A Satmar Orthodox Jewish man once told me, “Messianic Jews aren’t Jewish!” He went on to add, “Reformed, Conservative, Hassidic and most ‘Orthodox’ Jews aren’t really Jewish either. . . .”
Jewish identity was a simple matter for him. Real Jews follow the teachings of the Satmar rebbe. But for most Jewish people, including Jewish believers in Jesus, it’s not so simple.
The subject of Jewish identity has been hashed and rehashed with the age old questions: “What makes us Jewish?” “What should we do to preserve our Jewishness?” “How do we balance Jewishness and ‘Jesusness’?” “Is it important that my spouse be Jewish?” “Does it even matter?”
So is there any hope of a fresh perspective?
Maybe you’ve already figured it out. Other communities of Jesus-followers are asking the same questions. Asian Christians, Latino Christians, African Christians and others also struggle with issues of faith and ethnicity1—but it’s easy to stay plugged into our own iPods playing our own music, when there’s a whole other world out there!
I know that when it comes to Jewish believers, our identity has a distinct theological dimension that can be viewed through any number of lenses. In this article I’m exploring the broader dimensions of ethnicity that include how people groups see themselves as distinct from others—and the effect of our faith on those distinctions.
It’s healthy to consider how other groups handle issues of identity. After all, if God’s plan was to include the Gentiles in His redemptive work (see Genesis 12:1-3), it shouldn’t surprise us that we can learn from the multicultural community of believers in Y’shua.
Let’s take a quick tour of what brothers and sisters from other backgrounds say about concerns that may resonate with some of our own.
On Pedigree, Assimilation and Intermarriage
Orlando Crespo directs La Fe, the Latino Fellowship of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He’s also the author of Being Latino in Christ, in which he tells of his experience at a Latino Christian conference. Crespo’s words parallel the thinking of some who may wonder “how Jewish” they really are:
All of them [the attendees] felt they were not Latino enough. . . . But none of us could explain what the cutoff point was for being Latino. Some believed that their poor Spanish excluded them. . . . The biracial folks were the most adamant in their discomfort. As “half breeds,” they were convinced they literally were not Hispanic enough. . . .2
Now meet Steve Kang, an Asian American and associate professor of educational ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In the book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, he writes that many Asian American pastors, while in seminary, unintentionally “put away their rich cultural heritages and practices in favor of the dominant tradition in American evangelicalism.”3 Assimilation, it turns out, is a reality for Gentile Christians too.
Let’s move on to Peter Cha and Susan Cho Van Riesen, Korean Americans who discuss intermarriage from the perspective of honoring one’s parents. In Asian culture, to marry without parental permission and blessing would be a great dishonor. Generally this means marrying another Asian. Even in many liberal Jewish homes, the sentiment towards intermarriage is similar to that expressed by a Chinese father: “One billion Chinese and she can’t choose one!”4
It can be refreshing and instructive to hear how others grapple with some of the same issues we do. Take intermarriage as an example. “Communication is a big reason many parents hope their children do not marry outside of the culture,” say two Asian-American authors.
The challenge involves not only actual language barriers but also the more subtle, nonverbal ways of communicating. One friend’s mother wondered why her daughter’s boyfriend laughed and smiled so much around her. Her assumption was that he didn’t want to treat her as a serious and honorable person, when he was actually just trying to be friendly.5
For those considering a crosscultural relationship, they offer four practical suggestions: (1) “Value and honor each other’s family traditions and cultures as much as you can.” (2) “Spend quality time with each other’s parents and family.” (3) “Be aware that one of your cultures may get much more airtime in your relationship.” (4) “Know that there are some things that your partner may not be able to understand or connect with very fully in your journey of faith and cultural self-understanding.6
On Anti-Semitism, Racism and “Anti-Gentilism”
How do brothers and sisters from other backgrounds deal with prejudice, stereotyping and race hate? Orlando Crespo, a Puerto Rican American, describes the forced sterilization of Puerto Ricans in the 20th century and reflects:
Puerto Rico’s history is my history because I have chosen to identify fully with the Puerto Rican experience. To do so means I must embrace all of the sadness and the pain of our history. It also means I am willing to speak out against the injustices that have been perpetrated against my people.7
On the one hand, it is important to identify with the pain of our own people. On the other hand, we also need to learn how our faith requires us to respond to that pain. From an African- American perspective, Spencer Perkins is concerned that:
Because blacks have suffered unjustly at the hands of whites, our brand of Christianity has allowed us to hang on to this particular category of unforgiveness. Sure, we say that we are willing to forgive, and we do. But that special dispensation is reserved for whites who prove that they are ‘worthy.’8
Should we have similar concerns? Do some in our Messianic mishpochah believe that anti-Semitism excuses us from listening to the “Gentile church”? Do we harbor animosity towards Germans because of the Holocaust? Have we inherited stereotypes from our parents or grandparents concerning other people groups? Again, it can be beneficial to listen and learn from those who have trod a similar path. Two Asian-American authors suggest: (1) “Go on a short-term overseas or U.S. urban crosscultural mission.” (2) “Consider joining or visiting a church of a different ethnicity.” (3) “Seek further biblical teaching on justice.” (4) “Pursue intentionally developing one deep friendship with someone from a different race or ethnicity.” (5) “Pray for God’s work of racial reconciliation in this world, in this country and in the church.”9
On Conflicting Values
Helen Lee, cofounder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, identifies four areas in which Asian-rooted values may not align with a biblical value system: Confucian-based perspectives; false humility; face-saving, shame-based approaches; and inability to resolve conflict.10
Perhaps we should also be asking if our culture has formally or informally passed on values that do not align with the Bible. According to Helen Lee, Asians may have problems putting themselves forth for positions of leadership; do we as Jews have the opposite problem, always needing to be “the big macher”?
Paul Tokunaga, a third generation Japanese American, is Asian Ministry Coordinator at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He describes the influence of Confucianism among Korean, Chinese, and Japanese Christians as both affirming of and simultaneously conflicting with New Covenant values and faith. In his words:
Like Confucianism, the Bible calls us to honor our parents. . . . Like Confucianism, we are called by God to put the desires of others above our own. . . . But there are aspects of Confucian thought that clash with Christian faith. . . . Confucius’s rules were highly male-oriented. The mother’s side of the family had little importance. . . . [But] Jesus was certainly more egalitarian and gave more prominence and recognition to women. Although Jesus gave honor to family, he always gave greater honor and favor to the “new family,” his body.11
For many American Jews, it’s considered a “Jewish value” to be “liberal-minded” on social and political issues. Yet that liberalism can lead to support for positions that most believers find counter to the Bible, such as abortion-on-demand.
But while the Bible may call on us to interpret some of these issues differently than our unbelieving Jewish family and friends, we can still underscore the areas where our faith affirms the values of our Jewish culture. As we share Jesus’ concern for the poor, the orphans, widows and others who are vulnerable, we can advocate in ways that affirm both our faith and our culture.
Hearing how non-Jewish brothers and sisters grapple with questions of identity can be instructive. One common thread among all these conversations is the need to seek what Scripture has to say, allowing it to address and challenge us on issues of community, character and identity. This is a journey, not a one-time event. But it’s a journey that we can share with others as we see how they have put Scripture into practice.
Orlando Crespo has used something called the Latino Heritage Exercise designed to get small groups thinking and talking about issues of ethnicity and faith.12 I recommend his book Being Latino in Christ, along with Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents for an Asian perspective (see footnotes for the full information).
So yes, ken and s?. Rosenberg can learn from Rodr?guez, and Wong can benefit from Weinstein. There’s no need to “go it alone” in our journey as Jesus-believing Jews.
- Ethnicity includes aspects of identity such as the food and language of a particular culture, but it also includes beliefs and values.
- Orlando Crespo, Being Latino in Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) p. 55.
- Peter Cha, Steve Kang & Helen Lee, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 49.
- Jeanette Yep, Peter Cha, Susan Cho Van Riesen, et al., Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) p. 98.
- Ibid., pp. 99-100.
- Ibid., pp. 100-101.
- Being Latino, pp. 20-21.
- Spencer Perkins, “Playing the Grace Card.” July 13, 1998, at http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/1998/july13/8t8040.html
- Following Jesus, p. 127.
- Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, p. 61.
- Following Jesus, pp. 21-22.
- Being Latino, pp. 125-136.