In a recent article, George D. Hanus writes,
“The United States… is a country of immigrants. For centuries, wave after wave arrived on these shores, fleeing persecution, hoping to better their economic condition and merge into the mainstream of American society…. Immigrant Jews rapidly learned English, adopted American dress styles and sent their children to colleges and graduate schools as they became respectable members of society…. Even while we were moving up the ladder, most Jews did not forget the Torah injunctions to remember our heritage. So we Jews set up neighborhood synagogues, spent our free time involved with Federations and Jewish fraternal organizations… we collected money, attended meetings… and to religiously educate our children, we invented… Hebrew and Sunday school. Imagine our surprise and shock, several generations later, when… our grown children did not follow in our Jewish footsteps. Today… they are walking away from 4,000 years of Jewish history and we are shocked….
“When our children bitterly complained that they hated Hebrew school, while their [Gentile] friends were having fun in other after-school activities, we told them to hush because it was a rite of passage to suffer through Hebrew school just as we parents did. When they didn’t want to continue Hebrew school after the age of 13, we didn’t insist. But we never imagined we would end up having grandchildren who have abandoned their heritage, know very little about Judaism and don’t believe in God. We never expected to visit their homes in December only to see a giant Christmas tree in the living room. We are fortunate to live in a country that has allowed us to excel in every field of American endeavor without fear of persecution. But why have we not been equally successful at preserving our Jewish identity?”
Though Mr. Hanus goes on to point to “massive funding of Jewish education” as the remedy for Jewish America’s aliment (which, by the way, is not the answer), he rightly points to institutionalized Judaism as nothing but a placebo–a sugar pill that our people have been swallowing for generations.
We have not been successful at preserving our Jewish identity for the simple fact that Judaism perpetuates only Judaism–not Jews. As a religion, it feeds only itself; and as a culture, it has never proven vibrant enough to compete with the cultures of the nations in which we have assimilated. Judaism does not preserve us as a covenant people because it is a religion created in Diaspora for life in dispersion–but most of all, it is built on a dubious matrix of wisdom deliberately designed to supercede the wisdom and word of God. How can we expect our children to retain their identity as Jews if we are hopelessly immersed in the mainstream, and divorced from the only Word that can return us to the path forsaken by our fathers?
As Messianic Jews, we therefore carry the torch for our people, as a remnant–even among the nations. We remain not only covenantally bound to serve God as His people Israel; but by the circumcision of our hearts, the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and the daily devotion to the ways of our Master, the Messiah Yeshua, we are survivors of the cancer that is continuing to devour our people. Our recovery testifies to the only remedy for our people: restoration as a covenant people through the Messiah Yeshua.
Will we as Messianic Jews, therefore, continue to ensnare ourselves through our own brand of Jewish institutionalization? Are we perpetuating the myths of Judaism by swallowing our own “messianized” placebos? Let us not attempt to reverse engineer Judaism in a vain effort to fix what ails it. Instead, let us be zealous to rescue our people from their collective delusion and offer them the only cure that works.
The question is, are we willing to set our specially formulated religiosity aside long enough to administer the future to our people?
January 12, 2008
Kevin… you said: “Will we as Messianic Jews, therefore, continue to ensnare ourselves through our own brand of Jewish institutionalization? Are we perpetuating the myths of Judaism by swallowing our own “messianized” placebos? Let us not attempt to reverse engineer Judaism in a vain effort to fix what ails it. Instead, let us be zealous to rescue our people from their collective delusion and offer them the only cure that works.”
Kevin, I am not sure that you have offered a solution here to what ails us. What should Messianic Judaism look like, in your opinion? Should we throw off all Jewish tradition and become like another evangelical church denomination? Will Jews preserve their and their children’s identity in that type of setting? That would definitely mean being “hopelessly immersed in the mainstream”.
Yeshua is of course, the answer, as you suggested. However, a lot of Jews do have Yeshua and stay in churches, practice Christian traditions, and their children (usually of intermarriage). Many are actively antagonistic to all things Jewish. What remains of their Jewishness if their children no longer think of themselves as being part of Israel? What does “being Jewish” and STAYING this way for generations mean to you, Kevin?
You say that Judaism has failed to preserve the identity of the Jewish people. It was never the Judaism, past or present, that was preserving us – but HaShem himself preserving us as the Jewish people. Is Christianity better for Jews at preventing intermarriage and assimilation into the surrounding culture? How is your ideal MJ congregation different from the church down the street?
January 13, 2008
My point was that if institutionalized Judaism does not preserve our Jewish identity (as Hanus implies), then a “messianized” version of institutionalized Judaism will not work either. I don’t see this as meaning that the only other option is Christianityindeed, I agree with you that we cannot retain our identity as Jews by assimilating into Christian churches and adhering to Christian rites and practices.
At the same time, however, I don’t believe that Jewish rites and practices necessarily assist us in maintaining our Jewish identitybut Scripture always will. When we live according to Torah, which was specifically designed to sanctify Israel and set us apart from the nations, we will by definition retain our identity. My issue with “messianized” Judaism is that we tend to put our Judaism before our Jewishness, and our Jewishness ought to instead be defined by how we live according to Scripture and our belief in the Messiah Yeshua.
I also don’t limit our Messianic Jewish expression to the four walls of the congregation. Our ritualistic or religious expressions should only be a small fraction of how we live out our identity and calling as Jews. So by the same token, our congregational expression does not need to be Judaism-ish in order to be Jewish. When we come together as a congregation, we are Jewish not because of the rites we perform, or the way we measure up to Jewish sterotypes or the expectations of any given brand of Judaism. We are Jewish because we are Jews living according to the Scriptures, empowered by the Ruach, in the fullness of the Messiah Yeshua.
January 15, 2008
You said: “My point was that if institutionalized Judaism does not preserve our Jewish identity (as Hanus implies), then a “messianized” version of institutionalized Judaism will not work either.”
Kevin, I would say that Rav. Shaul and the first Jerusalem congregation of Jewish believers followed the “institutionalized Judaism” of the day – with one BIG difference – Yeshua. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they followed everything that their unbelieving counterparts did (I am talking about those traditions that “make the Word of G-d void”). But it seems to me that they remained (and especially Shaul) very Jewish in their practice.
You said: “At the same time, however, I don’t believe that Jewish rites and practices necessarily assist us in maintaining our Jewish identity—but Scripture always will.”
I agree, that rites and practices do not preserve a Jewish nation. However, they did play some role in preserving the Jewish nation in Diaspora – if anything, by making us different from the surrounding Gentile culture. Not only that, why did G-d give the Jewish nation so many rites and practices in His Torah if they accomplish nothing?
You said: “When we live according to Torah, which was specifically designed to sanctify Israel and set us apart from the nations, we will by definition retain our identity.”
Kevin, what does a Jew living “according to Torah” mean to you when it comes to preserving the Jewish identity, specifically? I entered a church environment years after coming to know Yeshua on my own (I didn’t know MJ existed at the time) – I love Yeshua, I believe in Him and strive to live according to scripture (whatever this meant in a Gentile setting) – but this didn’t make me more Jewish.
Kevin, what does “living Jewishly” mean to you, especially in the light of how the very first Jewish believers lived? If this means “loving G-d and our fellow men”, it’s a great start – but our fellow Gentile believe do that already – do they live “Jewishly”?
January 15, 2008
Thank you for your thoughtful responseI appreciate it.
I’m not so sure I agree that Paul and the first Jewish believers in Yeshua followed the “institutionalized Judaism” of the day. It may be more likely that, in light of being “in Messiah,” they began the process of breaking with tradition, so to speak. In Galatians 1:13, Paul speaks about his “previous way of life in Judaism”. Also consider Yeshua’s statements about tradition and the challenges He makes of the status quo.
As for Jewish rites and practices, I was not referring to the commands of Torah, but the traditions of Judaism(s).
With regard to “living Jewishly,” I guess I just don’t hold to the notion that we have to look like modern, traditional, religious Jews on the outside in order to be a Jew inwardly, as Paul says in Romans 2. I do, however, hold strongly to the need for us as Jews to remain faithful to Torah, and that means doing what it says to the extent that we are able (that is, without a Temple, in Dispersion, and not as a united nation under God). For example, I do not need keep kosher in order to obey the food lawsI simply have to abstain from eating certain animals and blood. I don’t need my wife to light two Shabbat candles and say a blessing on Erev Shabbat, I just have to rest on the seventh day in order to sanctify it. In these two examples, I assert my Jewishness because I am going contrary to the ways of the nation in which I am an alien. What happens if Christians start keeping Torah in this way? Ah, that’s for another post altogether.
My main point here, however, was not to get into what “Jewishness” ought to look like, but to extrapolate from Hanus’ observation and challenge the idea that we should outwardly emulate one or a mixture of several modern Judaisms (which ultimately affects who we are inwardly) in order to retain our essential Jewishness. If we cannot be confident in our calling as Messianic Jews according to Scripture first and foremostand that this be not just a philosophical confidence but be evidenced by the way we livethen we will fail to accomplish our unique purpose upon the earth.
January 15, 2008
Thanks Kevin for taking your time to reply.
I don’t see your view much different from my own, especially when it comes to things that we “need to” do as Jews (by this I mean separating G-d’s requirements outlined in Torah from man-made requirements of some traditions). I don’t believe that as a Jew I am REQUIRED by G-d to follow traditions He didn’t specifically command us to follow, or that I will sin if I do not.
At the same time, on a cultural level, apart from G-d’s requirements, where do we draw the line? How do we visibly identify with our own people in order to win them? I do agree with your “I don’t need” points, but I don’t think we NEED to strip the Jewish way of life of it’s traditions as a matter of principal. I think G-d gives us freedom in those things, as long as we do it in a way that honors Him.
January 20, 2008
Wow, what an absolutely interesting post/dialogue. Baruch haShem for discussing these issues of Jewish/Messianic Jewish identity– it is a discussion that is long overdue.
Kevin- you make an excellent point about placebo Jewishness when you say, “We have not been successful at preserving our Jewish identity for the simple fact that Judaism perpetuates only Judaism–not Jews. As a religion, it feeds only itself; and as a culture, it has never proven vibrant enough to compete with the cultures of the nations in which we have assimilated.” Case in point is the mainstream American Jewishness of today, with magazines like HEEB that promote a Jewish-ized secular American culture, totally distanced from anything resembling either Biblical Judaism or the Diaspora Jewish culture of even 1-2 generations prior. Judaism’s lack of ability to perpetuate the existence of the Jewish people is, indeed, precisely due to its distancing from Torah. This is a fact that must be addressed, and as we are the strain of Judaism that relies on and promotes the Word as the foundation of our heritage and identity, we do indeed have a responsibility to “carry the torch for our people” when it comes to living out a truly Jewish life.
Of course, the question then becomes, how does one live out a “truly Jewish life.” I agree with you, Kevin, when you state, “My point was that if institutionalized Judaism does not preserve our Jewish identity (as Hanus implies), then a “messianized” version of institutionalized Judaism will not work either.” When you take a crumbling building and slap on a fresh coat of paint, you may improve its appearance, but you’ll still fall through the floors. How do we as Messianics negotiate 2,000 years of Diaspora with another 2-3,000 years of Biblical history to formulate a modern identity? It seems that the first modern generation of Messianic Jews was faced with the struggle of separating the concept of faith in Messiah from a “Christian” identity. Perhaps this next generation of Messianic Jews already are facing our next challenge: to restore the concept of faith in Messiah within the definition of what it means to be Jewish.
Which leads me into Gene’s comment: “I would say that Rav. Shaul and the first Jerusalem congregation of Jewish believers followed the “institutionalized Judaism” of the day – with one BIG difference – Yeshua. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they followed everything that their unbelieving counterparts did (I am talking about those traditions that “make the Word of G-d void”). But it seems to me that they remained (and especially Shaul) very Jewish in their practice.”
I would agree with the idea that the first century believers practiced as Jews with the rest of their community. Why? Simply put: they were Jews. Whether they were in Judea or in the Diaspora, they all went to the same synagogues and lived in the same communities. As modern believers– certianly as modern believers in America– we are afforded an alternative that the first century Jewish believers did not have: the Church. There were no gentile-governed settings for believers to go to to worship in or commune with. Gentiles who came to faith came into the Jewish community to practice what they believed– that’s what the letters compiled in the Brit Chadasha are all about– how to explain Judaism to the pagans. No other sect in existence believed in the concept of a Messiah at that time, making 100% of faith in Yeshua a complete mystery to anyone raised as a gentile. Jewish believers didn’t suddenly institute new practices or beliefs that physically separated them from the surrounding Jewish community– they were living out the identity they had always known, and taking that identity to the next level.
At the same time, we have to respect the fact that Jewish life in the first century was not the Jewish life we know today. In fact, our modern concepts of Judaism and Jewishness are rooted in Rabbinic Judaism, a sect of thought and practice established in Yavneh during that 1st century by a group of Torah teachers bent on denying the fact that Yeshua is the Messiah. These Torah teachers essentially re-interpreted the entire Tanakh to deny Yeshua’s Messiahship– even to deny the very need for sacrificial atonement for sin– and these re-interpretations laid the foundation for the self-sustaining “placebo” Judaism of today. Therefore, when it comes to understanding what it means to live a Jewish life, it is wholly unfair to imitate modern Rabbinic Judaism if we are to live a Jewish life founded in Torah and fulfilled in Messiah Yeshua.
As Messianics, we cannot distance ourselves from Judaism out of fear or ignorance. What we must do is educate ourselves about our history and pull from it what makes good Torah sense. Perhaps that is the torch that we must bear– the torch of restoration. And, perhaps in doing this we must recognize that it is not an issue of our restoring Messiah to our Jewish people– as Gene points out: “How do we visibly identify with our own people in order to win them?” Because it is the Spirit that convicts, that “wins” the heart of a person to faith in Yeshua. Instead, our torch of restoration is, perhaps, that of restoring our Jewish identity with our Messianic faith, in order to accomplish the Biblical goal of what it means to be Jewish: to dwell with HaShem.