Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Reason

In some religions the purpose of life is to perfect oneself and become more Godly, a noble objective to be achieved through spiritual pursuits such as faith, prayer, charity, and abstinence. For Judaism the purpose of life is the healing of the world. Man is invited as a junior partner in creation to assist God in purging the world of evil, indifference, and injustice and imbuing it with compassion and loving-kindness...

The L'Chaim Society, the educational outreach organization I founded at Oxford University in 1988, has been one of the few Jewish organizations in the world with a high proportion of non-Jewish members. Every Friday when I served as Rabbi at Oxford, of the hundred or so students who joined us for the weekly Sabbath meal, more than a third were non-Jews. They came not to convert to Judaism...but rather to grasp a spiritual framework that is all about the celebration of life, that glories in human warmth, and that teaches that God is loving, comforting, and approachable.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
From the Preface of his book
Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through The Vibrant Lessons Of The Jewish Faith

I titled this blog post "The Reason" but more accurately, it should be called "My Reason". I just started reading Rabbi Boteach's book (he's written many) and, while thoroughly enjoying it so far, realized as I was reading the above-quoted portion of the book's Preface, that this is why, at least partly, that I became involved in Messianic worship in the first place. Non-Jews who enter "the movement", particularly if they are identified as "One Law", tend to be assigned a rather uncomplementary and stereotypical definition. One Law Gentiles are believed to hate the Christian church, seeing it as apostate. They also are accused of being disrespectful of Judaism and rather crude in both misappropriating many Jewish practices, such as Shabbat rest, praying in Hebrew, and wearing a kippah and tallit, while at the same time dismissing, out of hand, the cherished concepts and instructions found in the Oral Law. For that reason, many Gentiles in the movement are considered by the Jewish population of Messianic Judaism as insincere, insular, and hypocrtical.

I will admit to having met my fair share of Gentile One Law adherents who shall we say, have rather "unusual" theological beliefs and who tend to become quickly put off when you disagree with what they assume to be the self-evident practices outlined for Jews and Gentiles in the Torah. There are more than a few people who join One Law or some form of Messianic Judaism out of a need to be "right" and make everyone else "wrong". There are many congregations where the leader has taken such a vocation in order to enhance his ego and reputation as some sort of "Prophet" who possesses a secret understanding of the Bible in order to elicit what I call the "Wow Factor!" out of his audience. If I'm being lumped together with this group, it's no wonder I've gotten some less-than-polite responses in the Messiniac blogosphere (though this seems to be changing).

To be fair, I have also met many Gentile believers who are indeed sincerely seeking to serve God in an authentic manner and to extend love to their fellow human beings, regardless of background or faith. They see Messianic Judaism and/or One Law as the doorway to a clearer and more purely Hebraic understanding of the Word of God, the men who, under the guidance of the Spirit, wrote it, and the original context in which the scriptures came into being.

What motivates a Gentile who may seemingly appear perfectly happy in a Sunday-keeping church setting to "jump ship" and join a movement where validity and fellowship with wider Christianity and/or Judaism is spotty at best and non-existant at worst? Do we want to feel cut off from those we feel kinship with through God and Yeshua (Jesus)?

If you will again read the quote from Rabbi Boteach I posted at the top of this article, you may come to understand the answer. It is possible to not hate and in fact, to love the church and its many members who are devoted to Christ, and still feel like something's missing. I sometimes think that, for at least a few of us, God flips on some switch inside of us and activates a search program that starts us looking for something modern Evangelical Christianity doesn't offer. Up until recently, I thought I was looking for a window into the past and the practice of the first century church, but I don't believe so now. It's not even a straightforward connection to modern Judaism as such or a desire to be Jewish that I've been seeking, but rather I have been trying to link to something God built into the faith and practices of his chosen, treasured people that God also designed for the rest of us. This is the reason that so many non-Jews attended Rabbi Boteach's outreach class at Oxford. It's the reason, as my wife observes, that so many non-Jews attend the Chabad Rabbi's classes in my local area.

God created a template for a holy and fulfilling lifestyle that fills a certain hole we each have within our spirits. While the church has done a good job in sustaining at least a portion of that lifestyle, which is why so many people have abandoned a secular life for a Christian one, there is more understanding and more blessings to be had. It's even why, on occasion, a Christian person from this walk of life or that, will come to my congregation, participate in one or more of the classes, and find something that is both completely new to them and completely familiar. I don't say this to pad my own reputation or to remove anything from Rabbi Boteach or larger Judaism, but rather to glorify God and His many and varied ways of bringing us closer to Him.

There are those of us who are associated with the Messianic movement as identified by one label or another, who are attracted to this walk, not for the sake of anger, disillusionment, or the need to feed our egos, but because we are trying to find the source of a "homing signal" God seems to have set off within us. While, for reasons I have previously stated, I don't believe I would fit back into a Christian church setting, I have to admit, there are times when it was far more easy to blend in within the church than it ever has been in my current walk.

As many times as I have wanted to put it all down, walk away from Messianic worship, and never look back, something keeps me rooted and driven (if one can be both at the same time). I can't identify what it is in an objective sense and have to believe the "something" is God.

There are both a number of advantages and some disadvantages to what I am doing right now, and while I've resolved most of my issues for the time being, there are one or two that remain outstanding and without an answer. But until I get a clear message from God that I need to be doing something else, here I'll stay, to participate in the celebration of life, that glories in human warmth, and that teaches that God is loving, comforting, and approachable.


Tandi said...

What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing so eloquently and poignantly the thoughts of the like-minded.

James said...

Thank you for being so generous in your complements. :)

Gene Shlomovich said...

"This is the reason that so many non-Jews attended Rabbi Boteach's outreach class at Oxford. It's the reason, as my wife observes, that so many non-Jews attend the Chabad Rabbi's classes in my local area. "

James, the key difference here is that the typical One-Law crowd (which, it now seems to me, you may not necessary fully identify with anymore) is NOT seeking unity with their Jewish brethren (most have separated themselves from mainstream MJ organizations and synagogues long ago and have little contact with any Jewish people in general), nor are they seeking to learn from our Jewish sages and the current Jewish (MJ or not) leaders (as evidenced by the fact that so much anti-rabbinic, "Biblical Judaism" attitude pervades "One-Law messianics").

Instead, the emphasis has been: we are also "Israelites," we have "rights" to Torah and all things "Jewish," we don't care what Jews themselves have to say on the matter. Do Gentiles who come to Rabbi Boteach's outreach classes bring with them this kind of attitude? I highly doubt it.

James said...

I doubt it as well, Gene. but Rabbi Boteach and larger rabbinic Judaism doesn't have to contend with the concept of Gentiles being "grafted in" to rabbinic Judaism which tends to muddy the waters of Messianic Judaism somewhat.

As far as my personal association with OL or lack thereof, I try to identify myself outside the stereotypes and think of myself as someone who wants a better understanding of the scriptures and how non-Jews fit into a Jewish worship and faith structure (since worship of the Jewish Messiah has an inherently Jewish origin). This does not mean I 100% agree with what you call "mainstream MJ" and 100% disagree with any and all congregations that may be labeled "One Law". I like doing my homework and listening to learned people, but God also allows me to think for myself. I believe there is an entire population of Gentiles in "the movement" that are either mislabeled or who go uncategorized. Think of us as "truth-seekers".

If you haven't done so already, you might want to visit my congregation's blog where I've reviewed Dr. Kinzer's book. I spent some time discussing the concept of MJ authority over the Gentile church in modern times in the comments section:

I'm not looking for my rights, your rights, or anybody else's rights. I'm looking for what God has to say about each of us, Jews and Gentiles, and how we fit in together in the body of Messiah.

Dan Benzvi said...

Let's face it James, for Gene you are just a Goy. According to him you can be a useful goy. You can always be the Shabbat goy, turning the lights and appliances on and off for pious good Jews like him....

I think we are witnessing the return of the Pharisees.....

Rick Spurlock said...

@James, you encapsulated my experience with the majority of people that Gene et al would quickly write off.

You especially hit the nail in the head with this:

There are those of us who are associated with the Messianic movement as identified by one label or another, who are attracted to this walk, not for the sake of anger, disillusionment, or the need to feed our egos, but because we are trying to find the source of a "homing signal" God seems to have set off within us.

Gene has some odd experiences it seems. Could it be that he talks past "One Law" Gentiles - or maybe does not know many? If so, that would explain his limited experience with the vast majority of those that MJ/BE simply categorize as useless goyim who either need to convert, embrace DI, or go back to the church.

James said...

@Rick, I think there are many people like us out there, non-Jewish "Yeshua-worshippers" who don't have a theological axe to grind and whose preferred place to worship is in, for lack of a better term, a "Messianic" Gentile congregation.

We don't really fit in a traditional Sunday church because of our personal convictions, we don't fit in a rabbinic synagogue because we're not Jewish, and either (as is my situation) there is no Messianic Jewish congregation available to attend or it's not approachable by non-Jews. So here we are.

Russ said...

Well, yes, here we are. Just what could YHVH be up to with all these "indeterminate" Gentiles who have been "woke up" to something much greater than they had experienced before?

And why does the journey begin at Pesach for so many of these wanderers?

Would there be a greater number of usurping "Israelites" coming to Mr. Boteach's class today as opposed to when the book was written?

Maybe we should ask him and see what he has to say. Could prove to be interesting.

Nice post James. And you are right, there aren't very many left who came into a "Messianic" lifestyle due to a hatred of the church system. Anger comes and goes, but truth is established forever.

On to the book review.


Judah Gabriel Himango said...

James, you nailed it when you said that so many gentiles are here because they are following where God's lead them. So many One Law people are exactly in this position. Praise God that he's led us this far.

James said...

What our responsibility is as Gentiles who are seeking a deeper understanding of the Torah as it applies to our worship of the Jewish Messiah, is to not go off half-cocked, so to speak. I think there are a number of congregations where people have taken a small bit of knowledge and developed an entire theology around it, ignoring the larger body of the Bible and Bible scholarship.

What I've always wanted to do and what I hope I'm doing better now, is to pay attention to what the Bible is actually saying to Gentiles about our connection to God, connection to the Messiah, and how we are to live that out in worship and in our day-to-day experience.

I had a great talk last night with Michael, a fellow in Ohio who was a Baptist Pastor and who has been drawn to the Torah in the same manner as many of us, out of a desire to experience more of the Hebraic fabric of the Messiah.

There are many sincere, seeking Gentiles who authentically want more in their relationship with God and yet can't find it in the confines of traditional church theology. We're not Gentiles who want to be Jews (otherwise, we'd convert). We're Gentiles who want to remove some of the "veil" that's been placed between us and the Jewishness of the Messiah over the past 20 centuries. We're seeking an understanding of the truth about God and the truth of our own existence while trying to avoid simply making up stories about those things.

An one TV show used to say as a tagline: "The truth is out there."

Tandi said...

I have wanted to be WITH Jews, not offend them by being a wannabe. As a result, I have been reluctant to take on "Jewishness" for fear of being offensive to Jewish people (such as putting a mezuzah on my doorpost). Yet I read in my Bible that I should do such a thing. I go back and forth about how to walk out my faith in a Hebraic context, trying not to offend people unnecessarily or give a wrong impression. Maybe Gene could shed some light on why it is so offensive to him and others for Gentiles to be "copycats". Maybe we have not seen what he sees in Florida. I admittedly have no first hand experience with offensive wannabe-ism.

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Maybe Gene could shed some light on why it is so offensive to him and others for Gentiles to be "copycats"."

Tandi... I am at a point that I've seen the "wannabeism" so often and have become so used to it that it has now been a long time since I actually got "offended." I've met a number of folks who have taken their "wannabeism" quite far - down to the Ashkenaz accent and peyos! When taken to that level, it's not offensive - it's funny in its ridiculousness:)

So, instead of being indignant, today I do my part to calmly educate these individuals or those who aspire to follow in their footsteps. The problem with "wannabeism" is that it's rooted in feelings of inferiority, envy, and in identity and purpose confusion. As such, it breeds resentment when one is not accepted for what he or she is trying to be. Of course, there are some individuals who transcend that.

James said...

Responding to both Tandi and Gene, on the other hand, what if, for example, a Gentile taking a Shabbat rest isn't motivated by "wannabeism" but rather by an authentic desire to please God and to emulate the Jewish Messiah? I don't watch my wife light the Shabbos candles and say the blessing because I envy Jewish people but because it is a beautiful way to welcome the Sabbath. I realize that some Gentiles think it makes them "extra cool" if they do a bunch of "Jewish stuff", but I also believe that many non-Jews can respond to certain portions of the Bible as a way to authentically acknowledge God and not specifically respond to Judaism as such.

My next blog post (which should be online in the next few minutes) is the first in a series (not sure how many parts as yet) that tries to examine a Gentile believer's responsibilities for studying the Bible as it applies to us. Which parts can be say are targeting all believing humanity?

I don't think that Grace nullifies the Torah. If that were true, it would be nullified across the board, for Jews as well as Gentiles. Even if I accept that Torah responsibility is different for Jews than it is for Gentiles, the question remains as to just how much of the Word does apply to non-Jews? We don't have all the answers yet, but the truth is out there.

zion/jeruz said...

Excellent post James... You tell it like it is.

Russ said...


I did email Mr. Boteach and ask him his opinion about the current subject. If and when I receive a response I will let you know.


James said...

Thanks, Ef. I'm not sure Rabbi Boteach will "appreciate" coming to the attention of the MJ and OL communities or being quoted on my blog. It would probably be more comfortable for him if I were posting on a traditionally Christian blog than in this venue. If he ever reads this, I just want to say to him that I am not trying to offer offense but rather, to learn some of the lessons God has offered to humanity through the Jewish people.