You gaze deeply into your fiancé’s eyes as you answer, “Most of our friends are married and we just like the status being married carries with it. It’s helpful for benefits at work. Marriage looks good, socially. We just feel that married people are more respected. Really, if you’re not married, you’re just not fully accepted in some circles.”
Something is obviously wrong with this couple. But I believe it is an apt illustration of a misunderstanding about conversion to Judaism.
I am a convert to Judaism. Theoretically speaking it is better for me not to make public statements about my conversion. The desire of a convert is to be accepted within the Jewish people and not to bring up the fact that our journey to get where we are has included a struggle for acceptance. We want to forget we were ever not Jewish and simply enjoy our belonging.
But as a public figure in a movement of people with strong emotions about Jewishness, Torah, faith, and matters of belonging, I cannot avoid the issue.
I did not convert so I could be fully obligated to Torah or because I was in love with Torah or because I felt Torah living gave me a superior status socially. I do love Torah, just as I do love the institution of marriage. But I married my stunningly beautiful and brilliantly capable wife, Linda, because I loved her and wanted to spend my days with her and forever join our lives together. In the same way I fell in love with the Jewish people, had extensive relationships with Jewish people, found myself strangely accepted in Jewish circles, and wanted my destiny to be forever wrapped up with that of the Jewish people.
Jewish people were not a category to me. I did not simply read my Bible and fall in love with the idea of a Jewish person. I was not an admirer of Israelite status or the supposedly superior position with God some people think Jewish people enjoy. I loved actual Jews, identified with Jewish history, wanted to be in this tribe. Culturally, intellectually, and emotionally, I saw myself as a Jew. In circles of Jewish friends I found a home.
Some issues surrounding faith and Torah and Messiah get very real and personal, such as this issue of conversion, who is a Jew, the role of non-Jews in God’s redemptive plan, etc. Stay current and informed and challenged. Sign up for the weekly MJ Musings email list here.
I am making a big deal out of this notion as a corrective to a real problem developing in broader Messianic Judaism. I wrote two days ago why Messianic Gentiles (non-Jews who participate in Messianic Judaism with its Jewish members) are drawn to this movement and why it is a good thing, not something to be feared or wished away. I wrote yesterday about why Messianic Judaism’s reason for being is not to have a Torah-community for non-Jews but to be a home for Jewish believers in Yeshua.
And I received a lot of angry comments, emails, and messages from people who think I am some entitled person looking down my nose at them.
One commenter said: Why is my view harmful Rabbi, does it take away some exclusive right that you think have to God that a Gentile does not? You are a convert yourself, you were not born an Israelite! So now that you have arrived you want to look down your nose. There are orthodox Jews that believe that you, your conversion, and what you believe is erroneous, so its all a matter of ones view! Please don’t become so arrogant, sir.
What is the experience driving some people to desire status as Jews in Messianic Judaism? Why is it that many hundreds of people, living in areas with virtually no Jews, want to be Jewish? Why do some of them act as if they are Jewish? Why is it in some cases that people who do not have a single Jewish friend live as though they are Jews?
My answer in its simplest form is: Many people have read the Bible and feel somewhat left out, since the center and focus of the Bible is the redemption of Israel and through Israel the world.
Torah is given to Jewish people. Prophets are about the destiny of the Jewish people. The apostles are Jewish. And many people cannot accept the teaching of Paul who showed Gentiles how their redemption has been God’s plan all along and that becoming Jewish is not the answer.
Many people look at Torah as a privilege instead of a responsibility. For good reasons, I must say, they find a Torah lifestyle to be a beautiful thing. But no one teaches them ways to be whole people just the way they are. No one shows them practically that God’s love for human beings is for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, barbarian and cultured. No one shows them ways to make distinctions in Torah-observance between being Jewish and being a non-Jew joining in.
They feel as if Jewishness is empowerment, inclusion, status.
It is not. Jewishness is a a peoplehood, with its own sad history and its struggle still coming in the future on a difficult path to redemption. Jewishness is the sadness of the Holocaust and the real concern that it could happen again. Jewishness is the struggle of the nation of Israel, whose existence in the midst of violent nations makes life fragile and dangerous. Jewishness is a history here in America of anti-Semitism. Jewishness is the bad with the good.
Someone who commented yesterday said every Messianic Jewish synagogue should be performing conversions on a large scale. I belong to the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council. Our belief is that conversions are exceptional and should happen only in a relatively small number of cases. The desire to attain a certain status with regard to Torah is a misunderstanding of Torah (it is not better to be an Israelite, but what we need is God). By far the majority of Messianic Gentiles do not need to convert.
And the good news is, most of the comments and messages I received through various platforms yesterday were from Messianic Gentiles who got it (and Messianic Jews who appreciated what I had to say). Most of the Messianic Gentiles who are my friends have absolutely zero sense of alienation or of being less in status than Jews. Part of this may have to do with how our synagogue functions as a family. Part of it has to do with the fact that we learn Torah and theology together with the richness of the whole message: blessing through Israel to the world, the ingathering of the nations in faith to God as a sign of God’s redemption being consummated, etc. It is also why Paul, the Jewish teacher of Gentiles, is recognized in our circles as a genius.
Yes, I converted to Judaism. I did so, as did my wife and our children with us, because we loved the Jewish people and wanted to love and to cherish forever, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, forever even after death.
Who is Jewish according to Messianic Judaism? Because Jews are a shrinking minority, the issue of who claims Jewish identity and on what basis is an especially heated one. Read more about it at the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council website here: http://ourrabbis.org/main/halakhah-mainmenu-26/issues-of-status