Issues For Clarification In The Self-Defining Statement
Are We Becoming An Unbalanced Fiddler On The Roof?
I would like to begin this article with a note of appreciation for the work that has gone into the UMJC’s self-definition statement of Messianic Judaism. I affirm the need to be integrally part of our people, as well as the need to function and witness from within our community. Without it, we cannot be true intercessors or function in a priestly role for our people. Without that, our Jewish identity would be hollow and inauthentic. Any efforts at communicating Yeshua would be analogous to lobbing some sort of “Good News grenade” into the Jewish community.
I am, however, profoundly concerned that our efforts at self-definition may have brought us into uncharted, and potentially troubled, waters. In a general letter sent to congregational leaders, Stuart Dauermann, rabbi of Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA, and the chairman of the UMJC’s Theology Committee, posed the following question:
Are we a Judaism or only Evangelicalism/American Charismatic culture with a tallis?1
The inference I drew from this question was that we should reject out of hand the proposition that we are “only Evangelicalism/ American Charismatic culture with a tallis.” The implication was that we are Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua after all and cannot embrace the church culture with its historical baggage of anti-Semitism.
When we refer to ourselves as “a Judaism,” whose definition of modern, variegated Judaism do we choose? Orthodox? Conservative? Reform? Reconstructionist? Jewish Renewal? Humanist? What about polydox Judaism? Can we be, part and parcel of the religious system that governs our people today?
Are We Truly “Another Branch Of Judaism“?
The self-definition statement refers to Messianic Judaism as another branch of Judaism. Our process of self-definition needs to more fully draw attention to points of continuity and discontinuity. That is essential for our own sense of identity, for a more cogent witness to our people and for a clear testimony to the rest of the followers of Messiah Yeshua.
One area among many, of continuity, is our desire to affirm the valid contribution of our sages. They provided a cohesive structure for our people in Galut and were used by Hashem to keep us from assimilation during the past two millennia. Since they have served as custodians of our people’s heritage, we are well advised to learn from the benefits of their collective wisdom. Despite the inclination of the preponderance of our people today to reject orthodoxy, it is still the standard by which Judaism is measured, whether in agreement or in reaction. We, as Messianic Jews, do well to handle our tradition sensitively-and with wisdom-rather than casually.
There are other areas of continuity, but I want to focus also on areas of discontinuity. I believe that to establish a clearer self-definition, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on existing discontinuity, beyond stating that we are followers of Yeshua as Messiah. For example, how do we define, and live, halakhah? How much weight do we give to rabbinic tradition in determining halachic issues? The self-definition statement refers to our “halakhah being rooted in Scripture.” 2 Yet, in the accompanying commentary by UMJC General Secretary Russell Resnik we read that “much of their life [Messianic Jewish congregations] is based, not strictly on Scripture or on universal precepts for all believers, but on Jewish teaching and tradition.” 3 While we learn from the collective wisdom of our people in defining halakhah, our approach has to be radically and qualitatively different. Non-messianic Judaisms work off the premise that halakhah is “lo bashamayim hi” (not made in heaven).4 We, however, must come to the task of defining halakhah with the conviction that “bashamayim hi.” Our halakhah needs to have its source and inspiration “in heaven,” led and empowered by the Ruach of God. Unlike the traditional Jewish consensus that holds that the Ruach has been inactive in Israel since Malachi, we operate in confidence that the Spirit of the Prophets is alive and well and communicating the will of our Father in heaven to us. We come to the process of halakhahmaking in utter dependence on the Ruach, eschewing the exaltation of the intellect which is an integral part of the process for mainstream Judaism.
Closely connected to defining halakhah is living halakhah. We likewise come to this task in a humble recognition that bashamayim hi. Unlike the majority of our people who affirm that they have the ability to overcome yetzer hara, we affirm that without the empowering of the Ruach, we are bankrupt (“poor in spirit” [Mattityahu 5:3]). Without Yeshua’s life pulsing through us, we are merely desiccated Messianic branches. We all take as a given that we cannot advance our standing with the Lord by virtue of keeping mitzvot. However, it seems to me that we need to emphatically state the positives what we must do, beyond a brief mention of “new covenant living.” That, after all, is where we derive our power for living. It would behoove us to place a greater emphasis on our holy vine.
Is It Possible To Become “Fully Part Of The Jewish People“?
The self-definition statement refers to an imperative for “Messianic Jewish groupings to be fully part of the Jewish people” and to “place a priority on integration with the wider Jewish world.” While our hearts beat for our people and long to be fully integrated into our community, we are painfully aware that being fully part of the Jewish people is an unrealistic hope. We know that will change when our people welcome Yeshua with the words, Baruch haba B’Shem Hashem (Matt. 23:39).
It is gratifying to see a wind of partial change in areas where Messianic Jews are accorded a measure of respect by spokespeople of the Jewish community. It is encouraging to see the Jewish reclamation of Yeshua, by some in the scholarly community who are willing to consider Yeshua as a good Jew. However, we cannot overlook the simple and painful fact that because of Yeshua we are and will continue to be rejected by a large majority of our people. We cannot dismiss his words that he came to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34), and our divided families bear witness to this painful truth. While we earnestly desire to be part of our people, we must recognize that because of Yeshua they have not, and will not, fully accept us. In his commentary, Russell Resnik challenged us to no longer “accept as axiomatic the rift between Israel and Messiah.” 5 This, however, is precisely what the writer of the epistle to the Messianic Jews calls on them, and on us, to do:
And so Yeshua also suffered death outside the gate… . Therefore, let us go out to him who is outside the camp and share his disgrace. For we have no permanent city here; on the contrary, we seek the one to come . . . . (Messianic Jews, 13:12-14, CJB).
We have no doubt that a time will come when our people will be reconciled to their Messiah (Romans 11:25). Until then, we must be prepared not only to tolerate the rejection associated with him, but to embrace the shame involved, because we love him.
The Primacy Of Yeshua Must Be Explicit And Bold In Our Lives.
We often look to define our Jewishness primarily in the context of the Jewish community and in reference to our genetic heritage. Instead, we need to place the greater emphasis on how our Jewish identity is derived from our identification with Yeshua. We cannot shrink from Rav Shaul’s statement that everything, including our Jewishness, is minimal in value in comparison with the out-of-this-world magnificence of being identified with Yeshua and knowing him (Philippians 3:7-8). This is not an artificial analysis that seeks to dissect ourselves into conflicting identities: followers of Yeshua versus Jewish people. We can consider it as a kol va-khomer approach-our Jewish heritage, our identity as Abraham’s physical seed is precious but it pales in comparison to our identity with Yeshua, as Abraham’s spiritual seed.
We cannot assume that we can mention our commitment to Yeshua and New Covenant living in passing. We often operate on the implicit assumption that in order to make a clear distinction between ourselves and the rest of the Body of Messiah we should briefly mention our commitment to Yeshua and quickly move on to issues of our Jewish identity. Our commitment to a Yeshuafocused, New Covenant, Ruach-led life is the source of our power. We do well to build on that as our foundation and proceed outwardly from there.
After 22 years of ministry, I do not take that for granted. There is much in our lives that threatens to distract us from the simplicity of the Good News. As followers of Messiah who seek to live by the power of the Ruach, we must be bold about affirming that this same resurrection power is at work in us. This needs to be boldly stated for the benefit of our people who do not yet know Yeshua. What will draw our people to Yeshua will not be the level of our Torah observance, but the level of our devotion to Yeshua and his likeness in us. Yeshua stated, regarding his crucifixion, “As for me, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Yochanan, 12:34, CJB). This also applies metaphorically to us. As our people see Yeshua’s primacy in our lives, they will be attracted to him.
Are We To Be Separate–But–Equal To Gentile Believers?
The self-identification statement has a glaring omission. While it refers to Messianic Jewish connection to Gentile believers outside Messianic Jewish congregations, nowhere does it refer to the presence of Gentile believers within Messianic Judaism. The indisputable fact is that well over fifty percent of members in Messianic synagogues are not Jewish, regardless of how one defines Jewishness. This is a legitimate concern because it brings into question our authenticity as a movement that calls itself “Jewish,” yet is predominantly non-Jewish in composition.
How do we address the presence, and the activity, of Gentile believers within Messianic Judaism? We can engage in a semantic game and instead of referring to Messianic Judaism as “comprising both Jews and non-Jews,” we could refer to Messianic Judaism as “comprising only Jews.” The purpose would be to have a “separate but equal” approach to the Body of Messiah: churches would be comprised of Gentile believers; Messianic Jewish congregations would be comprised of Messianic Jews. Therefore, our congregations would be established so that Gentile believers would be excluded. A number of our congregations have moved in that direction.
Messianic Jews Must Seek Messiah‘s Answers
If our predominant concern is legitimacy in the eyes of the Jewish community, then this approach makes good sense, strategically speaking. However, if we are truly “Messianic,” we must seek Messiah’s answers when seeking answers to our dilemmas. We cannot demean our Gentile members by implying that they are “Jewish wannabes.” Instead, we need to affirm, that many of our non-Jewish members come to our congregations movement being driven by Ahavat Israel. Many have a legitimate call by God to serve in a “Ruth-like” fashion, conveying, “Your people shall be my people” and working with us toward the restoration of our people. Just as we desire the affirmation and support of our non-Jewish members, we must validate them. They need to hear explicitly that they are our yoke-fellows, precious members of our congregations.
Even today, more than 25 years after the beginning of modern Messianic Judaism, many Jewish believers come to Yeshua via Gentile believers. A self-definition must make clear to all, that Messianic Judaism is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, and that is part of God’s wise plan for us as a spiritual movement. Among other things, this statement affirms the truth of Scripture in Ephesians 2-3, teaching us that there is an organic unity between Jews and Gentiles. Also, this provides a powerful testimony to our people, showing our people that Gentile followers of Yeshua can have hearts filled with Ahavat Israel. In addition, it reflects the historic decision of the original Messianic Jews in the First Century to include non-Jews in the New Covenant house of faith. As Shimon Kefa stated, “If therefore God gave them the same gift He gave us when we believed on the Lord Yeshua HaMashiach, who was I that I could withstand God.” (Acts 12:17, CJB).
If we claim that we value the Gentile members of our congregations, we cannot define them as “water carriers and wood choppers,” but as an integral part of who we are. Nor can we secretly desire that as Messianic Judaism matures, our Gentile members will recognize that their contribution is over and they must make way for a fuller Jewish expression.
Our self-definition must be based on a definition of Jewishness that is firmly rooted in the New Covenant. The congregations in the environs of Jerusalem prior to 70 CE were largely Jewish in composition and consequently were quite Torah observant. At the same time, most of the congregations outside Eretz-Israel were mixed, like most of our congregations today. As a contemporary movement with deep historical roots, it follows that the majority of our congregations should not place themselves under the inauthentic burden of feeling the necessity to be exclusively Jewish.
A Prophetic Calling For Messianic Judaism
Many of us know the actor Leonard Nemoy as the “Spock” character from the popular television program “Star Trek.” What is less known is that Nemoy grew up attending Orthodox shul, where he watched the kohanim make the “vulcan sign”-shin the first letter of one of God’s names. Recently, Nemoy was interviewed by The Jerusalem Report and expressed his new-found fascination with Kabbalah, mystical Judaism. Up until the 1970s, Kabbalah was pursued by a tiny minority in Judaism, mostly charedim, and largely dismissed by the rest of the Jewish community. However, in the past thirty years, Kabbalah has made it to the top of the Jewish charts. It is clear that our people have been hungry for spiritual answers rather than merely rationalistic ones. Nemoy expresses that longing:
The Shekhinah [God’s presence] was created to live amongst humans to bring spirituality to humans. That’s big stuff for me…6
Furthermore, he says that he has begun to tap into a deep spiritual well, and that there must be connection to some interior life.7
We affirm the need for our people to tap into a deep spiritual well. Are we convinced that the spiritual answers our people are looking for can only be truly satisfied in Yeshua? If so, far from wanting to blend in, we will want to stick out, prophetically. Like the prophets, the sh’likhim and Yeshua himself, we must call our people to repentance, to turn back toward their God and their Messiah. Like the prophets we must be committed to speaking the Word of God to our people, being fully prepared for the rejection which may accompany the message.
As much as we would like to be welcomed under the big tent of contemporary Judaism, we need to come to terms with the rejection that currently accompanies a commitment to Yeshua. We are not another branch of Judaism as it is currently practiced. Instead of attempting to blend in, we need to be willing to stand out and embrace our prophetic calling to our people.
We cannot adopt a “separate but equal” approach to Gentile believers. As our Torah teaches us, we must fully welcome the ger toshav, the alien who resides with us. Let us validate the presence of Gentile believers in our midst, those who have a Ruth-like call and hearts that beat for Yeshua and Ahavat Israel. As we do, our people will see that a genuine unity between Jews and Gentiles is not only possible but workable. What’s more, it will reflect the truth that our Sovereign Lord is working his wise plans for the restoration of our people and the nations. Most of all, let us labor to put Yeshua where He belongs-in the front and center of Messianic Judaism. Let us exercise holy chutzpah, along with Rav Shaul, when he stated, “It is we who are the Circumcised, we who worship by the Spirit of God, and make our boast in the Messiah Yeshua.” (Phil. 3:3, CJB).
Let us remember that as Messianic Jews we must seek Messiah’s answers and let us keep the primacy of Yeshua explicit and bold in our lives.
- September 27, 2002.
- Defining Messianic Judaism. UMJC Theology Committee, Summer 2002, Commentary by Russell Resnik, Addendum 2: A Model for Gentile Participation in Messianic Judaism.
- Eliezer Berkovits, Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha. (Ktav: New York, 1983), pp. 47-48.
- Defining Messianic Judaism: A Commentary.
- Yigal Schleifer, Divine Images, Oct. 21, 2002.
Chaim Urbach is Pastor of Congregation Yeshuat Tsion, in the Denver, Colorado area. He has an M.A. from Denver Seminary, M.A. (in Zoology) from University of Northern Colorado and has done graduate studies at Colorado School of Mines Department of Chemical and Petroleum. Urbach is a past Vice President of FCM (Fellowship of Messianic Congregations), pastoral assistant intern at Heritage Church of Aurora, and past founding elder and assistant pastor at Congregation Roeh Israel.