I am continuing to read in Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. Even though it is a short book and popularly written, I am finding it so interesting that it’s taking a long time to get through it. I plan on reporting to you about the book in the next few blog posts, sharing information I find interesting. I will also be advising you what to expect, and what not to expect from your own reading of it.
There’s a lot here to challenge our unconscious habit of thinking “Well that’s the way it’s always been, everyone knows that!”
As we began to discuss last time, one of our false assumptions is this one: “Christianity and Judaism are separate religions. That’s the way it’s always been, everyone knows that!” Boyarin demonstrates that this is not at all true. On the contrary, in the beginning, belief in Jesus as Messiah, belief that he was God in human flesh, even belief in the Trinity was acceptable Jewish space, part of a Jewish stream of discourse that had been going on long before Jesus was born. As we saw last time, even the concept of “religion” was a Johnny come lately concept invented by the church as a means of categorically excluding the possibility that one could live among Jews as a Jew and still call oneself a Christian.
My story is one of possibilities cut off by authorities, both Orthodox Christian leaders such as Jerome on the one hand and “orthodox”—for Judaism the term is an anachronism and maybe even a misnomer—rabbinic or “Pharisaic” authorities on the other.
As I said, let’s look at this for a while.
The dividing lines between communities, in this case the Jesus-believing world and the Jewish world, do not just exist: they are made, they are enforced by communal and religious authorities. They are not just part of “the way things are,” but are instead part of “the way someone has decided things will/should be.” They are constructs, and the boundaries can change from time to time and under various conditions. Walls go up, and sometimes walls come down.
As an example, consider the status of Hasidim in the wider Jewish world. When Hasidism first developed, the gatekeepers of Judaism were fixated on knowing Jewish sources, adhering to Jewish norms, and thinking and living in accord with established precedent. Hasidism was rejected as heretical by the religious establishment under the leadership of the Gaon of Vilna, the mega-genius leader of Lithuanian Jewry in that time. Hasidism’s stress on joy as a form of direct access to God, its view that God is not only everywhere but in all things, in its earliest days, its ecstatic and at times extravagant modes of prayer, and its veneration of its leaders, its rebbes, all these were viewed as dangerous and heretical. But did these boundaries remain? No they did not. Boundaries are constructs, they are negotiated, and sometimes change.
That’s what happened with Hasidism. As their leaders became more engaged in study, and as the threat of the secularizing Haskalah movement increased, Hasidism and its opponents, the mithnaggedim [“opponents”], closed ranks. And in more recent years, the devastation of the Hasidic communities during the Shoah made them to be more sympathetic figures to other Jews. Today, although not all would choose to be Hasidim, and although some might look down their noses in one way or another, generally, no one doubts their place as part of normative Judaism. What was taken as a given in the 18th century—the exclusion of Hasidism from normative Judaism is no longer a given today. And what is taken as a given today, the inclusion of Hasidism in normative Judaism was not always the case.
Here’s a more modern example. I remember when Jews for Jesus began in the 1970s in Marin County. This was at the height of what is called the Jesus Revolution. It was at the height of the hippie movement in California. Lots of creative ferment and renegotiating of boundaries. Jews for Jesus was brand-new back then. The Jewish community had not yet decided what to do about this. There was a Jewish Community Fair where Jews for Jesus was allowed to attend, have a booth, and even allowed to conduct a workshop. However, when the leaders saw that the Jews for Jesus workshop was better attended than anything else at the Fair, the Northern California Board of Rabbis closed ranks. They came out with a pronouncement forbidding any Jewish organization to give Jews for Jesus any opportunity to give presentations or otherwise influence institutional life in any of its member organizations and congregations. As Daniel Boyarin wrote, this was a story of “possibilities cut off by authorities.”
So what’s the point? Three suggestions, a word of encouragement, a word of warning, and a word of advice:
- A word of encouragement: Boundaries change, and God is the ultimate change agent. In so many areas once seemed impossible is now possible. The same is true in the religious world. I remember hearing a prominent rabbi-scholar speak years ago at a conference of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. He said, “You people are Jews. You should remain Jews and continue to believe in Jesus.” I never thought I would live to see the day when I would hear something like that from such a person. This doesn’t mean that everything has changed. It does mean that people change and boundaries change.
- A word of warning: Don’t imagine that the Jewish community is the problem, and if they would only change there would be no problem. That is a self-serving comment. The Jewish community’s negative responses to Jews believing in Jesus have a context and they have a logic. Generally, when Jews become believers in Jesus, they stop living like Jews and caring about Jewish communal continuity. Historically, believing in Jesus usually created a tear in the Jewish community fabric leading to tragic results and grievous loss. At the very least, it has generally led to grandchildren who think that maybe their grandparents were Jews, but they are not sure.
- A word of advice: Let’s make sure that we develop a form of Messianic Judaism and messianic congregational life which upholds the sanctity of the Jewish people and of Jewish life. This is not a matter of our beliefs, or our principles. It is a matter of our conduct. At the very least, when people enter our congregations and interact with our people, they should encounter something which looks, feels, tastes, and smells like Judaism. We claim that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah. Ours is a religious message. Don’t you think it’s crucial that we live like religious Jews? This doesn’t mean we all have to live like orthodox Jews. It does mean that we should all be observant in some meaningful way. Until and unless we do, why should we imagine that Jewish people would consider our message to be a truly Jewish religious message, and us, no threat? On what basis could we therefore expect that the boundaries would change?
The boundaries can change. The only question is, can we?