Yesterday I posted a long paper as a tentative position on Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish movement. I wrote as a Gentile, very sympathetic to Gentile involvement in MJ, and as a Gentile seeking conversion, very sympathetic to Jewish concerns about a diluted Judaism resulting from Gentile leadership. I truly see myself as a person in the middle. Well, Carl has raised some very thoughtful challenges to the position I posted. His reasoning here is solid and I am going to need a little time to process and reformulate. In other words, I take very seriously what Carl says here and I hope you will also. I think this conversation is going to be invaluable. Who knows if any kind of closure is possible, even just in my own mind, but I know my position will end up being better informed because you, the intelligent readers, are willing to have this conversation with me. Don’t be intimidated to make a comment, even if you know you cannot compete with Carl’s scholarship. All thoughts are welcome and you might be surprised at how your thoughts can affect the discussion . . .
Derek, your blog raises quite a number of issues. I would like to respond to a limited number of them, not so much with arguments but with some alternative perspectives for you to consider. (Note: I am intentionally leaving out a crucial dimension of your presentation, the new realities imposed by Yeshua’s incarnation and invasion into human history and the extension of the kingdom to the non-Jewish nations. My reason? We must first consider how the Biblical and historical examples you gave fit in the social context of today’s congregations. Only then can we see how the new kingdom realities might apply.)
I have sent you a compilation I put together about gerim in the Scriptures. (Since the blog does not allow for attachments, I can only recommend a full Hebrew word-study of “ger” in the Tanakh.) It is clear that gerim had certain responsibilities and privileges that were not a matter of choice. An important aspect of the ger in Israel that is often missed: the ger was a permanent non-Jewish resident in the Jewish nations. They were not nokhrim (temporary residents such as merchants). Non-Jew residing among the Jews came under Jewish law.
As you will read, I believe that circumcision was required of male gerim before their first Pesach, not simply in order to participate. The Hebrew word “ki” is sometimes translated “if”, and sometimes “when.” I believe it is consistent within the entire context of the gerim relationship to Torah to understanding that their males were to be circumcised when (that is, before) they partook of the Pesach. However, even apart from that point (which I understand is debatable), the situation pictured was national in scope: a relatively modest number of non-Jews living among the Jewish people, in their neighborhood and in their social context, one might say.
The ger of the Tanakh morphed not into the God-fearer of late Second Temple times, but into the convert. They became not merely respectful visitors to the synagogue (or even “regular visitors”) like the God-fearers, but fully subject to Jewish law, just like the gerim (Num 15:15-16). They did not primarily commit themselves to a belief system (e.g., keeping Shabbat) but to a people who keep the Shabbat. They didn’t just do Jewish things, or visit a service that included some Jewish practices, but lived with and amongst Jews.
While the number of God-fearers can’t be known, there does not seem to be much evidence that they were integrated into the social fabric of the synagogue. Thus, they cannot be consider members in the modern sense of the term.
Neither the gerim (or converts) not the God-fearers were a threat to the Jewish social or religious identity of the people. We can see this in the apostolic writings, where they play a very minor role. This is the case because they were a very modest minority: converts were a small minority of Jews and God-fearers were a small minority of synagogue attendees. (It’s very difficult to gauge the veracity of the remarks about Jewish influence in Gentile society. They could be accurate, or they could be simply anecdotal, possibly influence by anti-Jewish sentiment.)
Converts play a small role and God-fearers have almost no presence in early rabbinic writings.
The main thing I’m trying to get across here is that in using the Tanakh or Second Temple practice as a grid for the present-day congregation, one has to take the above factors into consideration. As far as we know, converts and/or God-fearers never comprised a large % of the Jewish nation or of the synagogue. Yes, the Land of Israel became increasingly Gentile over time, but there was a certain social and religious separation between the groups. Most of these Gentiles had no desire to associate with Jews religiously. Given the importance of religion in social dynamics, social contacts were real but limited.
The situation in today’s congregations is usually very different. Very few of our congregations have a majority of Jews. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but if one went into a Korean church and found 20% or 30% Koreans (and perhaps mostly non-Korean leaders), one would understandably question the Korean identity of that church. This doesn’t mean that the non-Koreans are any less valuable, but no amount of rule-making will ever make that congregation Korean.
I submit that in order for Gentiles to join a Jewish congregation (Messianic or otherwise), there must first be a Jewish congregation to join, that is, a congregation that is made up primarily of Jews. The idea of a majority of Gentiles joining a minority of Jews and considering the whole thing “Jewish” can only exist because we have drifted so far from the original intent of this movement in modern times — to be a Jewish place that reaches Jews for Yeshua. It also is an idea that does not hold water sociologically or psychologically.
I also submit that in order for the analogy of the gerim to be valid for Gentiles entering a Jewish congregation today, they must be men and women who seek to become part of the people, not simple those who are joining a religious group that has a Jewish feel.
One of the tests of all this is whether the Gentile, either as a potential convert or as a God-fearer, has full respect for the Jewish identity of the congregation and its place among the larger Jewish people. The God-fearer does not desire to intrude in the social or leadership structure, but recognized that he or she is a guest. The convert (or potential convert) does not only learn new religious practices, but is also socialized as a Jew. Realistically, neither of these can happen unless a congregation is preponderantly Jewish in person and practice.
Believe it or not, there are those who believe that Messianic congregations — even those that are heavily non-Jewish — have the right to define who and what is Jewish. In other words, Jewish history and the real live Jewish people today have no say in defining what is Jewish. Part of their argument is that there have been many varieties of Judaism, past and present, and so one cannot speak of a monolithic Judaism and one cannot limit the varieties that are possible. Thus Gentiles can invent new varieties. These men and women, who may be level-headed and decent in other ways, are like postmoderns who deny that there is any “meta-narrative,” any one Truth. They just apply it to Judaism — because there is variety in Judaism, there is no Jewish meta-narrative, and the Jews do not own Judaism.
I mention this group because it raises the issue of ownership. If Judaism and Jewishness is a common human possession, or shared by whosoever will, then the distinctions you make in your paper are irrelevant. While Judaism has consistently incorporated elements of the surrounding culture over our many generations (e.g., we all know about the Pesach and the symposium), Gentiles, as a group, have never been involved in guiding the process. Likewise, in individual synagogues. My point is that Jews own Judaism.
But when Gentiles comprise a majority of the congregation, it is understandable that they will think they are being treated as second-class citizens if not permitted to be a cultural and religious influence in the congregation, that their “rights” are being violated.
So, IMHO, for a Gentile to join a Messianic Jewish congregation would mean that, like the ger, the join the Jewish people (not just Messianic Jews) socially (that is, “live among them”) and become subject to the Torah (in today’s language, convert). They are then full members in every sense. Or, like the God-fearer, they became temporary or long-term visitors who fully respect the Jewish identity of the congregation but are not strictly members of it.
What about congregations that are majority Gentile? IMO, the answer is not to close the doors but for such congregations to take a deep and serious look at their own communal identity — who they really are as a people. If, as they should, they reach the conclusion that they are not a Jewish congregation (and therefore not Messianic Jewish), they should prayerfully and carefully reconfigure their worship and practices to reflect their identity. Of course, this could (should) include supporting Messianic Jews and Israel.
This would be a difficult process, but a visionary and godly leadership would be doing the congregation a great service by leading them gently through this process.
Imagine the peace of coming to grips with one’s congregational identity on a deep level, then living in harmony with it before God, rather than trying to be communally Jewish, which they are not.
Why is this a necessary process? The idea of communal identity permeates the Scriptures. God chose Israel not as an aggregate of individuals, but as a people (Am Yisrael), one of the nations of the earth. God made a covenant and gave the Torah to this people and a fabric of communal obligations and privileges. The Scriptures everywhere speak of Israel and the Nations & Jews and Gentiles with Torah in mind.