Richard Nichol asks Messianic Judaism to take the next important step toward full maturity as a Judaism. He asks that Messianic Judaism create a clearly understood process for Gentiles to convert through Messianic Judaism. His proposal in his crucially important booklet challenges every group involved in this discussion—Messianic Jews, non-Messianic Jews, Gentile Christians—to seriously consider some issues which were once thought to be long resolved, but which, it is clearly need to be carefully re-examined from the roots up.
Three years ago I was one of those Christian theologians who thought a lot about “Jewish-Christian relations,” but without taking serious account of the existence of Messianic Judaism. 1 I knew it existed, but it seemed to be a “Jewish” version of evangelical Christianity (and was presented as such by its few members with whom I was acquainted). Afterwards I published a book in which I attempted to work carefully through the letters and theology of Rav Shaul for shaping a Christian theology of Judaism. 2 Two Messianic Jews who read that book, Mark Kinzer and Paul Saal, contacted me, and we began a conversation that has been of fundamental and challenging significance. I became convinced through Kinzer’s writings that Messianic Judaism is only rightly understood as a form of (Christologically re-defined) Judaism, and that it makes a unique, critical and indispensable contribution to the whole people of God as that people exists variously as Judaism, Messianic
1 That this approach is still very much the norm among both Jewish and Christian theologians is
made clear by David J. Rudolph in “Messianic Jews and Christian Theology: Restoring an
Historical Voice to the Contemporary Discussion,” Pro Ecclesia 24 (2005): 58-84. Rudolph notes
the subtle and important shifts in Christian theology that are beginning to occur as Messianic
Judaism is taken more seriously.
2 Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology
Beyond Christendom and Modernity
(Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
3 Mark Kinzer makes a ground-breaking contribution to the theology of Messianic Judaism in his forthcoming work, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005 [forthcoming]).
4 I must admit that I do not understand the objection to Gentiles “coming up to
Judaism, and Christianity. 3 The “Jewish-Christian dialogue” cannot be considered complete if it is conducted as if Messianic Judaism does not exist.
Richard Nichol’s essay works within these basic assumptions about the identity and purpose of Messianic Judaism, but also presents us with a new question: How should we respond to Messiah-believing Gentiles who want to convert to Judaism through the avenue of Messianic Judaism? His short answer is simple: this possibility must be embraced wholeheartedly, yet carefully. I am impressed with the thoroughness with which he addresses questions that are biblical, theological, sociological and psychological in nature. For example, one of the questions facing some Gentile believers who have shared life with Jews in Messianic synagogue is the question of identity: Who am I? Am I a “Christian”? A Jew? Something else? But there is also the question of the identity of Messianic Judaism, as a Judaism, in relation to the Gentile believers in its midst. Who are these Gentiles among us? Are they to be considered Jews, without being converted to Judaism (as some of these Gentiles seem to think they are)? If so, what does that make of our Judaism? At its core, Dr. Nichol’s essay aims to address these identity questions in their various aspects.
I find myself in fundamental agreement with Nichol in the way he meets the challenges of these questions of identity. He answers that Gentiles in Messianic synagogues must be encouraged to remain as Gentile believers in Yeshua and neither pretend to be Jews nor take upon themselves the privileges and responsibilities of Torah-observant Jews in the synagogue. Messianic Judaism must rightly guard its boundaries as a Judaism, and while it fully welcomes and shares life with the Gentile Yeshua-believers in its midst, it cannot consider them to
be Jews per se apart from full conversion to Judaism. At the same time it must allow for the conversion of those Gentiles who freely seek formal identity with Judaism.
Nevertheless, a few questions remain. Rabbi Nichol tells a story of a (hypothetical) young non-Jewish man who has “discovered his ‘Jewish roots.’” He now wears tsitsit (a specifically Jewish symbol of fidelity to the Sinaitic covenant and Torah) and participates enthusiastically in Messianic Jewish dances. But in a more reflective moment this young man may ask, “Who am I really? Is it this easy to become a Jew?” According to Nichol, it is the “psychological and spiritual pain that [such] ambiguous status causes… that is one of the prime motivators for our invoking conversion as a legitimate option” (15).
The questions I have are these: Whence the feelings of psychological and spiritual pain? Whence the sense of ambiguous status? Whence the confusion of identity? And why might conversion to Judaism be seen (by this young Gentile man, and by the Messianic synagogue) as perhaps the best solution to the issue which raises these questions? Is there another appropriate response to such a Gentile?
“Who am I really?” the young man asks. Is there not a straightforward, positive, and compelling answer to this question which takes into account both primary and secondary identity? The young man (or woman) is a full sharer, through the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua haMashiakh, in the God of Israel, and in the life of the people who are called out by Ruakh haKodesh and immersed in the Name. That answers in the strongest possible sense the question of primary belonging and identity. Beside this identity everything pales in comparison. In the question of secondary (cultural, ethnic) identity, he (or she) is that God-named one precisely as a non-Jewish person or, positively put, as an American, Canadian, Peruvian, Chinese, or Zulu person. Why has the young man not found himself (being in fact one who has already been found in Messiah) in just this way? Where is the lack? Why is there confusion?
The Messianic Jewish congregation no doubt also presents itself as a positive and compelling answer to questions of identity. The practice of Judaism is a participation in an identity that is historically rich, tested by fire, ritually thick, and spiritually satisfying. Given the thin and unbearably light identities typically mediated by postmodern, late- capitalist, consumerist, American culture, it is no wonder that the encounter with a cultural identity bearing the substance and weight of Judaism leads Gentile believers to want to identify with all things “Jewish” (as they see them). The attraction of Judaism for serious Gentile believers (especially those in Messianic synagogues) today may be as strong as it was in the time when Shaul wrote his letter to the Galatians, and perhaps for some of the same reasons.
Shaul, of course, was vigorously opposed to the Gentile Galatians becoming converts to Judaism. The reasons for Shaul’s strong negative response, as Nichol makes clear, were quite specific. The Galatian Jewish communities were making full conversion a requirement for synagogue-fellowship. Further, in relation to the established Jewish synagogues in Galatia, the Messiah-believing Gentiles stood as a vulnerable minority, separated from their traditional Gentile societies, but not fully accepted by the Jewish communities either. None of those conditions are present in contemporary North American Messianic synagogues. In fact, the conditions in those synagogues are virtually the opposite. Faced with a history of assimilation of Jewish Messiah-believers into mainstream Gentile Christianity, and often with significant numbers of Gentiles already in their midst, today it is Messianic Jews who find themselves the subjects of social pressure to dissolve their specific cultural identity for the sake of inclusion into the dominant “Christian” religion. For this reason I am increasingly convinced that the argument of the letter to the Galatians needs to be read just as powerfully against the “gentilizing” of Messianic Jews, and against the law of Christianity as a religious institution.
But the question of why a Gentile Messiah-believer in a Messianic synagogue desires to become a Jew remains. Is not the gospel precisely about God’s deliverance, through the crucifixion of Yeshua, of Gentiles from their bondage to “beings which by nature are not gods”? And what for? So that as the Gentiles they are, they might, together with the Jews, worship the one God of Abraham (Romans 15:7-13). This person, with this or that specific Gentile cultural heritage, now holds that heritage—judged, redeemed and transformed through Messiah—not as a wall of separation from others, including Jews, but as a particularly precious gift which is brought to the table of fellowship. So my question to my Jewish brothers and sisters in Messianic Judaism is this: Is this what is taught and preached and encouraged and affirmed among the Gentile believers in your midst? Is specific Gentile identity understood and taught not as a lack vis a vis Judaism, but as a gift for the building up of the whole body of the Messianic synagogue, just as Judaism—judged, redeemed and transformed through Messiah—is the particular gift of the Jews to this body, and to the wider body of Messiah among the Gentiles?
Regarding the young non-Jewish man or woman asks, “Who am I really? Is it this easy to become a Jew?”, the Messianic Jewish response should be, “You are a rescued, reconciled, transformed Gentile—specifically (for example) an American, a New Englander, a Bostonian, etc.—who lives among us Jews with that particular cultural heritage and identity. It is not your primary identity; that identity is ‘hid with Messiah in God.’ We are immersed into, and meet one another and fellowship together in that primary identity. But we bring our secondary, specifically cultural identities to the common table of the Lord as gifts to be shared and celebrated.”
“Is it this easy to become a Jew?” No, of course not. For Shaul it is supposed to be easy for a Gentile to not become a Jew. But it is easy to be a Gentile, exactly the particular kind of Gentile one is by nature (though, to be sure, difficult to be one who is not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of the mind, and conformed to the image of Messiah).
Rabbi Nichol writes: “Of course, some Gentiles who worship with us are thoroughly content. They feel whole and they feel satisfied because they know who they are”
(p. 5, emphasis mine). This, it seems to me (and I believe Nichol agrees), ought to be the norm for Gentiles among Messianic Jews. The psychological and spiritual pain and status-ambiguity which some Gentile believers may feel in the context of Messianic Judaism may be the result of a sense of lack, a sense of “not having” when it comes to identity, and then perhaps a sense that a significant barrier (full conversion to Judaism) stands between them and a fulfillment of that lack. The serious ones work to cross the barrier. It seems to me, though, that the desire to become Jewish should be curbed in Messianic synagogues not primarily by barriers and prohibition (though I do not doubt the necessity, under the circumstances, even of these 4 ), but by the explicit and intentional affirmation and celebration of the Gentile-ness of the Gentiles in their midst.
There will still be those few Gentile believers who seek, for some of the important reasons which Rabbi Nichol specifies, to become full converts to Judaism. For the sake of these, and of the Judaism in which they want to share,
the Bema to read Torah” (14) in the Messianic synagogue. While Torah is received and practiced differently among Jews and Gentile believers, it is nonetheless read in all of the Gentile congregations, and is received there, as fully as the New Covenant, as God’s Word to all people.