Becoming a Ger (Convert)

In a previous post about Jews and Gentiles, there was a discussion about Ger’im (converts). Without doubt, there are many gentiles in Messianic Jewish congregations, and while their presence is troublesome for some people because it raises a serious question about how can the Messianic Movement be a Jewish movement if it has a majority of non Jews in its ranks. The issue for me, is not that there are so many gentiles, but that there are so fewer Jews. On the other hand, it is also true that many of the non Jews who are part of Messianic congregations have been loyal members who have been only helpful and supportive of the congregations and their Jewish members. They have been supportive with their time and talents and finances to help build our congregations. They have been so helpful and good, I have wished them to be Jewish, but the reality is, they are not. Their children have grown up with our children. Some of their children married some of our children. They raised their children as Messianic Jews. Within our community that is fine. But when they connect in the larger Jewish world, they are not Jews. If their children wish to marry non Messianic Jews, it becomes an issue for the Jewish families, because no matter how good and kind and “on board” and “with the program” they have been, they are still not Jews.

A friend of mine had lunch with a Conservative Rabbi friend, and were discussing the Messianic community, and he shared about the situation of gentiles in our congregations. The Conservative rabbi asked why didn’t they just convert if they felt as they did about Jewish life and values. My friend said we didn’t have a way to do conversions in Messianic Judaism. The Conservative rabbi thought it was cruel to allow gentiles to be part of our congregations and not have a way for them to become part of our people. When a Conservative leader begins to consider Messianic Judaism a Judaism, the idea of conversion seems normal.

It was at this point that we started talking about doing conversions for people who had dedicated their lives to Messianic Judaism, even though there was no promise they would be Jewish. Conversion offers the opportunity for intermarried couples to have a fully Jewish home and family. It would legitimize the status of people who lived Jewish lives but were not born Jewish.

We wanted to avoid the wholesale conversions of large numbers of gentiles who thought it would be “cool” to be Jewish, and would think it put them a few notches above their gentile friends in the Kingdom of God like attitudes I’ve seen in the so-called Ephraimite movement.

We chose to interact with the traditional Halacha to come up with our halakhic standards, and asked people to embrace these standards for their own lives as a step toward conversion. Without a halakhic standard, what would we be converting people to?

We also saw a need for conversion to give a definite status and identity to people and their children who had a life commitment to who we are as Jews. Without conversion, gentiles in our congregations were calling themselves Messianic Jews. They were being called to the Torah, putting on Teflilin, and Talesim, and taking on Jewish names but were in reality, not Jewish. To me, their situation and actions was not unlike the status of Illegal aliens who snuck in over the border from Mexico. They learned English, got jobs, got benefits, and live in America, but they are not citizens of the United States. They adopted the lifestyle but had no legitimate status. Whatever they are, they are not American citizens. They could apply for a green card and go through the proper steps and become American citizens. In a similar way, that is what conversion is about.

The so-called “two house” movement is a product of not having a way into the Jewish world, but it is no more than a horrible caricature of Jewish culture and life. When you have people mimicking Hasidic dress and custom, and then take off their hats and the Peyos (side curls) come off with the hats, you get the feeling that you are watching a minstrel show. They may be dressed like the road company of Fiddler On The Roof, but its all dress up for them. If it was simply playing “dress up”, I would ignore it, but they call themselves Messianic, and they are not. They claim to be the “spiritual” house of Israel, but have no connection to the real house of Israel. In Genesis 15, Abraham was concerned with physical seed, not spiritual seed. God made his promises to Abraham and the generations of his physical seed. God joined himself to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To spiritualize the theft of that identity is being unfaithful to the biblical text.

I find this fantasy Jewish identity so objectionable because it is costly to be a Jew. Having to deal with anti-semitism is painful. Where were these people when Nazi Germany was murdering Jews throughout Europe? They want a cheap Jewish identity they can throw on like a tee shirt, and take off when it doesn’t suit them. A true convert doesn’t just embrace the Jewish religion, but also embraces the Jewish people, not just when its convenient, but when it isn’t.

People have argued that we don’t have the authority to do conversions in Messianic Judaism. They say the State of Israel will not recognize our conversions as legitimate. In my opinion, if the reason someone is looking to convert is so they can immigrate to Israel, they are converting for the wrong reason. It should be pointed out that Conservative and Reform conversions are not recognized by the State of Israel either, but that doesn’t stop people from converting under their auspices. In the past, some gentiles in Messianic congregations have gone to non-Messianic congregations for conversions and were told they had to renounce Yeshua if they wanted to convert.

Messianic Jewish conversions offer a potential ger the opportunity to convert without having to renounce Yeshua. Our conversions are overseen by our Messianic Jewish Rabbinic Council, and the process and procedures were modeled after the Orthodox standards. We chose to make our standards rigorous in order to dissuade any who were not serious, and who did not have the right attitude. A friend of mine underwent a Messianic conversion years ago. I asked him why he would want to convert if the state of Israel would not recognize his conversion. His reply was that when he prayed the prayers in the Siddur for the peace and well being for all of Israel, he wanted to be included. That made sense to me.

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11 thoughts on “Becoming a Ger (Convert)

  1. I also found all the Jewish-wannabes among the Messianic congregations troublesome, Michael, but even more troubling to me was all the encouragement they are given to don the appearance of actually being Jewish.

    Since we have known each other for a long time through Messianic forums, I think you know that my commitment to the Messianic Jews is not a shallow one. Nevertheless, I did not like the pressure within the Messianic congregation for Gentile Christians to be “Messianic Gentiles”.

    Certainly God stirs up the hearts of Christians to seek out the Jews who are fellow joint heirs in Messiah, but I see no where in scripture where we are encouraged to leave our identities – Jews continue to be Jews and Gentiles continue to be Gentiles. We are not to be made in the image of each other, but in His image.

    There is such a press in Messianic congregations to get the Gentiles conversant in Hebrew and Jewish traditions, etc. Many Christians come to the Messianic movement without a strong sense of why God has stirred their hearts toward Jews. Some mistakenly believe it is so they will adopt a Jewish lifestyle, learn Hebrew and follow all the traditions.

    I don’t believe this is what God had in mind stirring our hearts. The council at Jerusalem recorded in Acts laid out that we were to be free of conforming to one another’s calling. Jews to be Jews, Christians to be Christians – but made brothers in Him.

    That is not always easy to work out the practical details but no more than I can be a woman trying to be a man, can I be a Christian trying to be a Messianic Jew. And why would I want to be anything but a woman Christian if I am on the same spiritual footing with Him as anyone else in His kingdom?

    These are my thoughts. Offensive to some, but true to my own heart and leading of the Lord in my life – true to what I see we are to do about these things in scripture.

  2. An interesting perspective, not sure this would solve or resolve the problems of two house or the loss of Jewishness in the movement. But a well thought though approach…

    • Thanks Andrew. I was concerned people would think I’m anti-gentile, which I am most assuredly not! I appreciate people for who and what they are. I want to find a legitimate way to deal with the issues without creating an underclass. I don’t believe all gentiles need to or should convert. I was only addressing those with the desire to do so. I appreciate the feedback.

  3. Thank you for this well thought-out and well written article. i just discovered your blog and hope you didn’t mind me adding your link to my blogroll.

  4. Well said, Dr. Schiffman. MJ has created an environment of confusion and spin-off movements with even more confusion. We may not be able to complete the task of healing this meshugas, but neither are we free to refrain from starting.

    Derek Leman

  5. I enjoyed the post. I do have a few questions regarding the practical aspects of these conversions and Jewish identity within MJ:

    1. Will messianic conversions done outside of MJRC auspices be considered as invalid by MJRC and the MJRC-member congregations? How will this be handled?

    2. If the MJRC conversion standards were based on traditional halacha and if there is a concern for future acceptance of MJs by the outside Jewish world (especially in Israel), why not require conversions for non-halachic Jews as well (e.g. those with Jewish fathers only)?

    Thanks.

  6. regarding recognition of Messianic conversions performed outside the MJRC, We would have to look at the standards under which the conversion took place and under whose auspices it was performed before we would consider its validity. The question would go to our personal status committee who would investigate the matter. At the present time, we do accept patrilineal decent. It can always be revisted. For questions about the MJRC specifics, a good place to start would be our website, http://www.ourrabbis.org.

  7. I really appreciate the even handedness of this post.

    It’s a complicated issue, but I am happy to read your thoughts on it.

  8. Just out of curiosity…
    What standards of conversion does “convert to Judaism” imply in MJRC’s definition of Jewish status? (The same issue of what constitutes “giyyur k’halachah” has plagued Israel for years).
    Would it be feasible for the MJRC to not recognize a conversion performed in a Reform setting without the halachically-appropriate rituals? (mikvah, b’rit milah/dam b’rit as appropriate)

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