Losing A World - Part Two

March 31, 2015

Here we continue considering what may be the greatest and almost universal sin among Jewish believers in Yeshua--letting the Jewish spiritual and religious past die through failing to live Jewish lives embodying that past for the generations to come. 

The Church Has Conditioned Jewish Believers in Yeshua to Forget Our People

That the Messianic Jewish world has learned to cut itself off from allegiance to the ways and worldview of our Fathers is partly due to a long tradition of contempt, whereby many in the church have long viewed and taught Judaism to be little more than a launch pad for God’s better alternative, the church. From the second century onward, the church learned to commend itself to the pagan world by discommending the Jews and their religion. A visit to most seminary classes in Pauline theology will demonstrate how the weight of Christian teaching and rhetoric still portrays the Law as burdensome and expired, and with its alleged death, Judaism left a vestigial religion and the Jewish community left to inherit for itself the language Paul applied to the pagans of his day: “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”[1] “But be of good cheer,” says the church. “We are the new Israel, so come and join us. Join to be assimilated, forget who you were and become one of us.” This is the sad legacy this tradition of contempt has bequeathed to the sons and daughters of Jews. Jews are viewed as estranged from God, Judaism viewed as a discarded Plan A, and JBY in Yeshua are invited and expected to come home to God while forsaking their people and heritage.

Surely, not all Christians harbor such attitudes. That should be obvious. But that there are exceptions only goes to prove that there is a rule, and the rule is that Judaism and Jewish ritual life are regarded as a preliminary stage in God’s plans for the world. Although Jews and Jewish life may be treated with courtesy, in truth, they need to get over themselves. Or so we’ve been told.

In a recent conversation, one of my sons put it unforgettably. “Dad, assimilation (for Jews) is not eating a ham sandwich. It is forgetting who your people are.” Stunning and true. And even those JBY who make a big deal of their Jewish identity have learned to be Jews in the pattern of the church’s vision of who the Jews were, are, and ought to be. Their connection to Jewish ritual life is vestigial and nostalgic. And the image of Judaism and of ourselves which the church conditioned us to see is distorted, like a mirror in a Coney Island arcade.[2]

We Are Overemphasizing the Vertical Axis and Neglecting the Horizontal Axis of God-Relationship

Jewish believers in Yeshua (JBY) have learned to speak of  “my personal relationship with God,” and “Yeshua is my personal savior,” and the songs at our places of worship are most often in the first person, and even when they speak of God/Yeshua/the Holy Spirit in the second or third person, one will seldom if ever hear songs in the first person plural of who we are and of what God has done for us. It still more rare to find any contemporary worship songs that speak of us (Jews) as a people united in covenant relationship with other Jews across time. We do not have communal worship any more: we have multi-individual personal worship. People sing to God with closed eyes: it is all between themselves and God, and the others in the room, or even in the past or the future, are reduced to the status of distractions.

We have lost the horizontal axis. We see relating well to others as a “nice” and “proper” and “expected” outcome of our personal relationship with God. So, if we can find a good congregation and the people seem “cool,” we can try it out for a while. And if the worship team is hot, and the place has enough features that appeal to us, we might even join it and stay, that is, as long as things are happening. And if the congregation becomes a disappointment, we can always go elsewhere, being careful not to slam the door on the way out. Indeed, some people leave so quietly you never notice they left. And some congregations are so preoccupied with the show up front, they fail to notice who came in.

The Way Things Used To Be And Ought to Have Remained

Formerly, and by Divine design, God-relationship was passed on within the family from generation to generation “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4) and Abraham’s family sought to keep their relationship with God vital and current and to pass it on in a variety of ways.

  • Having intergenerational shared experiences with God (the Exodus, Mt Sinai, Covenant renewal ceremonies, etc.)
  • A lifestyle ordered by Divine Commandments that gave occasion to retell the story of our people. When your children ask you in time to come, "What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?" then you shall say to your children, "We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. [4]
  • Artifacts and practices that raised questions for the next generation.The Festival of Unleavened Bread [Passover], eating a special kind of bread for a week, the Passover lamb, eating with bitter herbs—all designed to trigger the telling of the story, awareness of a common identity and history. (See Ex 13:3-10).
    • The Consecration of the Firstborn (Ex 13:11-16), wherein the firstborn of livestock were given over to the LORD to be sacrificed by his priests and Levitical servants, and the first born males of Israel had to be redeemed through payment, all as an occasion to remember identity story—the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt and the rescue of Israel’s first born.
    • Tefillin (“phylacteries”) which are worn each weekday in morning prayers, to “serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblema on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt" (Ex 13:16).
    • Twelve stones taken out of the Jordan when the descendants of Jacob crossed. And why? “so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, "What do those stones mean to you?' then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever" (Josh 6).
  • Holy Gatherings and Related Rituals - The Major Festivals of Israel (Passover, Feast of Booths, Feast of Weeks) when Israelites were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and other holy occasions on the calendar to mark our history together with God.

Paul speaks of this kind of intergenerational sharing in his second letter to Timothy.

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you (1 Tim 1:5). In his next letter to Timothy he writes of his own experience as another shared experience with Timothy:

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.[5]

He the goes on to admonish Timothy to learn from his example and from the exemplars in the Scriptures “ But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”[6]

All of this is close-in family related, whether through Lois and Eunice, or through Timothy’s spiritual father, Paul, or through the ancestors in “the sacred writings.”

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. How have we who are Jewish believers in Yeshua been conditioned to think of the Jewish community in ways different from how other Jews view the Jewish community?
  2. What impact does this difference have on how we relate to other Jews and to our Jewish heritage? What is lost or gained in the process?
  3. Although some Messianic congregations are responsible in preserving Jewish life and continuity, and respectful in their handling of Jewish holy traditions, many Messianic Congregtions are now marketing a religious experience and context to Gentiles, which is not really a Judaism, but something new, which I term "Messianic Jewishism," a kind of celebrational and superficial, subjective, and often arbitrary use of Jewish artifacts and behaviors to coat Messianic contexts with a thin veneer of Jewishness without informed, consistent submission to the norms and authority of Jewish life and tradition. This involves a loss of the sense of the Jewish people's unique identity and calling,  since everyone involved is "doing the Jewish thing." Is this good for the Jews who are involved in these contexts, and how does such a context advance or inhibit their being a responsible link to the coming generations for Jewish peoplehood and tradition?
  4. What are you going to do about what you learned here?


[1] Eph 2:12

[2] I experienced this again recently at the congregation where I participated in a baby naming ceremony. The leader was a Hebrew Christian, seminary educated, and far more at home in the church than in the synagogue. He gave a sermon on the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. He drove home again and again his interpretation that the text is obviously about the Messiah, and evoked chuckles from his congregation ad he showed how the Jewish community and its leaders apparently missed the obvious. He stigmatized the seminal Jewish exegete, Rashi, for his suggestion that the passage was speaking of the sufferings of Israel. But never did he mention that Rashi came up with this interpretation as a pastoral comfort for representatives of Jewish communities who had written him as to why they were being slaughtered so mercilessly during the First Crusade. This Jewish clergyman evoked no sympathy for the Jewish people, no context for their interpretations. He only elicited giggles from a congregation taught to view themselves as more enlightened and biblical than “those Jews.” This Hebrew Christian leader had looked deep into the arcade mirror and how had an entire congregation looking over his shoulder.

[3] Not everyone in the social sciences community is willing to see us jettison the term “religion.” Heinz Streib and Ralph W. Hood argue for keeping the term “religion” in place in scholarly discussion, while viewing “spirituality” as a privatized, experience-oriented religion. Heinz Streib and Ralph W. Hood, “'Spirituality' as Privatized Experience-Oriented Religion: Empirical and Conceptual Perspectives,” Equinoxonline (2011): 433-53, accessed March 24, 2015, http://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=2001069&fileOId=2521698.

[4] Deu 4:20-21

[5] 1 Tim 3:1-12

[6] 2 Tim 3:14-15

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