What is a Nominally Jewish Jewish Believer in Yeshua and Does it Matter?

September 10, 2015

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.”[1]  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.

One comment on “What is a Nominally Jewish Jewish Believer in Yeshua and Does it Matter?”

  1. Hmmm... a nominal Jew; a Jew in name only. So what constitutes a Jewish identity; what is a Jew, what is a good Jew and what is a bad Jew? What ought to characterize a Jew who is *not* merely "nominal"?

    I've only just now stumbled onto this little drashah, some few years after it was originally posted, apparently as an introductory meditation for the high holidays. Nevertheless I would like to address its ideas. I'd like to take it a step beyond the introduction preceding the "yamim ha-noraim", to consider a feature of the period's concluding holiday, Sukkot. The lulav that is waved during Sukkot comprises four objects, three of which are branches and one is a fruit. They are each characterized in terms of fragrance and taste. One has a taste but no fragrance, another fragrance but no taste, another has neither and the fourth has both. These characteristics are deemed symbols of Torah knowledge and good deeds, and all Jews are deemed to be characterizeable by whether they reflect one or the other, neither or both. The injunction about the lulav is that all of these four kinds nonetheless must be bound together to form the entirety of a people who are bound together by the Torah covenant. The wondrous thing about people is that they can grow and change -- hence no one who lacks either of the two characteristics is constrained to remain so, but can make efforts to acquire whatever is lacking, and is to be encouraged to do so.

    Now, the term "nominal Jew" might be viewed as rather a "minimal Jew", whose criteria for identification with the covenanted people reflect neither of the actively acquirable characteristics of Torah knowledge or good deeds, but only a minimalistic halachic definition of having a Jewish mother, or an even more tenuous non-halachic connection such as one Jewish grandparent of either gender. This can be sufficient to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, but may not be sufficient for the Interior Ministry to register one as a Jew -- which can limit one's future marital prospects or those of one's children. A nominal convert, on the other hand, is almost an oxymoron -- though I suppose it is possible in some streams of non-halachic Judaism for a non-Jewish spouse or fiancé to be certified via some minimalistic training as a fig-leaf to conceal an effectively non-Jewish intermarriage.

    The more important question, then, is not about how nominal or minimal is an individual's connection with the Jewish people and its covenant; but rather how to awaken an awareness of one's condition and a motivation to improve it -- so that a nominal Jew may develop beyond mere association with other nominal Jews or with some sense of "the Jewish idea". The goal is to learn the praxis and values of Judaism that are basic to the Jewish heritage, and to learn the halachah which guides the praxis, and to learn the Torah upon which the halachah is based and from which it developed -- which together constitute the covenantal heritage.

    The essay above addressed the notion of "JBY" -- Jewish Believers in Yeshua. I wish to challenge this notion of identity as "believers". While certainly there are core beliefs associated with the Torah and comprised within Judaism, I assert that haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef did not seek to make "believers"; nor did he instruct his disciples to do so. He instructed them to make "disciples" -- people dedicated to a discipline based in teachings. In other words, he was encouraging practical obedience to the ways of Torah. If there is any doubt about this, one need only consult his statements in Mt.5:17-20 and consider how he based the very notion of experiencing the kingdom of heaven upon it. I suppose it would be much more difficult to reconcile the notion of discipleship with that of nominality than to be a nominal believer or a nominal Jew or both. In the season of the high holidays, and, indeed, in all seasons, I would encourage Jews to pursue discipleship to the principles of the Torah covenant, and to the Jewish praxis that expresses them. Likewise they should encourage other Jews to do the same. Rav Yeshua's younger brother Yakov expressed a similar sentiment in his letter, in Jam.2:26, when he wrote that faith without action is a dead thing. Those who seek to be inscribed in the book of life are well-advised to avoid that deadly combination; but instead, by their Jewish actions, to choose life -- not only for themselves, but for the wholeness of the Jewish people and the covenantal kingdom.

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