Opening the Gates, Chapter 1 Summary

book_gatesKnowing that I am doing some soul-searching and thinking about the theological and practical issues of Messianic Judaism as a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, David Rudolph, Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at MJTI (mjti.com), encouraged me to read Opening the Gates by Gary Tobin.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. You can find out more about his work at jewishresearch.org and bechollashon.org.

This book could be very useful for anyone in the Messianic Jewish community who wants to understand the dynamics of identity and how it relates to community in our Jewish context. Jews in our movement will benefit from a wise and informed view of the causes of insecurity and fear about Jewish identity. Non-Jews in our movement will understand what it means to be part of a Jewish community and what conversion is all about.

It should not take much imagination as you read below to see typical responses between Jews and non-Jews in Messianic Judaism reflected in the larger picture of the Jewish community

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29 Responses to Opening the Gates, Chapter 1 Summary

  1. ckinbar says:

    I don’t want to judge a book by its first chapter, and especially by a summary, but . . .

    I know full well how narrowly tribal are the concerns of many Jews. But let’s not assume that loyalty to community is equivalent to tribalism.

    Of course, a number of Tobin’s observations are worth considering. However, his foundational categories of loss (Tribal, Institutional, and Individual) are fatally flawed. Substituting “tribe” for “Israel” or even “community,” and eliminating “God” and “covenant” is, to be honest, horrifying to me. I personally can’t accept the absence of God, covenant, and community as a basis for serious dialogue on Jewish identity. I can only hope that these crucial factors are introduced later by Tobin.

  2. Ckinbar:

    I believe “tribe” is meant as a sociological term. I never took sociology in all my years of college. I don’t believe he is using it in some theological sense of precision.

    Also, tribe is a word used more and more as people search for some sense of connection to a group (on Twitter they are called Twibes and there is the ultra-famous Seth Godin book).

    And I do believe mitzvot are a major issue later.

    Derek

  3. Derek… I will speak from personal experience, my observations and study over the years….

    The only thing that has kept our ancestors from intermarriage and assimilation in the Diaspora was antisemitism and a feeling of being very different from other nations before G-d (via Israel’s Covenant), and having a strong sense of community. Outside of his community, a Jew was lost. The Ghettos (most of which were voluntary and not forced) served not simply to isolate the Jew, but provided him with a “mini-Israel” of sorts, a “country” where he can be among his own people.

    This is what bonded Jews together when outside of our Land. With the advent of Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) the Europe’s Jewry (in France, Germany, etc.) could not run fast enough toward embracing the surrounding non-Jewish culture. With this new-found Gentile acceptance, intermarriage soon followed.

    The reason intermarriage among the American Jewry before 1950’s / early 60’s was so low is because most had parents who still had fresh memories of living among Gentiles in the Jew-hating Russia or Poland, and/or of recent Holocaust and would not dare to do such a thing to their parents. Which also makes me wonder about all the claims of newly-found Jewish identity among the Gentiles in the MJ movement – where oh where do they find all those countless “lost and found” Jewish great-great-parents?

    “He believes that Judaism always has been a tribe open to new recruits and that Judaism will be enriched by the addition of people from all cultures around the world.”

    I think that Tobin is greatly overstating the “always” factor. One can go back to Nehemiah to see that mixing it up with the “other nations” was not such an “enriching” or acceptable thing for Israel:

    In Nehemiah 13:3, we can read the story about Israel hearing the law read once again to them after a long period of time. What was Israelite’s response to the Law? Let’s see:

    “Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.” We can see here that their first reaction when they heard G-d’s laws was separation from those among them who were NOT Israelites.

    Only when we get to Prushim (Pharisees) do we find that THEY went out to search for converts (Matthew 23:15). It doesn’t seem that they succeed in converting many – considering how far they had to go to find one. What’s more, the numerous published genetic studies have shown very little genetic admixture (Y-chromosome) over many millennia – and that is indeed a miracle of G-d and confirmation of His covenant, namely the preservation of the ETHNIC Jewish nation.

  4. I have to agree with Carl. The question of covenant is entirely glossed over in this discussion, and has tremendous implications for Jewish identity.

  5. I hope neither you nor Carl (ckinbar) will be too quick to judge the book. I haven’t finished it. Tobin is a sociologist, not a theologian. Perhaps he is starting with the sociology and plans to move on.

    I think the sociological arguments are sound. Maybe his treatment of mitzvot will be also.

    Derek

  6. ckinbar says:

    “Carl (ckinbar)”

    Monique and Derek — how did you ever figure out who “ckinbar” is? (Smile.)

    “My strenuous dissimulation has been for naught; hiddeness is with revelation fraught.” Neuman

  7. no_tv says:

    “Tobin says there is a culture of complaining instead of a culture of joy in the Jewish community. You are more likely to hear people complaining about eating too much matza at Passover than imparting the transcendence of the Seder or of Shabbat.”

    Way to caricaturize mainstream Judaism.

    I don’t want to judge a book by it’s excerpts but I’m not very impressed so far.

  8. Derek, I’m pretty sure I won’t like this book … but your review makes me want to read it. Or at least put it in the pile of books I’m planning to read eventually. I haven’t really read much from the pro-conversion crowd.

  9. no_tv:

    Caricaturing Judaism is precisely the kind of thing Tobin does not do. He calls for Judaism to come from a place of confidence and not complaining or self-deconstructing.

    Perhaps my brief summary did not capture his point well: he is calling on Jews to stop complaining about the rituals of Jewish life and focus on their beauty and transcendence.

    Derek

  10. Monique:

    In a way, Tobin is reflecting on a situation very similar to the one in Messianic Judaism. Mainstream Judaism has many Gentiles also (via intermarriage). The difference is these intermarried Gentiles have not felt welcome in mainstream synagogues.

    In coming weeks I will present some more Tobin arguments. I think he would say a much greater opportunity presents itself if Judaism is not self-limiting due to a need for tribal/ethnic purity.

    And that tribal/ethnic purity is a myth anyway, as Jewry in every place intermarries and takes on the characteristics of the host culture.

    Derek

  11. Derek…

    How is being “pro-active” in seeking Gentile converts helps matters at all? If anything, all it will accomplish is speed up the transformation of the shriveling liberal streams of Judaism (of which Mr. Tobin is part) into defacto Gentile movements (similar to what Messianic Judaism has become over the years) – does anyone believe that ethnic Jews would be attracted to be part of something like that? Why can’t the focus be on bringing back the wandering Jew?

    “And that tribal/ethnic purity is a myth anyway, as Jewry in every place intermarries and takes on the characteristics of the host culture.”

    I don’t think that it quite qualifies as a “myth”. I view G-d’s preservation of ethnic Israel as one of the biggest miracles of all. True, the intermarriage (primarily between Jewish men and Gentile women) has happened in every part of Galut and in the Land – but it has been quite limited, nearly always frowned upon and in the Bible it seems that it was males who carried and preserved the Israelite line and thus ethnicity. (I recommend reading The Beginnings of Jewishness, by Shaye J. D. Cohen). Genetic studies support that as well.

    To overstate the case for intermarriage is to imply that Gentiles have freely intermingled with the Jewish populations and that G-d is just OK with diluting the Jewish stock to the point that it becomes pointless to talk of the “children of Israel”, or “Israel after the flesh”.

  12. Gene:

    I said it before and I hope this time people hear it: these are Tobin’s recommendations for Reform and Conservative Judaism. They are in a different boat than MJ. Seeking out converts makes sense for them.

    I was summarizing his book. As I said I WILL be (future, not past tense) suggesting ideas for MJ after a time of processing and thinking. You have not heard my thoughts yet.

    As for the myth part, I mean it is a myth that Jews in any society are ethnically pure as opposed to having various other ethnicities mixed in over the past few centuries. Judaism’s (Israel’s) boundaries have always been semi-permeable. The question is not, “How can we keep all non-Jews out?” but, “What are good guidelines for integrating the non-Jews who will inevitably join?”

    Tobin’s arguments should be a wake up call. Are we listening?

    Derek

  13. Gene:

    As for whether God is concerned with the purity of Jewish stock, bah, humbug. Are we reading the same Torah? Moses and Zipporah? Joseph and Asenath? Boaz and Ruth?

    Derek

  14. Derek…

    “As for whether God is concerned with the purity of Jewish stock, bah, humbug. Are we reading the same Torah? Moses and Zipporah? Joseph and Asenath? Boaz and Ruth?”

    These women were extraordinary and miraculous exceptions to what G-d desired for all of Israel – not to mix with other nations by keep itself holy. Moses married Zipporah when he was away from his people for many many years and before Torah was given, Joseph’s bride was given to him by Pharaoh (it’s not like who could chose a bride from his own people at that time), and Ruth was a Moabitess (who was only allowed in by G-d’s grace). These exception prove the rule.

    No, G-d is not a racist or racial purist – but I think that the preservation of Israel as a distinct people is important to him. As I said earlier – in the Torah the male line carried the Israelite stock. Intermarriage was still frowned upon, but when Israel was in the Land it was much less problematic than it was after the Babylonian captivity (Nehemiah and Ezra come to mind), or today – especially when it came to children.

    In the Galut, intermarriage has been a pathway to assimilation of subsequent generations. Do you not agree with that?

    Gene

  15. Gene:

    You say they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I say they are not insignificant or de-emphasized in Torah. I’d say they are among numerous clues that membership in Israel is open.

    Are you arguing for the sake of arguing or do you truly have passion and conviction behind your words?

    Can you not see a difference between the Ezra-Nehemiah situation and these others I describe? What is the lesson? How does it apply to what we are talking about?

    Derek

  16. “I say they are not insignificant or de-emphasized in Torah. I’d say they are among numerous clues that membership in Israel is open.”

    Israel is not a club – it’s a distinct nation of descendants of Ya’akov. Later Judaism if a faith, yes – that’s why, in the first century, it was possible to be a proselyte but not an Israelite.

    “Are you arguing for the sake of arguing or do you truly have passion and conviction behind your words?”

    You better believe I have the passion and conviction (probably too much of both)! The issue is not exclusion of individuals, but a MASS-inclusion that will alter the demographics of Israel (something that is happening to Messianic Judaism).

    “Can you not see a difference between the Ezra-Nehemiah situation and these others I describe? What is the lesson? How does it apply to what we are talking about?”

    The are differences and there are similarities. I will be looking forward to you laying out your vision for MJ and Gentile inclusion.

    Gene

  17. Interesting that this has turned into a discussion on intermarriage. I should note that I am a product of an intermarriage (Jewish mother, Gentile father). I’m of course grateful that my mother married my father … as I wouldn’t exist otherwise. And I’m grateful for my father’s continued support as his wife and children have worked out our Jewish identities.

    Even though I’m a product of the phenomenon, I’m by no means a proponent of it. I’m especially wary about intermarriage in the Messianic context, because the implications for the children of these couples are magnified. As I’ve often said, I’ve felt my whole life that I am a walking identity crisis. I spend my life straddling fences, and none too comfortably.

    It is difficult enough to be Jewish yet follow the Messiah of the Christians. Harder still to be completely Jewish (halakhically) yet half-Gentile (biologically). To have one half of your vast extended family scratch their heads at your affinity for Judaism, while the other half turns its back on you for your allegiance to the Christian god.

    It’s no wonder that the children who were raised in our movement have departed in droves. We’re asking them to straddle too many fences … expecting simultaneously that they display a fierce commitment to our theology, exercise enormous cultural dexterity, and possess a skin thick enough to survive ongoing persecution and rejection.

    Figuratively speaking, all of that pressure should produce the perfect little well-rounded adult. More often, it leaves us feeling hollowed out and empty.

  18. Monique.. the good thing is that your future children’s identity (and may G-d bless you with many) would be that much more secure and solid because you chose to marry a Jewish man.

    Today, in the Messianic Jewish movement especially, Jews feel that they are free to intermarry with Gentiles because the latter need to pass only one condition – they must be “in the Lord”. Would a Messianic Jew be accused of racism if he avoided dating and marrying Gentiles in his own congregation? If I had to guess, I would estimate Messianic Jewish intermarriage rates at 99%. Where do we go from here?

    “It

    • Gene, you should seriously consider raising money from within your synagogue to send the 20- and 30-something single Jews in your community to the national conferences.

      You could call it the “Matchmaker Mitzvah Fund” 🙂

      The cost of travel, hotel, food, and registration for conferences is usually prohibitive for those still in grad school or in entry level jobs. BUT, the pickings aren’t nearly as slim as they are for young singles locally, and there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll meet someone who shares their philosophy about Jewish life.

      That’s how I met my husband – on my mother’s dime in Chicago! (with the help of a very plucky shadchan)

      And once your young singles come back and announce newfound boyfriends and girlfriends, offer to put up their significant others in your guest bedroom during their cross-country visits (another money saver) … before you know it, you’ll be holding one of their huppah poles.

      It’s truly a mitzvah! And it’s a pretty logical way to get more Jewish babies into your pews for your kids to grow up with (and maybe marry!).

  19. no_tv says:

    Derek, first I have to say that I really like your blog. The conversations you are starting are important and you do so with conviction and kindness.

    About the intermarriage issue and feeling welcome in the Jewish community. I disagree with the author’s views. The gentile spouse of a Jew does not always feel shunned in the mainstream Jewish world, especially synagogue. Reform congregations are VERY open and welcoming of gentile spouses, as are most conservative shuls. Even in Orthodox and Chabad congregations it has not been my experience that gentile spouses are shunned.

    If they acted the way they did in Messianic settings- ie. pretending to be Jewish with no intent to convert- there would be a problem in Orthodox settings but not in Reform and Conservative settings for the most part (as long as the gentile man didn’t put on a tallis or something rude). Reform settings would see it as wonderful that the gentile spouse was so “involved,” as would many conservative.

    I’m not sure why the author is making all of these broad brushstrokes.

    The culture in Judaism- if there even is one culture- is not mainly of complaining. That’s what it is to an outsider perhaps who sees just the surface, someone who observes Judaism at a very shallow level as a comedian might whose main objection is to come up with Jewish jokes. I’ve witnessed first hand the spirituality of all observance levels of Judaism. The respect for history, the rabbis, the family unit…etc. Judaism is like the culture of my origin. Sure there is complaining about how things are going/changing but anyone on the inside, who takes the time to fully understand what holds the culture together knows that is NOT what it is built on.

  20. no_tv says:

    Gene,

    You have reason to be concerned. I’m concerned as well as is my husband. Besides the theological issues we struggle with we can’t fathom raising our kids in such a confused environment. If there were at least a few congregations with a hundred clones of Monique and her husband I’d feel better. As for being the change I want to see…we’re still grappling with that one.

    Many say “Yeshua should be enough.” I ask “Enough for what?” Then maybe everyone should all go back to church and forget the whole thing if the knowledge of Yeshua is enough.

    I don’t know if we’ll make aliyah over this…we’re much more likely to join the Abuyudaya 🙂

    This is a good conversation to have.

  21. no_tv says:

    And to be clear, Derek, I am a fan of conversion of course. Judaism would not have the numbers it does without it. When we were members of a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine, our rabbi shared with us that half the Jewish population in Orange County and LA were converts. There are many who will be/feel called to join the tribe and that has been a part of Judaism since Ruth/Tsipora as you mentioned.

    In terms of Messianic Judaism it gets muddier…I’m not sure why it does. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t consider it a Judaism at all or else there would be no issue. Judaism and conversion have gone hand in hand for generations and generations.

  22. no_tv says:

    Still here…Gene, I was looking at your congregations forums and noticed a post by you: “(Judaism) It’s a nationality one is born with (like being French, Italian, Russian or Japanese). ”

    Does that mean you reject conversion? That puts you WAY outside the lines of most Judaisms…! I don’t know what form of Judaism that leaves you in, actually.

    Maybe I misread you…please clarify if you can.

  23. “Does that mean you reject conversion? That puts you WAY outside the lines of most Judaisms

  24. no_tv says:

    Got it, thanks Gene. You’re very good at explaining yourself clearly.

    I wonder about conversion in a Messianic setting just because I think it is a low priority considering other issues in the movement. I do think a higher priority is helping Jews live as Jews. I realize that “living as a Jew” varies depending on observance level…

    Interesting discussion!

  25. Monique…

    “Gene, you should seriously consider raising money from within your synagogue to send the 20- and 30-something single Jews in your community to the national conferences.”

    That’s a good, practical suggestion – we’ll do our best. Although, do you think the Gentile parents in the congregation will mind that I am leaving their kids out, but would still like to collect their money to send the Jewish kids?

    “It

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