The man confronted me after a church meeting. Standing beside a grimfaced woman, he said sternly, “If you really are a Christian, you are no longer a Jew. The Bible says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. His worn Bible looked as though it had been opened more than once a day and had been carried more often than once a week. From that, I guessed he was probably well acquainted with the Scriptures and hopefully a committed Christian.
In as kind a tone as I could muster I replied, “The rest of that verse says that in Christ there is neither bond nor free, male nor female, but we are all one.” He nodded his head approvingly, and his wife also smiled to see that I understood the passage.
“I presume that the lady beside you is your wife,” I continued. Receiving a smile of acknowledgement, I asked, “Do you have any children?”
“We have three,” he said.
Then I asked my surprise question: “Who gave birth to the children—you or your wife?” At this, their serious-faced masks instantly reappeared, but they gave no answer.
I finished my point with, “If you are going to be even on your interpretation of that passage, it should not matter which of you is pregnant and bears your children. Furthermore, imagine a prisoner, legally in bonds for committing a crime. He comes to believe in Christ, is baptized while still in prison, and immediately afterwards announces, ‘OK, Warden, you must let me go now, because in Christ there is neither bond nor free.’ You would not expect the warden or anyone else to grant him an automatic release because of his new spiritual status, any more than they would jail a free man upon his making a commitment to Christ. You see, there are differences. There are differences in function between men and women. There are differences in conditions of life—bond or free. And there are differences in purpose. God chose the Jewish people to fulfill a purpose and that purpose is fulfilled just by their continued existence.”
Those friends at the church who for reasons of their own did not want me to be both a Jew and a Christian are not alone in holding that point of view. Some of my fellow Jews who have not yet discovered the truth of Yeshua are adamant that one cannot be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. I don’t need to question their motives. I know the history behind their insistence.
In the first three decades of Christendom virtually all Christians were Jewish. Belief in Jesus was gaining ground in every Jewish community. Then in 70 A.D. conventional Jewish worship was disastrously ended with the destruction of the Temple. Fifty years later the commonwealth of Israel was obliterated because the majority followed the false messiah Bar Kochba. Faced with that tragedy of bad judgment, many Jewish people began to suspect some disquieting truths: there was no longer a place of sacrifice for atonement, Yeshua probably had been God’s only Messiah and provision for atonement the Jewish people could expect, and the only Temple of God was now within each believer as he or she worshiped in spirit and in truth.
As the nation’s historical tragedies took on apocalyptic significance, faith in Yeshua gained much credibility. Yet instead of being received as the logical path by the remaining religious leaders, it was seen as a threat to “conventional” Judaism—so much so that at Yavneh a council met to regroup and rethink what it meant to be a Jew. The council decided that the best way to deal with the minim (believers) or Nozrim (Nazarenes) was to isolate them and excise them from the Jewish community. In the preparation of eighteen benedictions, they included one that was really a malediction:
May the apostates have no hope, may the dominion of wickedness be speedily uprooted in our days, may the Nozrim and the minim quickly perish and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, the Eternal, our God, who crushes the wicked.
Not satisfied with merely invoking a curse to deter Jews who might otherwise be drawn to follow Yeshua, they set out to accomplish a historical erasure of past believers as well. They treated the name of Jesus and the fact that he had Jewish followers as unmentionable obscenities, so that only veiled references to them survived in the ancient writings. Nevertheless, one cannot erase living, breathing, vocal people by denying their existence, so the rabbis devised another way. They ruled that the believers in Jesus were followers of another religion, hence no longer Jews. They overlooked the fact that aside from a small number of Gentiles who study Judaism and convert through a rabbinic ceremony, most people do not become Jews by following an authorized religion.
Most of us became Jews by being born to Jewish parents. The males were circumcised on the eighth day according to the covenant, and the females were designated as part of the Jewish people by a naming ceremony at the synagogue. We who were born Jews will remain Jews as long as we live. Nevertheless, out of various motivations much controversy has arisen in recent years about who is and who is not a Jew.
On Christmas Day 1989 the small but highly regarded ultra-Orthodox community in Israel received a gift they had been wishing for, hoping for and at various times demanding. It came in the form of a verdict from the High Court of the land on the Beresford Case. Born Jewish but belonging to a messianic group, Gary and Shirley Beresford had been denied Israeli citizenship. In response to their appeal on the matter, the High Court ruling stated that Jews who believe in Jesus have become members of another faith; hence, they are no longer Jews and are ineligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. In a passage quoted by the Israeli newspapers, Justice Elon wrote:
Messianic Jews attempt to reverse the wheels of history by 2,000 years, but the Jewish people has decided during the 2,000 years of its history that messianic Jews do not belong to the Jewish nation and have no right to force themselves on it. Those who believe in Jesus are, in fact, Christians.
Why would the ultra-Orthodox sect of Israel prize such a verdict? After all, the number of Israeli Jewish believers is only a few hundred. The Beresford Case seems like a very large verdict to deal with what must certainly be a rather small problem in Israeli civil law.
The importance of the ruling far exceeds the granting or denial of favored citizenship. The court decision is part of a fabric being woven by the super-Orthodox rabbis. It is a tapestry of Israel, and there is no room in the picture for Jewish believers in Jesus. Those rabbis hold an Old Testament view of the nation. Whereas Judaism has never been established as the national religion, and in theory the state is secular, the observant few are trying to press the majority of Israel’s citizenry into strict Orthodoxy. They would establish a theocracy where the charter and constitution are Torah, the case law is Talmud and halachah* comprises the rules of conduct based on legal precedent.
Those ultra-Orthodox rabbis are the same religious leaders who yielded grudgingly and only after pressure from the American Jewish community to allow any kind of Judaism other than Orthodoxy in Israel. While at last they have acquiesced to the existence of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel, they still dispute the validity of the rabbinical credentials of those bodies. In effect, they want the nation of Israel to be governed by their select few whom they deem religiously righteous according to their own set of strict rules.
Although the Beresford judgment appears adverse to Jews who believe that Yeshua is the promised Messiah, it could be a blessing in disguise. We Jewish believers have always had to deal with the stigma of being outcasts, but until now so much ambiguity has existed in Israeli thought that many were not sure whether or not to seek acceptance in the Jewish community as their entitlement. Those who sought community acceptance very often found their lives regulated by the fear of causing offense that would lead to loss of that acceptance. Since the new ruling, believers are regarded as non-Jews whatever they do. Now they have nothing to lose by boldly declaring the gospel.
Still the question continues to be raised, “How can you believe in Jesus and claim to be Jews?” We base our claim on the following:
Being a Jew is not a matter of choice. We are a chosen people, but not of our own choosing. God chose the Jews to fulfill his purposes. No one has yet succeeded in reversing a divine decision.
A Jew is not a Jew by belief, but by birth and by behavior. Most of us are willing to be Jews, even though Jewish behavior has never been clearly defined in a form to which all Jews can agree.
If Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel, believing in him is the most Jewish thing a person can do. By proclaiming him, we then fulfill the destiny for which God chose the Jewish people.
From an American perspective, the Christmas decision seems patently unfair. Indeed it is, but one must take into account Israel’s present tensions. She has enemies outside—Muslim fundamentalists breathing out slaughter and religious warfare. She has enemies within—Arabs who are keeping Israel’s army mobilized through civil disobedience. She has galloping inflation, the religious parties vying to press the secular people into their fold and an economy dependent on the U.S. These are only a few of the hundreds of problems which are creating tensions in that tiny country.
Part of the dilemma of the Jewish people today, and Israelis in particular, is that they have never found a satisfactory answer to the question: “Who is a Jew?” And without that positive definition, they could only set out a negative decision by trying to define who is not a Jew.
We who are Jewish believers are undaunted by this proclamation. We know better. We know who we are in God’s sight, and we know what he wants us to do about it.