Taking a brief break from our current series, The Torah’s Goalkeeper, let’s look at the issue of nominality.
Many of us have heard the term “nominal Christian.” In the circles in which many of us travel, this term describes people who are not committed to the meaning of the label they claim, but bear the label “Christian” without experiencing or investing in the real meaning of the label. But let’s forget about the other guy for now.
Today let’s look at how one would define a nominally Jewish Jewish Believer in Jesus. Since the levels of Jewish observance among Jewish Believers in Yeshua (JBY) are so diverse, a question arises, “What does it mean for a Jewish believer in Yeshua (JBY) to be only nominally Jewish?”
Here are some ideas. First a definition.
A nominally Jewish Jewish Believer in Yeshua (JBY) is a Jew by birth or a convert to Judaism whose claim to Jewish identity is grounded in tokenism, nostalgia, and genetics (this last criterion is not true of converts to Judaism, who of course do not have the genetics mentioned here). What makes a nominal JBY to be nominal in his/her Jewish identity is a lack of ongoing evidence of Jewish communal bonds and covenantal commitment. The telltale question to ask such parties is, “How have you grown as a Jew lately?”
Let’s unpack that for a while.
What do we mean by “tokenism?” Tokenism may be defined as“formal or superficial compliance with a law, requirement, convention.” This being so, we may define tokenism as it applies to Jewish nominalism as “formal or superficial compliance with the laws, requirements, or conventions of Judaism, what is commonly understood as the Jewish covenantal way of life.” Formal. Superficial. But in no sense an investment of one’s life.
Many nominal Jews will wax nostalgic about their families of origin. Fine. Nostalgia is here a fond recollection of or longing for things past. But if one’s connection to Jewish religious identity is built on memories, often memories of relatives rather than oneself, how does this remove one from the category of nominality?
Genetics is commonly used as the criterion for claiming Jewish identity. In our current dicussion, “genetics” names the claim to Jewish identity on the basis of lineage. While this claim is valid as far as it goes, and is essential to claiming a valid Jewish identity (with the exception, again of converts, who neither have nor need the genetic component), mere genetics is insufficient to negate the charge of nominalism in those cases where the person’s life is otherwise characterized by tokenism and mere nostalgia about Jewish life rather than exhibiting an ongoing and current engagement with Jewish covenantal life and community.
As you can see, I am speaking of Jewish identity as a covenantal religious identity. But it is of course a social identity as well. Since laying claim to Jewish identity means to claim a certain social location, that is connectedness to a people, it is inadequate and false to claim Jewish identity without ongoing evidence of maintaining connectedness to the Jewish community and its covenantal way of being together in the world. But of course there is a big exception that must be borne in mind. It must be said that those who lack Jewish religious commitment and who are nevertheless meaningfully bonded with and in many cases, actively engaged in the well being of the Jewish State, are authentically Jewish. But note: this is because they are exhbiting evidence of a communal bond with this people. This helps establish and verify their social location.
Here in the Diaspora there are many JBY who will claim Jewish identity on the following basis: “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew!” I am sure many of you have heard this, or even said it. But the question is, will such persons be born and die as nominal Jews? Doesn’t the claim to Jewish identity demand more of us? I believe it does!
This week’s Torah reading is from Parshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29-30. It speaks to us of the communal bond and covenantal commitment which must be embraced by those Jews who wish their Jewish identity to be more than nominal. Moses is here addressing the people of Israel, 38 years after the giving of the Torah on Sinai. The next generation is preparing to go into the Land under the leadership of Joshua:
9 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10 your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer — 11 to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12 to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14 but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
Notice the text speaks of both a covenantal reality to be honored, and a communal identity to be embraced. We are in this covenant together. And note that the last two verses of the passage speak of “both . . . those who are are standing here with us this day . . . and those who are not with us here this day.” That latter category names all Jews of succeeding generations.
If you or I wish to be more than simply nominally Jewish, or nominally Jewish Jews who believe in Yeshua, then we need to align our lives with the communal location and covenantal commitment outlined in this passage.
This week I had lunch with a young man who I have known for nearly 20 years. He is married, has a Jewish home, a wonderful wife and two lovely kids. We discussed nominality as I have defined it here. He said to me, “That used to be me! My parents are still nominal!” He is a young man, a Yeshua believer, who decided he needed to move beyond nominality.
How about you? Are you listening to the call of this Torah passage from Parshat Nitzavim? Or is nominality all you are prepared to offer your ancestors, your God, and the generations yet to come?
The tell-tale question I want to leave you with is this. How have you grown as a Jew lately? If you are at a loss to answer this question then what does that mean about your Jewish status? The opposite of being nominal is being committed. Are you committed to Jewish life and Jewish community?
During this season, it’s a good question to ask and answer.
L’Shana Tovah Tikatevu–May you be inscribed for a good year. A year of commitment. But I hope, not a year of nominality. It’s up to you.