Inconvenient Truths is a series of intermittent postings highlighting concepts calling for changes in thought and action resisted, deplored, or denounced by some.
A Yiddish proverb states, “You can’t dance at two weddings with one tuchas.”
This reminds us that life is full of choices, and such choices preclude other options. Jewish Yeshua believers often makes choices without realizing they are doing so, and as this Yiddish proverb reminds us, in the process they embrace some possibilities while foreclosing others. And one of these choices made, consciously or unconsciously, is one’s community of reference.
Here is a fine definition of Community of Reference:
The social group or category to which the individual ‘refers,’ consciously or unconsciously, in the shaping of his attitudes and beliefs on a given subject or in the formation of his conduct. It is the social entity toward which he orients his aspirations, judgments, tastes or even at times his profoundest moral or social values” (Nisbett, Robert, and Robert A. Perrin, The Social Bond, 2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 100.
This being the case, it is hard to overstate the influence one’s selection of a community of reference has upon the shape of one’s life and identity. A person who changes his/her community of reference is already in the process of becoming a different kind of person. He or she consciously or unconsciously seeks to fit in with and win the approval of such a community, avoiding its censure, imitating its iconic figures, shaping thought, values and action around this model of all that is deemed commendable and desirable. This has great implications for identity formation in the Messianic Jewish context.
Choosing a community of reference is nothing less than deciding who you are becoming, and therefore who you are, and who you are in the process of ceasing to be.
Rich Robinson, Senior Researcher with Jews for Jesus, writes,
Scripture teaches that God has called a social community into being, a community comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, what one early church writer even called a “third race.” . . . We are not advocating that Jewish believers distance themselves from their Jewish heritage. May it never be! But our primary spiritual and social home must be among those whom we allow to influence us the most and that should be the body of believers (“The Challenge Of Our Messianic Movement, Part 2,” August 1, 2003, Havurah, accessed on line June 22, 2009 at http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/6_3/challenge2).
Dr. Robinson is saying that for Jewish believers in Yeshua, the Church must be the community of reference. His reference to a “third race” echoes the second century document, The Epistle of Diognetus, which postulates that those who believe in Christ are no longer either Jews or Gentiles, but a third race. This being the case, one should ponder seriously the implications of Robinson’s advice that we regard the Church as “our primary spiritual and social home,” i.e., our community of reference. Although I don’t think he intended to do so, the measure he commends spells the end of meaningful Jewish identity, even if not the end of Jewish genetics. A change in community of reference means a change in identity, and nothing less.
As a counterbalance I postulate two correlative principles. The Principle of Unified Idenitity holds that:
It is appropriate that Messianic Jews see themselves as one entity, Jews who honor Yeshua as Messiah, rather than as two entities, Jews and Christians. Dual identity breeds instability as one must always decide which identity is in ascendancy when choices are being considered.
The term “Christian” is, among other things, a term of communal identity. When one holds oneself to be part of the Christian community and part of the Jewish community, this creates a tension. Among the results of that tension is the question of which identity one nurtures at any given time. It is my observation that those who claim to be both Jews and Christians take the first for granted and nurture the latter. The Christian world has become their community of reference. When one asks such people “How have you grown as a Jew lately,” one is apt get a blank stare in return.
The second correlative principle is the Principle of Cultural Monogamy which states:
It is appropriate that Messianic Jews live in such a manner as to demonstrate their monogamous bond with Jewish identity, destiny, and community life. We should not be required to mate with Christian community and culture in order to demonstrate our faithfulness to God and the reality of our faith in Yeshua.
This principle grows out of my experience in the Jewish missions world. Although I do not know what is customary now, it was the custom in Jews for Jesus to hold annual retreats called “Ingatherings,” where the policy was that at the concluding service at least one stanadard Christian church hymn as would be found in a Protestant hymn book would be included, regardless of the tenor of the service otherwise. The purpose of this hymn inclusion was to assure donors and Yeshua believers in attendance that the Jews for Jesus organization and its members were bona fide Christians.
Of course this is missiologically naïve at best. I am reminded of German missionaries to native cultures who, before anything else, first taught the natives to speak and read German because the missionaries viewed German to be the only language appropriate for praying to God!
The earliest Jewish Yeshua believers did not demonstrate this kind of cultural disconnect! This is why in my teaching I link the Principle of Cultural Monogamy with the text in the beginning of the Besorah (Gospel) According to Yochanan (John 1:45), saying, “Philip found Natan’el and told him, ‘We’ve found the one that Moshe wrote about in the Torah, also the Prophets — it’s Yeshua Ben-Yosef from Natzeret!'” From here and from passages like Acts 21:17-26 it is clear that the early Jewish Yeshua believers had one community of reference, the Jewish community, even when, like Paul, they were adept at relating to other cultural contexts.
Let’s put it this way. Most Christians will agree that the New Testament Church repudiated the idea that Gentiles had to become Jews, adhering to Jewish religious culture, in order to become the people of God. It works the other way around as well. Jews who believe in Yeshua should not be expected or required to bond with Gentile Christian culture in order to prove the genuineness of their Yeshua-faith.
Some will consider the community of reference to be a dangerous concept, but is it too much to ask that a brand of Messianic Jewish community and faith should develop which views the Jewish community as its primary community of reference? What a concept!