(Christian Focus ©2003 Scotland) In his recent volume, Judaism is Not Jewish, Baruch Maoz provides a notable service for the Messianic Jewish movement by drawing the distinction between Jewish Christianity and Messianic Judaism in a clear and unambiguous fashion, and challenging Yeshua-believing Jews to make a decision between the two. He further serves the movement by accurately pointing out many of the deficiencies of the Messianic movement in the diaspora-e.g., the numerical predominance of non-Jews, the encouraging of all non-Jews to observe Torah, and the inauthenticity of much of what passes in the movement for Jewish religious practice. But he also bestows an unintended gift on the Messianic Jewish movement: a theological attack whose weakness renders Messianic Judaism more rather than less credible.
Maoz asserts that the case for or against Messianic Judaism must stand or fall on the testimony of Scripture. (page 29) This does not bode well for the success of his own prosecutorial brief, for his exegetical practice possesses merely rhetorical force. For example, Maoz cites 1 Corinthians 7:18-19 as follows:
was any man called circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. (71)
Maoz concludes from the above text that Jews “need not cease to be Jews in order to follow Messiah.” (70) The maintenance of Jewish identity is permitted, but not required by Divine mandate. However, this use of the passage flies in the face of the second half of the sentence in 1 Corinthians 7:19, which Maoz conveniently omits: “but keeping the commandments of God.” Paul acknowledges with these words that the Torah commands Jews to be circumcised and to keep the mitzvot given to Israel, but expects non-Jews to keep only those commandments given to all human beings. Thus, what matters is not being Jewish or non-Jewish, but obeying those Divine commandments that apply to us. Of course, such a reading of 1 Corinthians 7 undermines Maoz’s entire argument, and so he slices the sentence in half and provides only its first clause.
We discover in a later section of the book how he understands the omitted clause.
That is how Paul could say, Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. What matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.
(1 Cor. 7:19) That is the burden of the prophetic message. Ritualistic emphasis at the expense of moral adherence is an abomination in God’s sight. (125)
Thus, Maoz interprets “the commandments of God” as referring to “the moral law,” which has universal and perpetual validity. To gain rhetorical effect, this time he omits the previous verse: “Let the person who was circumcised when called remain circumcised, and the person who was uncircumcised when called remain uncircumcised.” (1 Corinthians 7:18) When viewed as a complete unit, these verses suggest what Jewish tradition has always affirmed- that circumcision is a commandment for Jews, but not for Gentiles. Maoz performs surgery on the text, removing the words that might lead a reader to “misunderstand” its meaning.
An even more egregious case of such radical surgery is seen in the following:
Phariseeism attaches too much attention to measurable incidentals while neglecting the weightier provisions of the Torah: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (165)
In Maoz’s view, these words of Yeshua summon all to abandon Pharisaic (and contemporary Orthodox Jewish) teaching and practice. But in order to draw such a conclusion, he must excise the final words of the sentence: “these you should have done without neglecting the others.” (Matt 23:23) The particular “measurable incidentals” mentioned by Yeshua-“tithing mint and dill and cumin”-were, in fact, not commanded in the Torah, but were later Pharisaic traditions. Thus, Yeshua tells his listeners to observe not only the Torah but also Pharisaic expansions of the Torah-while never losing sight of the difference between weightier and lighter mitzvot. Once again, Maoz supports his case with a verse that in reality undermines it, and performs biblical surgery for rhetorical effect.
Maoz often interprets texts with the aid of unwarranted assumptions. Thus, he assumes that the issue in Peter’s staying with Cornelius or eating with the Gentiles in Antioch was his willingness to eat non-kosher food. (52, 135) This has no basis in the text, and is highly unlikely. Acts 10:2 informs us that Cornelius was a devout God-fearer who gave tzedakah to the Jewish people and prayed regularly- which probably means at the stipulated times of daily Jewish prayer. (Acts 10:3) Cornelius likely observed the laws of kashrut himself. But even if he did not, is it probable that such a man would invite a Jew to his house and serve him non-kosher food? Similarly, is it probable that the common meals between Jews and Gentiles in the Antioch com-munity-founded and still overseen by Jewish leaders-consisted of pork and shellfish-especially when the Apostle Peter was visiting? The issue, as Peter states explicitly regarding the Cornelius incident in Acts 10:28, concerns association with impure Gentiles, not the consumption of impure food.
These exegetical errors are not exceptional but typical of Maoz’s work. However, an even more serious defect in the book is its theological confusion. Like most missionaries to the Jews, Maoz asserts the ongoing significance of the Jewish people in the Divine plan. Yet this conflicts with his fundamental thesis-that Jewish national and religious identity must be distinguished. Maoz defends the right of Jews to maintain their distinctive Jewish national identity after entering the church, but not their religious identity.
In matters of national culture, Jews are as free to be Jewish as are the Swedes to be Swedish or the Hottentots to be Hottentots. (86)
Jewish Christians have the same right to do what the Hottentots, the Inuit and the Magyars may do-no more and no less. (145)
Jews have the right to remain Jews, but they must recognize that their Jewish identity has no more religious significance than that of the Swedes, Hottentots, Inuits, or Magyars. Thus, while claiming to recognize the ongoing importance of the Jewish people in the Divine plan, Maoz actually advocates a form of supersessionism.
From this supersessionist premise, there is no compelling religious reason for Jews to remain Jews. We have a right to remain Jews, just like the Swedes, Hottentots, Inuits, and Magyars have a right to maintain their national identity and culture, but we are not bound by religious duty to do so. Maoz seems to both embrace this conclusion and sense its problematic implications.
Is it important for Jews in Messiah to remain Jews? It most definitely is, although we have no right to condemn any who choose to opt out of the Jewish nation, intermingle with the Gentiles and lose their Jewish identity, at least not on religious grounds, even though the loss of any Jew to the nation is painful. (73)
Why is “the loss of any Jew to the nation…painful”? Presumably because we, like Swedes, Hottentots, Inuits, and Magyars have nationalistic feelings, and want to see our nation preserved. However, “we have no right to condemn any who choose to opt out of the Jewish nation … at least not on religious grounds.” But if Jews have no duty to remain Jews, in the long run most will not choose to do so. And Maoz has no cogent argument for why they should so choose.
Maoz’s faulty exegetical practice and confused theological thinking come together in his treatment of circumcision. On the one hand, he asserts that Galatians is not directed specifically to Gentiles, but is universal in its scope. (50-51) But then when looking at the main practical point of Galatians-Paul’s attempt to prevent the Galatians from being circumcised-Maoz applies it only to Gentiles. (207) Why does this command from Paul not apply also to Jews? Why do Jewish believers in Yeshua who circumcise their sons not thereby “fall from grace”? We might think that Maoz would reply that circumcision for Jews is merely a national cultural practice. Yet, elsewhere he states emphatically that circumcision cannot be looked at in this way: “But circumcision is not a purely cultural matter; it connotes extensive theological and therefore religious implications.” (207) But this undermines Maoz’s national/religious distinction-since Jews continue to practice a custom that must be viewed in religious terms! It even implies that circumcised Jews are obliged to keep the entire Torah!
Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is [thereby] obligated to obey the whole Law. (5:2-3) You cannot accept the Law piecemeal. It is all of a whole. (58)
If this is true for Gentiles who accept circumcision, how can we say that it is not also true for Jews? And when Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 tells Jews that they should not remove the marks of circumcision, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is saying that Jews are religiously obliged to maintain their Jewish identity, embodied in the Torah’s way of life. Thus, we have further support for our earlier exegetical assertion: the phrase “the commandments of God” in 1 Corinthians 7:19 refers not to morality, but to the distinct callings of Jews and Gentiles. We therefore see that Maoz’s theological reasoning is self-contradictory.
In light of the above, Maoz’s following statement has unintended force:
The extent to which I have succeeded in proving this [i.e., the unbiblical approach of Messianic Judaism] is the extent to which Messianic Judaism should be rejected. (173)
If this is true, Messianic Judaism needs to be taken very seriously indeed.
Mark S. Kinzer (Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan) serves as Spiritual Leader, Congregation Zera Avraham, Ann Arbor, MI; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary; Executive Director, Messianic Jewish Theological Institute.