In response to my most recent blog, found here, my old friend Glenn Harris wrote this comment:
Splendidly written, Stuart! It is so in concert with Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 7, and the larger message of Isaiah 56.
But I am a bit perplexed. On the very principle you articulate, shouldn’t we absolutely discourage the practice of converting Gentiles to Messianic “Jews”? It was my understanding that you support such conversions.
Here is my answer in the form of a series of bullet points:
Well, Glenn, No, we shouldn't categorically discourage the practice of conversion, athough we should discourage this in many cases. Actually I am in favor of a responsibly administered conversion process because it is necessary to preserve proper distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.But such conversions should be rare and exceptional, and the mark of a well administered conversion process is the demonstrated willingness to decline candidates seeking such conversions.
The problem nowadays is that Gentiles are being made to feel like second class citizens, or feel themselves to be second class citizens in the Kingdom of God because they are not Jewish. This is WRONG! Gentiles are NOT second class citizens and in no manner whatsoever do they or can they improve their citizenship in the Kingdom of God through “discovering their Jewish roots,” through deciding they are part of the lost tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, or any such thing. In other words, not only are Gentiles not second class citizens, they also do not become in some manner super-citizens through discovering or creating some sort of Jewish identity.
Anyone who merchandises conversions to Messianic Judaism for Gentiles in order to in some manner enhance theses Gentiles’ sense of self or spiritual security is wrong to do so, and this is a grievous sin against the individuals involved and against the gospel.
Many people act like the Torah is a book they may apply any way they choose, and that by doing so, they are being more faithful to God than those who do not bother to do so. Some even imagine that by doing so, they become in some manner Jewish. Such people are naïve and in error.
The Torah is not a book we happened to find and which we may interpret as we choose, but rather it is the national constitution of a people. It must be understood as the community property of the Jewish people, and must be understood and interpreted in keeping with millennia of Jewish discussion and practice. It is not like the Koran, which allegedly came down entire from heaven, or like the Book of Mormon, allegedly found on golden plates hidden in the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York. No, Torah is the way of life of the Jewish people, it enshrines the decorum appropriate to the Jewish people as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, the way of life appropriate to this people serving in the courts of the King of Kings.
The New Testament teaches that ritual circumcision is the initiatory rite whereby one becomes part of this people and takes on the obligation to obey Torah in concert with this people—not as a now demonstrably enlightened soul—but as a member of a people, living in harmony with them in their historically crafted service of God.
Torah is not a plaything, nor is it something which all may interpret as they choose while assuming that their interpretation is just as valid as anyone else’s. No, Torah living is the way of life of a people, and the understanding of that way of life has evolved through this people’s discussion and historical experience. Those who respect Torah, and who respect this people, will respect this way of life and how it has evolved.
Ruth chooses Naomi, her people and her God, and Orpah returns to the land of Moab
The primary focus of Jewish conversion is becoming part of a people, and this people is oblgated to a certain kind of covenantal life. This is why Ruth says "your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God." Notice the order!
You mention 1 Corinthians chapter seven, Glenn. Good. In that chapter, Paul’s assumption is that Jews are obliged to keep Torah, and Gentiles are not. Jewish identity is not about becoming mishpocha with Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen. Being or becoming a Jew is about being part of that people who is obliged to keep/observe/obey Torah, as I have been describing it.
This being the case, there are SOME people, a very small minority of Gentiles, whose desire to identify with this people and their way of life is so strong and demonstrable, that they seek to formally join this people and to participate in their covenantal obligation—a life of Torah obedience in concert with the Jewish historical stream. For such people, and in order to guard the sanctity of Jewish life from being treated like a plaything by people who feel free to define it as they choose, it is appropriate that there be a rigorous process of discerning if the persons in question truly have a divine call to this kind of deep identification with the seed of Jacob. And when an appropriate set of authorities, a Bet Din, decides that this calling is mature, not pathological or immature, not out of some misbegotten desire to flee from Gentile identity, or due to some sense that somehow becoming a Jew will enhance their intimacy with God—when all these hurdles are cleared, and when such people are put through the rigors of an appropriately designed and supervised educational and formational program, in such rare cases, conversion is a possibility and always a holy responsibility.
This kind of conversion does not blur distinctions but preserves them, treating Jewish identity as separate and distinct, treasured, and not to be assumed or treated lightly. And again, this has NOTHING to do with enhancing one’s standing with God. Rather it involves a deep bonding with a people as demonstrated by taking on a lifetime of obligation to live a covenantal Jewish life such as would be recognized as Jewishly and religiously normal by the broader Jewish community.
Finally, there are still many Gentiles who want to take up Torah in the manner they choose. In the case of males I remind them that if they are serious about living a Torah life, the first thing they need to do is become ritually circumcised, and thus take on the yoke of Torah. If they are not willing to do this, then they are just playing with Torah. And if they do, then, if that ritual circumcision is properly administered by authorized representatives of the Jewish community, the individual in question is no longer a Gentile. In the case of women, the rite of passage is mikveh, also rightly administered by those appropriate to do so.
Having a rite of passage whereby a select minority of Gentiles can take on Jewish identity as a covenantal obligation is a necessary means of preserving the God-given distinction (not separation!) between Gentile and Jew. Otherwise, we slip toward a bluring of distinctions and inevitably into confusion. And that confusion is already upon us, isn't it?
In conjunction with the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Rich Nichol has written with great clarity about conversion to Messianic Judaism in an article found here.