Should Messianic Jews spend any time working out the implications of Jewish identity?
Recently I interacted with a reputable leader who indicated he considers this enterprise a waste of time, a kind of cultural navel-gazing, or perhaps an effort to win strokes from the wider Jewish world. In either case, he labeled it a wasteful diversion from the real task of sharing Yeshua faith with whosoever will.
Sounds good, but I am neither cowed nor convinced. Instead I say this:
We should engage in calling and assisting Jewish Believers in Yeshua and our community groups (havurot, congregations, etc.) to remember our covenantal identity and return to conforming to its demands, and thus experience its blessings.
Experience proves, and observation demonstrates, that if we do not establish our identity someone else will. Either that or a certain kind of religious cultural entropy will take hold. If either happens, even among those of us who are spiritually committed, we will then default to being Christians of Jewish background, saved individuals blended into the church, token Jews, rather than vital members of families and communities living in covenant faithfulness and linking our next generation to the generations of the past. Frankly, it is far easier to go with the flow, and building a proper Messianic Jewish identity and movement is hard work. It gets discouraging. I know that because I am discouraged. It is far easier to lower the bar, to not work out the nitty gritty details, to not make waves by being different and "rebuilding the middle wall of partition" (an unjust accusation often heard). It is so much easier to not rise up and build.
Some insist that our identity was already established in the Scriptures anyway, and we should simply accept that identity and carry on. While it is of course true that our identity is established in the Scriptures, I am convinced that the task of defining that identity, owning it, and living it out is a necessary aspect of both serving Yeshua and also God’s purposes for the Jewish people. These two issues, identity formation and obedient contagious Yeshua-faith, are properly inseparable.
As usual I ground all of this in how I read the Bible. I find this tersely summarized by Ezekiel, in the midst of his description of God’s end-game plan for the Jewish people.
The prophet links together obedient Yeshua faith and returning to honoring our covenantal identity:
My servant David will be king over them, and all of them will have one shepherd; (thus the priority of Yeshua faith) they will live by my rulings and keep and observe my regulations (thus the conjoined priority of reclaiming our covenantal obligations).
I believe in both halves of this verse (37:24). Most people choose one over against the other. It's either "Yes" to Torah and "No" to Yeshua, or it's "Yes" to Yeshua and "No" to Torah. Not convincing. It's not hard at all to make a good argument that both of these enterprises are being neglected in our day. They are being unjustly separated and the issue of covenant responsibility poorly understood, sometimes discounted, discarded, and at best surrounded with confusion and indecision. But is this state of affairs the will of God? I say, "Nay."
It is really the same for us Jews now as it was long ago. In Scripture God’s people Israel are constantly being called back to remember their covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands. You can find evidence for this in the majority of the prophets whenever they address Israel and Judah. Constantly our people are called back to obeying the covenantal demands implicit in a Jewish identity too often betrayed, forgotten, or abandoned. And when Israel/Judah fails to comply, the consequences are dire. The technical term for this is “the vengeance of the covenant” (Leviticus 26:25 נְקַם-בְּרִית in various translations), and it is mapped out for us in the famous blessings and curses passages at the end of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Moses Calls, How Will We Answer?
The thirtieth chapter of D'varim/Deuteronomy describes Israel’s restoration after the vengeance of the covenant has been meted out, when the dire consequences of long term national estrangement from God have come to pass. In this chapter we find much about establishing, or reclaiming, Jewish covenantal identity and returning to obeying its demands.
The chapter reminds us that whereas Israel is prophetically seen as dispersed among the nations, estranged from God and from their land, “you will start thinking about what has happened to you; 2 and you will return to Adonai your God and pay attention to what he has said, which will be exactly what I am ordering you to do today — you and your children, with all your heart and all your being.” This is a return to a proper sense of Jewish self, a reclaiming of an identity betrayed, abandoned, lost, obscured. What is promised is the blossoming of communal blessedness with the following proviso, 10 “However, all this will happen only if you pay attention to what Adonai your God says, so that you obey his mitzvot and regulations which are written in this book of the Torah, if you turn to Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being.” Returning to God, returning to obeying Torah, returning to a sense of who we properly are and how we ought therefore to properly live, all of this is inextricably intertwined.
Yeshua illustrates this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You will remember how he took his inheritance from his father, betrayed his identity, and up feeding pigs, suffering in exile. But how is his repentance described?
"At last he came to his senses and said, `Any number of my father's hired workers have food to spare; and here I am, starving to death! I'm going to get up and go back to my father and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers." '
What happened here? He remembered who he was! We see here a re-establishing of identity, first in the Prodigals mind, and then, with the robe and ring, through his father’s actions. This is a portrait not simply of sinning individuals! This is a portrait of Israel defiled in exile and the pathway of return. It is directly parallel to what we find in Deuteronomy thirty, verse nine:
When the time arrives that all these things have come upon you, both the blessing and the curse which I have presented to you; and you are there among the nations to which Adonai your God has driven you; then, at last, you will start thinking about what has happened to you.
We too are confronted with a choice: to reclaim our identity as covenantally bound to our heavenly Father, or to let all of that slide, like the prodigal, wallowing in the pleasures and distractions of life in a foreign land. But as the Prodigal – and Moses – teach us, this will not turn out well. Moses puts it this way:
“Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil — in that I am ordering you today to love Adonai your God, to follow his ways, and to obey his mitzvot, regulations and rulings; for if you do, you will live and increase your numbers; and Adonai your God will bless you in the land you are entering in order to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, if you refuse to listen, if you are drawn away to prostrate yourselves before other gods and serve them; I am announcing to you today that you will certainly perish; you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Yarden to enter and possess.
Here again, identity formation—Israel is told to not allow the idols around them to shape their identity as a people, but rather “to remember their covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands.” And again, the prophets pointed out how Israel repeatedly forgot her identity, as in the case of Gomer and Hosea—a whoring wife forgetting her identity, being called back to the disciplines implicit in remembering who she is.
There are some who would protest, “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew and I don’t need to prove it to anyone.” Agreed! But that is not what we are discussing here. Rather, in calling and assisting Jewish Believers in Yeshua and our communities to "remember our covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands," we are reminding and instructing ourselves to remember the meaning of that identity. It is a covenantal identity to which we are all bound apart from our choice to accept or even reject it. This is clearly taught just before the passage from Deuteronomy thirty, that is, in chapter twenty-nine, where we learn that all future generations of Israel were implicated in the covenantal bond with the God of the Exodus and his Torah.
Today you are standing, all of you, before ADONAI your God - your heads, your tribes, your leaders and your officers - all the men of Isra'el, along with your little ones, your wives and your foreigners here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.The purpose is that you should enter into the covenant of ADONAI your God and into his oath which ADONAI your God is making with you today, so that he can establish you today for himself as a people, and so that for you he will be God -as he said to you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Avraham, Yitz'chak and Ya'akov. But I am not making this covenant and this oath only with you. Rather, I am making it both with him who is standing here with us today before ADONAI our God and also with him who is not here with us today.
Those who were not there that day but who are included in the covenant is all the future generations of Israel. It's us.
All of this is at first difficult to grasp because we are habituated to individualism, but this is not an individualistic matter. Rather, we are part of a people whom God calls into covenant responsibility. Being part of that people gives us the privilege of conforming to that covenant’s demands and experiencing its extraordinary blessings. And yes, to the extent that this covenantal identity, calling, and responsibility is unknown, forgotten, or even disparaged, religious communities of Jewish believers in Yeshua and their leaders have an identity-establishment job to do for our generation and those to come.
It is not enough nor is it proper to take Jewish life expressions as they currently exist and claim that they are sufficient markers of Jewish bona fides. It is not sufficient to say, “I’m a Jew because my parents are Jews. I like being Jewish and I like the same things most other Jews like: Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand. Israel, pastrami. I don’t have to prove anything.” If one finds the task of identity formation to be distasteful can we legitimize a Seinfeld, Barbara Streisand, pastrami Jewishness as a sufficient claim to Jewish identity and loyalty? Sociologically, perhaps, but theologically, of course not. God not only confers Jewish identity: he also defines its demands. And it is incumbent upon us to shape our souls and our communities around embodying what he calls for, through Yeshua, and in the power of the Spirit.
A related story that touches on attitudes related to the position I am stating:
Years ago I knew a Jewish mission leader who had a conviction that Jews who believed in Jesus should not live more intentional Jewish lives after coming to Messiah than they did before. He regarded any such increase in observance to be an exercise in phoniness or a distraction from “the real business” of evangelism.
My wife Naomi responded to this suggestion of his, saying, “But what if our prior level of observance was neglectful? Shouldn't we now go beyond it?" Good question.
What’s your answer?