The Centrality of Community and History to the Messianic Jewish Narrative
In contrast to current thinking, according to Scripture God expects a person’s response to him to emerge within the context of community—be it Israel or the community of the Messiah. So it logically follows that God’s voice cannot be fully “answered” by estranged or isolated individuals. It would appear to be possible, however, for an individual to understand that voice. The prophets functioned either within, or in relationship to, their respective communities, nevertheless their call by the “voice of God”—like Paul’s—was a clearly individual matter. Elijah definitely experienced the “isolation” of his call (1 Kings 19:10), and it would seem that Jeremiah and Ezekiel (and perhaps others) did as well. So, individual response (answer) is anticipated within the context of community.
Moreover, the message of Yeshua the Messiah must be presented to, and received by, Jews as members of the community of Israel. This is consistent with the now generally-accepted approach followed by those seeking to convey Yeshua’s message across cultural boundaries. Cross-cultural communication of religious faith is more effectively accomplished when people-groups, rather than individuals, are engaged. Similarly, the communication of the Messiah’s message to Jews should be couched in the context of community.
Additionally, there needs to be a “trans-communal” (my term) application of redemption. This would clearly indicate a biblical understanding that world redemption does have more universal dimensions; it has been offered to all nations. Aspects of geulah (redemption or restoration) thus focus on all humanity while emphasizing the central role of Israel in that process. The extent to which Israel effects rather than merely reflects that process, however, is a matter for another discussion.
Furthermore, Scripture does not portray the Messianic Jewish community as disconnected or isolated from Jewish communal life. There should be no separation of that community from the larger Jewish community. Recent doctoral research1 confirms and extends that important discussion. All this focuses attention on the centrality of connection to the Jewish community. That connection needs to be maintained not only with the present community but also with the past community; a connection with Jewish history is part of the connection to Jewish community. This is aptly indicated in several biblical texts.
When Moses, for example, rehearses the events of the exodus and the wilderness years, he challenges the younger generation:
Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words.” . . . You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire. . . . Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. (Deut 4:10–12, NIV)
Many of those hearing Moses’ words were not born at the time about which Moses spoke, and many others were clearly too young to remember. Nevertheless, they still had a connection to that historical community. At the end of his farewell address, at the first renewal of that covenant, Moses extends his reminder yet again, this time to future generations:
I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today. (Deut 29:14–15, NIV)
Those of Israel to come later are also incorporated into this historical community standing at the borders of what was to become the land of Israel.
America has become the haven for private spirituality and individual piety. Consequently, many of the religiously devout have difficulty recognizing the centrality of community—throughout God’s entire redemptive process—which is clearly expressed even by the authors they most deeply revere.
While such readers give the concept of the “body of the Messiah” in Paul theological (and theoretical) acknowledgement, they tend to overlook its communal ramifications in the divine restoration and transformation process. Yet, Rabbi Paul repeatedly describes the work of Yeshua in aggregate terms. He regularly speaks of Yeshua’s followers’ close connection and intimate union with Yeshua in all aspects of his work on their behalf—death, burial, resurrection, ascension (Rom 6:4–8; Gal 2:20; Eph 2:4–6; Co. 2:12–13; et al.). In fact, in many of these instances Rav Shaul specifically chooses a strong compound verb—sun (with) plus the verb—to express this profound connection between Yeshua and the community of his followers.2 If Yeshua’s followers are so intimately united with him, they are then, by clear implication, conceived of together as a transformed (and transformative) corporate entity. The strong compound verb formation found in these texts reinforces the communal connection achieved by the divine restoration process.
Numerous biblical passages also focus attention on the corporate aspects of our restoration. Romans 9:2–4 stands as a classic example. It reflects the centrality of community and especially the significance of continued connection to the Jewish community. R. Shaul’s bonds with his people remain so strong that he could wish himself cut off from the Messiah for their sake. In fact, in Romans 11:26, he envisions—and anticipates—the time when the whole of them will experience the restoration and transformation available through the Messiah. Daniel also stands in solidarity with—and as part of—his people. As he prays, he confesses sins not his own. They are the failings of his people. Yet, he identifies himself with these, owning them, as he in reality owns his people (Dan 9).
Then there are the multiple texts that use the phrases “one another” and “each other,” of which Hebrews 10:24–25 provides an excellent case in point. Believers in Yeshua are to “spur one another to gemilut hasidim and mitzvot” and to “continually encourage one another.” In fact, they are to “keep meeting together,” a phrase that uses yet another sun compound. This one is quite familiar; it is episunagoge (epi+synagogue). So a contextual rephrasing might well read “continually gather together as a synagogue.” These passages reinforce the significance of togetherness and mutuality. The biblical authors clearly envision community as a core value and an essential expression of religious faith.
Any discussion of community within the Messianic context necessitates some interaction with the concept of “chosenness” and the relative place of Gentiles with respect to it. Scripture is clear that, like the Jewish people, the nations do have a covenant with God, the Noachide covenant (Gen 9), which also secures a relationship to the Creator. Further, the restoration accomplished by Yeshua has provided them their own position of status and service on equal footing with Jews (Eph 1:11–14; 2:11–22; 3:1–13; Rom 11:11–24). Therefore, chosenness becomes an issue of responsibility rather than superiority, as the Alenu phrases it: “our calling is our task.”3 Election implies vocation. And, it can be reasonably argued, boundary crossing by Gentiles into Judaism and Jewish peoplehood remains a possibility.4
In Romans 8:18–22 R. Shaul takes us beyond the communal to the cosmic dimension. Not only does the transformative message of Yeshua impact communities; it affects creation itself. In a literary flourish the rabbi pictures creation—the larger “community” of all that God created—groaning with the pangs of labor as it anticipates its liberating emergence from debilitating slavery to “glorious freedom.” Redemption effects the restoration of creation; it eventuates in the return to gan eden, (the garden of Eden), the rabbinic concept of the Paradise to come.
An appreciation of the differing perspectives of Semitic and Hellenistic thought reinforces the centrality of community to an understanding of divine restoration. These are distinctive approaches to viewing the world, and the biblical authors and audiences share a Semitic outlook rather than a Hellenistic one.5 As Robert Alter points out, there “. . . are marked differences between Hellenistic and rabbinic intellectual styles.”6 In the introduction to his translation of the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo, Harry Wolfson argues that there isn’t a single truly philosophical term found throughout the vast realm of rabbinic material, neither in Greek form nor in an Aramaic or Hebrew translation of any such Greek philosophical concepts.7
Hellenistic thought tends to view people primarily as individuals, almost as isolated or autonomous units. Semitic thought focuses rather on individuals as primarily part of a people and as members of a larger community. It reflects that same sense of connectedness observable in Scripture and expressed in synagogue liturgy. And, in this world, even when individuals speak or pray, they normally do so as representatives of, or on behalf of, their respective communities.
Semitic thought also views individuals as part of a historic people, something clearly reflected in Jewish holiday observance. The participants relive or reenact their collective history and common experience. They go back in time, and bring history back into their own time. The Passover haggadah aptly illustrates this perspective when it reads: “In every generation each individual is to regard himself as if he had personally gone forth from Egypt. . . . It was not just our ancestors that God redeemed, but us also did God redeem along with them.”8 An organic continuity and ongoing connection clearly exist between those present and those who preceded them. There is an experience that is shared in common. Or to put it more contextually, there is a shared history that is personally experienced in common.
Hence the verb zachor commands not only intellectual recollection or verbal expression, but insists upon ceremonial re-creation; from a Jewish traditional perspective, remembrance requires turning collective memory into personal, existential experience!9
The people of the present are intimately and organically connected with the people of the past.
So a communal connectedness exists both in the present and with the past, and therefore by implication, also into the future. The siddur expresses this cogently: “As for my ancestors, so also for me. As for me, so also for my descendants.”10
Therefore, a communal foundation logically and contextually undergirds a Messianic Jewish rehearsing of God’s program of restoration. A full-orbed Messianic Jewish narrative sees corporate and cosmic restoration at the core of its story. Such a “story” encompasses creation, revelation, and restoration. And each of these elements implies corporate and cosmic dimensions.
The narrative begins: Bereshit bara Elohim (“In the beginning God created,” Gen 1:1). As Shlomo Riskin points out,11 Rashi wondered why the Torah began here rather than with “This month shall be the beginning of months” (Ex 12:2). Nachmanides answered that God’s creation of the world stands at the center of our “theology,” a creation out of nothing.12 In contrast, the Greeks believed that from nothing comes nothing. They posited the co-eternity of God and the universe; the world had no beginning. The ancient Greek could never have countenanced the opening phrase of the Torah.
Since creation forms the foundation for the Jewish story—and since a guiding principle of the Torah remains that God’s people are “to walk in all his ways”13—then this first encounter with God in the Messianic Jewish narrative serves as a highly significant step in learning how “to walk in his ways.” Therefore, just as God stood in the middle of complete nothingness and cried “Let there be light!” his people, in the middle of the tragic voids of their world, must shine their light into the darkness around them. They must create a society of love and light and must partner with God in tikkun olam, in repairing his world and restoring his creation.
The creation-restoration cycle resonates and echoes when Yohanan HaShaliach writes (Jn 1:1): en arche en ho logos . . . kai theos ho logos (“In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”). This text reinforces creation’s centrality to the Messianic Jewish story and anticipates its restoration as well (cf. 1:4–9). But it also reintroduces the intervening part of the narrative, the element of divine invasion or revelation. The Word visits the earth and radiates God’s glory as the mishkan of old reflected the shekinah (1:14). As God graciously revealed the Torah to Moses, so the Word graciously reveals God to the world (1:16–18).
The incarnation (or invasion) of the Word into history recalls the startling visitation of the God of the burning bush and Mt. Sinai. When God revealed his name and character to Moses at the bush (Ex 3:14), he reiterated what he said earlier (3:12), “I will be with you,” (same verb and construction as in verse 14). He is the God who goes with his people (Ex 33:14; Deut 31:6). Rashi’s understanding of the implication of these texts, and of the meaning of God’s special name, emerges in his paraphrase of God’s revelation here: “I will be with them in the sorrow, and I will be with them in the subjection and the difficulties they will face with other nations.” Or, as Buber is reputed to have said repeatedly, God says “Ich bin hier; Ich bin da”; “I am here; I am there (with you).”
But he is also the God who personally comes down and rescues his people (Ex 3:8). No wonder the Messiah who personally comes down and rescues his people can also be called “Immanuel”, “God with us” (Isa 7:14). He is the one who goes with his people wherever they go (Matt 28:20). The revelation dimension of the Messianic narrative culminates with Yeshua’s resurrection (and ascension), an event that anticipates the resurrection of his people (1 Cor 15:20–22) and the restoration of his creation (1 Cor 15:24–26). Throughout the entirety of its story, the Messianic Jewish narrative—and its elements of creation, revelation (now including incarnation and resurrection-ascension), and restoration—expresses itself in corporate and cosmic dimensions and in corporate and cosmic transformation.
And, clearly this Messianic Jewish “story,” this wonderful “meta-narrative,” has a “happy ending,” as J. R. R. Tolkien aptly pointed out. For it, and for his own stories, he coined the term eucatastrophe. He described this as “the joy of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ . . . a miraculous grace.”14 Now, this “happy ending” is not a fairy tale; it is not phony or unreal because “it does not deny the existence of . . . sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it [does deny, however,] the universal final defeat . . . [and it gives] a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world.”15 Moreover, it is a true story, and so it is historically reliable. C. S. Lewis phrased it well : “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”16
Tolkien goes on to describe the profound core at the center of the cosmos.
The Gospels contain a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. They contain many marvels . . . and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. This story has entered History and the primary world: . . . The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.17
In other words,“there is both a ‘eucatastrophe’ and an ‘evangelium’ (grand news) at the heart of the cosmos.”18 And so, we can now fully recognize Yeshua the Messiah “for who He really is, a cosmic Savior,” and with him “great and overflowing joy came” suddenly into the world,19 as he invaded earth and intersected Jewish history.
Restoration in the Jewish perspective refers to the renewal of Israel, the repair of all humanity, and the transformation of the cosmic order. As Messianic Jews, we share this view with our fellow Jews. For us, however, Yeshua is central to the accomplishment of this transformation. Therefore, Yeshua is the promised redeemer of klal yisrael (all Israel), rather than merely the liberator of individual Israelites and non-Israelites.
Now, we all have a responsibility, a “calling and a task,” as the Alenu reminds us. We must live out and share the full-orbed dimensions of Messiah’s message and mission (Matt 28:19–20) as we participate with our Jewish people in the history of God’s election and covenant, and, with Yeshua in the process of cosmic repair and transformation.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, John Fischer is part of a family that miraculously survived
the Holocaust. Dr. Fischer is the author of numerous articles and books, and serves as Rabbi
of Congregation Ohr Chadash and Vice President for Academics at St. Petersburg Seminary
and Yeshiva in Florida. He and his wife, Dr. Patrice Fischer, have two children and three grandchildren.
1 Linda Leckey, “The Separation of Early Christianity and Judaism” (Doctoral project, St. Petersburg Seminary and Yeshiva, 2003).
2 John Fischer, “Identification with Christ: A Study in Paul’s Use of Sun Compounds” (Master’s thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1972).
3 John Fischer, Siddur for Messianic Jews (Palm Harbor, FL: Menorah Ministries, 2011), 105.
4 For a more complete discussion, see John Fischer, “The Legitimacy of Conversion,” in Daniel Cohn-Sherbok, Voices of Messianic Judaism (Baltimore, MD: Lederer Books, 2001).
5 For a more comprehensive treatment of this subject, see: Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970); John Fischer, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts,” The Hebrew Christian, (Winter 1984). See also relevant chapters in Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989); Isidore Epstein, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (Baltimore, MD: Penquin Books, 1975). Further insights can be found in Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003).
6 Joseph Faur, “Reading Jewish Texts with Greek Eyes,” Sh’ma (November 27, 1987): 12.
7 Harry Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1947), 92.
8 Passover Haggadah (Tarrytown, NY: Maxwell House, 1987), 25.
9 Shlomo Riskin, “Shabbat Shalom,” Jerusalem Post, April 18, 2003.
10 Siddur for Messianic Jews, 43.
11 Shlomo Riskin, “Shabbat Shalom,” Jerusalem Post, October 28, 1989.
14 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), 68–9.
17 “Tree and Leaf,” 71–2.
18 Clyde Kilby, “The Last Myth,” Arts in Society, Vol. 6:2 (Sumer–Fall 1969): 163.
19 Paul Cowan, “The Great Eucatastrophe,” Collegiate Challenge 11, no. 3 (1972): 36.