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Nazarene Judaism: A New Vision
By Rav Mikhael
The purpose of this presentation is threefold. First to give us a brief history of who we were in the early centuries and what it is we are trying to reconstruct. The second is to give us a positive identity and last, to suggest a foundational program from which we can grow and expand according to the will of YHVH. As I present this I do so as a single man with whom Elohim has given a vision of Torah and Messiah bound together in the life of the redeemed. I do not do so as a representative of the Society for the Advancement of Nazarene Judaism or the International Nazarene Beit Din for we are a community and without their consent and approval I cannot speak for them and the vision they have, although it is obviously similar. I submit the following as a beginning point of discussion from which we as a community can develop a cohesive vision, identity and program.
The challenge that lies before us in Natzrim Judaism is enormous. In some ways it is analogous the the recreation of the state of Israel after almost two millennia. The Israelis needed to resurrect institutions, ideas and even a language that had not been used for centuries. Nazarene Judaism is embarking on an even more ambitious project. We are attempting to recreate a paradigm of theology, philosophy, belief and practice that has not existed since the second century. The early community of Yahushua’s followers, led by Ya’akov His brother, was a community within the community of Israel who’s belief and practice was very similar to their fellow Jews except that they were no longer waiting for Elohim’s anointed. They believed He had come, lived, died, was resurrected and now sat at the right hand of YHVH awaiting the “Day of the Lord” which they believed was right around the corner. They believed the ‘Renewed Covenant’ about which Jeremiah had prophesied was inaugurated through Yahushua, that Torah was now written on their hearts and atonement for the people had finally been accomplished once and for all. They worshipped at the Temple and attended synagogue, they studied Torah and were zealous in their obedience to the commandments. They loved their people and sought both their spiritual completion and their material blessing. Gentiles came into this community and were encouraged to develop the same love for Messiah, Torah and people that their natural born brothers had.
Unfortunately, the socio-political events of the first century conspired against this community. The anti-Judaic feelings endemic to Roman culture made Gentiles less willing to adopt the religio-cultural context of which the Messiah was a part, particularly after the war with Rome. And the Jewish leadership, followed by the majority of the populace, did not believe that the man crucified by the Romans was the Messiah. Soon there were two new religions that sprung up out of the ashes of the Temple. One rejected Torah and Judaism while recasting Israel’s Messiah in a Greek mold. Christianity was the result of this development. The Rabbis of Yavneh took an ancient religion centered on a temple, priesthood and sacrifice and recast it, out of necessity, as a spiritual religion of works, ritual purity, philosophy and introspection, of which one of the fundamental tenants was that Yahushua was not the Messiah. The Nazarenes were ignored by both groups in their evolution because they came to be viewed as a small eccentric or heretical minority. They could have been a bridge of understanding and enriched both religions as the complete package of Elohim’s plan but they passed from the scene with hardly a mention.
The interactions between the two majority groups over the past two thousand years further complicate things. Those who have claimed the Messiah of Israel and wrenched Him from His proper context of people, culture and understanding subjected His people Israel, the Jewish people, to the most severe forms of persecution in the name of their reinterpreted ‘Christ’. Naturally, this resulted in a strong reaction on the part of the Jewish people against the idea that the historical person, Yahushua, who was the raw material from which the church formed Jesus, the anti-Torah, anti-Jew, mangod, could ever have been the Promised One of Moshe and the Prophets. Reactionary theology developed from both sides making real communication about the central issues of covenant, peoplehood, Torah, chosenness and the Messiah nearly impossible.
So the task we have before us is this. We need to take a messianic idea which has been twisted and corrupted horribly for nineteen hundred years by a man made, anti-Jewish religion of persecutors, remove all the junk, clutter and additions to get down to the truth of Who He was and what He taught. We also need to remove nineteen hundred years of superstition, anti-messianic ideas and reactionary theology from what we know as Judaism to discover what YHVH really wants His people to live like and believe. And in order for either task to be accomplished we need to uncover the history of a small group within a small people on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean which neither of the majority groups want to acknowledge. Christians don’t want to remember the Nazarenes because the foundation of their religion is anti-Judaic and these people were Torah loving Jews who believed in the same Messiah they claim to. To admit that ‘St. James’, ‘St. Peter' and even the beloved ‘St. Paul’, whose example they were encouraged to follow, were Torah observant Jews their whole lives and even beyond that, taught Torah and loved the Jewish people, would be tantamount to pulling the foundation out from under their religion and cast doubt on everything they have been taught to do and believe. The Jewish people don’t want to acknowledge the Nazarenes because they have gladly accepted the Christian's claim that Judaism and the Messiah are mutually exclusive. Once one believes in the messiah the church claims, one is no longer a Jew but a ‘Christian’. To admit the Nazarenes were Torah observant Jews would be a direct challenge to that assumption and force them to look at the claims of Yahushua anew, not in a Christian context, but in a Jewish one.
But God has been at work for almost two hundred years to restore what was lost, Torah centered messianic faith. The Sabbaterians, the Hebrew Christians and the Messianic Jews have been rediscovering Torah from the Christian side, there has been a recent move among Reform Jews to reestablish Torah observance and, among a small number of orthodox Jews, an honest reevaluation of the claims of Yahushua as the Messiah of Israel. All this has pointed to the reestablishment of a truly Jewish community of Torah observant people who believe in the Messiahship of Yahushua as it existed in the first century. We are on the crest of that wave.
So the first question that must be answered is ‘What was the Natzrim community like?’ How did they live, what did they believe, how did they understand the fulfillment of the hopes of their people? To answer that question we shall take a brief look at the life and teachings of Yahushua Himself and then look at those who comprised the Natzrim community after His death and resurrection.
There is little debate anymore, either in Jewish or Christian circles, about the fact that Yahushua was a good, observant Jew. He came into the first century, he lived in Israel, he walked among the Jewish people, he lived according to their law and taught as many of the rabbis at that time did. We know that in order for His sacrifice to be acceptable, it would have to be ‘without blemish’, or in His case, sinless. Sinless according to Elohim’s standard, Torah. Yochannan states in his account that Yahushua was the ‘Word of Elohim’. He was Torah in the flesh. Torah was His very nature and His life and teaching constantly reflected that fact.
The accounts of His life are replete with instances of His Torah observance. He obeyed the Sabbath and celebrated the festivals, He ate the right foods and wore the signs of the covenant, He exemplified the true, righteous and holy Jew of His time and all time. And He taught the same.
He said that Torah would not pass away before the heavens and the Earth. He stated that all the commandments, the least to the greatest, the moral and the religious, the ethical and the ritual, all of them were important and adherence to them would make one great in Elohim’s sight. And not only that but the commandments were to be obeyed even more meticulously than the Pharisees and the spirit had to be pure and holy as well, with no hypocrisy (Matt 5). The righteousness of those who followed Him and would claim His name in the future should be unquestionable. They should be known as the most pious, righteous people in the world, according to the standard of Torah.
Yahushua actually pointed to Torah as the way to eternal life. This is an idea that does not get much airtime but it is there for anyone who has the chutzpah to look. When the rich man came and asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’, he asked the question that everyone wants to know the answer to. Here it is, the big one. And what was Yahushua’s response? ‘Believe in me and be saved’? ‘Accept me in your heart’? ‘Pray this little prayer’? None of the above! He asked the man what was written in the Torah! And the man answered with two central passages in the Torah, passages that had been, and still are, central to Judaism. And then what did Yahushua say? Do this and you will live! Not ‘think this’ or ‘believe this’ but do this. Do what? The two commands in Torah that sum up the rest of it, the ones that represent the whole. So where does He then fit into that equation? He is the Torah made flesh, He embodies it and it speaks of Him (Lk 24:44). He is the reason there is life in Torah.
Yahushua supported the Temple cult as well, which included all the sacrifices prescribed by the Levitical code. (Matt 8:4) Even amid the corruption that had become part of the Temple administration since the time of the Hasmoneans, and in His day, with the buying and selling of the High Priesthood to the Romans, He did not take the position of the Eseenes and label it hopeless, nor did He disregard the system as a whole (by this I mean the levitical and priestly rituals and sacrifices and the idea of a Temple itself), corrupt or pure, as pointless and without value. His followers would continue to participate in Temple life until it’s destruction.
He expected that His followers would continue in many of the traditions that had already been developed in Israel. He warned them against making a show of their covenantal obedience, ‘do not make your Tzitzit long or your Tefillin broad like the Pharisees’, (Matt 23:5) but he expected that these things, as they had developed up to that point would continue. His disagreements with the Pharisees, to whom he was closest and among whom his followers would gain the most adherents, stemmed largely from two areas. First, was that some equated meticulous observance of the commandments to righteousness of the heart. As He pointed out, one can be very exacting in one’s Torah obedience and still be a rotten person. He reprimanded the Pharisees (who were well aware of the hypocrites in three midst) that they would tithe even their spices but had ignored justice and mercy in their dealings with their fellow men (Matt 23:23). Yahushua told them they should concentrate on the latter, that is justice and mercy, while not neglecting the former, the tithe. Their second mistaken assumption was that the priestly rituals and purity laws should be applied to every Jew all the time. The washing of the hands, for example, came from the priests who washed themselves before they offered sacrifices. Now, in the mind of a Pharisee, he was the priest of his home and his table was his altar therefore it was proper for him to ritually wash his hands. Now while it may be acceptable to take on more Torah than applies to you, to upbraid someone who does not as a sinner is improper. This idea of maintaining priestly ritual purity would again rear it’s ugly head when it came time to expand the mission to the Goyim.
He also accepted the authority of the Pharisees to interpret the Law. They sat in Moshe’s seat and he told his followers to listen to them (Matt 23:2). Overall, this would point to His acceptance of Jewish tradition, the Oral Law, as it had developed up to that point according to the judgements of the Sanhedrin and judges of Israel. He rejected the view of the Sadducees and the Karites of a later time, that the Oral Law is not a valuable resource in teaching the community Torah. The leaders of the community placed there by Elohim formulated it according to His command, it had Elohim’s stamp of authority. This is not to say that the Sanhedrin and the judges were never wrong, the Torah itself makes provision for their errors, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. As Yahushua Himself stated, tradition cannot contradict the written word of Elohim (Mk 7:9-13) And recognizing that His presence would change some things, He authorized His followers to develop their own case law in addition to and not in place of what had already been established and it would have the authority of Elohim behind it.
After the death and resurrection of Yahushua, things continued along the same lines. In response the events of Shava’ut, and Kefa’s preaching which placed Yahushua and the Nazarenes right in the middle of prophetic fulfillment, a vibrant community was formed. They were taught by the Talmidim, who were a group of observant Jews from Galilee, they met in the Temple, they ate together and said ‘the prayers’ which, no doubt, is a reference to the regular prayers of the synagogue and Temple which would eventually form the core of the Siddur.
While the fact that they preached the Messiah made the Sanhedrin nervous because of it’s political implications, they enjoyed the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) and many of them were the personification of pious, Torah-observant Jews. There was no new religion here. Yahushua had come to call sinners to repentance and adherence to the covenant. He was the fulfillment of the prophetic hope and a sign that the Day of the Lord was near. He was the ‘second Moshe’, the Prophet foretold by Moshe himself (Acts 3:22, 23). His followers had repented and embraced that truth and sought to convince the rest of their people of that fact. They were just another sect of Judaism, probably a sect within a sect since they were primarily in the pharasaic tradition.
But Messianism scared the Sanhedrin, that was why Yahushua was put to death in the first place. When Kefa and Yochannan stood before them, they were not charged with a crime against the Torah or even the traditions. In that case they could have easily been punished. The Sanhedrin just wanted the messianism to go away before it caused trouble with the Romans. Their decision of tolerance, reccomentded by Rabban Gamaliel, (Acts 5:38, 39) for the Nazarenes is a decision that must stand to this day because there is no comparable authority to reverse it.
The community continued to expand and were highly regarded among the people. Soon there were a group of hellenists attached to this orthodox bunch. Hellenists were less torah-observant by definition and this gave the Sanhedrin it’s first real opportunity to come against this sect. Stephen, a hellenist, was seized and brought before the council. Witnesses falsely accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law. There is no evidence that he did any such thing but because he was a hellenist, the charges were believable. He was stoned and the rest of the hellenists were routed from the city. The Talmidim stayed, however, because they could not be accused as easily and they enjoyed the support of the populace.
The main perpetrator of this persecution is Rabbi Sha’ul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, blameless in his obedience to the law. He meets Yahushua on the way to Damascus and is healed by a talmid named Ananias whom Sha’ul describes as a devout observer of the Law (Acts 22:12). He said this in defense of himself and the Nazarenes and he mentioned it to make the point to the people of Yerushalyim that they were just as devout and Torah-observant as anyone, and even moreso. They were good, traditional Jews who had realized the hope of their people in Yahushua.
In the second decade after the death and resurrection of Yahushua the mission had expanded to the Samaritans, the Diaspora and geyrim; the Elohim fearers, gentiles who had attached themselves to the Synagogue, had adapted much of the Jewish lifestyle excepting circumcision. Eventually the question came up, what is the process by which a Gentile becomes part of remnant Israel in the Messianic age? Some insisted on circumcision, that nothing had changed as far as conversion was concerned. Kefa and Sha’ul had seen Elohim place His stamp of approval on these converts through His spirit without this ritual. They understood that Elohim had circumcised their heart and placed His Torah within them as promised by Jeremiah. They were full fledged members of the community by repenting and being immersed. This was a difficult idea to swallow, particularly for the Pharisees because circumcision was central to their understanding of Israel's covenant relationship with Elohim.
The issue was debated and resolved at the famous Jerusalem council. They decided that Sha’ul and Kefa were right, entrance to the community was by profession and immersion and circumcision was not required for gentiles. As those who were not already Elohim fearers came out of their pagan culture, there were a few preliminary things that would be necessary if they had not already adopted these basic features of Jewish life. They needed to stay clear of idolatry, from sexual immorality, from eating blood and other non-ritually slaughtered meat and from blood or murder. These are the basics of righteousness required for everyone who wants to start on the road to covenant relationship with Elohim. They assumed, as Ya’akov added at the end of the discussion, that they would read and learn Torah as they were integrated into the community. That these geyrim would continue in the synagogues and learn what it means to be a member of the covenant community of Israel. They would eventually internalize the values, theology, and practice of the nation they had applied for citizenship in.
Did this happen? We can see by the evidence of the literature of the Brit Chadasha that they did. It formed the framework of their understanding of religion, Messiah, time, distance and Elohim. Allow me to illustrate some examples. Luke is possibly the only Gentile from the early community whose writings have come down to us, and he appears to be writing to another gentile. The language he uses shows that both had been immersed in Jewish life and culture and adopted it as their own. When he describes distance, he uses the term ‘Sabbath day’s journey’ rather than the Roman measure or stadia (Acts 1:12). When he describes the time of Sha’ul’s journey to Rome, he describes their voyage as taking place ‘after the fast’, that is Yom Kippor’ (Acts 27:9), which also shows they accepted halachah (oral law) up to that point. Sha’ul, when talking to the Corinthians, who by most people’s understanding were the most unregenerate Gentiles described in the Brit Chadashah, used the term ‘cup of thanksgiving’, the name of the first cup of wine drunk at the Passover Seder. This was a congregation Sha’ul founded. Who do you think taught them about Pesach? When he was arguing with the Galatians about Torah, what did he use to support his arguments? Tenach! It would not make sense for him to use an authority he regarded as passe to support his point. The Galatians obviously valued Torah and the prophets as an authority. Who taught them that? The phrase ‘lamb of Elohim’ means nothing outside of Torah. The Gentiles to whom the leaders of the Nazarene community wrote had an intimate understanding of Torah and halachah. How did a bunch of Gentiles learn all this stuff about Judaism and then make it part of themselves so that everyone was speaking the same language? Either they knew it from being part of the synagogue already or the Talmidim who introduced them to the messianic idea taught it to them. Isn’t that a scandal. ‘St. Paul’ teaching Torah and tradition to Gentiles!
Over the next two decades the message continued to spread from Yerushalyim and the original Talmidim continued to be the authority. When Sha’ul comes back to Yerushalyim thirteen years after the council, he finds a vibrant Nazarene community ‘zealous for Torah’ (Acts 21:20). After his arrest, he vehemently denies not only that he never did anything contrary to Torah, but he continued to live as a Pharisee according to the traditions to that very day (Acts 26:5). The leadership in Yerushalyim under Ya’akov ha Tzaddik, and including Sha’ul, set the tone by adhering to the normative Judaism of their day, primarily according to the pharisaic tradition. That all changed with the revolt. Many of the Nazarenes fled Yerushalyim and those that remained suffered the same fate as the rest of the Jews in the city. The leadership was further decimated by the Romans as they tried to eradicate the davidic line, from whom the Nazarenes had drawn the successors of Ya’akov. The talmidim died off in the years before and after the revolt and there was no comparable authority to reign in the divergent practices among the Jews, hellenists and gentiles of the sect. Jewish religious practices were proscribed to various degrees by the Romans in the decades that followed which made the Jewish lifestyle even less appealing to the average Gentile. The Gentiles and the hellenists became selective in their halachah and without a strong authority in Yerushalyim to steer the movement in the right way, many of the communities moved away from strict Torah observance and halachah. The farther one went from Yerushalyim, the less Torah was followed. Antioch, Rome and Alexandria, centers of gnosticism and mystery religions, now became centers for the followers of Yahushua as well and they filled the vacuum in authority created by the razing of Yerushalyim. A few Nazarene communities remained in Judea but as the minority both in Judaism and the newly forming Christianity, they had little impact on either group in the decades and centuries that followed.
These Nazarenes were still around in the fifth century, although by then they were an insignificant heresy to the Christians. Epiphanius has this to say about them;
“We shall now especially consider heretics who call themselves Nazarenes; they are mainly Jews and nothing else. They make use not only of the New Testament, but they also use in a way the Old Testament of the Jews. For they do not forbid the books of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings...so that they are approved of by the Jews, from whom the Nazarenes do not differ in anything, and they do profess all the dogmas pertaining to the prescriptions of the Law and the customs of the Jews, except they believe in Messiah. They preach that there is but One God and His Son Yahushua. They are learned in the Hebrew language, for they, like the Jews, read the whole Law, then the Prophets...They differ from the Jews because they believe in Messiah, and from the Christians in that they are to this day bound to the Jewish rites such as circumcision, the Sabbath and other ceremonies..”
They continued to exist in small pockets into the second millenium, even being subject to the inquisition for their judaizing. They were know as the Pasaginians then, a name of Latin origin that describes them as wanderers, much like the other Jews of the Middle Ages.
This tells us a lot about our ancestors. To briefly sum it all up, the following is a basic description of the Nazarenes based on all the previous information, a description of what we are trying to reestablish at the end on the second millenium. Epiphanius also tells us that most of them lived in the Land, they valued the promise of it to Avraham. They were zealous for Torah and followed the Tenach as well as the writings of the Brit Chadashah. They followed the Law and the customs of the Jews, from whom they differed in nothing save the fulfillment of the Messianic hope. They knew Hebrew and they followed the traditional Torah and haftorah readings. They followed, for the most part, pharisaic halachah. And because of all this they were approved of by the Jews.
That is the goal. To equate Yahushua with Torah rightoeusness and lifestyle. A believer in Yahushua should be a pious Jew by definition. Not a Christian who follows Torah or a Jew that believes in ‘Jesus’ but an individual whose belief in the Messiahship of Yahushua naturally expresses itself in Torah piety. In the first century, when someone claimed to be a Natzrim, that person was a Tzaddik, by definition. We should seek to be similarly defined.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what the original Nazarenes were like and what happened to them, we can take a look at several of the important issues involved in reconstructing their community two millennia later. The concerns are many and correct understanding and implementation will make the difference between success and failure, between a comprehensive, unified community and a disorganized, confused movement. Some have sought to go where we are heading and have gotten lost and bewildered along the way. In reality, the difficulties are not in understanding the history. The facts are rather straightforward for anyone willing to put aside their preconceived ideas and assumptions and look at them honestly. The real issue is whether are not we are willing to examine some of our most dearly held beliefs and their underlying assumptions and cast them aside if they are not in line with the Scriptures. And then to adopt a system of understanding and a way of life that makes one stand out in the crowd, that makes one part of an historically persecuted minority. It is an issue of sacrifice. Of self, of ego, of family, of time, of possessions, of life. Not an easy thing but it is only when we sacrifice our life with all it’s baggage and truly seek to become the men and women Elohim desires that we will succeed.
I believe the central issue that we need to address is one of identity. With whom do we identify, or, as I have heard it poignantly stated before, with whom will we be persecuted? Many people who hear of us and what we are doing will identify us with the Messianic Jewish Movement (I have experienced this many times) and by doing so they place us under the heading of ‘Christianity’. Both Jews and Christians who are knowledgeable enough usually make this identification. We need to ask ourselves whether this is the banner under which we want to develop our identity.
Let’s look at the Messianic Jewish Movement for a moment. Many of us are familiar with it and some of us are still involved with it to some degree. The following discussion is about the popular notion of what the Messianic Jewish movement is all about and how it describes and understands itself as exemplified by the Messianic Jewish Alliance, The Messianic Union, related organizations and their leaders. Regardless of what may be their deepest desire, which is to be regarded as a valid expression of Judaism, just as the Orthodox or Reform movements are, they are not and they never will be. Because in their attempt to do so, they have kept one foot firmly planted within the Christian community. A large part of their theology and worldview come from Christianity. While they do reject replacement theology and so make room for themselves as Jews within the Christian community, they have not, in most cases, developed practices and institutions endemic to Judaism. As such there are some fundamental problems with the Messianic Jewish Movement’s understanding of things and this results in confusion and disunity.
One of the first areas of confusion is that of religious expression. First, allow me to say that there is a wide spectrum of religious practice among Messianic Jews and their congregations, which, in itself, is a problem. Some congregations are adopting Orthodox or Hasidic practices and others have kept mainstream church worship traditions. Ultimately, in the Messianic Jewish point of view, there are no standards because there is no right and wrong in religious expression. Allow me to explain how I can come to such a conclusion. While many Messianic Jews and even some Christians know that Passover and Yom Kippor are Scriptural and Christmas and Easter are not, there can be no authoritative correction (although the Christians will sometimes accuse those who follow Scriptural religious traditions of being legalists and Judaizers!). This is because Messianic Jews see themselves as part of the ‘church’ and they look at Christians as their brothers and because of this they accept, to a greater or lesser degree, the Christian interpretation of Scripture. They are all part of the ‘body’, the Messianic Community, the universal Church. The result of this is the practical understanding that Elohim does not really care that most of ‘the body’ are worshipping Him according to the practices of the pagans (Deut 12) or the ‘Traditions of men’ and while He may be pleased that some are worshipping Him according to Torah, it was really only meant for ‘ethnic’ or ‘natural’ Israel. In the great scheme of things it doesn’t really matter because ‘we’re all saved’, which is the ultimate goal of both groups. I have read this described as the ‘One faith, one baptism, two expressions’ theory. One cannot do enough Scriptural gymnastics to support such an idea. To do so is to ignore all the warnings of Moshe and the Prophets about the adoption of pagan practices and of the corruption of the pure religion YHVH had given to the people of Israel. It supports the spoken and unspoken assumption of the ‘church’ that the ‘Old Testament’ isn’t relevant to them. It is also to embrace the absurd idea that Shimon Kefa and that great Pharisee Rav Sha’ul accepted Gentiles into the community of Israel while allowing them to continue to practice paganism. That they allowed pagans to rename pagan practices and celebrate them with equal validity alongside the festivals of YHVH and see nothing wrong with it. That Gentiles could come into covenant relationship with the Elohim of Israel while thumbing their noses at all the things those who had gone before held dear. That they believed the Messiah had come to give ready acceptance to both Jews and Gentiles in the small, unique community of Remnant Israel, regardless of their behavior or the forms of their religious expression. Anyone who wants to become part of the commonwealth of Israel through the Messiah does so in the context of covenant. And covenants have stipulations that are meant to be adhered to and if they are not, there are negative consequences. For Messianic Jews to look at and accept Christians as equally acceptable brothers ‘in the Lord’ and as legitimate ‘converts’ into the commonwealth of Israel is to destroy the basis for the covenant relationship Elohim has always had with His people.
This brings us to another problem with Messianic Judaism. They don’t know what to do with the Gentiles. The confusion again results from having one foot in either camp. On the one hand, they want to see themselves as a legitimate branch of Judaism and to this end, they have set up many institutions in which the leadership and policy bodies are made up of ethnic Jews (although in Messianic Judaism the definition of an ‘ethnic Jew’ does not usually follow ‘traditional’ halachah). However, many Gentiles have become attracted to Judaism, as has been the case throughout history, and a brand of Judaism that allows them to maintain their belief in their Messiah is particularly attractive. Many Christians have come to see the value in understanding the jewishness of their original faith and some have even been motivated to adopt some Jewish practices. And others, like many of us, have seen the value of Torah as the correct way of life for the redeemed person and have sought to apply it all to the best of our knowledge and understanding. But when a Gentile comes into Messianic Judaism they find out that their participation is limited to the perimeter. In the MJAA they are not allowed full membership. They are not ordained as Rabbis. There is no mechanism or procedure to allow a Gentile’s full participation in the institutions of Messianic Judaism.
In Non-Messianic Judaism, this is accomplished through the conversion process. After a Gentile has gone through this process they are members of the House of Israel, no different than their natural born counterparts, with all the same privileges and responsibilities. Messianic Judaism, on the other hand, does not see the need for conversion. The Gentile Christians are already their brothers, fellow heirs in the body of Messiah. Why would they need to convert? In many Messianic synagogues, Jews and Gentiles alike are encouraged to pray the ‘sinners prayer’ at which time they enter the ‘Church’. The Jew and the Gentile take divergent paths from there, however. Once they come into the ‘Church’ they have different responsibilities and duties. In the Messianic synagogue, Judaism is practiced to some degree. The Gentile is sent to a church with different practices. He can visit the synagogue but it not really there for him, regardless of what he thinks. So the Gentile on whom Elohim has impressed the importance of Torah and Judaism finds himself in limbo. While the Messianic Jews see him as a ‘brother in Messiah’ he is held at arms length due to an accident of birth. It seems as though the Messianic Jewish ‘denomination’ is a ‘Jews only’ club.
Another problem is Messianic Judaism is ambivalent about Torah. Since it seems as though Messianic Judaism is another Christian denomination of sorts, they have sought to pour the wine of Christianity into the wineskin of Judaism. Outwardly, many of their practices are Jewish. They wear tallit when they worship and they worship on Shabbat. They celebrate many of the festivals and they wear kippot. Some synagogues even have Torah scrolls and a few of the congregants can read it. But inwardly, most of their theology and belief is Christian. Their creeds, their understanding of the Messiah, the nature of God, salvation and especially their attitude and understanding of the Mosaic covenant come from Christianity. They don’t know how important it is. On one hand, they’re Jewish so they know, at some level, it is important to them. On the other hand, their brothers, the Christians, don’t obey the mosaic covenant at all. In fact, they have adopted many practices of the pagans, something the terms of the covenant prohibit. But they are ‘saved’ just the same. Yet, both the Messiah and His Talmidim taught about the importance of Torah and lived it out in their lives. And these are the acknowledged founders of the ‘church’. But the ‘church’ has taught for almost two thousand years that Torah is not essential for salvation, it is not important in a believer’s life and may even be an impediment to the Christian drawing closer to Elohim. So if it’s not essential to salvation, Messianic Judaism cannot, with any real authority, require, or even strongly encourage, Torah obedience among it’s adherents. Christian understanding says Torah is not important so as long as Messianic Judaism remains in the Christian camp, Torah obedience will just be one option of acceptable Christian religious expression among many. It will be a means to an evangelistic end and will continued to be looked at with suspicion (and rightly so) by non-messianic Jews.
So what am I saying here. I’ve thrown out a a lot of terms here; salvation, Torah, Israel, Messiah, Church, Jew, Christian and others common in our religious debate. The definition of these terms is something that we need to discuss as well. Messianic Judaism has adopted, for the most part, a Christian understanding of these terms and many of us, having been brought up in a Christian environment, still think that way as well. As such, it would be easy to conclude from my statements that I believe Torah, the Law, is essential for salvation and all the Christians are going to hell. Taking salvation, Israel and Torah, understanding them in the common Christian sense and combining them as I have, it would be easy to come to that conclusion. Nothing could be farther form the truth however. One does not have to be part of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’, remember the Sabbath, abstain from pork or celebrate the festivals to receive a place in the world to come (See Israel, the Goyim and the Eternal Destiny of Man for more info here). That is another issue completely but it illustrates the point that if we are going to understand Scripture in a consistent matter, we cannot blindly accept Christianity's definition of these terms for they have a different meaning in Judaism.
Ultimately, the question which we must have the courage to face and answer is, ‘are Christianity and Judaism compatible at all?’ Messianic Judaism has said yes and attempted to make the marriage work and we have looked at the results. I believe there are fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity in theology, practice and in the religious communities themselves which require a negative answer to the question. Christianity evolved as a reaction against Judaism and the Jewish people around the period of the first Jewish war with Rome. It proscribed Jewish practices more vehemently than did the Roman government. It began to understand the Scriptures through the eyes of Plato and Aristotle instead of Moshe and the prophets. They stole the Sacred Scriptures and made them simply a preface to their own and then redacted themselves into them to create a sense of legitimacy. They changed the Messiah from a Torah obedient Jewish man Who loved His people to a universal, anti-Torah demigod. And once they had the machinery of the state at their disposal, they rigorously persecuted the true people of Elohim, something that continues to this day. Judaism is a triad of Torah, people and land put together by Elohim Himself never to be forsaken or replaced. Christianity has proscribed the Torah for it’s adherents, persecuted the people and moved the promised land to the heavenlies. How can there be any perceived continuity between the two? Judaism holds dear everything Christianity abhors. Christianity is a man made religion, a combination of Roman and Babylonian religion, Greek philosophy and some basic Jewish ethics (although with all the murder and mayhem perpetuated in the name of ‘Christ’, the last point could certainly be disputed). Christianity has taken some basic truths and ideas, removed their foundation and created a new religion. To put Judaism back into Christianity is to put a square peg in a round hole. When we present Nazarene Judaism to Christians, we are not educating them about the roots of their faith, we are showing them the truths of the Scriptures they claim. Christianity is not a form of Judaism, it doesn’t even spring from the same well.
What is the well from which Christianity sprung? It was the well of Roman and Alexandrine anti-Semitism (used in the modern sense of the word), it was the well of gnosticism and the dualism endemic to Greek philosophy, it was the well of Babylonian and Roman religious practice and culture. Let’s take a brief look at all of these.
Hatred of the Jewish people has been around since there was a Jewish people. Pharaoh hated them and killed their sons. Nebuchadnezzar besieged their cities and destroyed their Temple. Haman wanted to eliminate them from the face of the earth. Why? Because they “keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people..” (Est 3:8) They seemed to have nothing in common with other peoples. The Jewish people were different and they are different because that is what Elohim wants them to be. Their light would not shine if they were like all other nations. YHVH has called them out, He has chosen them, which means the other nations were not. This creates resentment among other peoples, it bothers them because the Jews are the conscience of the world. Their existence says “our way is Elohim’s way” which means their way is not.
In the period leading up to the time of Messiah, the first true evidence of anti-Semitism (as we understand it today) in the ancient world, in the third century BCE, was in Egypt in reaction to an effective campaign of conversion on the part of the Jewish population. Of course we cannot fail to mention how Antiochus Epiphanies felt about the Jews and tried to proscribe Jewish practice in the second century, leading to the revolt of the Maccabees. In the first century BCE another, wider wave of anti-Semitism swept the ancient world. It began in Alexandria and Antioch, which, along with Rome, became the centers of Christian understanding after the destruction of Yerushalyim. The instigators, Apion, Poscidonios and Molon, said that the Jews were a race of shameful origins, a race of lepers who had been cast out of Egypt at the time of Moshe. Dietary laws and circumcision were corruptions of Moshe’s ‘ideal’ religion. They said Jewish separation had it’s roots in the hatred of mankind and of the gods, they undermined all other religions, they worshipped a golden ass’s head, practiced ritual murder against the Greeks and that Jewish civilization was sterile and had produced nothing useful. For those of you familiar with the history of the church in the middle ages, much of this sounds very familiar.
Apion took his anti-Jewish feeling to Rome where he found a ready ear among the many who opposed Caeser’s pro-Jewish policies. In the first century CE Sejanus, the man behind Tiberius Caesar, banished Jews from Rome and had an anti-Jewish campaign planned before his execution. Tactius stated that “the Jews regard as profane all we hold sacred and permit all we abhor”. In 40 CE Caligula planned to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple. After the rebellion in 66CE, much of Jewish practice was proscribed, and even more harshly in the time of Hadrian and the second Jewish war in 132 CE. Most Gentiles in the Roman world did not have a very positive view of the Jews.
Gnosticism had it origins in Alexandria, that great melting pot of religious ideas in the ancient world. It was secretive in the sense that it’s adherents believed they has a knowledge (gnosis) that other people did not have. The Gnostics believed in a incomprehensible, unapproachable god who had no contact with the material world. The world was created by a series of demi-urges which made matter evil because it had nothing to do with god. The Gnostics believed they had the knowledge to break free of this evil, material world and unite with the divine. They interpreted religious texts, including the Tenach, allegorically, they worshipped images, embraced Greek philosophy, they were sun worshippers and they were anti-Jewish. Many of the church fathers; Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Clement and Origen came from Alexandria and their writings belie the influence gnosticism had on their Christianity.
Barnabas (not the companion of Sha’ul) was known for his allegorizing of the Sabbath and anti-Torah sentiment. Justin believed that Jewish religion was forced upon Israel as punishment by Elohim. Clement believed that the Christian was the true Gnostic and that while there was one river of truth, many streams fall into on either side. Origen’s opinion of Torah was that the literal application of it’s laws was never it’s intent and that one had to leave these things behind and turn the mind to the good, true and spiritual law of Elohim.
In Antioch, Ignatius (the authenticity of whose letters is in question) said that if we live in accordance with Judaism, we admit we have not received grace. In Rome, Marcion, a ‘Christian Gnostic said that the Jewish Elohim was the demi-urge and since the Torah was the work of this inferior Elohim it should be ignored. He also believed in fasting on Shabbat to show contempt for it, a practice already common in the Roman ‘church’ by his time.
During the second and third centuries, Roman and Babylonian religious practices were adopted to fill the vacuum created by the abandonment of Judaism, the facts of which most of us are aware. Sunday worship, Easter, image worship, Christmass, a celibate priesthood, and ideas such as the exclusive fraternity of the church for salvation, the authority of the bishop of Rome, the trinity, the evil nature of the flesh and the world and other Greek philosophical ideas. Often these inventions were not adopted through reasoned debate but through all out war in which forgery, slander, murder and rebellion were accepted practice.
In the fourth century John Chrysostom denounced the Jews as carnal, lascivious, demonic and accursed. They were deicides and they worshipped the devil. St Jerome said about the synagogue ‘If you call it a brothel, a den of vice, the devil’s refuge, Satan's fortress a place to deprave the soul, an abyss of every conceivable disaster or whatever else you will, you are still saying less that it deserves’. Synagogues were burnt to the ground at the instigation of the church bishops. This was the time of Augustine, who, more than any other individual, dominated Christian thought for a thousand years, and whose influence is still felt today. The concept of original sin and the idea that salvation was only to be found in the church were his inventions. He was a strong proponent of using the sword to enforce orthodoxy, bring about conversion and punish heretics and Jews. He divided the world into Christians, who were the only saved ones, and everyone else, all of whom were going to hell because of their inherent wickedness. The Jews were to be kept in perpetual slavery to bear witness to the triumph of the church. There is a direct line from the ‘church fathers’ to the atrocities of the crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms and the holocaust. Yahushua said ‘by their fruits you will know them’. The fruit of Christianity shows that it does not come from the root of Israel or Israel’s Messiah. It is not in any way represenative of the Messiah of Israel or those who folowed Him.
This brief look at the facts should show that Christianity has much more in common with the religions and philosophies of the ancient world that it does with Judaism. The Gentiles (and hellenized Jews) thought the idea of being Elohim’s chosen and going to heaven through someone else's work (Yahushua’s) was a good one but tying it to the Judaism many of them had been taught to abhor and which was proscribed by the empire was not. So they took the Jew Yahushua and transformed him into a demi-god, placed him in Greek clothes and put him in their religious and philosophical context. Beyond the externals of a messianic idea and some basic ethics, Judaism and Christianity have little in common. Their theology, philosophy, world-view, ways of thinking and religious practices are on opposite ends of the spectrum. They cannot be combined in a way that is truly meaningful and consistent.
If we have the courage to face and accept that truth and accept the consequences of that truth, most of our confusion and uncertainty will go away. What are the consequences of that truth? First, the Jewish community will continue to be very skeptical of us and it is going to take a lot of time and consistency on our part to allay their fears and concerns. The Jewish community is suspicious by nature of anything they perceive as foreign because of their history. There will continue to be a ‘knee-jerk’ rejection of us because of their preconceived ideas about us and the labels they will continue to try to force on us. We will continue to be labeled as ‘Jews for Jesus’ and ‘Messianic Jews’ or ‘Jewish Christians’. But we must patiently continue to explain our purpose and mission, carving out a new niche and placing a new label on ourselves that will accurately describe who we are and what we’re about. And there are rays of hope. Particularly in the orthodox community where Torah obedience is valued almost above all else, there has been some positive movement. As we continue to put value on the same things and consistently, through word and action demonstrate in whose camp we are, the walls will slowly come down. Again, it will be a slow process. Keep in mind that the acceptance of the Chasidim into the mainstream Jewish fold took nearly four generations.
Those reactions, many of us are used to. The reaction from the Christian community will be different. We must always keep in the front our thinking that it is pleasing Elohim that is the most important thing. Many of us have gotten used to the help of Christians and the churches, we have operated under their blessing, we have met in their buildings and have drawn many visitors and even some adherents from their ranks. The label of ‘Messianic Jewish’ many of us have accepted either actively or passively has allowed this free flow of people and assistance between us and the church. This will eventually come to a stop; it must if we desire to place both feet in the camp of Israel. The Jewish community is not going to believe anything we say about ourselves when we meet in a church building and belt out ‘Amazing Grace’ during worship. As we consistently declare we are not Christians, that we do not accept their theology and interpretation of the Scriptures, that we are not their intimate brothers and ‘co-heirs’ with their messiah, they will reject us and look at us with suspicion. This is not to say that we will cease to cooperate with Christians in encouraging righteousness among all peoples and working towards common goals, just as the Jewish and Christian communities do today. But cooperation in ‘evangelism’ or other such things will no longer be possible. We are not preaching the same messiah and our idea of discipleship will be completely different. Eventually, if they haven’t already, they will label us a cult, which in an interesting phenomenon. ‘Cults’, according to Christianity, are groups that operate outside of accepted ‘orthodoxy’. And how is orthodoxy defined? By majority consensus, and, in the past, by ‘bigger guns’. It is not defined by a consistent, honest interpretation of the Scriptures. If it was, Christianity would be the largest and most successful cult of all. Of course, no one will look at it that way. We will be the ones so labeled and it will be much more difficult to draw people to us from Christian circles.
So, are we slitting our own wrists? Are we in reality taking ourselves out of both communities and ensuring our own demise? No, we are not because we have the Truth and we have the promise of Elohim that the community He created would overpower even the gates of Hell. Israel stands on three things. First, is the land promised to Avraham, Yitzak, Ya’akov and their descendants and all who would join them. Second is the Torah, the truth of Elohim, the truth many of us have worked so hard to uncover and understand and then apply. In many ways we have emphasized this more than anything else. But I will say this, and this is essential. While it is true that we are presently the most Scripturally accurate expression of Elohim’s community and it is true that we have recovered and developed many wonderful ideas and a consistent framework from which to understand an apply the Scriptures, that is not what is going to draw most people to us. While Judaism has many beautiful rituals and forms of religious expression that reflect the mind of Elohim, that is not what is going to draw most people to us. The thing that will draw people in and keep them as they grow in understanding is the third thing in the triad; community, Am Yisra’el, the people of Israel. Before we were in the Land, before Elohim gave us Torah, Israel was a people, a community. Because Israel is more than a religion, more than a political entitiy, more than a world view, it is a people. If we focus on the truth that the world will know we belong to God because of the love that we have for one another, our growth will take care of itself. If we show love and acceptance when others will not, we will grow. If we preach truth and let the Ruach haKodesh take care of the conviction or even the condemnation, we will grow. If we place our emphasis on living right instead of believing correctly, many people whom Elohim has touched or who are earnestly seeking Him will find a place of encouragement where they can work out their relationship with Elohim on their own terms while being surrounded with love and truth. We need to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the community. Truth is on our side, therefore time is as well. We can be confident that when either a Jew or a Christian asks us why, we will have the most Scripturally consistent and accurate answer available. And for those among either group that value their relationship with Elohim, the Scriptures and the truth, they will seek and they will find. And they will find us.
So since we have established that we are firmly in the camp of Israel and Judaism, what now? How do we interact with this community, particularly since they are not really fond of us nor do they, in most cases, even acknowledge our validity. And how do we come back into the stream of Judaism after such a protracted absence during which tradition and halachah continued to develop in the Diaspora, in a world far removed from the Temple and the land, a world of persecution and ghettos, of superstition and Greek enlightenment, and often in reaction against messianic belief, however defined. These are issues that need to be resolved if we are to speak and act with one voice in the larger community of Israel.
The first thing we must all do, some to a greater extent than others, is to unlearn much of what we know. We are pouring new wine into new wineskins. Much of our task is the creation of those wineskins into which Elohim can pour new wine. We cannot create our wineskins with a patchwork of Pentecostalism, Chassidism, Calvinism, Platonism, Rabbinism, and anything else that may suit you or you have in your closet. I have already mentioned the importance of redefining some basic theological terms, as in so doing, we will develop a new theological and philosophic framework in which to understand Scripture, our relationship with our Creator and His plan for this world. That will involve a discovery and reeducation for many of us in the intricacies of Semitic thought, in contrast to our western, Greek way of thinking. And while we will leave many questions unanswered, many of which should remain so, there needs to be a free exchange of ideas among all of us so we can develop a paradigm that is authentically Jewish yet uniquely Nazarene while being consistent, realistic and faithful to Scripture. We need to educate ourselves in rabbinic ways of thought so we can understand some parts of the culture and people the Messiah came to and so we can communicate intelligently with the other Judaisms of our day. We need to break cleanly from our past in the way we use terms, (such as referring to the ‘church’ as part of the body of Messiah’ and the equation of ‘Yahushua’ and ‘Jesus’) and the identity we hold (Jewish, not Christian). This will require work on our part such as immersion in Jewish literature, philosophy and theology to help us understand and develop an identity with Israel and the Jewish people. It will require interaction with the Jewish community and support of Jewish institutions. And along with all that, we must also face the challenge of how we should then live, what the halachah of our community should be.
As we reenter this community (like it or not, here we come!) and hold to Torah as the way of life, we must ask how we are to obey Torah. Do we take the words as they are written and start over? Some seventh day Adventists, the Worldwide Church of Elohim, the Assemblies of Yahweh and lots of other small church groups have attempted this route. But they have not sought to establish continuity with the historic people of Israel. Do we just jump in to the Orthodox stream as it exists today, simply adding our messianic belief? The answer lies somewhere in between reinventing the wheel and adopting the status quo. We cannot accept Orthodox Judaism as is because it rejects our messianic belief and some of it’s traditions and theological understanding have evolved in opposition to that belief. We cannot understand or evaluate the first century Nazarenes exclusively through the eyes of present day Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism developed in response to the Diaspora and Christian persecution. It embraced the superstitions of the dark ages and the thought of the Greek philosophers. The result, as was the case even in Yahushua’s time, was that some of the reasoning and assumptions behind their halacha was flawed and resulted in practices that were not reflective of the will of Elohim or consistent with the rest of Torah. Such practices and ideas can have no place of real value in our halachic system. But most of what is historically consistent in Judaism is valuable and meaningful. Most of the traditions, many of which we take for granted, are beautiful and are filled with both obvious and intricate meaning and they help us develop our relationship with Elohim and our expression of Torah obedience. And if we truly desire to be recognized among the greater commonwealth of Israel, we must respect the community’s authority to establish halachah, historically and presently. And by the community, I mean the larger community of Israel who have taken the covenant seriously whether they be reform, conservative or orthodox as well as the historical consensus that bridges the gap even between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry. Our disagreements with their judgements must be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. We must show respect to the history and the development of the people with whom we seek identity. Keep in mind that the common divisions of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative did not even exist two hundred years ago. Before that one was either an observant Jew who took his covenant realtionship with Elohim seriously or he was not. So while the divsions and their consequent religious and political relaities exist and we have to deal with them as such, attempting to fit into a catagory that did not even exist until recently is not something we should be preoccupied with. It is the seriousness with which we take our covenant responsibilities that matters.
Therefore, we do not do things only to seek the approval of Orthodox (or any other form) Judaism. While it may be a consideration and a sign of respect to give heed to the institutions and traditions they have developed, their acceptance of us is not something we have any control over. Individually, we may participate in some of those traditions because we find value in them or to specifically to relate to the Orthodox or Chasidim. But as a community, it would not be proper to blindly enforce a body of tradition that has developed without messianic consideration or Nazarenes. Ultimately, we must obey Elohim rather than men. Some of our disagreements are in areas we cannot compromise, our messianic belief, for example. There will be other areas of Torah and tradition that were part of the Judaisms of the first century that were discarded and we are trying to revive which will put us at odds with the present Judaisms. There will be things we should embrace that we find inconvenient or pointless. And there are beautiful traditions we embrace because they are right. The challenge for us as a community is to know which traditions fit in which category for we cannot be, as many Messianics are, selective in our Torah obedience and our halacha, arbitrarily doing what we personally find meaningful and ignoring the rest. This is a task that must be taken up with the utmost seriousness, founded on biblical integrity and historical accuracy and with a keen understanding of present application.
Beyond recapturing the practices and traditions of the first century community, I would propose the following as a starting point for evaluation and embracing Jewish tradition in general. There are traditions that are part of Judaism in general, traditions that span the divisions of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. These traditions, such as the seder, the siddur, the prohibition of milk and meat, and the division of the Torah portions, for example, are ones that are understood by all of Judaism to be normative. That is not to say that all of the Judaisms practice such things but they all recognize that if one were to be a ‘good Jew’, one would adhere to such traditions. These are traditions we should embrace. And this is the reason why. If we are seeking to be part of the larger community of Israel, the recognized people of Elohim, we must respect the consensus of that community in matters of faith and practice, as long as those things do not directly contradict the Scriptures. Elohim has given the community the authority to interpret Torah and we must show our loyalty to the community by respecting those interpretations that have become part of the historical fabric and identity of the Jewish people. We have seen that Yahushua had this same attitude toward tradition. The Pharisees did not ask Him why he was harvesting on Shabbat (Matt 12) or why He didn’t wash His hands (Matt 15). Their accusations were all directed at the Talmidim, not at Him. Could that be because He observed these traditions to show Himself to be above reproach in the eyes of the community. Certainly the neglect of such traditions cannot usually be construed as sinful. However, Yahushua apparently agreed with the idea that the community, at least those who take Torah and covenant seriously, who were in His day the Pharisees, have the authority to determine what is normative in the practice of Torah, to determine what makes one pious. Throughout Israel’s history, righteous men who took their covenant responsibility seriously have developed traditions to assist them in fulfilling those responsibilities. Some of those traditions have spanned the continents and the centuries. It is those traditions and Torah interpretations we need to embrace to show ourselves as part of the larger community of Israel.
The development of our community should be one of the first things on our list. And it is something we need to work at because of the nature of our development up to this point. Our development has been primarily in the larger community of cyberspace which is probably a first in itself. It has allowed a degree of connectedness and development that would have been impossible a decade ago. The work of the Beit Din, the congregational affiliations, the information published by various people and the sharing of ideas among ourselves are all made possible by this medium. But along with that comes the impersonal nature that is part of the internet. The sense of intimate community and connectedness are difficult to maintain solely through e-mail.
Because of this, the development of local congregations and their affiliation to the whole is essential. It is the local congregations that are going to meet the real needs of people. Anyone can read a paper on the internet, many of us have written important works that bring truth to anyone who wants to look. But we must be much more than just a repository of Elohim’s truth. We must be a community. I know Dr. Trimm is currently working on a program to ‘plant’ new congregations based on the model they have used successfully in Colorado. Leaders extant in various locales need to learn this program and implement it in their areas. There may even be individuals Elohim will call to do this work regularly.
But in order for it to be successful, there needs to be a support structure in place to assist new congregations in their development. This will begin on the local level with the closest congregation(s) providing people, material, training and teaching to develop a strong foundation from which the new seed will grow. There also needs to be an international organization that will provide additional resources and a basic mold in which a congregation can develop. The Society for the Advancement of Nazarene Judaism has filled this role up to this point but to be truly effective, our support of it needs to increase considerably. Yes, I’m talking about money. If SANJ is going to be the organization that will plant and develop local congregations, support the work of scholars to define and defend our community and do whatever necessary to get the truth to as many people as we can, resources are essential. Literature needs to be developed, people need to be trained and sent to various locations. I would propose regional conferences like this to encourage connectedness among people and congregations in a larger geographical area. If we really want to ensure success, and by that I mean the replication of spiritually mature, Torah obedient, Messiah loving individuals and congregations that are going to fulfill the mission that Elohim has for Remnant Israel, then we need to gladly sacrifice our time and money to the larger community. For a true community is one that not only shares the bonds of love and friendship but also has shared ideas, lifestyle and when necessary, resources. The development of a strong sense of community and community responsibility is essential to our success.
We need to address this concern at this early juncture. For we have already been growing at a phenomenal rate because there have so many people who have been previously disconnected to whom Elohim has shown the truth of Torah and Mashiyach have finally found a label with which they can identify. This is a great opportunity but also a problem. The problem is this. How to take people that are by nature, rather individualistic, who are responding to this great move of Elohim, and develop a community rather than a movement. We have seen the disunity that results in a ‘movement’. The divergent views of faith and practice, the ambiguity that results from people from all kinds of backgrounds appropriating a label that has not been clearly defined. The challenge is to define the label in terms that are general enough not to be authoritarian yet specific enough to provide unity, community and some sense of standardization from which we can speak as one voice to both the Christian and Jewish communities.
The International Nazarene Beit Din is a crucial part of the community’s success and, if done properly, will ensure we avoid the pitfalls of the Messianic Movement. Unlike Messianic Judaism, Nazarene Judaism is not a ‘do it yourself’ Judaism. In Messianic Judaism, each individual or congregation adopts the mitzvot and traditions they find valuable or meaningful and ignore the rest. The results are very diverse and divergent beliefs and practices with each one ‘doing what is right in his own eyes’ although it will be rationalized in Christian lingo about conviction or the ‘leading of the Spirit’. We can not be so disorganized if we are ever to be taken seriously.
Therefore the work of the Beit Din is crucial to the formation of a cohesive community. They will answer the questions posed about tradition earlier. They will respond to halachic concerns in our modern time that have not been adequately addressed by the other Judaisms. They will formulate a basic paradigm from which to understand the important topics of Scripture, faith and practice.
They must do so with several things in mind. First, they need to be true to written Torah above all else. We do not want to be condemned for setting aside the command of Elohim for the sake of our tradition. Halacha must be consistent with Torah, Tenach and the teaching of the Messiah and His Talmidim. The Word of Elohim must come first, no matter what.
Second is a healthy respect for and understanding of the traditions and halachic rulings as they have come down to the present age. And I would council that, where possible, and assuming the other criteria are met, orthodox halacha be respected, adapted when necessary and adopted as our own. For if we lean in the orthodox direction, we will find find more acceptance among the other Judaisms because in most cases even the secular Jew knows in his heart that in general terms, orthodoxy is right.
Third, they need to be realistic. We need to look at our present day circumstances and fit our lives into Torah in a way that makes sense and enables us to perform the mitzvot accurately and consistently. That means we will have to make compromises with the modern life we live and and with things that we do not have the ability to control. We need to carefully balance the integrity of Torah with the realities of 20th century life outside Eretz Israel.
Fourth, they must stick to the very basic issues and allow for individuals and communities to express themselves and their relationship with Elohim in their particular situation while remaining under the umbrella of general Natzrim halacha. They cannot seek to micro manage for that would only create resentment and the result would be an erosion of the authority they are seeking to establish. What they need to do is create general principles and halacha that the individual communities and their local beit dins can adapt to their own particular situations. This is all done within the boundaries of Torah, of course, and there needs to be some well defined boundaries. But the local communities must be given the freedom to develop and adapt tradition so it is meaningful to them and respond to situations that are unique to their environment. It would be a good idea to have a clearinghouse to catalogue the rulings from the local beit dins so we can all benefit from the wisdom they apply to their situations. You never know when it may happen in your community.
Finally the last basic issue we need to deal with is maintaining the integrity of the community. This is an essential thing because much of what is contained in Torah is there for that purpose. Israel’s mission, and ours by extension, is to be a light to all the world. We are to be salt, we are to be the consciences of the world. And we understand that Elohim is not going to choose anyone else for the job. Therefore, He has everything, including his honor, staked on us. We have a very serious responsibility because when people see us, they are seeing Elohim’s representatives here on earth. We are the priests of the world and as remnant Israel, we are the ones that make the whole holy. We are held to the highest standard and we need to hold one another to those standards. The integrity of the community is essential to our mission and will enable us to speak and operate as a true community.
What, specifically, am I talking about? I’m talking about each one of us and each one of those who claim to be Nazarene Jews out there being proper representatives of Elohim and Nazarene Judaism. Proper in character and knowledge and spirit. Let’s look at leadership first for that is where it all starts. If leadership is not united around common goals and ideas, there is no way that those whom Elohim has placed under their care are going to generate a common bond and understanding with Nazarenes everywhere else.
The unification of leadership is going to be around the Beit Din. Therefore, let’s start with them. The men (and possibly women) seated in this crucial body must truly be men beyond reproach. As a group, they are really speaking for Elohim to the community. That is a very heavy responsibility and there can be no place given to ulterior motives, juvenile politics or hot heads. The prayerful and informed discussion engaged in to seek the mind of Elohim for the community is a job for those who have spiritual maturity, impeccable character, a working knowledge of Scripture and tradition and an absolute commitment to the community as a whole. Their views and understanding which should have a relatively long and consistent track record, need to show agreement with the primary tenets of Nazarene Judaism as they have been developed to this point. This means that the addition of members to the Beit Din will be done only after careful consideration and evaluation. We are developing something new here and it will be successful to the extent the foundation on which it stands is strong and stable. That foundation is leadership and the basis of leadership and authority is the Beit Din. The work done and decisions made will determine the direction of the community. Therefore, their work needs to be done deliberately and with caution. And while there will be disagreements and not all the votes will be unanimous, all members must respect the body enough to abide by the decisions made and encourage those under their care to do so as well.
Which brings us to those who have leadership positions in local congregations who have affiliated themselves with SANJ and placed themselves under the authority of the Beit Din. Affiliations should be accepted with care and those who seek affiliation should be evaluated by scriptural principles by those bodies they seek to be a part of. These bodies need to be assured that these men and women are going to represent Nazarene Judaism honorably and consistently. They need to abide by the rulings of the Beit Din and be an example to those whom Elohim has placed in their charge. They need to be knowledgeable enough to train others and have the temperament and maturity to do so. They need to be mature people who have developed their understanding of Torah and Messiah over the course of years, not weeks or months. They must have a good understanding of Judaism and should have been living the Jewish lifestyle consistently for some time. At some point an application should be developed by which an applicant for affiliation can be thoroughly evaluated and some type of certification given to the congregation.
Which brings us finally to the people who make up all the local congregations. How do we establish a basic consensus of belief and understanding among a group of people from very varied backgrounds and who are, by nature, rather independently minded. We will do it the same way it has been done in Judaism for years, through the conversion process. This will be a process by which halachicly recognized Jews and Gentiles will develop a basic agreement of belief and practice and become part of the community of remnant Israel. It will be a process of education in theology and practice that should last at least a few months during which the prospect will demonstrate his or her willingness to adopt a Torah observant lifestyle as determined by the Beit Din and the larger community of Israel and his or her commitment to the community by their allocation of time and resources. At the at the end of this time, the local Beit Din will evaluate the prospect and after that, the convert will be immersed. This process is essential for a couple of reasons. First, is the previously mentioned goal of creating a cohesive community based on common belief and practice. Second, it will protect the community from those who would appropriate our label without accepting our values, understanding and authority structures. This is especially true by the nature of our larger community which has evolved on the internet. The third is that it allows gentiles to become full participants in the life of the community because they will have the same basic knowledge, lifestyle and values as do observant halachic Jews. Finally, it is a witness to the larger community of Israel. By developing a conversion process that shows respect for their halacha, teaches people to place value on the same things Jewish people always have, and creating educated students of Torah who are filled with the Spirit of Elohim, will will show ourselves to be true children of Avraham regardless of our birth.
The secret to all of this is maintaining balance. This talk about authority may have made some of you uncomfortable. This talk of standardization and consensus. But the consensus that I am talking about is the one that held the Jewish community together through most of their history. While they may have differed in some of their theology, no one questioned Torah as the way of life, their commitment to the community was impeccable and they all respected the authority of the leading rabbis to develop halachic understanding. They had developed a responsible authority that was respected and and avoided the authoritarian use of power. That is the balance between respecting the individuals relationship with Elohim and his ability to be led by the Spirit and maintaining the integrity of the community and it’s standard according to the Word of Elohim. It is the balance of respecting the ability of local communities to develop wisdom and understanding in their particular situation while maintaining a basic understanding of faith that creates a feeling of community between congregations all over the world. It is the balance between acceptance of an individual’s rate of growth in faith while never lowering the expectations Elohim has of every redeemed person. If we follow such guidelines with maturity and work them out with council among godly men and women, we will develop a vibrant community of individuals who will hold to the highest standards of Scripture, allow the spirit free reign in their lives and are committed to their fellow Nazarenes and Jews all over the world.
The opportunity that is before us is enormous and fraught with peril. Elohim is doing a great and awesome work all over the world. He is bringing Jews and Gentiles to an understanding of redemption that includes both Torah and Mashiyakh. The ‘Church will not hear of Torah, The Jews will not look at Mashiyakh and Messianic Judaism will not accept Gentiles. These people whom Elohim has called to Torah and Messiah will need to find someplace to belong because they know community is essential in Elohim’s plan. We can be that community if we are willing to make it happen. If we are willing to put our time, energy and money into this community we know as Nazarene Judaism nothing will be out of our reach. We are on the ground floor. If we take the time and take what we are doing seriously, we will build a beautiful work. Because truth is our foundation and because as we build on and live that truth the Spirit of Elohim will do things with us and through us that have not been seen since the first decades of the Yerushalyim community.
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