The Missing Jewish Middle: How Rampant Individualism Erodes Jewish Faithfulness

November 3, 2014

Maybe you have Jewish friends or relatives who have no interest in living covenantal Jewish lives shaped by Torah as generally understood in Jewish life and community. Or perhaps this disinterested or alienated Jewish person is you. Well, in either case, this blog post is for you as are others in this series.

We have been talking about the Missing Jewish Middle, how many Jewish people are born into Jewish life (the Jewish beginning), and will most likely want to be buried in Jewish life (the Jewish ending), but too often will tend to abandon, neglect, or never connect with covenantal Jewish life in the middle. In our last post, we named many reasons why this might happen. Today we are going to address another reason many Jews who beieve in Yeshua pass up engaging with Jewish life. This analysis comes from an unlikey source: the writings of Christian mission theologian Lesslie Newbigin.

He wrote that--

All of us judge some elements of a culture to be good and some bad. The question is whether these judgments arise [might not arise] from the cultural presuppositions of the person who makes the judgment. And, if one replies that they ought to be made only on the basis of the gospel itself, the reply must be that there is no such thing as a gospel which is not already culturally shaped (Newbigin, "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society," 1989:186. All quotations not otherwise notated are from this book).

He is saying that the people, including Jewish believers in Yeshua, who criticize advocacy of a Jewish and Messianic Jewish renewal of Torah living as being “unbiblical," in some manner theologically deviant, or as out of step with the changes brought about by the coming of Christ, often do so because their world-view assumptions are “culturally shaped" so as to blind them to what they are dismissing or missing.

What is that cultural shaping that predisposes Jewish believers in Yeshua to fail to embrace or even to reject Jewish covenantal obedience,  Torah-true living?

Newbigin names the core factor: axiomatic individualism, which is pervasive in the evangelical church world and deeply imbedded in the Jewish missions culture. People affected by this worldview assumption tend to see the Bible and the message of Yeshua in terms of “individual salvation” while failing to detect, grasp, or wrestle with matters of group covenantal responsibility, and thus the question of Jews and Torah. What responsiblities are mine by virtue of my having been born a Jew?  What responsibilities do I have for other Jews because of my membership in this people? Such questions seldom if ever occur to such evangelicalized/missionized Jews, and if they occur, they are sloughed off--because of worldview assumptions. They don't realize they have a two-fold problem: ill-conceived opposition to Torah-true living and obliviousness to how they are marching to the drummer of their generally subconcious individualistic assumptions. To understand what we are talking about here, how pervasive it is, and why it is so important, let's take a closer look.

Speaking of the missionary culture in India where he served for over forty years, Newbigin writes words that also apply directly to the Jewish missions culture, and most Jewish believers in Yeshua (JBY) in general:

One is bound to ask . . . whether these ‘enlightened’ missionaries did not, perhaps, communicate an atomic individualism which was farther from the biblical picture than the strongly cohesive, albeit narrowly exclusive texture of the traditional society . . . a kind of individualism which failed to do justice to elements of value in the tradition, namely the sense of mutual responsibility for the extended family (186-187).

He wrote this about India, but Newbigin's statement applies directly to the standard evangelical and Jewish Missions Paradigm pervasive among Jewish believers in Yeshua. Consider for example how this statement from the leader of Jews for Jesus justifies its dismissal  of those who hold that obedience to Torah's demands is mandatory for Jews, including Jewish believers in Yeshua.  Look at the language used and how it "outs" individualistic assumptions, leading to foregone and dismissive conclusions:

Some Messianic Jews are teaching that it is incumbent on all Jewish believers to observe the Law of Moses and to worship exclusively in Messianic congregations. They would agree that we are saved by grace through faith in Messiah Jesus. However, they would add that Jewish believers who want to fulfill their destiny as Messianic Jews must continue to be a part of the Jewish community, which means living a "Torah-observant" lifestyle. . . . There is nothing wrong with celebrating the biblical feasts, or following certain rabbinical traditions, but we can do so only to the extent that we do not contradict the clear teaching of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament. And part of that New Testament teaching is that, in Messiah, we are fully free to practice these things or not as a matter of choice and conscience (“An Open Letter to the Family of Jewish Believers in Jesus Part II by David Brickner, July 1, 2005”, found on line March 23, 2006, at

Wow. Notice how he says “there is nothing wrong with celebrating the biblical feasts, or following certain rabbinical traditions.” What he omits is the entire corpus and texture of covenantal life, and the embarrassing overabundance of Scriptural evidence for the mandatory nature and enduring status of God’s commandments, statutes and ordinances for the descendants of Jacob. And, in terms of our present discussion, what is most fascinating is his axiomatic advocacy of the freedom “to practice these things or not” as “a matter of choice and conscience.” This sounds more like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant and the individualistic rationalism of the Enlightenment than Moses the Lawgiver—or Yeshua the Messiah, for that matter. Every man may do what is right in his own eyes. Missing here is any sense of obligation to honor a holy tradition, or as Newbigin expresses it, "the sense of mutual responsibility for the extended family."  It is every man for himself, unless that man or woman chooses for things to be otherwise. What we find here is autonomous man oblivious to any imperative to live in a prescribed manner as a member of the Jewish people. Instead, nothing must be allowed to interfere with one's "freedom" to do or not to do, to obey or not to obey, to choose or to reject the demands entailed in membership in a covenantal people. In Newbigin's words, what we are missing here is a proper understanding of a Jew's "mutual responsibility for his extended family."

And let's be fair here. All of us are to some degree the product of our environment, and that is in large part where the Director of Jews for Jesus gets his views--from what he has been taught. But people can change their views: I know I did. So let's be patient and kind, even in disagreement. We are all on a journey, and in the words of the Prophet Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til its over . . . ."

Newbigin helps us further when he discusses how the entire conversation about gospel and culture entails a misconception--that culture is the corporate aspect of life in its varied social relationships, and the gospel is a matter of individual response and soul salvation. “The gospel has been reduced to a matter of individual belief and conduct as though this could be separated from the shared life of society” (188). He insists that the gospel is something that changes the entire life of a community. When the gospel is seen as purely a matter of individual salvation along with “a wholesale rejection and condemnation of traditional culture, the result has been . . . a superficial Christianity with no deep roots and then—later—a reaction to an uncritical and sentimental attachment to everything in the discarded culture” (188-189).  In our terms, while being Jews who believe in Yeshua should make us change agents among our people, this is entirely different from being change agents from among our people, standing outside and calling them to stand where we stand.

Newbigin comments on the experience of a missionary friend who was surprised that some devout and committed African Christians he knew reverted to traditionally African ways of thinking and decision-making. He didn’t realize that although these people’s souls may have now been Christian, their hearts, lives, minds, bodies and personalities are still traditional African [189]. And ladies and gentleman, no matter how you slice him, dice him, or marinate him, a Jew is still a Jew, and sooner or later that intrinsic and covenantal identity will cry out to be expressed, or will suffer from its own suppression.

But when a Jew is conditioned to feel, to think, to imagine, to affliliate, and to act out of a post-Enlightenment assumption that he is first of all an autonomous individual whose identity, responsibiities, and destiny are entirely self-chosen, then it become all too easy to dim or to quench what an earlier generation called the pintele yid, the Jewish spark. And for such a quenched Jewish spark, Torah becomes as best a distant memory.

Long ago and far away, I was one of the founders of Jews for Jesus, which was, in its beginnings, considered radical in its call for forthrightly Jewish self-identification. Indeed, many in the mission establishment looked at Jews for Jesus as silly at best. After all, we didn’t dress, groom, nor act like respectable Christians! Still, the primary shift embodied in the Jews for Jesus phenomenon was more a matter of style and approach rather than of core identity. Jews for Jesus staff workers were all required to be members of local “ Bible-believing churches,” which generally meant free-church conservative evangelical churches. We were Christians of Jewish background who were reclaiming the right to identity as Jews and to communicate as Jews to other Jews.

The Messianic Jewish congregational movement went a step still further, in that the founders wanted to form congregations to foster the intergenerational transmission of Jewish identity to their children and grandchildren. Although “outreach” (evangelism) was not out of the equation, the Messianic Jewish Congregational Movement was formed not as an evangelistic strategy so much as out of a need for Messianic Jews to cohere communally, and to transmit a cohesive identity to coming generations. However, it is significant that the founding statement of faith of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations was patterned after that of the National Association of Evangelicals. This was because we needed to validate our authenticity by a Christian canon of measurement, and to win approval in from the Christian world. That statement of faith has since been replaced by one more intelligible to Jews.

The Hashivenu group, a Messianic Jewish think tank I founded with a group of colleagues in 1997, went a step further than the foregoing.  Here are the first five of its seven core principles:

  1. Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cosmetically altered “Jewish-style” version of what is extant in the wider Christian community.
  2.  God’s particular relationship with Israel is expressed in the Torah, God’s unique covenant with the Jewish people.
  3. Yeshua is the fullness of Torah.
  4.  The Jewish people are “us” not “them.”
  5.  The richness of the Rabbinic tradition is a valuable part of our heritage as Jewish people.

To these I would now add the following comment: that the New Covenant through which renewal may come to the Messianic Jewish Movement, please God, and to the Jewish world, will necessarily involve the full-bodied embodiment of five aspects which work in ever deepening synergy. If one pays careful attention to the New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34, one discovers the following five factors, two of which are generally ignored.

  1. In Jeremiah's New Covenant is between the Living God and the House of Israel and the House of Judah—the Jewish people. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . .”
  2. It involves a deepened Torah obedience: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
  3. It involves a deepened relationship with God: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.”
  4. It involves a deepened relationship with the Sin Bearer and Great High Priest, Yeshua or righteous Messiah, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
  5. While it is true that God says through the Prophet, that this covenant would be “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.: But that difference is not the content of the covenant, it does not point to an abandonment of Torah, but rather to a change in its mode of actualization —it will succeed through divine faithfulness and empowerment and not be jeapordized by human frailty.

I will wager that many people who "know all about the New Covenant" never considered that it mandates a renewal of Torah obedience, not its expiration.

Most Jewish believers in Yeshua don't "get" that God wants to renew Torah obedience among them through the New Covenant. They also don't get that being Jews obliges them to live covenental Jewish lives of mutual responsibiity for their fellow Jews. And one of the big reasons for these failures of understanding and action is rampant individualism, that inauthentic autonomy in which we live, and move, and have our being, all the while unmindful that we are smothering the pintele yid. 


One comment on “The Missing Jewish Middle: How Rampant Individualism Erodes Jewish Faithfulness”

  1. Dear Rabbi Stuart:

    This is wonderful and right on the mark. Well done for stating it so clearly and with appropriate argument. It is time for the MJ movement to wake up and in particular to become fully and uncompromisingly Jewish.

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