How to Be a Messianic Congregation, #2

When I founded Tikvat David a little over ten years ago, I readily admit I had only the slightest idea what I was doing. My Jewish education was inadequate. My Christian education was lacking breadth. How do you form something new, something with no back-story, and make it worth belonging to?

I had experience in the Baptist churches. A Baptist church could draw on its history and people gave allegiance to something with a past.

I visited synagogues in the months before founding Tikvat David. I found here more history, deeper than that in the Baptist churches.

So why not simply give up and either be Baptist or Reform Jewish? I felt we had something to offer, something people needed. I just did not know yet how the balance would work. I had tried and found wanting the Christian Missions to the Jews approach. It consisted of telling Jews to believe in Messiah, assuring them that faith in Jesus is a very Jewish thing, and then urging them to abandon all Jewish associations and practices for the greater good of their new spiritual family. Being saved was essentially all that mattered (okay, not essentially, it was all that mattered). Jesus only cared if you were in the roll call of the Up Yonder.

I could see the depth of Judaism (mostly I visited Orthodox synagogues, actually). But it was clearly missing something. I still feel this is true in spite of having grown closer to Judaism over the last decade. Jewish spirituality was lacking a future hope orientation. Messianic ideas were more ideas than central ways of thinking about and shaping practice and belief. Keeping tradition was all that mattered. Hashem only cared if you did things the same as yesterday.

We have a fantastic double tradition in Messianic Judaism (and equally in the many groups I call Judeo-Christian — see yesterday’s post for a definition). And yet I see so many MJ and Judeo-Christian groups failing to embrace both traditions heartily. Instead a myth of a new third alternative has replaced the double tradition. I’d like to explain how being more Jewish and more Christian is precisely what MJ and Judeo-Christian congregations need.

If I say MJ congregations need to be more Jewish, I get one kind of resistance. What do you mean by Jewish? Do you mean practicing “pure, biblical Judaism” or do you mean all those “anti-Messiah, nasty rabbinic” traditions?

Benjamin from Metropolis told me a story about one congregation’s understanding of kosher. He asked, “Are your congregational dinners kosher?” Apparently (see yesterday) even the least hospitable MJ communities at least have some meal-oriented events. The answer was, “Yes, we are kosher.” Bennie was pretty sure they did not fully understand the question. “So, will the meal be vegetarian?”

“Oh . . . no, we’re not vegetarian.”

“So it will be dairy-free?”

“No, kosher means we don’t eat pork or shellfish and similarly forbidden foods.”

For the un-inititiated, this person’s understanding of kosher is completely false. Kashrut (the kosher laws) are about a great deal more than avoiding pork. Check out ourrabbis.org to understand a well thought out Messianic Jewish standard of kashrut.

I’m not saying an MJ congregation has to be kosher. Tikvat David is not kosher. But if someone asks us, “Are your meals at synagogue kosher?” our answer is, “No, just kosher-style.”

I brought you through that scenario to illustrate a simple point: ignorance of Jewish history and tradition abounds in places which are (allegedly) a form of Judaism.

If I say MJ congregations need to be more Christian, among a large segment of the Judeo-Christian and MJ world alarm bells go off. Christianity is what is wrong with everything on planet earth. Christianity is (allegedly) pagan. My word, Leman is suggesting we sing “Jingle Bells” and go trick-or-treating!

First of all, God is not nearly as paganoid as many Judeo-Christians. Just this morning I was studying Genesis 2 in advance of the upcoming Torah reading of Bereisheet at Simchat Torah. God makes man from the dust, a word used in parallel with clay. And the account emphasizes that the dust was moist and moldable. And the account uses the word “formed” like the work of a potter. The account is so similar to those of the Egyptian deity Khnum fashioning humankind on a potter’s wheel and similar Mesopotamian and Greek myths (see Nahum Sarna’s JPS Commentary on Genesis). It’s one of a thousand examples of God’s revelation following the cultural and literary patterns of the “pagan” world.

Second of all, the heart of Christianity is not to be found either in holiday traditions or in the practices of pop-religion (revivalism, selling prayer cloths on cable television, or opening stores that carry “necessities” like religious breath mints). It is found in the exaltation of Messiah (you know, Christ) as the sum of all things, the One in whom all things will be summed up and redeemed and consummated in the Age to Come.

We have a double tradition: Judaism and Christianity. Both Judaism and Christianity have central and not-so-central features. There are many kinds of Judaism, but there is a core tradition which informs what Judaism is and should be. There are even more kinds of Christianity, but there is a core tradition (the creeds, especially, and not the later confessions) which inform what Christianity is and should be.

How does this work in practice? Here are some specific pointers limited by my perspective, in some cases perhaps examples of my eccentric views and not iron-clad laws of doctrine and practice:

(1) There are great writings in Judaism and Christianity about central issues of belief and practice which we must learn and draw on. Everyone can’t learn everything. But as a community, we should have people studying all these areas. In Judaism this includes the rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, medieval commentary, Siddur, and more) and in Christianity this includes the church fathers and those who have studied and written theology and spirituality according to the tradition ever since. It means reading Heschel and Lewis, to use two modern examples. It means benefitting from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Bishop N.T. Wright, Michael Wyschogrod and Scot McKnight, Daniel Boyarin and Richard John Neuhaus. It means reading midrashic parables and the Nicene Creed.

(2) There are great writings about ethics and spirituality in Christianity and Judaism which we must draw on. This means the mussar literature, the Pirkei Avot, the mystical concepts of Judaism (including kabbalah) read with caution about excess speculation. This means also the church fathers and especially Augustine, the devotional classics of Christianity (a short list might include: Gregory of Nyssa, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, de Sales, a Kempis, Calvin, Wesley, Merton, Nouwen, and a host of others). I believe that carefully reading both traditions and balancing and collating them is a distinctive Messianic Jewish way of living.

(3) This one will be controversial. We can have Jewish and Christian themed songs in our musical worship. There is nothing magical about songs labeled “Messianic Jewish.” They are part of our tradition since the 1970’s and I think we can and should use them (having unique traditions is a healthy thing for a community). But Moshav Band and Neshama Carlebach songs are fantastic too and there’s nothing wrong with a Hillsong and Chris Tomlin song (or Third Day!). When you sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” followed by “How Great is Our God,” the blend of passion, longing for holiness, and musical energy is redemptive.

(4) I shouldn’t have to say this one, but I know from multiple conversations it is true: we should and must teach both Torah and Messiah. It is harmful when a group takes on a new distinctive (people who left churches out of a desire to learn Torah and Jewish customs) and spends all their time on it, assuming that people already have plenty of familiarity with former priorities (the divinity, message, and deeds of Yeshua the Messiah). Some MJ and Judeo-Christian places either avoid much talk about Torah (not to seem too Jewish) or Messiah (not to seem too Christian).

So, I say let’s embrace our location at the boundaries of Judaism and Christianity. We have a double tradition. The boundary lines are blurred. It may be because they were not to be so sharply set in history to begin with. Imagine if Christianity had developed with a healthy respect for Judaism and Jewish origins. Imagine if Christianity had not defined Jewish life as foreign to following a Jewish Messiah! Imagine if Judaism had not reacted to Christian hostility by defining terms in ways that preclude all faith in Jesus Christ. Imagine if the rabbis had not reacted to persecution and tragedy by making Judaism immune to Christ.

That’s what we are building, a community at the border line (to draw on Boyarin’s phrase).

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10 Responses to How to Be a Messianic Congregation, #2

  1. Glenn J says:

    ” Just this morning I was studying Genesis 2 in advance of the upcoming Torah reading of Bereisheet at Simchat Torah. The account is so similar to those of the Egyptian deity Khnum fashioning humankind on a potter’s wheel and similar Mesopotamian and Greek myths (see Nahum Sarna’s JPS Commentary on Genesis). It’s one of a thousand examples of God’s revelation following the cultural and literary patterns of the “pagan” world.”
    Perhaps this is better discussed in another post, but Peter Enns seems to have found the achilles heel of many on this very issue. In many Messianic Jewish congregations (and Christian too!), they are still tied to a fundamentalist hermeneutic that defines boundaries in a way that can not accept such statements. Yet this fundamentalist reading of scripture is divisive and very foreign to the Jewish world which reads scripture without baggage leftover from the liberal/evangelical divide. My experience tells me the statement – “There are great writings in Judaism and Christianity about central issues of belief and practice which we must learn and draw on” is a much bigger issue than many think as inerrancy is central to many MJ congregations but does not even appear on the radar screen of Reformed or Conservative Jews.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Glenn:

    I think I agree with your comment, but what you said is so brief, I’m not 100% sure I understand. I know who Peter Enns is (deals with science and faith issues at BioLogos).

    I think you are saying that there has been a tendency in some branches of Protestantism to read boundaries very sharply (pagan vs. Jewish, pagan vs. Christian, liberal vs. conservative). You link this to the issue of inerrancy. Some evangelicals are calling for a redefinition of inerrancy so that no one has to pretend that discrepancies do not exist or that scriptural authors never make “factual” errors. Others would say the idea of inerrancy is not a Christian doctrine at all, but a modernist construct placed falsely on the Bible. In this vein, we should say that the scriptural doctrine of scripture (how’s that for a phrase) is about authority, not facticity.

    Of course, the example I gave has nothing to do with facticity or inerrancy, but only the method of the author of Genesis, using concepts from his Ancient Near Eastern context to portray God’s deeds (and thus, for us who believe Genesis to be scripture, we may say that the Holy Spirit is not adverse to using “pagan” background to communicate who God is).

    Anyway, I would be interested if there is one Peter Enns link in particular that deals with this and the Genesis account.

  3. Glenn J says:

    I think Peter Enns and his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament deals with this exact issue. An issue that did cause a firestorm in evangelical circles. An issue that was over God’s use of cultural and literary patterns of the “pagan” world. I could be wrong, but when I have expressed such ideas with other Messianics the issue of inerrancy is brought to the table to discredit this idea.
    “In this vein, we should say that the scriptural doctrine of scripture is about authority, not facticity.” I would be interested to see how many Messianic congregations would agree that the creation accounts, Adam and Eve, etc. are not in some way facticity? How many MJ congregations would accept a leader who sees no conflict with evolution (with nuance) and biblical authority or the creation accounts of Adam and Eve because authority of scripture uses God’s revelation following the cultural and literary patterns of the “pagan” world? Yet this idea has been the in Jewish circles for some time now and there is enough room to allow for a wide range of views.

  4. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Derek,

    I have enjoyed reading these two posts. Although I agree with much that you have written here I am not sure I totally agree with your encouragement to draw just as equally from both traditions.

    At the same time I know that we would agree more than it may seem. However, for the sake of discussion, I will present my thoughts. Although I have also been rethinking this relationship between both communities recently, I still agree with our mutual friend, Dr. David Stern, that we must choose a primary community and history of reference. IMHO our primary community of reference is, and should be, Jewish. Although we also do have, and draw richly from, Christianity as well. For those who think we can have a form of Yeshua-faith that is completely “untainted” by Christianity is both naive and absurd.

    However, what still rings true is the primary community of reference. The type of space you establish can say much to those who enter your worship space. If it does not say Jewish – than it simply is not so. Yet, at the same time if we think that by not referencing Yeshua during our services we are somehow pulling the wool over someone’s eyes is also idiotic. People know we are Messianic synagogues, and we should make that clear. We should not cower at the fact that there will be unique elements to a Messianic congregation because of both faith’s influences, yet the primary direction and standard must be Jewish.

    In my experience, it is not the references to Yeshua that Jewish visitors to a Messianic congregation often stumble over, but all the other mishegoss you address in these posts – it is the often apparent ignorance of real Jewish history and tradition. The problem, as you are well aware of, is that most “Messianic” congregations are really run by non-Jews (or Jews) with very little knowledge and appreciation for real-live Judaism, and whatever Jewishness they have adapted is “googled.” The problem with Messianic Judaism is that most of our Jewish practices were not been absorbed in real, live, breathing Jewish communities in dialog within the wider Jewish community. We have simply done “what is good in our own eyes” and then tried to justify our ignorance.

    Real Judaism does not exist in a vaccum but must be lived and learned within the context of the wider Jewish community.

    A Messianic Jewish spirituality must be primarily built on the values of Judaism. We will, and must, also draw at times from various Christian traditions. Yet the primary community of reference must be Jewish if we are going to be honest about being a form of Judaism. Influence will come from both traditions. And I agree with you that we must be educated in both traditions. But the influence will not, nor necessarily should, be “equal.”

  5. Andrew T. says:

    “I’m not saying an MJ congregation has to be kosher. Tikvat David is not kosher.”

    I find this to be odd. I take it that your congregation is predominantly gentile, but if TD is avowedly Messianic Jewish (not Judeo-Christian), why does it eschew a standard that Jews have been commanded to keep? It’s too hard? Aren’t you on the rabbinical council that decides halakhic standards for Jews in MJ?

    • “why does it eschew a standard that Jews have been commanded to keep? It’s too hard?”

      This is because many Messianic congregations are ostensibly “grace” trumps Torah mentality. Those who do try a semblance of kosher are mostly “kosher style”, and feel that Orthodox kashrut standards are not necessary because most members and visitors (including Jewish visitors who tend to grow up secular) do not care about them or demand them, too expensive, too hard to keep up with and generally not worth the hassle.

      Plus, it’s hard to keep kosher when you ask everyone from the pulpit, including Gentile guests, to bring their favorite covered dish to share, instead of having the meal catered by an outside company or prepared by a trustworthy dedicated group of members who are truly serious about kosher standards in their own lives.

      It’s also hard to maintain kosher facilities if one shares the kitchen area with a church from which many (if not majority of) messianic congregations rent their buildings or to which they sublet.

  6. Carl Kinbar says:

    I’d like to clear up a misunderstanding, mostly because it is a common one.

    Andrew T. asked, “Aren’t you on the rabbinical council that decides halakhic standards for Jews in MJ?” As a fellow member of that council (see ourrabbis.org), our stance is very clear: The Council is a voluntary association whose members have drawn up a body of basic practices that we adhere to and expanded practices that are optional.

    We don’t decide halakhic standards for other Jews in MJ or even advocate actively for our standards. To be specific, we do not (and could not) impose these basic practices on members of our congregations. On the other hand, we do advocate for basic standards in Jewish calendar and life-cycle events because these are so vital to communal Jewish identity; but even there, we do not impose these standards as a council but urge our members to implement them empathetically and gradually over time (and where possible).

    • Andrew T. says:

      Thanks for the clarification. So the MJRC’s standards only apply to the handful of people that are its members? Well, how naive of me to assume that the few Jewish laypersons in the congregations are actually expected to observe a small set of lenient, far-below-Orthodox standards. This is one reason why MJ will never be taken seriously as “a Judaism.”

  7. Andrew T. says:

    Torah does not imply Orthodox Judaism. There are countless excesses and unnecessary stringencies in Orthodoxy, which is obsessed with micro-managing every detail of the practitioner’s life. Those that study Rabbinic writings, especially Talmud, might be surprised by the amount of leniences offered which are not followed today except by uncommon left-leaners like R. Avi Weiss. But Yeshua did not come to cancel the Torah (Matt. 5). He could not have been the Jewish Messiah if he did. He denounced obvious hypocrisies and sanctimonies promulgated everywhere by the religious elite, and taught that chesed is the beginning and end of Torah, as did R. Hillel; he loved his Father’s Torah and his Father’s House (the Temple).

    In no way could today’s MJ be a genuine redux of the early Jewish Yeshua-movement, in which everyone down to Paul kept Torah seriously with a healthy ambivalence toward the opinions of the Pharisaic authorities (Matt. 18), while not requiring it of the gentile fellows in Messiah (Acts 15, all of Galatians). Today’s MJ, with a few exceptions like Beth Immanuel that only prove the rule, is just Protestant Christianity plus tallit, bagles, and token Hebraisms. You can paint a horse to look like a zebra, but that doesn’t change the animal’s DNA.

    What do you get when you combine a standard Evangelical theology and eschatology, little to no skepticism about conventional Christologies, and a Reform attitude toward halakha (or worse)? Not an authentic kind of Judaism, that’s for sure.

    MJ is not, was not, and never will be “a Judaism,” not any more than that Humanistic crap is. I realize and accept this now.

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