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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Identity Integrity, Pastoral Concern and Messianic Judaism

There are already many gentiles who have bonded with Messianic Jewish congregations. Among these there are a smaller number who really want to bond with Jewish life, Jewish identity, and the Jewish people in a manner dictated by the tradition rather than by their own preferences. In other words, there are some with a profound and sacrificial calling to Jewish life and identity. I am privileged to know a few such people.

But if our movement is to have integrity, we cannot simply have people adopting the status of Jewish identity on their own terms, or using Jewish religious sancta as they choose. A glaring example of this is the yahoos who blow shofars at Messianic Jewish events at their whim, as a means of registering their own excitement. Such people do not realize that this is as offensive as using a cross for a doorstop, or a confession booth as a pay toilet.

But then there are that minority who are not only willing, but eager to pay the price for substantial Jewish identity. For their sake, and in order to protect Messianic Judaism from those prepared to take on the mantle of Jewish identity on their own idiosyncratic terms, we need a conversion process and conversion standards [what standard of practice are these people converting to?], and a rigorous bet din process whereby genuine candidates may be identified and others denied the privilege of conversion.

Some of these are people with some Jewish ancestors generations back, seeking to resolve identity ambiguity, and to wholeheartedly choose communal Jewish life, identity, and responsibility. In addtion, there are those intermarried folks who want to embrace Jewish life and community in its fullness for the sake of family solidarity and out of the free choice to choose Jewish identity as one's new and true self, leaving one's prior identity behind. This is a major and sobering matter. It is not to be undertaken lightly, and involves considerable social cost. But if we are truly a Judaism, then we must have such a process, such standards, and a policing mechanism. Or are we just playing with Jewish things?

Some people oppose the idea of conversion. Their objections need to be heard and responded to. But I believe that many of these are confused due to reading Christian categories into a Jewish process. This is not about "soul salvation": It IS about bonding with integrity to the Jewish way of life, the Jewish people, and the God who spoke to us at Sinai. It is also about pastoral concern, seeking to address the needs of those whose ambiguity of status, sense of call, or station in life makes choosing Jewish identity to be a pressing issue. It is not pastorally responsible to simply ignore such concerns. The time is now for them to be addressed.

Here, edited to preserve the identity of my correspondent, is some material I wrote this week on the subject in correspondence with a Gentile man long involved in the Messianic Jewish movement, but who embraces Jewish life without seeing the need for an identitty integrity process, otherwise called "conversion." I disagree.

This is by no means the last word on the subject, nor is it all I have to say. But still, it addresses some of the issues involved.

My respected friend _______,

I do not have time to write at length, but do want to say this. You hit the nail on the head in speaking of your children. If all we cared about was how are kids are received in our own congregations, it would be one thing. But we owe it to them and to their children and their children's children to give them as normalized an identity as possible. We also need to normalize Messianic Judaism instead of having it be one thing at your congregation and another thing at mine. When my son _______ started going to college . . . . he came to me and said, "Dad, why didn't you ever tell me Messianic Judaism was a fringe group?" In other words, he felt I had not prepared him for how our family identity would be validated/invalidated in the wider world. We owe the same to our children and their descendants.

Yes. I am well aware that some would say, "Well the Jewish community won't accept our conversions anyway." That may or may not be true. But still, it behooves us to do all we can to normalize our status, to clear up ambiguities, and *to set respectable standards for Jewish practice and conversion.* Otherwise, at best, we appear cultic.

I am reminded of an experience I had when in JFJ. There was in Pennsylvania a group called "__________." They "kept the feasts" had their own "apostles." And their wasn't a Jew among them. They were just a few steps this side of snake-handlers. And no matter how doctrinallly pure they thought themselves to be, since they were purely self-authenticating rather than sanely related to standards the wider world could relate to, they were cultish and just plain weird. And in some corners of our movement, we are not far from that territory ourselves, and getting worse all the time. We owe our children more than that. . . .

Another issue is integrity. It is wrong and disrespectful to Jewish sancta for unconverted Gentiles to adopt the trappings of Jewish piety, as for example wearing a tallit. It is hard to find a comparison, but it is a little like a man I met in SF who always wore an army uniform, claiming to be a special forces guy, just back from a tour of duty. In reality he was a psycho street person. It is nothing but wrong for Gentiles to adopt the uniform of Jews without transition into Jewish status, just as it is wrong [and illegal!] for me to wear a policeman's uniform.

I refer here not only to actual garments, but also to the garments of normative Jewish behaviors. If one is going to claim Jewish life as one's own, one ought to claim Jewish status as one's own through substantial processes and respectable rigorous communally agreed upon standards. Gentiles in our movement not wishing to do should be careful to and be required to NOT embrace certain markers of Jewish identity. To do so is fraudulently claim a "uniform" and status that is not rightly theirs.

[In response to my respondent's evocation of imagery from Romans 11]. . .The grafted in branches in Paul's metaphor remain "unnatural branches." They draw nurture from the same root, but the do not masquerade as natural branches. The natural branches on the other hand remain natural branches even when broken off in unbelief. What I am saying is that underlying Paul's text is an assumption of continuing difference. When people seek to ignore these differences or treat them as of no consequence, they err.

Through conversion, one can become a natural branch. But one can still be in the olive tree as one grafted in. And grafting in and conversion are two entirely different things. One involves spiritual conversion and the other involves identity conversion [or what I would call "Identity Integrity."].

Shalom for now. . .


At 1/23/2005 11:06 PM, Blogger yochanan said...

I applaud you for this post which is of such great importance for the future development of Messianic Judaism.

The importance of making clear the distinctive place and role of the Jewish members of our movement and the clear and distinctive place of the non-Jews is vitally important as we seek to embrace our identity as a Judaism.

In this we do not denigrate the non-Jews amongst, many who play vital roles, but we accept the distinction of responsibility and calling of the Jews and non-Jews in our midst.

I, as one born outside the people of Israel, know the issues involved with being a non-Jew who has been uniquely and profoundly called to live within a Messianic Jewish life. I also know that I am not-yet a Jew and therefore I must live as a non-Jew within Jewish space, which includes practical issues of Jewish sancta like my not wearing a talit at services. I fully realize that the talit represents the Jewish people's responsibility to the Torah and the unique place of Jews in the synagogue.

As an interesting aside, this last Friday night, I went to an Erev Shabbat service at a local Conservative shul which in conjunction with the MLK Weekend had a local gospel choir sing some songs during the service. There was an African American man from the church that went out into the lobby and got a talit that he put on for the service. It made me think that yes, he was well meaning wanting to be in a synagogue but he by wearing thr talit was unwittingly taking on Jewish garb and a connection to a life that he was not and would not take on. This is the state of much of the Messianic movement with many non-Jews wearing talits and even claiming Jewish status because of their attending a Messianic congregation without the commitment to communal standards and this is where the need for a well thought and viable Messianic rite of acceptance, usually referred to as "conversion" is needed.

This is important for those few non-Jews amongst us (myself included) who have a deep calling to sojourn with Israel and who have lived within Jewish space for many years to be given the opportunity to fully embrace and be embraced by the Messianic Jewish community. This is not a light commitment but a deep calling that is hard to put into words.

I applaud the phrasing "Identity Integrity" for it embodies the heart of the issue, if we are building a Judaism we need to build it with integrity and consistency to the norms of Jewish life. If we are going to build a Jewish life and lifestyle foreign to the rest of the Jewish world we are doing ourselves and the larger Jewish world a disservice.

There is room for non-Jews in all various levels of commitment in our midst but for those with a profound connection and desire to commit to a life as a Jew we need to make a way for these people to fully attach themselves to the peoplehood and destiny of the Jewish people. This is more than a theoretical ideal this is a necessity for the integrity of our movement as we seek to develop a credible and mature Messianic Judaism.


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