to a different paradigm of defining and strengthening the Jewish/Gentile distinctives in the kingdom of Yeshua. This can occur by refocusing on three areas: education, affiliation and confirmation. By education I mean that we should equip our people through Jewish education as interpreted through the lens of Scripture. As noted above, non-Jewish seekers have always been welcomed into a relationship with Israel. It is especially emphasized in the New Covenant that non-Jews can come to Messiah and have fellowship with their Jewish brothers without any change in status. Education, not conversion, is the focus of Acts 15 so that the Gentile believers would appreciate and support their own Jewish spiritual roots now that they are in Messiah. A good dose of Jewish education would clarify the traditions and practices of Messianic Judaism in such areas as tallit, b’nai mitzvah and aliyah. Should we not just follow the standard halakhah and exclude non-converted Gentiles from any of these? Does Messianic Judaism really want to exactly follow the model of other branches just because it is their practice? As a practical illustration, our synagogue recently had a call from a family upset with another local synagogue because the non-Jewish father was forbidden to participate in the Torah service at his son’s bar mitzvah. We have an opportunity to demonstrate the unique aspects of our faith in Yeshua. The inclusion of non-Jews in a sensitive way should be one of the outstanding features of New Covenant Messianic Judaism. As Rabbi Nichol points out, there is confusion in some circles as to who among the non-Jews is really part of the Messianic Judaism. Instead of developing a process of conversion to discern the committed Gentiles, I think the strong affiliation of these members is the best indicator of their convictions. We should continue to strengthen our membership process at our synagogues which should be sufficient to identify our committed non-Jewish members. A conversion process would actually add to the tension among the Gentile members as we create various categories of believers unnecessarily. No wonder conversion was avoided by the first century Jewish leaders of the Yeshua movement.
Finally, I do agree with Rabbi Nichol on the need for some type of ceremony to identify the committed non-Jews in our midst. Instead of developing a conversion process, I believe that Messianic Judaism would be much better served and attuned biblically if we had a well-defined confirmation process. This would include some of the above mentioned areas such as education and affiliation but would not include the confusing aspect of changing ethnicity. No doubt this is a slightly different approach to the issue of non-Jews than that found in other Jewish denominations.