Inconvenient Truths: Community of Reference

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

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!


About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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1 Response to Inconvenient Truths: Community of Reference

  1. M Hurley says:

    “But our primary spiritual and social home must be among those whom we allow to influence us the most.”

    This assumes “influence” is uni-dimensional; that we must choose to be influenced from (the one monolithic) source. Clearly with the way history has progressed, in following the above quoted advice, we essentially swap out one major influence and all that has been bundled into it for the other which, unfortunately, tends to want to obliterate any previous influence (and with it–all that is good and G-d given).

    So I for one would hope my Mosaically-inclined pals will say “I pass” on this simplistic suggestion.

    As for as the fig tree, here is some interesting info that might deepen our understanding about influences:

    In the cryptic story of the fig tree mentioned above, all we are ever told is that (somehow) Natenal is impressed when Yeshua comes up to him saying that he saw him (Natanel) when he was under the Fig Tree. Huh? What are we missing here?

    One: Natenel is sarcastically asking for proof since “Can any good thing come out of Natzeret/The Galil?” Yet privately Natenel apparently was asking God to reveal himself to him/or asking about the Mashiach, probably sitting somewhere under what happened to be a fig tree. Some time later Yeshua comes up to tell Natenel “I saw you when you were under the fig tree.” And the rest is history.

    Two, the fig tree has been linked specifically to the Messiah in symbolism. Before the Midrash was ever redacted into the forms we have today, the roots of this understanding were around centuries previous, influecing people like Natanel.

    It has been said that Midrash Rabbah (Song of Songs II: 13: 3-4) tells us “the Rabbis see in the fig tree, the coming of the Messiah and includes the four carpenters, one of which is Messiah Ben Joseph and one of which is Elijah.” Also: “Midrash Rabbah Genesis 46: connects the harvesting of figs to the growth of the Israelite people. As a harvester first collects only one fig from the tree, then several, then baskets and baskets full, God began his relation with his people with only one man, Abraham, then several, Isaac and Jacob, and then the nation.”

    What’s the punch line for me in all of this? The “Influence” for Natanel and cause of his immediate, astonished trust (bearing all of these traditions he was steeped in) –and the only venue that Yeshua operated in–is necessarily the world of … uh… well… let’s just call it for what it is: Judaism.

    I am aware that some think this a form of cultural chauvinism or minimally, a quaint anachronistic approach, when clearly one “can’t go home again” especially in the face of the far more important universals from the Gospels to be grasped. Understood.

    But what if some of those universals from the Gospels are in fact an overdue understanding of that world, and a mandate for Jewish believers to A. remain committed to being with their people (אל תפרוש מן הצבור) B. While being faithful to the Messiah. Some might think it can’t be done.

    Some think it can’t not be done.

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