JEWISH BELIEVERS AND THE JEWISH COMMUNITY: How do we see each other?
Looking back on my experience as a new believer and a university student, I remember two distinct Christian groups on our campus: Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The two had not so much a rivalry as hermetically sealed lives. Among IVCF-ers, Campus Crusade had a reputation for being too “in your face,” i.e., confrontational, perhaps giving unbelievers the impression that Christians are pushy, and not putting enough emphasis on discipleship. Among CCC-ers, IVCF was thought to encourage quiet Bible studies and prayer meetings, but not much action when it came to evangelism. So, on our campus at least, Crusade was the yin, InterVarsity the yang— or was it the other way around? It seemed like you had to pick one or the other if you wanted to be in a community of believers on campus. I don’t know if many stopped to think that both groups had their strengths and weaknesses, and that there could be a whole lot of practical common ground. That, at least, is my memory.
Today I see a similar type of “yin-yang” among Jewish believers in Jesus. Messianic Jews are in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the spectrum of possibilities concerning the Jewish community’s response to us, as well as our place in the Jewish community. On one end of the spectrum is rejection, on the other, acceptance. (Though “acceptance” can often imply personal approval, in this context I mean that people will be willing to consider us part of the Jewish community and to seriously interact over the gospel message.)
Jewish believers are debating such issues as whether rejection or acceptance is more valid as a mark of an effective Jewish outreach. What should our stance be vis-?vis the larger Jewish community?
There is a developing polarization among those who see either the axis of acceptance or the axis of rejection as primary—not altogether unlike the differences I experienced between the two campus groups. This polarization affects how we expect the Jewish community to view Jews who have chosen to follow Y’shua and how we view the larger Jewish community.
In Most Messianic Jews know that the official stance of the Jewish community has been to condemn Jewish missions, Messianic congregations and Jewish believers in Jesus as “not really” being Jewish, or as “deceitful,” and so on.
Yet, at the opposite extreme, Jewish scholars such as Dan Cohn-Sherbok are willing to give Jewish believers a place at the Jewish table. These scholars view Jews who believe in Jesus as one part of a very pluralistic Jewish community. This is a minority view and some who hold it differentiate between those Jewish believers in Jesus who “proselytize” and those who do not, or between Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is God incarnate and those whom they perceive as not holding to Jesus’ divinity.1
The View Out
The flip side is how Jewish believers view the Jewish community, and this also runs the spectrum.
At one end, there are those who tend to see rejection by the Jewish community as the apostolic norm: Jesus, Paul and other New Testament figures experienced it and set the pattern for us. Those on this end of the spectrum may feel kinship toward and solidarity with the Jewish community on many issues, but do not look to the larger Jewish community to provide the same in return. They seek Jewish community primarily with other Jewish believers in Jesus. At the extreme, some view rejection as a badge of honor and question those Jewish believers who have congenial relationships in the traditional Jewish community.
At the other end, there are those who see rejection as an often unnecessary result of failure on the part of some Jewish believers to properly engage the larger Jewish community.2 Believing that it is possible to gain a platform within the Jewish community, some have distanced themselves from “traditional” Jewish missions. They feel that missions have taken an adversarial stance vis-?-vis the Jewish community and have made it more difficult for others to have meaningful witnessing opportunities among Jewish people. At the extreme end of this position, some postulate a “post-missionary Messianic Judaism” in which the (largely non-Jesus believing) Jewish community rather than the Church becomes the primary identity and place of social life for the Jewish believer in Jesus—a non-evangelical, and so far distinctly minority, view.
How Do You Like Your Eggs?
(You will notice the subtle change of metaphor from yin-yang to eggs—perhaps a bit more Jewish, at least if you are planning to make matzah brei!) I suspect that part of the polarization among Jewish believers today is more stylistic and preferential than we care to admit. Those who see themselves as activists and agents of change, flourish in a context of “getting out the message.” Those who see themselves as very relational tend to favor subtlety and non-confrontiveness when it comes to volatile issues like faith in Jesus.
However, personalities and preferences are only a part of the picture. I am a person who prefers to avoid conflict, but I often put myself in a place where I experience exactly that! What really should inform our ideas on this topic is Scripture itself, to which I now turn.
How Does God Like Your Eggs?
When we turn to the Bible, it seems to me that we find two complementary models that could be sketched out in the following way. These models deal with how the believing community relates to those who do not believe.
One model—or aspect of a believer’s experience—is that of acceptance, social change and dialogue. God’s Word, in both Old and New Testaments, does not in fact “return void,” but bears fruit. Some seed does fall on good ground. There is indeed wheat as well as tares. To as many as were appointed, eternal life is indeed granted.
Not only do some individuals accept the Word, but certain areas of good soil have enough acreage to accommodate entire families or even communities. Missionaries have seen “people movements” (many non- Western cultures are far more grouporiented than individual-oriented) where entire tribes, for instance, have embraced the gospel. Even in the difficult work of Jewish evangelism, some who agree to listen to the gospel want their family members present to hear, too. This can be seen particularly among Russian Jews. The gospel affects the larger social context not just in that entire families or tribes might embrace the gospel message, but in the positive social effects that often have accompanied the spread of the gospel (one thinks of the impact of Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in England).
Scripture also gives us plenty of instances of dialogue—real dialogue, not the modern kind where the agenda is to understand but never to persuade, and from which Jewish believers have been notoriously excluded. So, for instance, we find Philip dialoguing with the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul arguing and persuading people in synagogues (presumably with some Q & A time!), Jesus in conversation with the Samaritan woman and Paul again, this time depicting believers as “ambassadors,” with all the persuasiveness and diplomacy that entails.
Some Jewish believers see the potential for positive response and say that as we live Jewishly—which means, among other things, seeking to socialize and integrate into the Jewish community—we will build a platform of acceptance.3
There is much value in living Jewishly or cultivating our own sense of Jewishness, whether or not it results in Jesus becoming a topic of serious consideration in the Jewish community. Being Jewish is who we are. Expressing our Jewish identity or becoming involved in the larger Jewish community can sometimes be helpful to our witness. It can sometimes open doors for meaningful dialogue.
The rise of postmodernism has fostered discussion of Jesus in the Jewish community as well. Though postmodernists often reject the concept of objective truth, they tend to be open to spirituality and religion. Today’s more pluralistic Jewish community offers more opportunities for serious engagement with the person of Jesus than did the more insular traditional Jewish community of, say, 18th century Poland. And opportunities for genuine dialogue sometimes arise.
Another positive trend is the scholarly “reclamation” of Jesus. Jewish people today generally are willing to consider Jesus as a good Jewish teacher, a rabbi, a product of his Jewish times—replacing the old traditional view of Jesus as a sorcerer and deceiver. Reform Rabbi Michael Cook will release a book later this year encouraging Jews to read the New Testament, which is a good thing despite the fact that his motives are undoubtedly different than those of Jewish believers. It is not hard to see that whether in missions or individual witnessing encounters, it is possible to foster acceptance, change and dialogue and anything that helps that happen is welcome.
But as an old poem says: “And yet, and yet . . .”
Scripture also speaks of a second model: rejection, resistance and confrontation.
We must recognize that there is much beyond our own control, e.g., the social climate and the hardness of hearts. “I tell you the truth,” says Jesus, “no prophet is accepted in his home town.” [As per Matthew 13:57 and Mark 6:4.] Jesus speaks of families divided over the gospel (Matthew 10:34: “. . . I did not come to bring peace but a sword”); of persecution promised to His followers (John 16:33: “in this world you will have tribulation . . .”).
In the Old Testament, we know that prophets like Jeremiah and Moses experienced classic rejection. The Book of Acts is replete with examples of the condemnation of early Jewish followers of Y’shua as they sought to make Him known to our people.
We see resistance among individuals: (Pharaoh’s hardened heart, the hard hearts of the disciples and the resistance by leaders among the Pharisees and Sadducees). Resistance is even evidenced at the level of nations: (a partial hardening has happened to Israel per Romans 11:25).
We see confrontation. It is so common a theme in the gospels that “conflict story” is a regular term scholars use to describe Jesus in confrontation with other Jews. Whether the confrontation is in response to something Jesus did, said or taught, it is obvious that He did not mince words or shy away from the truth, no matter how hard a pill it was for some to swallow.
However you like your eggs, whichever model you look to, you can expect both acceptance and rejection. From this we may conclude that God is not going to guarantee a positive outcome to your witness if you hit on the “right style”—or lifestyle. Nor is it helpful to expect a negative outcome to your witness based on a specific approach or style either.
So what should we expect or not expect?
- We should not expect Jewish people to respond en masse to the gospel today. It remains true that for the vast majority of Jewish people, Jesus is still the big “NO.” This is the case not only for traditional Jews but also for those who embrace a postmodern spirituality. This is true for Jews who are married to non-Jews as well as for the ultra-Orthodox. Only one half of one percent to one percent of Jewish people worldwide are followers of Jesus. Jewishness as ethnic identity has become far more important to many Jews than what God, if He exists, requires. And some of that identity hinges on the belief that Jesus is not who we (Messianic Jews) believe He is.
Paul, in Romans, builds part of his argument on the fact that God has hardened the hearts of Jewish people in part against the gospel, though a remnant of Jews will (and always have) believe. The teachings of Scripture do not lead us to believe that a Jewish lifestyle or attempts to integrate into the larger Jewish community will change the general picture. On the contrary, we were put out of the synagogue in the first century and it is still happening in the twenty-first. In the meantime, we can also expect the number of non-Jews in the body of the Messiah to increase.
- Becoming a follower of Jesus means becoming a social “deviant.” This point is new territory for many people. In sociological terms, a deviant is not someone who takes delight in being different or in shocking others. Rather, it means someone who is “out of step” with the prevailing norms. Recent studies of the Bible have broken new ground by approaching the text from the standpoint of sociology and cultural anthropology. Scholars point out that in modern times, one’s personality is developed by “nurture,” but in the ancient world, it was determined by “nature,” particularly by one’s gender, family lineage and geographical location.
Both Jesus and Paul challenged the status quo in these areas and thus, to their own communities, were considered to be “deviants.” Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, notes that: Both Jesus and Paul believed that radical change could happen to a person, overcoming stereotypes and stigmas of gender, generation and geography. A person can start over—indeed should start over (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:28)—but he or she must be prepared to be rejected by a world that would go on judging people on the basis of gender, generation and geography. The convert4 must be prepared to be despised and rejected as a deviant.5
While today’s Jewish community is quite removed from Jews of the first century, some standards of judgment remain similar. For example, not only did people judge on the basis of gender, lineage and place of birth, but the culture especially of the larger Greco-Roman world was one of honor and shame. Today’s Jewish community can resonate with that world, for when a Jewish person comes to faith in Jesus, he or she is considered one who has left the community (a “deviant”) who has brought shame on self and family— hence the oft heard, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
The fact that Paul was labeled a “deviant” by the established Jewish community did not mean that he was a rebellious loner. Community was still paramount, and Paul’s deviancy was evidenced by his joining a new community (the body of believers) in which the traditional boundaries of gender, lineage, honor-seeking, and so forth, were often reinterpreted. Talk about a countercultural movement! No wonder our Jewish families might be tolerant of our personal (i.e., private) faith in Jesus, but look askance when it is time to attend a wedding, a bar mitzvah or a worship service incorporating our faith in Y’shua with Jewish traditions.
While the apostles certainly had “success” in their outreach (consider the 3,000 on one day and the 5,000 on another of Acts 2:44 and 4:4), by and large the gospel was radically counter-cultural. Paul never for a moment forgot his Jewishness, yet his message, in many respects, put him outside the boundaries of his pre-Jesus life. Jesus Himself in many ways “transgressed” the community’s approved boundaries, leading to opposition and death on the cross. Hebrews 13:13 speaks of Jesus as suffering “outside the camp,” the place of uncleanness and shame. Approaching the Scripture from the standpoint of sociology, then, shows us that there is an inherent “deviancy” or countercultural element to embracing the gospel.
This approach calls into serious question the thesis that a Jewish believer’s primary social location should be within the larger Jewish community and not the Church.6
- Persecution and suffering are promised to followers of Jesus. Scriptures speak of what believers are to expect vis-?-vis the response of others. Jesus speaks of persecution for His name. He also noted that a disciple is not above his master. “If they hated me, they will hate you” (see John 15:18). He also warned that, “anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:30). Peter speaks to Christians in general—not just missionaries—about the persecution they are experiencing at the hands of the Romans. Persecution may come from both Jewish and Gentile quarters.
- Positive responses to the gospel will continue, but they will focus on the message, not the messengers. The emphasis on the “success” accounts of the Bible is on God’s work. “. . . and all who were appointed for eternal life [by God], believed” (Acts 13:48). “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). God works in spite of our weaknesses and failures. Moses, though demonstrating God’s power and physically leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, won no popularity contest among his own people at the time, despite the reverence in which Judaism holds Moses today.
Acceptance happens, opportunities for real dialogue exist and some Jewish people do come to faith—but this does not mean that the norm for believers vis-?-vis our Jewish people has changed. Even though Jewish people today see Jesus more positively than in the past, that does not necessarily translate into an awareness of sin. Jesus may be thought of as a good rabbi rather than a deceiver, but that is not enough to bring about an understanding that Jesus’ death atoned for our sins.
This is not to minimize the worthiness of relationship building, finding common ground, or reaching out with friendship and good works into the Jewish community. Rather, it is to say that a cause and effect formula does not exist in this realm.
So What About Those Eggs?
Sunny-side down or up? Well, yes! Scripture leads us to expect persecution, disapproval and shame—not necessarily from all individuals, but from the community as a whole. Yet—as Peter reminded believers in the midst of harsh political and religious persecution—we are to rejoice and display the fruit of the Spirit. How is this possible? In part by remembering that good things do happen as a result of our witness. Though we are social “deviants” rejected by the larger Jewish community, we still should expect God to do good things through us, and to see some of our Jewish people come to faith.
Think about how God relates to humanity. He loves and “accepts” us—yet He confronts and rejects our sin (not our humanity nor our Jewishness). Through Scripture, the community of believers, and the Holy Spirit, God enters into dialogue with us, a very positive, accepting action. And simultaneously He uses Scripture, the community, and His Spirit to confront and convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment.
Isn’t this a paradigm for our lives as believers who are representatives and ambassadors for the Lord? We simultaneously accept and confront others. We should not expect acceptance, in the sense of others being willing to hear us as Jews, but neither should we seek rejection. We should expect to be counter-cultural, and we should seek the things above, where Y’shua is seated.
What do you think?
- Dennis Prager, Moment Magazine, June 30, 2000.
- Some at this end of the spectrum believe we should live “Jewishly” simply because God requires it of us as an identity marker and divinely imposed obligation—not in order to build a platform for a gospel hearing. The two motives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Living Jewishly is a topic that cannot be addressed in this brief article.
- That is not necessarily their only or primary motive; see footnote 1.
- Witherington fully recognizes that Paul remained Jewish. He uses “convert” here in its biblical sense of turning from sin to God, not in the sense current among Jewish people of “changing to a non-Jewish religion.”
- The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 33.
- I don’t here address the issue of Messianic congregations, which in theory form a Jewishcultured, comfortable place for Jewish people to consider the gospel and observe a community of believers. Some Messianic congregations may meet this ideal; others may not.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.