Lessons from Sinai For The Messianic Jewish Movement

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In the Messianic Jewish world I am known for insisting that Jewish repentance entails a return to covenant faithfulness expressed in loving adherence to the mitzvot, the commandments we have received in Torah.  I have been teaching this for decades, intensifying my efforts in recent blogs here at www.interfaithfulness.org

Whenever I produce biblical arguments for this, which I find rather compelling, without fail someone will ask me, “Well, what is that observance going to look like?” I usually remind them that our practice should be in concert with the general flow of Jewish consensus since the Torah was given not to us as individuals, or even to us as a movement, but to the Jewish people as a people. I remark that it takes a special brand of chutzpah to imagine that we can and should figure out the shape of our Torah obedience apart from dialogue with those people to whom it was given and who have been grappling with the issue for thousands of years.

Even after giving such an answer, frequently I get pressed for more specifics. Often, these questions are what I term “avoidance questions,” asked to avoid or postpone a given course of action.  We see this style of communication demonstrated for us when Moses meets HaShem for the first time at Mount Sinai before he sends him to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go that they might serve me in the wilderness.”  But not only does that encounter hold out to us examples of “avoidance questions,” it also holds the answer to the Messianic Jewish question about “What is that observance going to look like?”  Let’s look at the encounter for a moment. I will offer my argument in three points.

My First Point

In the well-known story, Moses is tending the flock of his father in law Yitro when he displays first curiosity and then fear. At first he is curious about this bush that is burning and yet is not consumed. Then, when he discovers God is in it, he hides his eyes: “Moshe covered his face, because he was afraid to look at God” v.6. People can be that way when making theological inquiry: at first they are curious, but then become afraid when they sense the consequences of their encounter with this new thing. As a case in point, repeatedly people express curiosity about the issues and arguments I raise about the persistence of the obligation to live Torah-structured lives as a modality for even Messianic Jews to honor God. And I further demonstrate that the prophets insisted God would bring Jews back to Torah in the last days, which we have already entered. Finally I show how both Testaments attest to these realities. But when people get curious, they then get afraid to look at these issues, like Moses at the bush. In a sense, they cover their faces because they are afraid to see what they might see.

Therefore my first point is, “People tend to ‘cover their faces,’ that is, to prevent themselves from looking more deeply at things that may have initially aroused their curiosity because they are afraid to look more deeply into the matter.”  And I am applying this indictment, if you will, to many though not all Messianic Jews and Christians and how they deal with arguments about Jewish Torah obedience.

But my readers might rise up and protest that I am pretending to be some sort of mind reader here, blithely attributing motives and psychological responses to my Messianic Jewish and also Christian interlocutors. But I have further evidence

My Second Point

As we all know,during this initial encounter at Sinai God speaks to Moses and commissions him to go back to Egypt and to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt that they might serve Him in the wilderness on their way to the Land God has promised the patriarchs and matriarchs. We see here a second way people seek to avoid what makes them uncomfortable. Moses offers five excuses:

  1. Self-sabotaging “humility” – 3:11 – “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the people of Isra’el out of Egypt?” Sometimes, people will claim themselves categorically unqualified to make judgments and make decisions in the matter of whether [Messianic] Jews should return to Torah as a modality of repentant life with God.
  2. Claiming not to have enough information –3:13 Moshe said to God, “Look, when I appear before the people of Isra’el and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” People will back away from the Torah issue delaying engagement until “some time” when they know more.
  3. Declaring oneself not credible in the matter at hand –  4:4 Moshe replied, “But I’m certain they won’t believe me, and they won’t listen to what I say, because they’ll say, ‘Adonai did not appear to you.’” Similarly, sometimes people will back away from the Torah issue claiming themselves not qualified to make judgments on the matter.
  4. More claims to inadequacy –  4:10 Moshe said to Adonai, “Oh, Adonai, I’m a terrible speaker. I always have been, and I’m no better now, even after you’ve spoken to your servant! My words come slowly, my tongue moves slowly.”
  5. Outright refusal to deal with the matter, deferring it to someone else—anyone else – 4:13 But he replied, “Please, Lord, send someone else — anyone you want!”

These are some of the ways many people avoid dealing with matters about which they have “an approach-avoidance conflict”—which Merriam-Webter’s Dictionary defines as “the psychological conflict that results when a goal is both desirable and undesirable.”  Precisely. People may want to know more about the priority of Torah observance for Messianic Jews, but they sense that the implications are inconvenient and “undesirable.”  So like Moses, some people, perhaps many people, bob and weave.

My second point therefore, distilled from these five evasions by Moses, “To prevent themselves having to look more deeply at things that may have initially aroused their curiosity but which frighten them, people will often claim inadequacy or seek to delay or transfer to others the responsibility of engagement.” 

My Third Point

Well, enough of my attribution of motives and devices to others, rightly or wrongly. What answer to I have to the question people ask me, ““Well, what is that observance going to look like?”  Moses has an answer for that one too. Actually, it is HaShem who does, in this early encounter with Moses, our Teacher.

HaShem gives us our answer in responding to Moses’ first objection. When Moses asks, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the people of Isra’el out of Egypt?” HaShem replies,  “I will surely be with you. Your sign that I have sent you will be that when you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” [3:12].  We ought not to miss the meat of this encounter: it is only after we have been gone through what we have been called to that we will know the answers we seek. Almost all the people I know want to have everything explained to them before they commit. But frequently the Bible insists otherwise.  Here is a beautiful example: “How will you know that I have sent you? After you go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, win the confidence of the Hebrews, go through the ten plagues and escape through the Red Sea, I’ll meet you back here.”  Yeah, thanks!

The Bible illustrates this refrain time and again. God called Abram to go out to a land that he would show him, without telling him where he was going. Here again: the commitment comes first, the information comes later.  And not only is this taught by example in the various narratives of the Bible, it is also taught by precept more than once. Jeremiah says it best, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” [Jer 29:13].

Therefore, My third point is this: The Messianic Movement cannot find out what this kind of obedience will look like until after they are utterly committed to the priority of obeying.  Once our leaders and our movement feel this as a holy imperative that must be honored, then and only then will we discover what it must look like, not before. It doesn’t work that way, and it never has.  

In an article I wrote for the Caspari Center in Jeruslem, I wrote some guidelines for moving forward in this.

  1. There can be no forward movement unless and until there emerges a felt need for change. This felt need will consist of a combination of nudging by the Holy Spirit, new realizations of what the Bible means by what it says, a certain growing and lingering dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a certain attraction to people who are thinking and living lives that seem better integrated because of the place they are giving in their lives to Torah.  But until there is a felt need for change, no change is possible. This is certain.

  2. There will need to emerge b’nei Nachshon, people who are willing to be the first to take the plunge into new territory and new paradigms. These people are called early adaptors. These will need to emerge. Look for them, and do not destroy them. To do so would be like uprooting a tender plant while yet expecting a crop. It doesn’t work that way!

  3. As the process begins, it is probably best to seek the counsel of others further along this road.  I would suggest the Hashivenu group, Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council. These people have been touched by the Spirit over these matters for years, and are further along the same path you will travel.  It would be foolish to ignore their council.

  4. There will be among you, wherever you are, some individuals who have irenic and trusting relationships with rabbis and leaders from the wider Jewish world. These contacts need to be explored and expanded upon. One of the changes that must occur is a great tempering of the adversarial and polemical stance that has prevailed concerning the wider Jewish world.  This needs to be reconsidered and discussed, and yes, there may even need to be some repentance.

  5. There will need to be much repentance over that pride that refused to even consider change, over the animosities that have long festered between various leaders and various camps of Jewish believers in Yeshua, and over the demonstrated inability to really talk and listen to one another with respect.  The Book of Malachi gives us counsel as to the attitude that always should have prevailed: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.”  Fearing HaShem, speaking to one another, and like HaShem himself, paying attention and really hearing.  There can be little doubt that it is only when we are able to behave in this manner that change, and the blessing of God will come.

Let me add of course that our Torah obedience as Messianic Jews will bear the imprint of our encounter with and submission to Yeshua our Messiah, and the scriptures of the Newer Covenant. But these must not be seen through supersessionist glasses, as if our encounter with Messiah replaces or obliterates our relationship with Torah. As I have been demonstrating in recent weeks, the Bible does not teach that!

May HaShem renew our days as of old.

 

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Material at end of article  from Stuart Dauermann,  “Jewish Believers in Yeshua and Halachic Torah Observance: Whether, What, and How?” in Jakob W. Nielsen and Knut H. Hoyland, Editors. Chosen to Follow: Jewish Believers through History and Today. [Jerusalem, Israel: The Caspari Center For Jewish And Biblical Studies], 2013.

 

5 Comments

  1. Stuart,
    There is certainly an avoidance among Jews and Christians to observe what ultimately is more about God and others than ourselves. If we do not see what is in it for us (actually, for me) then who are you to tell me I have to do anything? But the struggle with observance for Jews and practice for Christians is not, as you often express, about us (or me). It is about the integrity of the scriptures and the covenant that binds Israel to God and the calling that binds Christians to the God of Israel. These ideas are not attractive to sinful people. And even among those who attempt to be religious, the tendency is to observe of practice what we like or agree with. You are correct that the community (past via tradition and present via congregation) is the standard keeper of the expression but it has the same struggle. Who are they to tell me what to do? My conclusion is that repentance does require a humble submission to God and each other and the heart of that submission to God and Messiah will be expressed correctly by Jews struggling to express the covenant by restitution and obedience to the commands of HaShem and by Christians finding a related expression that demonstrates unity with the God of Israel and the Israel of God.

  2. Dear Rabbi Stuart

    You state the case for Messianic Jewish observance with rigor & compelling argument. Even those most faithful to HaShem had significant personal challenges to overcome on their journey. So despite the debate about Jews/works versus Christians/faith, HaShem demands BOTH from BOTH. And as Abraham & Moshe both show, faith + works is almost always made manifest in community. Without community, it is very hard to be people of faith or works. Without community, we find no expression save an attempt at solitary obedience, a sad & unfulfilling destination.

  3. This article sums up the others in this series very well. Personally it is quite convicting. As a gentile, all the questions I have had as to what does observance for a Christian look like? How can we (I) inculcate the precepts of Torah that are not strictly for Isra’el into my own life and ultimately into the lives of the congregation I am involved with. As a gentile I look to Dr. Stokes as a model of that with his cong in Anaheim Hills (which is to bad as I moved to Oklahoma from Anaheim). Stuart I hope these thoughts sink deep into the soil of MJ. Thank you for putting your heart into these articles as they have nit fallen on deaf ears.

  4. You have provided me with much needed clarity and knowledge on a difficult topic that has been looming in my family for several years. Having been raised in a “christian” home yet being Jewish has created a bizarre scenario for myself and my family. Until 6 years ago, my mother chose to hide our Jewish lineage. It has been a difficult transition. HaShem led me back to Torah but no one else in my family wants to follow…especially my non jewish husband. And I am criticized and judged by those I love for even the most basic things such as observance of Shabbat. I press on and pray on.

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