Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg writes with regard to the tensions between her various theological and ideological commitments: “So I live with the conflict. I live with it every day, in a thousand ways that pull me in one direction or another. I have come to realize that the conflict is a sign of my health, not of my confusion; the tension is a measure of the richness of my life, not of its disorderliness.” Our thoughts about feminism aside, Greenberg’s quote is equally applicable to our life as Messianic Jews and the inherent (and often painful) tensions involved in our identity. We do not easily fit into preset and historically entrenched categories. At the core of who we are, we are related to both the Jewish people—our people—and the Christian church. Both of these distinct communities constitute the unique texture of our identity. It goes without saying that our relationship to these two communities is difficult to navigate; all too often, one community does not want us, and the other wants to absorb us.
It is for this reason that a substantive discussion about Messianic Jewish community is so vital. In what follows, I would like to address some of the key elements that constitute our relationships with one another as Messianic Jews, as well as explore Messianic Judaism’s posture vis-à-vis the two wider communities from which we have come and to which we still in a deep sense belong. While these wider communities have nurtured our movement in significant ways, our connection to them is complex, and their misunderstanding of us has—for better or worse—been a driving force in our own self-definition.
Because communities we seek to build are necessarily covenantal in nature, we must begin with a brief reflection on what this means and implies. We will then move on to tracing the particular contours of our relationship to Am Israel on one hand, and the Christian church on the other. Having contextualized the existence of our community within this larger web of relations, we will offer a vision of what a uniquely Messianic Jewish covenantal commission might look like.
Touchstones of Covenantal Community
Covenant lies at the heart of the identity of the people of God, and our conversations about Messianic Jewish community must be built upon the foundation of our inclusion and participation in the contours of covenantal life. While covenant is far too broad a topic to exhaustively cover here, let me briefly describe a few covenantal distinctives that will be significant in what follows.
1) The reality of the divine-human covenant is inherently communal.
While modernity would have us believe in the primacy and supremacy of individual identity and unbridled self-determination, we cannot properly understand God’s covenant with Israel (or humanity more broadly) if we take the individual person as the starting point. In the words of David Novak, “the core of the covenant is not the relationship between God and the individual human person; it is the relationship between God and the community he has elected for this covenantal relationship.” It is within this overarching communal context that individual relationships and claims (both human and divine) find their rightful place. This proper ordering is crucial.
The inherently communal structure of the covenant by no means eliminates or nullifies the individual and personal aspects of covenantal relationship with God and one another; rather, it upholds them. According to Jonathan Sacks, Judaism was the first religion to insist upon the dignity of each individual and the sanctity of every human life. The communality of its covenant notwithstanding, Judaism refuses to sacrifice the individual for the collective. In fact, it is Israel’s status as the elect community that undergirds Judaism’s insistence upon the dignity of each individual. The individual’s status—though secondary to the community—emerges from and is enhanced by a covenantal framework rather than being diminished or eclipsed by it. To think covenantally is to understand individual identity within the larger framework of the covenant community.
God’s covenantal promises to human beings are almost always communal in nature. God’s promises to the elect community are far more specific and concrete than God’s assurances to individuals. Perhaps the most basic of these divine covenantal promises is the communal survival of Israel. While individual members of the covenant community have no rightful claim upon God to sustain their life (and death is built into the fabric of human existence), God has pledged himself to the survival of Israel. The Jewish claim for survival is rooted in God’s covenantal purposes and promises and not ultimately dependent upon the virtue or obedience of the Jewish people, and God’s promise notably has as its subject Israel as a whole, not individual Jews. Novak sees this promise as one interpretive grid for understanding the Torah blessing in which Jews praise God for “planting everlasting life in our midst.” According to one strand of Jewish tradition, this everlasting life refers to the Jewish people’s guaranteed perpetuation in this world, not merely in the world to come.
2) Covenant is two-way. While the divine-human covenant is initiated and ultimately upheld by God, its very construct requires human response.
By entering into covenant relationship with human beings, God has inexorably bound himself to humanity and the terms of the covenant he has established. The binding nature of God’s covenant means that God’s character and faithfulness are revealed in his upholding of covenant promises. These promises thus entail rightful human claims upon the divine; because God has bound himself to human beings, human beings have the right to claim God’s fidelity to this covenant.
The covenant, however, requires by definition the obedient response of human beings. God’s election makes a demand on humanity, claiming human beings for covenantally determined life. In short, God’s election must be actualized in and reciprocated by the covenant community. As the climactic moment in Jewish worship, the liturgy of the Shema illustrates this covenantal reciprocity. In our recitation of the Ahavah Rabbah, we declare that God has sovereignly chosen us and compassionately loved us, that the covenant rests upon God’s power to reveal himself and enable us to respond. Here we beseech God to instill in us the desire to understand and perform the mitzvot, to enlighten our eyes and unite our hearts, to effectually create in us the capacity for loving and faithful response. Here we recognize that the covenant’s continuation ultimately rests upon divine favor and faithfulness.
Our declaration of God’s oneness and lordship (Deut 6:4) is immediately followed by an exhortation to obedience (Deut 6:5ff). In the V’ahavta, we accept upon ourselves the “yoke of the kingship of heaven,” pledging (both individually and corporately) to order our lives according to the commands that constitute our covenant relationship with God. Here we commit ourselves to reciprocating God’s loving election of Israel by lovingly observing the mitzvot. Though it is only by God’s gracious enabling that we are able to obey his commandments, obedience requires our active, continual and ongoing commitment. It is this obedience, predicated upon and made possible by God’s faithfulness, that we pledge each time we recite the Shema.
3) Covenant is intimately tied to commission, and carrying out our covenantal commission constitutes our faithful response to God.
We spoke above about the requisite human response to the divinely initiated covenant; we now must be more specific in terms of God’s purposes for the covenantally elect community. A discussion of covenantal commission requires that we take note of an important distinction between the Jewish community and the Christian community, between Israel and the church. While both of these communities exist in covenantal relationship with God, there is compelling theological precedent to conceive of these two covenantal communities as both united with and distinct from one another. Franz Rosenzweig’s model, which posits the prescribed inwardness of the Jewish people and the necessarily missionary posture of Christianity, has gained substantial traction in subsequent Jewish and Christian theology and offers ample resources for theological reflection from a Messianic Jewish perspective.
For our purposes here, it is important to bear in mind that Israel’s unique covenantal obligations preserve Israel as a nation set apart, yet are ultimately in the service of all nations. From its very inception, Israel’s existence and call is, in an important respect, for the nations. Even—and perhaps especially—at its most particular moments, the universal significance of Israel’s election is always in view. While Rosenzweig’s model suggests that Christianity is ultimately responsible for the outward expansion of Israel’s covenant with God, I will suggest that the very nature of Messianic Judaism does not allow us to assent to the strict duality of Rosenzweig’s model. We will explore the contours of covenantal commission more fully in our reflections below.
These three distinctives of covenant—communality, reciprocity, and commission—will frame our discussion of Messianic Jewish covenantal life. That the covenant established by God claims the obedience of God’s covenant partners requires us to reflect upon what faithful covenantal response entails, and the intimate connection between covenant and commission should define the very core of our identity as Messianic Jews. With these important covenantal distinctives in place, let us now examine in turn each of the various spheres of covenantal community to which we as Messianic Jews belong and by which we are collectively constituted.
Messianic Jewish Community and Am Israel
It is difficult to find an identity marker analogous to being Jewish. While Jewishness means different things to different Jews, maximally it makes an all-encompassing claim upon one’s identity. Judaism is not simply a culture or a religion; it is these things, but it is also a familial lineage, a shared history, a political reality, a unique heritage, and a distinct way of life. Though I am only comfortable using this term in a very qualified sense, the Jewish people are indeed called to be a “sanctified ethnicity,” as Kinzer has suggested.
To draw upon the covenantal distinctives outlined above, it is the corporate reality of the Jewish people that defines the particular identity of each individual Jew. We make sense of our own unique stories within the context of the larger story of the Jewish people; their story is our story in a profoundly determinative sense. Jonathan Sacks offers a moving metaphor for the reality of Jewish identity and its distinction from modern Western conceptions of identity. Sacks illustrates modern notions of identity construction by asking us to imagine ourselves standing in a vast and expansive library with endless rows of bookshelves lined with books on every conceivable topic. We are given the freedom to pull any book we choose off the shelf, to browse endlessly and read widely. Each page of each book we read adds something to our understanding of the world around us and therefore ourselves, but we are free to reshelf the book at any point; it makes no claim upon us.
Alternatively, Sacks paints a scenario in which one book in particular catches our attention, for the name of our family is written on the spine. We open the book only to discover that it tells the story of our ancestors, one generation at a time, and that the book was expressly written for the sake of subsequent generations. When we come to the end of the book, we find a blank page with our name written at the top. This is the book that writes our identity as Jews and whose story we continue to tell with our lives, which constitute the next chapter in this unfolding family history. According to Sacks, each of us comprises a letter in the living scroll that embodies the ongoing corporate reality of the Jewish people.
Sacks’s description is fitting because it reminds us that this identity—Jewish identity—demands something of us in return; in fact, it demands everything of us. It is not something we maintain by passively receiving it. Rather, it is only preserved by actively forging the next chapter in loyalty and faithfulness to the inherited narrative contours. And the story itself is no arbitrary story—it is the story of a people whose existence and obedience uniquely reveal God in the world, whose commission is to create a society in which God is rightfully exalted as King, and each individual is given the honor and dignity due to those bearing God’s image. To live in accordance with this holy commission, to write the next chapter of this revelatory story, is not a casual choice; rather, it is a matter of covenant faithfulness. While the Jewish people’s election by God is not contingent upon their obedience, neither is it complete without it. To be Israel is to be tasked with a particular vocation in the world, a vocation made manifest through concrete daily practices infused with holy meaning whose significance ultimately affects all of creation. It is through these distinctive Jewish practices that we find God and make him known in the world. Rosenzweig’s description of the rhythm and ritual of Jewish life with its imbedded redemptive import captures this reality with exceptional poignancy.
As Messianic Jews, the Jewish story is the story of our identity, and the chapter we have been called upon to write represents the great challenge and the great joy of our collective life. Much work has already been done to move Messianic Judaism toward embracing the all-encompassing claim of Jewish identity and accepting the task of writing a daring new chapter in Jewish history. Because of this painstaking pioneering, Jewish followers of Yeshua (like myself) are, strikingly, able to discover the depth and richness of Jewish identity from largely within the Messianic movement. This is a remarkable thing that simply was not possible in the same way fifteen or twenty years ago. Today, we can increasingly affirm as a lived reality and not merely an optimistic ideal that the Jewish people are “us,” not “them.”
As Messianic Jews committed to Judaism, we are learning what it means to take up the mantle of Jewish identity and existence, to embody and promote God’s unique calling upon the Jewish people. As we increasingly discover and embrace our priestly calling, we are discerning how to live a sanctified life that discloses God in the world and points toward his ultimate redemptive purposes. In obedience to this unique covenant, we are discovering what it looks like to live into the communal reality of the Jewish people even in the face of ongoing suspicion and marginalization.
Equally significant has been Messianic Judaism’s acknowledgment and affirmation of what claiming one’s Jewish identity entails practically. Those at the helm of organizations like the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council have insisted that being Jews entails living as Jews, that Jewish identity is inseparable from Jewish practice. Our movement is increasingly able to offer a passionate defense of the value and legitimacy of oral Torah and rabbinic tradition, and we are more and more committed to building and inhabiting Jewish spaces and living according to Jewish rhythms of time. This is indeed one of postmissionary Messianic Judaism’s greatest growing legacies, and its impact and effects reach far beyond our own communities.
These are just a few signs of the long-term fruit that a mature vision of Messianic Judaism will continue to bear. Jewish believers in Yeshua who are just starting down the road of self-discovery and are now able to journey along a well-trodden path toward Jewish observance in a Yeshua-believing context. While it may be a longer road yet before we are able to understand and embody this commitment in its fullness, and while the wider Jewish community may never fully accept our claim to be and to live as Jews, the growing impact of this vision should be at least enough to keep us going.
Messianic Jewish Community and the Christian Church
Even as we are growing in our knowledge and practice of the richness of Jewish life and Jewish community, it will always be the case that our Judaism is—and should be—distinct from any other branch or version of Judaism. We are Jews, but we are Messianic Jews, and amidst the move toward Judaism that continues to define our movement, we cannot lose sight of what it means that we also hold firmly to the confession of Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel and the King of all nations. In this regard, we cannot allow the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. We cannot allow our Jewish identity to eclipse our faith in Yeshua and thereby our indelible connection to and ancestry from the worldwide community of Yeshua’s disciples.
As Messianic Jews, our identity is not solely derived from our existence within the Jewish people; it also indelibly flows from our inclusion in the worldwide body of our Messiah. The yawning historical gap between these two covenantal communities lives within each of us, and this tension is, as Greenberg describes, among those that reflect the unique richness of our identity rather than its shattering incoherence.
Perhaps rightly, we have felt the need as Messianic Jews to make clear that we are not “Christians,” at least not according to the historically reinforced understanding of Christianity in which being Jewish and Christian is incoherent. But I wish to exhort us not to stay in this space of defining ourselves by what we are not. This sort of defensive posture all too often leads to disparaging and denigrating speech about that from which we wish to distinguish ourselves—in this case, the Christian church. A negative posture toward Christianity and the church undermines both the truth of our necessarily hybrid identity and the full impact of our commitment to bilateral ecclesiology.
While one of Messianic Judaism’s main struggles over the past decade has been to articulate and defend the legitimacy of rabbinic tradition and God’s providential guidance of the Jewish people, we must be able to offer an equally strong affirmation of God’s loving sustenance of and ongoing redemptive work within the Christian community. Just as we cannot allow widespread Jewish rejection of Yeshua to lead to a wholesale dismissal of the rabbis, we likewise cannot allow the pervasive anti-Semitism and supersessionism of Christian history to blur the fact that the Christian church—alongside the Jewish people—remains the primary locus of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Furthermore, a thoroughgoing commitment to bilateral ecclesiology requires a robust endorsement of the Christian church. If we seek to maintain a coherent message about the unique covenantal obligations of the Jewish people and the abiding distinction between Jew and Gentile, then we must consistently reinforce God’s continued presence in and guidance of the Christian church. To speak negatively about the church while simultaneously dissuading gentiles from making Messianic Jewish congregations their spiritual homes is to send a message that is confusing, at best. If we wish to promote a vision of the Christian church as the rightful home of Yeshua-loving gentiles, then our speech and actions must consistently express our support of and regard for that church’s health and vitality.
On this point, perhaps the term “multilateral ecclesiology” may actually be more accurate than “bilateral ecclesiology.” After all, there is not just one generic gentile ekklesia! We worship a God who is honored by diversity, and that diversity extends far beyond the archetypal distinction between Jew and Gentile. If God delights in the multiplicity of languages, cultures, and ethnicities represented by the world’s population, then each people group ought to be empowered to discern and embody an authentic expression of the Christian gospel from within its unique cultural particularities. The richness of the worldwide ekklesia is arguably found in the diversity of global expressions of Christian discipleship.
As Messianic Jews, we have a unique opportunity to support and enhance the rich multiplicity of the global Christian church by encouraging Christians (perhaps especially those in our midst) to discover and embrace authentic expressions of Christianity that honor their own cultural and ethnic particularity. Christians are not merely “gentiles”—they are Tanzanians and Koreans and Latinos, who carry unique ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identities. While Messianic Judaism is not directly analogous to the countless cultural expressions of Christianity, we are in an ideal position to serve as a model of what “contextualized Christianity” looks like. Rather than subtly implying that Messianic Judaism is superior to Christianity by touting our own significance and legitimacy, we should be empowering Christians to embody faithful expressions of the Christian gospel that reflect the unity-in-diversity upon which that gospel thrives and within which it is most fully expressed.
Messianic Judaism can contribute to global Christianity our story, thus setting people free to discover for themselves what it means to be faithful to Christ in the midst of their own cultural particularities. Is this not the very thing we would like the church to recognize as our right as well? By virtue of our own struggle for a sort of ecclesial freedom, we are among those who are perhaps best equipped to help Gentile Christians discover the positive significance of their identity, bearing in mind that Gentile identity is not just one amorphous generic thing.
In short, the global Christian church must be our concern, because along with being Jews we are also members of the worldwide body of Messiah. It is not optional for us to care for and nurture this body in all of its diversity and heterogeneity. We would be wise to reread Paul’s powerful reflections on the body of Messiah in 1 Corinthians 12, particularly with the distinction between Jew and Gentile in mind.
What relevance does this have with regard to our exploration of Messianic Jewish community? Fundamentally, our communities cannot be marked by the kind of insularity and inwardness by which Rosenzweig describes the Jewish people. Messianic Judaism necessitates a distinct self-understanding that does not fit into Rosenzweig’s formal mold for Judaism and Christianity. In fact, it is difficult to read the New Testament and prescribe to any Yeshua-follower the kind of inward existence by which Rosenzweig describes proper Jewish life.
Because the Messianic Jewish movement has come so far in recognizing and embracing our own Jewishness, I believe we are now at a place where we can and must begin to re-engage with the world of gentile Christianity, confident that that world will no longer be able to absorb or assimilate us. It is because we are firmly committed to doing the hard work of rooting ourselves in our Jewish identity with all of its richness and complexity that we can now securely both learn from and contribute to the life of our engrafted Christian brothers and sisters. With this being said, let us now move on to discuss the distinctives of Messianic Jewish communal life.
Messianic Jewish Life Together
What now can we say about our own unique identity as Messianic Jews and the communities in which we collectively live and express that identity? To address this question, I would like to return again to the covenantal distinctives outlined above, particularly that of covenantal commission. It is ultimately incoherent for us to insist upon the significance of our hybrid theological commitments and refuse to recognize the correlative hybridity of our unique redemptive commission.
Indeed, at least part of our primary covenantal commission as Messianic Jews is to concretely witness to the deep and abiding connection between these two larger communities. By confessing faith in Yeshua as Jews, we necessarily highlight the way in which the election of both Israel and the church exist within God’s election of Yeshua. In his life and mission Yeshua perfectly embodies both the particularity of God’s covenant with Israel and the universality of God’s call to discipleship. As Jewish followers of Yeshua, we must likewise hold within ourselves and reflect within our communities the unique reality of Jewish existence as well as the universal scope of God’s redemptive purposes.
Our community’s specific covenantal commission is shared in part by the Jewish people on one hand and the body of Messiah on the other. Like the overlapping segment of a Venn diagram, the commonality of our respective covenantal identities and accompanying redemptive vocations is only partial. If we truly exist as a subset of these larger communities and draw our sustenance from each of them, then our unique vocation must reflect elements of each community’s distinctive life and mission.
While these larger communities provide the wider environment in which we live, the depth of the bond we share with one another, at least in terms of covenantal commission, is more substantial than the bond we share with non Yeshua-believing Jews or with gentile Christians. Therefore, deep and meaningful community amongst ourselves is that which alone can provide the vision and spiritual sustenance required to carry out our unique covenantal commission. Furthermore, this kind of committed community in and of itself constitutes our faithfulness to that commission. In other words, to abide within transparent and authentic Messianic Jewish communities is not merely that which alone will keep us going; it is also perhaps the primary mode of our faithful service to the God who has issued our unique calling.
Along these lines, Kinzer has made reference to Ralph Winter’s distinction between modalities and sodalities. Using Winter’s framework, Kinzer argues that “Messianic Jewish communities should be viewed as sodalities rather than modalities. . . . They must actually be communities—not fluid collections of individuals and families who meet occasionally to fulfill their own needs or perform a task, but people bound together in long-term family-like relationships.” Kinzer’s exhortation is crucial for the structural stability and continuing longevity of Messianic Jewish communities. Building upon Kinzer’s thoughts, I would like to further flesh out what the basis of Messianic Jewish sodalities might be.
As Kinzer points out, sodalities are built upon a common mission. In fact, for Winter, they are missional communities—not merely marked by a common mission but characterized by the carrying out of that mission. Winter’s prototypical example of a sodality is Paul’s “missionary band,” and the examples he offers of modern sodalities are autonomous or semi-autonomous missions organizations. The common thread is that sodalities view their shared commission as residing at the center of their collective existence. In other words, sodalities are bound together on the basis of their common vocation. The suggestion that Messianic Jewish communities should be viewed as sodalities thus raises a fundamental question: What is our common purpose and calling as Messianic Jews? What vision and commission serves as the anchor of a Messianic Jewish sodality?
Returning again to Rosenzweig’s portrayal of Judaism and Christianity, our unique mission must encompass aspects of both the inward, self-nourishing life of the Jewish people and the expansive, outward-focused posture of the Christian church. Along these lines, I wonder what it might look like for us to conceive of “missional Messianic Judaism.” At the outset it must be noted that missional theology is not primarily concerned with evangelism, much less a model of evangelism that seeks to draw people away from their cultural context, as if becoming a disciple of Yeshua requires jettisoning one’s cultural identity. While our community has understandable baggage associated with the word “missionary,” it is important to distinguish between a missionary posture and a missional posture.
The missional theology movement bases its ecclesiology on the missio Dei, the mission of God in the world that is fully revealed through God’s sending Yeshua into the world, and Yeshua sending out his followers to live into and proclaim God’s rule and reign. Missional ecclesiology emphasizes that the main commission of the people of God is to be a living model of God’s redemptive mission in the world. Missional communities embody life in God’s Kingdom and bear witness to the inbreaking reality of that Kingdom. From this perspective, mission can be defined as “the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world.” While as Messianic Jews we can be proudly postmissionary, faithfulness to our covenantal vocation as Yeshua-followers does not permit us to be postmissional.
To explore the idea of missional Messianic Judaism presses further the question of how we are to understand our unique contribution to and expression of God’s redemptive work in the world. Because our covenantal commission as Messianic Jews necessarily derives from and includes elements of both the wider Jewish community and the wider Christian community, perhaps the idea of “cultural brokerage” can serve as a guiding metaphor for missional Messianic Jewish life. While cultural brokerage has taken on different meanings in different contexts, it almost always involves a group of people who are capable of bridging, linking, or mediating between persons of different cultural contexts. Cultural brokers are defined less by what they do than by who they are; a person’s ability to serve as a cultural broker invariably stems from his or her unique cross-cultural identity.
In missiological contexts, cultural brokerage seems to have a primarily transmissional quality. The history of Christian expansion points to cultural brokers as strategic ambassadors of Yeshua’s message whose multilingual cultural fluency enabled them to envision how the gospel could take root and find expression within particular cultural environments. In a Messianic Jewish context, I would argue that our cultural brokerage has a primarily representational quality. While we do wish to transmit the values and vision we embody to other Jewish believers in Yeshua (and the Jewish people more broadly), our primary commission is to act as intermediaries who faithfully represent Jewish life to Christians and Yeshua-faith to Jews. As those who existentially dwell in the boundary space between Judaism and Christianity, our role as cultural brokers can be conceived as bearing witness to the fundamental connection between these two traditions and faithfully presenting each to the other. We reveal in the life of our communities that Judaism and Christianity are not properly two realities but rather two sides of one reality.
At best, our communities should demonstrate to the Jewish people that Jewish covenant fidelity is not only compatible with Yeshua-faith, but that it is ultimately grounded within the redemptive life Yeshua brought. Our communities should likewise demonstrate to the Christian ekklesia that Judaism and faithful Jewish practice has found a home within that ekklesia, and that churches need not view the Jewish people as targets for conquest and colonization. Finally, our communities should be the place where each of us finds restorative reassurance offered by those in whom these two religious traditions also coexist. As a concrete manifestation of God’s sustaining hand, our mutual support and encouragement is the only thing that will enable us to stay the course of our difficult and largely unchartered covenantal commission.
The combined wisdom of Jewish tradition and Christian sodalities reminds us that our shared mission is given expression by and lived out through concrete practices, which constitute the bedrock of our common life. As Michael Fishbane explains, in Judaism “there is no simple love of God that is not concretized through some customary form of behavior and no strict observance of these behaviors that is not also to be regarded as an expression of the love of God.” More specifically, in the words of Hayim Halevy Donin, “Torah is the embodiment of the Jewish faith. It contains the terms of . . . Covenant with God. It is what makes a Jew a Jew.” From a Christian perspective, this realization is what characterizes in large part the great contribution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poignant reflections in Life Together. From beginning to end, Bonhoeffer’s account of genuine Christian community is built upon a shared life of common practices. While it is easy to be off-put by the specificity and rigidity with which Bonhoeffer prescribes communal Christian practices, of all people we as Jews can understand and appreciate such specificity. It is as if Bonhoeffer is developing a communal Christian halakhah.
If Messianic Judaism is to reflect the life of God’s redeemed and redeeming people, our communities must be shaped by both the halakhic practices that preserve and sanctify the Jewish people and the ecclesial practices that mark the body of Messiah. Because our shared practices constitute our faithful response to God’s electing and covenanting love, they place God and our service to him at the center of our communal life. The way in which these specific communal (and individual) practices undergird Bonhoeffer’s vision for Christian community issues the reminder that our communities must be based upon our shared commitments even more than upon our common affections.
Here the logic of covenant again becomes crucial. By analogy, the covenant of marriage is not based upon whether or not one feels love and tenderness toward their spouse at any given moment. It runs much deeper than that and is built upon a commitment to the health and well-being of the other even and perhaps especially when one does not feel a deep sense of closeness. Likewise, covenantal community cannot be based upon our feelings for one another, which are bound to fluctuate—perhaps proportionally to how close we are to one another. Rather, our commitment to community is based upon our shared understanding that God has brought such community into existence as both a blessing for us to enjoy and a responsibility for us to steward. God has chosen to make himself known through his people, and our commitment to one another is based upon our common commitment to God. This commitment is most visibly and tangibly embodied in the contours of daily communal life and the rhythms of shared spiritual practices.
Finally, as Messianic Jewish covenant communities, self-preservation cannot be our end goal. The missional nature of Winter’s Christian sodalities reinforces this point. We do not and cannot live for ourselves, and our communities cannot be merely self-referential. Ultimately, God’s purposes for our communities must inform our commitment to building and sustaining those communities. The endurance of our communities is not ultimately dependent upon the clarity of our vision or the skill of our administrative implementation, though these things are no doubt important. If our communities ultimately stand the test of time, it will be because they serve a purpose in God’s Kingdom and it will be God’s gracious and life-giving hand that holds them together.
We are stewards of the communities that God has brought into existence, not creators of communities that otherwise would not exist. Because this is the case, we are freed up to focus upon the ways in which our communities contribute to God’s redemptive purposes in the world, rather than endlessly preoccupying ourselves with strategies of self-preservation. This shift in emphasis further reinforces and embodies what it means to be a missional community. As those who are existentially bound to both Am Israel and the Christian community, may we be empowered by God to increasingly discern our unique covenantal commission, so that we may dedicate ourselves to serving God and making him known through faithful obedience. Finally, may we bear in mind that, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, true spiritual community “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Hashivenu Forum, Pasadena, California, in 2012.
Jennifer M. Rosner is Affiliate Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and also serves on the faculty of Azusa Pacific University, Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and The King’s University. Her areas of expertise are contemporary Jewish-Christian relations, Judaism and systematic theology. Her publications include Healing the Schism: Barth, Rosenzweig and the New Jewish-Christian Encounter (Fortress, 2015; reprint Lexham, 2021) and Recalling Jesus: Why Understanding Judaism Should Matter to Every Christian (IVP, 2022). You can find her online at .
1 Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), 168.
2 David Novak, Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 78.
3 Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 75.
4 See Novak, 100.
5 Novak, 102.
6 Among these human claims upon God, David Novak lists the right to depend upon God, the right to divine justice, the right to God’s continued presence, and Israel’s right to exist. See Novak, esp. chapters 2, 4.
7 See Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), especially Part III.
8 Mark Kinzer, “Messianic Jewish Community: Standing and Serving as a Priestly Remnant,” Kesher 28 (Summer/Fall 2014), 84ff.
9 See Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll, 42ff.
10 See Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, Part III, Book I.
11 See .
12 See, for example, Mark Kinzer, Israel’s Messiah and the People of God: A Vision for Messianic Jewish Covenant Fidelity, ed. Jennifer M. Rosner (Eugene: Cascade, 2011), chapter 3.
13 As defined by Mark Kinzer in his book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, this term connotes three touchstones: “First, postmissionary Messianic Judaism summons Messianic Jews to live an observant Jewish life as an act of covenant fidelity rather than missionary expediency. . . . Second, postmissionary Messianic Judaism embraces the Jewish people and its religious tradition, and discovers God and Messiah in the midst of Israel. . . . Third, postmissionary Messianic Judaism serves the (Gentile) Christian church by linking it to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thereby confirming its identity as a multinational extension of the people of Israel” (Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005], 13–15).
14 The tenets of postmissionary Messianic Judaism require one to reckon with the principle of bilateral ecclesiology, as Kinzer explains: “Only one structural arrangement would allow for distinctive Jewish communal life within the context of a transnational community of Jews and Gentiles: the one ekklesia must consist of two corporate subcommunities, each with its own formal or informal governmental and communal structures. Thus . . . the ekklesia is bilateral—one reality subsisting in two forms” (Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, 152).
15 On this point, Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is particularly helpful. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 (esp. §33 and §34).
16 See Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” available at . As Kinzer describes, “a modality is a group comprised of a full range of human beings—old and young, male and female, married and single. It has leaders and followers, strong and weak, able and disabled. There are no membership restrictions other than a willingness to abide by the standards of the group, and the objective of the group is simply to live its life in a particular way. In contrast, a sodality is a group with a focused vocation, with membership restricted to those who will be able to contribute to the fulfillment of that vocation. Sodalities require a higher level of commitment than do modalities. Winter sees the first century communities of Yeshua-followers as modalities, while he views Paul’s apostolic team as a sodality. He also argues that monasteries, religious orders, and missionary societies demonstrate the fruitfulness of the sodality model throughout Christian history.” (Kinzer, “Messianic Jewish Community,” 98.)
17 Kinzer, “Messianic Jewish Community,” 100.
18 For more on missional theology, see especially Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978); David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991); Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006).
19 In Yeshua’s words, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
20 Bosch, Transforming Mission, 519.
21 According to one definition, “a cultural broker is one who thoroughly understands different cultural systems, is able to interpret cultural systems from one frame of reference to another, can mediate cultural incompatibilities, and knows how to build bridges or establish linkages across cultures” (Geneva Gay, “Building Cultural Bridges: A Bold Proposal for Teacher Education,” Education and Urban Society 25:3 [May 1993], 285–99). While the idea of cultural brokerage offers substantial traction and conceptual yield, it is just beginning to appear on the scene of missiological literature. While the number of missiologists who employ this term is increasing, literature on cultural brokerage remains scarce and the term has yet to be precisely defined in a missiological context.
22 Missiologist Jehu Hanciles points to Paul as a cultural broker par excellence. Hanciles’s portrait of Paul highlights his dual citizenship (as a member of the house of Israel and a Roman citizen) and his transnational identity. Paul’s deep-rooted Jewishness and passionate commitment to the universality of God’s inbreaking Kingdom funded his dual identity as a faithful Jew and powerful emissary of Yeshua’s outward-spiraling message. His vocation was built upon these two parts of his own identity that mutually reinforced one another and informed the contours of his understanding of God’s call to both Jews and Gentiles. See Jehu J. Hanciles, “Every Foreign Country a Native Land: The Migrant Factor in the Making of Global Christianity,” paper presented at the Religion and Ethnicity Workshop at Minzu University in Beijing, China, September 7, 2011.
23 Michael Fishbane, Judaism: Revelation and Traditions (New York: HarperOne, 1987), 18.
24 Hayim Halevy Donin, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 27.
25 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins, 1954).
26 The MJRC’s decision to develop communal standards for the observance of Tevilah (baptism) and Hazikkaron (Eucharist) takes a substantial step toward reflecting our commitment to these practices as well as the halakhic practices outlined in the Standards of Observance.
27 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30.