"Why be … ?"

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.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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7 Responses to "Why be … ?"

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think ultimately the answer to "Why be Messianic?" for someone in his/her 20s and 30s is "I don't know." I am someone who came to Messianic Judaism in my early 20s, and was enthralled and entrenched in all the window dressings the unique Messianic culture had to offer. When my own Jewish identity was put into question, I did everything I could to throw off anything resembling the culture unique to Messianic Judaism, including feeling shame for being attached to Yeshua himself!Eventually, normative observant Judaism didn't satisfy either. It didn't comfort me, or claim me, or care for me. In the end, I had reached my darkest hour in my personal life, and neither community was a place I could find peace. The only place: Yeshua, on my terms. Not Yeshua of the Church, not even Yeshua of Messianic Judaism, just Yeshua, as I understood him, as I knew him, as a Jewish person, not trapped by the cultural pinnings of Christianity, Messianic Judaism, or normative Judaism.Presently, this "Yeshua and Me" business has forced me to retreat (somewhat) into secular life, taking a step back from my former identity ties. Not to begrudge to work of any of these institutions, and not that I'm not still involved to a degree, but still, not allowing these institutions to be an identifier of me. I was having dinner with a Jewish person. He, not knowing I was a believer, made a derogatory statement about Yeshua. Having fallen deeper in love with Yeshua than I have ever experienced, I was forced to correct this dinner companion. He asked questions about Yeshua, and I answered, and he became more and more enthralled with each answer I gave. All of a sudden he wanted to by a New Testament and find others who believe the same thing. My answer: "You don't want to know, it's a horrible life." Of course this answer was abrasive, and of course it came from years of emotional wounds and scars, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Yeshua instructed us to count the cost before following Him. Cause in the end, in your darkest hours, you're not sitting with Yeshua and Judaism, or Yeshua and Messianic Judaism, or Jesus and Christianity. You're just sitting with Yeshua, and that can be the loneliest and most peaceful company you ever kept.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    "Anonymous"-Thank you for your comment and for sharing your struggles. We must indeed count the cost. And yet, that is also why we need community. We must find other mature Jewish believers who understand the cost and pains, and support one another through the hardships. Chazak v'Amatz – May you be strong and courageous!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great article Yosh! I am excited to hear of what you are doing in DC with this blog and Yinon in general. Keep it up bro!!!-Yoshi

  4. Rabbi Adam J. Bernay says:

    I believe part of the problem of why be Messianic is that many Messianic congregations are nothing but mainstream churches where there is a thin layer of Yiddishkeit spread on top… in some places VERY thin (for example… what's with some Messianic groups having their main services on SUNDAYS?).Only by embracing a Torah Observant model of Messianic faith, by engaging in radical equality for Jews and non-Jews, and focusing LESS on LOOKING like a traditional synagogue and MORE on community until you have enough people who can properly function in a synagogue environment will we see this problem resolved.

  5. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Adam-Although I can agree with you on the first part, I am not sure what you mean by "radical equality for Jews and non-Jews." Although I would agree the issue of non-Jews is a subject the Messianic Jewish Movement has not maturly nor fully adequately addressed yet, if you are advocating "spiritual equality" with "sameness" I would have to respectively disagree.

  6. Yahnatan Lasko says:

    I came across an article this morning which touches on this theme:http://www.beyondbt.com/2009/11/24/identity-theft-of-the-biggest-kind/

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Yahnatan,Thanks for the link!

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