I became a follower of Yeshua in 1973. In the nearly forty years since that life changing moment, I figured out, not only that Yeshua is the Messiah, but that in spite of my well-meaning Christian friends trying to help me fit in to their world, i.e., the church, I was and am, a Jew. When I visit churches, I feel welcome, but not at home. I feel like I’m in someone elses living room and I had better mind my manners. This feeling was reinforced by condescending remarks from christian leaders “welcoming me” to “their” communion.
In their minds, I was joining their group. In my mind, I wasn’t looking to join their country club, I was embracing Yeshua the JEWISH Messiah. My friend, Rabbi Russ Resnik has recently written a book called “Divine Reversal,” and the title describes my experiences in the world of Gentile Christians while following my Jewish Messiah.
One of the Jewish authors who had a deep impact on my life, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The road to the sacred leads through the secular. ” In a similar way, the road to following the Jewish Messiah leads through the Gentile world. By this, I do not mean that to follow Yeshua, I need to embrace the Christianity of the Gentiles, nor do I need to live as a Gentile or become “one of them.” I am a Jew by birth, custom, lifestyle and covenant. I am not rejecting anything of my Jewishness. I am embracing the Messiah intended for me and my own people.
I could hear my grandmother’s common sense saying “well, if you don’t want to deal with Gentiles, don’t go to church!” I tried that. I became involved in Messianic Judaism. I became part of a Messianic home group in the 70s, and have led Messianic congregations since the 80s. The congregations we formed had a vision of being a place where Jewish people could follow their Jewish Messiah without having to be in someone else’s livingroom to do it. They were to be places where we could raise our children to BE Jews, not just learn about them. A place we could live Jewish lives in peace, without having to explain and justify every Jewish thing we did, and where we could invite our friends and relatives where they would understand we had not changed religions, but had embraced our own messiah and remained Jews in the process. This was the original vision of the Messianic congregational movement, and it remains mine.
Along the way, gentiles started attending our congregations. Fine. I have no problem with gentiles attending. But there are many kinds of gentiles and they come to the table with different issues.
One type of gentile comes to a Messianic congregation to learn about the Jewish roots of their faith. Thats fine. It’s good to learn and will help them better understand the Jewish background of their own faith, and their connection to the Messiah of Israel. Hopefully they would gain a better appreciation of Jewish people, and not just “roots.”
Another type of gentile who comes is the “crusader,” the person who wants to teach us how to be real christians, and what we need to do to get our theology “right”. This is the kind of person I caution to not let the Synagogue door hit them on the tuchas on their way out. I can’t imagine anything more disrespectful and presumptuous.
Another type of gentile comes to the congregation and over time, feels at home, enjoys worshipping in a Jewish manner, and embraces our culture as we worship Yeshua together. This is also not a problem. The problem arises when they realize that even though they are worshipping as we do, they are not us. They begin to complain they are being treated as second class citizens. The problem comes about because the nature of christianity, from whence the gentiles come, is universalist in philosophy, while Judaism has always been by nature, particular. This comes from the Torah, where God said we are to be a separate people, not like the nations that surround us. There are certain rituals that are covenant markers for Jews.
Every time we try to do something Jewish, which by nature is particular, we get accused of being exclusionary. For example, a Bar Mitzvah is a Jewish rite confirming a Jewish child in the covenant made at Sinai between God and the Jewish people. Gentiles should not have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs because they are not part of the Sinai covenant, it is a Jewish milestone. The minute gentiles are told they can’t have a Bar Mitzvah, they
complain they are being treated as second class citizens. In other words, Jewish believers in Messianic Jewish congregations can’t do any Jewish ritual that distinguishes them as Jews without making gentiles feel like second class citizens. This in effect, cripples a Messianic congregation from being what it is meant to be. If we have to stop and ask “but what about the gentiles,” before we do anything that reflects who we are, then we are back to being in someone elses livingroom, and that is wrong.
I am not in favor of taking a universal approach to Jewish rituals, opening them to Jews and gentiles alike, because all that does is water down what it means to be Jewish. Gentiles co-opting defining Jewish rituals meant to set apart Jews from non Jews is no better than religious identity theft. In the end, Jews will feel it loses its meaning, and I never want my children to feel Jewish practices are not special.
So what about the gentiles? It would be heartless to say, “It’s too bad for them.” There has always been an option for gentiles. If they truly wish to embrace Jewish practice, AND Jewish people, they can convert. Certainly they don’t have to, but if they feel so strongly, they surely have that option. It’s the way in to our community. Joining a Messianic congregation is not conversion, and doesn’t make someone a Jew, just like an illegal alien living in the US doesn’t make them an American citizen. If they wish to be a citizen, they have to go through the requirements and then they can become one. So it is with being a Jew.