There is an elephant in the room that many of us either don’t recognize or choose to ignore.
We live in a day and age when cultural and religious identification are no longer a given. Being raised in a particular culture or faith is no longer a guarantee of ongoing affiliation.
For most of our existence, Jewish continuity was a given. Even if one was not particularly “religious,” there were strong cultural ties. This was especially true of our parents and grandparents generations. And even if we tried to forget our Jewishness, the rest of the world would definitely not let us.
Since religious and cultural communities no longer face the same social pressures from within or from the outside – identification is now rendered primarily to choice. I can choose who and what I want to be.
This is especially true for a whole new generation of Jews that no longer share those same religious and cultural ties to Judaism and the Jewish people. So many Jews of my generation have never been to a synagogue, did not have a Bar Mitzvah, or were raised in another religion.
The Wider Jewish Community
If the Jewish community outside of Israel is to continue to exist, we, within the wider Jewish community must answer the question “Why be Jewish?” It is no longer a given that someone born Jewish will choose to remain or identify as Jewish. It is no longer uncommon to hear those of Jewish descent say things like, “I’m NOT Jewish, but my parents are.” Or, I was born Jewish, but now I’m …”
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in his excellent book, ReThinking Synagogues, recalls one particular experience from a weekend retreat that exemplifies this reality:
A couple at the back of the room stood out. As the only people under forty, they has sat quietly for all of Shabbat, somewhat ignored by the others, who were regular attendees at such weekends … Hesitantly, one of them raised a hand … “We came here not knowing what we would find, so maybe we just lack the background, but it seems to me that none of the questions asked so far has any relevance. The only question that counts for us is ‘Why be Jewish?’ That is what we came to find out.”
After a momentary hush, the room erupted in one denunciation after another – all quietly delivered, as if the crowd of older attendees were disciplining children. How could these young Jews be so callous …? The reason for being Jewish is self-evident, isn’t it? How dare they even question that, [especially] after what happened in Europe? (pg. 60)
For far too long the question of “Why be Jewish?” has remained largely unanswered, and primarily dismissed. However, if we are to have any sort of impact on a new (and ongoing) generation of Jews, we must recognize this as a legitimate question.
Jews in the Church
In reality, there are far more Jews in churches than in Messianic Jewish congregations. Although I have my own opinions on reasons for this, one primary opinion is that we (in the Messianic Jewish community) have not yet answered that same question of “Why remain Jewish?” within a Yeshua context. We have not, at least as of yet, been able to widely compel Jews in churches to remain committed to the Jewish community and faith. Although I recognize there are indeed Jews who worship in Churches for a number of reasons, and value their Jewish identities, the majority end up loosing a connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
There are estimates that in the 1800’s there were hundreds of thousands of Jews who believed in Yeshua. With the impact of the Holocaust aside – where are the descendents of those Jews today? Those who survived the Shoah were largely absorbed into the Church.
As a rabbi, I face this reality all the time. I remember the first time this truly sank in for me. Several years ago I was talking to a Jewish woman who started attending our synagogue. She was married to a Christian, and had teenage and 20 Something children who were all raised in the church. She came to me distraught that none of her children identified as being Jewish, and that her oldest daughter was not only planning to marry a non-Jewish guy from their church, but was adamant about not wanting anything “Jewish” in the wedding ceremony.
I asked the woman what attempts she had made throughout their upbringing to provide any sense of Jewish identity. She responded none (or very little). They had become so involved in their church, and became so busy with life; she could not recall purposeful elements of Jewishness brought into the home. Of course I did not say it, but I was thinking, “And you wonder why they don’t identify with being Jewish?!?” I helped the woman understand that she cannot be angry and blame her children now for not wanting to identify as Jews. Since nothing was done to instill a Jewish identity within them, they cannot be blamed for choosing to be a part of the wider culture they were brought up to be a part of. Of course there are things she could do to try to change that in the future, but for now it was a reality she had to struggle with.
Why be Messianic?
There are also a unique set of questions for second and third generation Messianic Jews. The main one I want to address is the question of “Why be Messianic?” I hear numerous young Jews voice their frustrations at being raised in the Messianic movement, and thinking they understood what it meant to be Jewish. But when they get older and become involved in the wider Jewish community (usually in college), they are faced with realities of identity. And for many, with such strong pulls to the wider Jewish world they are confronted with a legitimate question. If we Jews already have the Bible, pray, and can connect to G-d, “Why do I need Yeshua?” “Why should I remain Messianic?” (Especially with all of the identity mishegoss of the Messianic Movement).
The questions of “Why be …?” must be answered. For if we continue to write them off, or fail to answer them in a compelling way, we run the risk of losing future generations.