You belonged to the Jewish people, you had a great thing going for you — why did you go over to the “other side”? The side of the Christians, the non-Jews, with their goyische lives, their goyische kups, and their history of persecuting our people?
We Jews have had a tough time defining who we are. Jewish writers have variously defined us as a nation, a people, a religion, an ethnic group, a combination of one or more—or have left the essence of Jewishness a mystery. Sometimes it’s said that we are far better at knowing who we are not than who we are—we are not them.
Whatever Jewishness is, we know that as Jews we share a history, a religious tradition, a modern state (Israel), and a status among non-Jews that is always in danger of eliciting acts of anti-Semitism. Although we can’t always give a dictionary definition of Jewish, we live in a common matrix. Fish, mammal, sea urchin — we all live in the same ocean.
And when a Jewish person comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, well, in Jewish eyes they’ve left the sea for the land. Unlike with the theory of evolution, that’s not seen as something positive.
Yet as a Jewish follower of Jesus, I share the same history, which I recount each year at Passover. I share the Reform religious tradition that I grew up with at Temple Emanu-el of Canarsie in Brooklyn, New York. And I’ve adopted elements of that and other parts of our religious tradition(s), and have learned about many more that make their way into my lifestyle. I’ve been to Israel and have family there. And though, like many American Jews of my generation, I have experienced little if any overt anti-Semitism, that’s not the case for Jews elsewhere in the world, including Jewish believers in Jesus.
But still … didn’t I switch teams?
Where do you worship? I’ve been asked. Synagogue or church? Well, I’ve worshiped at both churches and Messianic congregations, in which the culture of worship is distinctly Jewish. As to synagogue, when I was in Hillel at Syracuse University in the early ’70s, I attended some services even after coming to faith in Jesus. A lot of synagogues, though, would not necessarily want me in attendance. Those that would welcome me, though the liturgy can be uplifting and spiritual, are missing what I consider a main component of my faith — Jesus the Messiah, whose death atoned for my sins (think Yom Kippur) and who redeemed me from what the Scripture calls the slavery of sin (think Passover and redemption from Egypt).
Well, churches are where the goyim worship, so if you’re at a church, then you’ve joined the goyim, right? It’s true that most churches are largely non-Jewish. But one of the reasons we are the “chosen people” is to point the nations — the gentiles — to faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. My faith teaches me that while Jesus came for us Jews and to us Jews, he also came to bring the nations of the world to faith in the God of Israel. The New Testament describes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the gentiles [nations] and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32, italics added).
And of course there are more gentiles than Jews in the world — so is it any wonder that most churches are made up mostly of gentiles? In recent times many churches have taken a deep interest in learning about the essential Jewishness of their faith.
But if you believe in Jesus then don’t you believe in all those non-Jewish ideas like the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth? I believe in those ideas because I see them in the Scripture, but I also believe they were and are essentially Jewish.
Some Jewish writers agree. Not that they believe Jesus is the Messiah. But they believe many core Christian ideas are Jewish! Benjamin Sommer from Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City — the training school for Conservative Jewish rabbis in America —has this to say in a recent book:
Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period…. The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects. (italics added)1
At the University of California in Berkeley, Daniel Boyarin writes in his recent book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, that the idea of a human-divine Messiah is not a later pagan addition but part of the early Jewish Jesus-movement:
[According to an older view,] which has been popular among liberal Protestants for over a century, the idea of the divinity of Christ could only have been a relatively late and “Gentile” development that marks a decisive break with anything that could reasonably be called Jewish…. A second approach, currently enjoying ascendance especially among New Testament scholars, sees the earliest versions of high Christology as emerging within a Jewish religious context.2
But there’s something even deeper to the question about switching teams. I recently read a collection of essays by Jewish 20- and 30-somethings called Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation. The introduction by Andrew Lustig captures the Jewish matrix in which many Jews live:
I am all the words in Yiddish I’ve been called all my life that I still don’t understand. I am going to all three Phish shows this weekend. I am my melody of Adon Olam. I am my melody of Adon Olam. The words may be the same but I am my melody of Adon Olam…. I am a concept foreign to the rest of the world. I am not Judaism. I am sleep-away camp… . I am the 19-year-old who’s seen Budrus, Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and Waltz with Bashir and who thinks—who knows—peace is possible…. I am constantly struggling to understand my Jewish identity outside of religion….3
Jewishness almost seems to thrive on a quest for identity; one of the virtues of Judaism is often said to be that it encourages, Talmud-style, the asking of questions even above the finding of answers.
In the same volume, Stacey Ballis writes:
One of the things I have always loved about the Seder, what I love in fact generally about being Jewish, is the room to grow and expand and include. I have heard that in the mid-1980s, at a conference, the topic of women rabbis was brought before a panel, and an elderly male rabbi announced to the assembly that a woman had as much place on the bimah as an orange has on the Seder plate. From that moment on, my family, like thousands around the world, have put an orange on our Seder plate, and have incorporated the story into our explanation of the sacred items it holds.4
In addition to encouraging the asking of questions, being Jewish for many Jews today is also about adding, adapting, changing tradition, as well as about being inclusive in the areas of gender and sexuality.
So why’d you switch to the team that stifles thought and thinks it has a corner on the truth to the exclusion of everyone else?
Truth be told, there are Jews and Christians both who discourage questions and have a mindset that excludes “the other.” And there are both that encourage exactly the opposite. My faith teaches us to ask questions, to challenge ideas, and to include the outsider. After all, the book of James in the New Testament — a kind of summary of Jewish ethics — has this to say:
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Messiah Yeshua [Jesus], don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1–4)
At the same time, my faith also tells me that there are answers, that there are certain things that are true for all people, and that we can know truth as far as a finite human being can know anything.
So to answer that often-asked question: I never “switched teams.” My understanding of the word Christian is that it means a follower of Jesus, regardless of whether someone is Jewish or gentile. The label is not as important as the One we follow. I’ve called myself a Christian, a Jewish Christian, a Messianic Jew, a Jewish believer in Jesus. The main thing is that I never left the Jewish people for an alien group. After all, with other Jews I share — and enjoy, and celebrate, and identify with — our history, our traditions, our Land, our outside status among the nations of the world. I’ve discovered the essential Jewishness of faith in Jesus, a faith that encourages asking questions but grounds the answers in what God has done for us by sending us his Messiah. If I sometimes seem surrounded by non-Jews, it is only because they too have come to faith in the God of Israel, though they express their faith according to their own cultural lights. I enjoy their expression as well as finding opportunities to live my faith Jewishly.
1 Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 135–136.
2 Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012) pp. 54–55.
3 Stefanie Pervos Bregman, editor, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2012) p. xii.
4 Stacey Ballis, “To Be a Jew in the World,” in Bregman, op. cit. pp.61-62.