The Case for “Defacto” Conversion: Building Messianic Jewish and Messianic Gentile Households

For in union with the Messiah, you are all children of God through this trusting faithfulness; because as many of you were immersed into the Messiah have clothed yourselves with the Messiah, in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one. –(Galatians 3:26-28 CJB)

Rabbi Richard Nichol asks us to entertain the thought of converting non-Jews who run our services or read Torah from the bima, for the purpose of respecting Jewish symbols and doing the right thing as a Judaism. This sounds like strong talk from someone who writes, “a heavy-handed approach must be avoided even it means a more gradual shift to a position of Jewish integrity.” (Nichol 2004, 23) Is Dr. Nichol really open to waiting for a few generations?

As an international movement, the vast majority of UMJC congregations place the highest value on policies based on Scripture. In a statement defining Messianic Judaism, the delegates affirmed that Messianic Judaism is not only “rooted in Torah” and “expressed in tradition,” it is “renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant” (Defining Messianic Judaism, 3). Let us examine the Hebrew Scriptures to study the process by which Gentiles could become Jews.


Torah has always approached the idea of Gentiles becoming Jews by a process that Shaye Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, calls “de facto conversion.” Simply put, a Gentile who marries into a Jewish family produces children and grandchildren, if raised as Jews, may likely marry other Jews. Over several generations, Jew-Jew bonds are cemented. In American society, where everyone wants instant results, this policy would seem to take forever.

Cohen tells us that Rabbinic Judaism did not officially formalize the process of conversion until the second century C.E. At that time, the three requirements for conversion (circumcision, immersion, and sacrifice) were established as binding (B. Ker. 9a; Cohen 1999,131). Cohen, a historical-positivist who looks carefully at what he calls the “crucial turning points” when laws or ideas receive “their earliest attestation,” has credited rabbinical Judaism of the second century C.E. with inventing conversion as an extra-biblical idea (Yev. 47a-b), along with matrilineal descent and the prohibition of intermarriage.

Thus, from the second century C.E. on, halakha viewed all Jewish intermarriages with Gentiles as illegitimate. Because of the ruling on matrilineal descent, children born to Jewish mothers (and Gentile fathers) were mamzerim (low-status Jews who are permitted only to marry other mamzerim). In contrast, children born to Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers are now classified as non-Jews.

It seems ironic for us to turn to the Rabbis and halakha for the idea of formal conversion, especially when the idea is not attested in the Hebrew Scriptures and when the Jewish status of most in our movement hovers, according to halakha, between Gentiles and mamzerim. There is a certain humility about accepting this position, but those that we convert will not gain additional privileges in the Jewish community, such as the entitlement to make aliyah under the Law of Return; nor will the Orthodox—who control marriage and divorce of Jews in Eretz-Yisrael—view Messianic Jewish marriages as legitimate under Jewish law. They will not be buried in Jewish cemeteries.


Perhaps hope for formalized conversion can be found in the B’rit Chadashah. In Acts 15, we are told that Rav Sha’ul encounters certain Pharisaic believers who link salvation with sanctification, and require circumcision for believing Gentiles (Ac. 15:2). With no formal rulings on what is correct, Rav Sha’ul is told to get a ruling from a Council in Jerusalem (v.3). The Pharisaic believers are there to make their case (v. 5). Kefa argues forcefully that greater Torah observance does not merit salvation, and then Ya’akov wins the day by decreeing that Gentile believers be required to follow only four stipulations, without undergoing b’rit milah, to gain full membership in the Messianic Jewish community.

We are not told that the Council ends in dissension. In fact, Rav Sha’ul leaves Jerusalem and takes the decisions reached at the council for communities to observe at Lystra, Iconium, and beyond (Ac. 16:4). En route, Rav Sha’ul circumcises Timothy “because of the Jews living in those areas.” (Ac. 16:3) One must ask whether Rav Sha’ul is violating the very decrees that he affirmed and is distributing. That Timothy’s father was, or had been (Barrett 1998, 762), a Greek, indicates that Timothy, in the fluidity of Second Temple Judaism, was considered Gentile to some based on patrilineal descent, but Jewish to others on the basis of a Jewish mother who raised him (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15).

Levinskaya (1996, 14-17) argues, convincingly, that matrilineal descent had become a basis of ethnic Jewish identity in first century Diaspora Judaism where Jews lived in close proximity to others and intermarriage rates were rising; she sees Rav Sha’ul as having completed Timothy’s Jewishness by administering b’rit milah. That Sha’ul did not likewise convert Titus, a Gentile traveling companion, clarifies his respect for Jews and Gentiles as Jews and Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:3-4; 1 Corinthians

1 I owe a debt of gratitude both to Ralph Finley and David Rudolph for helping me to clarify these observations, and for their invaluable advice in pinpointing these New Testament scriptures as central to developing the flow of thought in this response to Richard Nichol.

7:17-24). He did not place extra requirements of Torah observance on Titus by saying that, as the assistant of a shaliach, Titus would need to convert. 1

To summarize, Sha’ul already viewed Timothy as an ethnic Jew who needed to complete his religious obligations. We should not view Timothy’s “conversion” as an example of a Gentile becoming a proselyte Jew. Accordingly, if we follow New Covenant principles to renew and apply Jewish traditions, there is little biblical precedent for converting Gentiles who have not been raised in a Jewish household—even if these Gentiles are the cantors and Torah readers of our congregations.


The UMJC has yet to define who is a Jew. Each congregation determines for itself who counts as a Jewish member and who does not. Some congregations might count Jews based on patrilineal descent, others based on matrilineal descent, or both. When members leave and the number of Jews dips below ten, congregations might count children and non-attending spouses in order to make their minyan of Jews and retain their status as “full member” congregations. The time is certainly premature for the international movement to countenance ideas of Gentile-Jewish conversion, when Messianic Judaism has yet to agree upon a national definition concerning when a person can be counted as a Jewish member of a local congregation.

Moreover, a formalized conversion process at the international (or even national) level will not presently make us more acceptable to the Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Judaism have embraced their own versions of conversion. In the most recent 7-4 decision of March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Israel recognized what the Forward describes as “a new category of non-conversions” to Judaism (Forward, Mitchell Ginsburg,

The time is certainly premature for the international movement to countenance ideas of Gentile-Jewish conversion, when Messianic Judaism has yet to agree upon a national definition concerning when a person can be counted as a Jewish member of a local congregation.

“Court’s Conversion Ruling Satisfies Few, April 8, 2005, 3) when it upheld the status of 17 Israeli residents who traveled outside the land to complete their conversion to Conservative and Reform Judaism. Despite their year-long non-Orthodox study courses and integrating themselves into Conservative and Reform congregations in Israel, it took the Orthodox community less than a week to assemble four former Israeli chief rabbis and the two current incumbents of the Chief Rabbinate to sign a document stating, “any ‘Reform,’ ‘Conservative,’ or other type of ‘conversion’ not adhering to Orthodox demands has no meaning in Jewish law (Halacha)” (International Jerusalem Post, Liat Collins, “Preaching to the Converted,” April 8-14, 2005, 5). After twenty years of working on compromise policies, the Orthodox show no signs of granting “equal status” to the non-Orthodox Judaisms on the subject of conversion.

Do we want to journey down this road? With regard to Dr. Nichol’s proposal in particular, there are significant problems,

most notably the implication that Gentiles should eventually be excluded from leadership positions. First, this is in conflict with the current UMJC Smicha program, as well as UMJC policy on congregational leadership, which permits qualified Gentiles to lead UMJC synagogues. Second, the future barring of Gentiles from leadership posts, unless they become converts, could introduce an ethnic discrimination that takes on a life of its own.



Looking to demographics, we can expect our problems of assimilation to greatly intensify. David Rudolph’s careful attention to the realities of intermarriage quotes population projections by Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University. In light of current trends in the United States regarding intermarriage, the number of Jews peaked in the year 2000 at 5.6 million, and it is expected to fall to

4.3 million by 2040 and 2.3 million by 2080. Quoting Susan Schneider, Rudolph asserts that children of Jewish-Christian intermarriage “will comprise the majority of American Jews by the year 2050” (Rudolph 2003, 2).

Granted, Orthodox Judaism has only an 11% assimilation rate. But intermarriage rates of 37% in Conservative Judaism and 56% in Reform Judaism are not bucking the assimilation trends in our philosemitic culture (Rudolph, 1). Ironically, the ancient Jewish dream of being loved and accepted by the majority culture has come true in North America, but the dream also brings towering rates of assimilation in its wake.

I can understand Nichol’s publicly expressed anxieties that Messianic Judaism could be a one-generation movement. But conversion policies will not save us from this fate. Jewish continuity in Messianic Judaism will ultimately depend on the kind of households we reproduce. If the intermarried household remains Jewish in character, headed by either a Jew or a Gentile who models a Jewish lifestyle to the next generation, the blood line will not matter. Over four generations, Torah-reading great-grandsons and great-granddaughters will form Jew-Jew bonds, and the Gentile great-grandparents will “discover from afar” that they are as Jewish as Avraham Avinu, the great-grandparent of Y’hudah.

Support from the Torah for household identity is abundant. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov are claimed as Jews by the Rabbis. They were promised a line of kings (Genesis 17:6; 35:11), culminating in the House of David (Psalms 122:5), an everlasting dynasty that leads to Yeshua (Mattityahu 1:1). And today’s Judaisms, when asked about their members, answer by saying something like “seventy families” or “seventy households.” Households expand to clans, and clans become a nation. Pesach celebrates the liberation of Jewish households from Egypt. In the New Covenant, the saved broke bread from house to house (Ac. 2:46). In Caesarea, Kefa spoke prophetic words that fulfilled the prophecy, “You will be saved, you and your household.” (Ac. 11:1215) Lydia was saved and all her house (Ac. 16:15).

In the face of mounting assimilation, we should not expect to see many Jew-Jew couples in Messianic Judaism. Most of them will remain within the tightly drawn boundary lines of Orthodoxy. Assimilation rates among the non-religious run as high as 82% in some regions. This is our area of calling, the area that Orthodox Jews call the Gentiles and the mamzerim. Our calling should be to respect Jews and Gentiles, and to emphasize the importance of maintaining Messianic Jewish and Messianic Gentile households, houses that embody the Messiah in a Jewish lifestyle that sanctifies life with integrity. All households can welcome Shabbat, light candles, celebrate festivals, learn Hebrew, volunteer to serve in the local congregation and in the local Jewish community, prepare our children to read and chant Torah for a lifetime, put on the tallit, lead the minyan, and marry one another. What is a Judaism to do when there is neither a kohen, nor a levi, nor a full-blooded Israeli to lead the service? It is always better to do what we can.

We do not have time to be caught up in defending a international conversion policy to the Gentile-wing of the ekklesia (who will resent our taking Gentiles from “their” communities and making them Jews). Nor will we ever please the gatekeepers of Orthodoxy. Instead, we should be patient enough to wait for the day when the Orthodox accept Reform converts before we venture down that road. If Messiah heads our households, and we keep reading the Torah for ourselves, our households will survive into the fourth generation, both as Messianic Jewish and Messianic Gentile households. In that day, we will have a testimony that even the Orthodox will have to respect.

Scripture prescribes the path of de facto conversion over several generations for Gentiles who want to become Jews within Messianic Judaism. Our righteous Gentiles who are called to convert can hope to live long lives, watch their children intermarry, and then appreciate the Jewish grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Avraham did not live to see his great-grandson Y’hudah, the Torah’s first Jewish tribal head. Yet it is instructive to know that those who have walked with God have seen the promises from afar (Hebrews 11:11-14). Perhaps doing the “right thing” means accepting our humble circumstances and not trying to force a perceived integrity. Perhaps it also means living by the Scriptures, and being content to raise up Messianic Jewish and Messianic Gentile households, all while waiting for Messiah to come and make all things right.


• Barrett, C. K. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The International Critical Commentary. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.

• Cohen, Shaye J. D., The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

• Collins, L. (2005, April 8-14). “Preaching to the…”)