In Part 1, we looked at how the Messianic Movement is very much walking in the path of our Master and His first disciples by blurring boundaries that were once thought clear and sacrocinct. In this part, we’re going to look at the necessity of errecting, adopting, or otherwise redefining a set of boundaries for ourselves.
The early Ekklesia certainly did not simply tear down all of the old barriers and leave the assembly without any definition. If we use the analogy of a house, profession of faith in Yeshua was the doorway and ritual immersion the foyer. But one wouldn’t build a doorway and a foyer for a wide-open field. Every house needs its walls. In the case of the Emissaries, they established a set of walls that were a bit wider on one side than on the other. The expectation of the Jewish disciples is that they would become more zealous for the Torah (see our article on Acts 15), not less, and that they would continue within the common traditional practices of their various communities–that is, the priests would continue in the tradition of priests (Acts 6:7), the Pharisees would remain Pharisees (Acts 15:5, 23:6; Mat. 23:2f), and the Galileans would continue in the somewhat more relaxed practices of Galilean Judaism (as per our article on Gal. 2:11-17). The uniting factor was the belief in Yeshua’s Messiahship, Sacrifice, and Resurrection and the receiving of His Spirit.
For the Gentile disciples that were coming in, the walls were even more broad, with membership requiring confession of Messiah and Israel’s God, ritual immersion (Acts 10:47), adherence to four commandments derived from the “universal” commands in Leviticus 17-18 (see our second article on Acts 15 for details), and evidence of receiving the Spirit of the Holy One (Acts 10:47, 15:8). This evidence was not restricted to supernatural displays, but in a changed life (Gal. 5:22-26; pretty much the whole point of Ephesians), with an expectation that they would continue in the synagogues–whether the “mainstream” synagogues or those set up by the Nazarenes–to continue to learn about the Torah (Acts 15:21) and grow. Those who fell into flagrant sin–even sins not directly forbidden by the Acts 15 council–were subject to excommunication (1Co. 5).
So we see that while the Nazarene movement had what we would term today “a big tent,” it definitely did set its own boundaries. We also see that there was an expectation of a kind of dual-citizenship in which they would, if possible, maintain their relationship with their original community and/or sect of Judaism in addition to staying within the walls of the new Messianic movement. In fact, it was Yeshua’s own teaching that one should not withdraw into His Assembly at the expense of providing light to others (Mat. 5:14-16; Luke 16:1-8, which is actually a commentary on the Essenes, “the Sons of the Light”). Therefore, centurions were not commanded to cease serving the pagan armies of Rome, nor were Pharisees expected to depart from their exacting keeping of the Written and Oral Torah.
Therefore, the question that each assembly within the Messianic community must answer today is what community it belongs to.
The majority of American Messianic assemblies today have no sense of identity with any other group beyond themselves, and this isolationism is both contrary to Scripture and fatal to the long-term viability of the movement. It is not necessary for the movement as a whole to all get on board a single train with a single destination in order to maintain the loose fellowship and association which we enjoy today. But the question that each assembly and each organization must answer decisively is, “Are we Torah-Loving Christians? Or are we Yeshua-loving Jews?”
The Messianic movement mostly started as, and continues to be dominated today, by Torah-loving (or Hebrew Roots) Christians. These brethren love the Torah–especially the Feasts–and love the Jewish people, but when it comes down to their own self-identity, they are fundamentally Christian. This is not an ethnic distinction, for many Jews who have converted to Christianity and their children and grandchildren no longer really feel connected to the Jewish community the way they do the Christian community (which is, in fact, a great tragedy, and one that reflects very poorly on the Assembly of Yeshua). They, for the most part, stay within the boundaries of traditional Christian creeds and practices, with the obvious exceptions.
Messianic Judaism, on the other hand, properly finds its identity within the Jewish people. This is not to say that we are separate from our Gentile Sunday-brethren in Spirit, let alone our Hebrew-roots close-cousins, but our practices, prayers, creeds, and lives set us apart from cultural Christianity. The problem that we face is that many groups and assemblies claim to be Messianic Jews, few are willing to accept the Jewish identity boundaries as set by the rabbis. In fact, a very ant-rabbinic attitude is very common. This error, if left unchallenged and unchanged, will set us forever outside of the bounds of Jewish identity.
This is not mere polemic, but a logical point that is actually the teaching of the New Covenant Scriptures. When Paul tells us to respect and obey the authorities (Rom. 13:1), are we to imagine that he thought that his readers should obey the pagan Roman authorities, but reject utterly the proper authorities of the Jewish people? Paul himself submitted to the Jewish authorities, even accepting the penalty of forty-strokes-minus-one on five separate occasions to avoid excommunication from the community (2Co. 11:24; m.Sanhedrin 3:15 explicitly states that one who had been flogged could not be excommunicated but must be received back as a brother). Note that he did not do so at the expense of the Gospel, but he was willing to accept the judgment of the elders. Likewise, Peter and John would not back down from proclaiming Yeshua, but were willing to submit to the punishment of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19, 5:40).
How then can so many Messianic Jews expect to have their claim to be a part of the Jewish community taken seriously when they reject the authorities of the Jewish community, i.e., the rabbis?
If we are going to ask the Jewish community to redefine its boundaries to include Jews who believe in Yeshua, should we not be willing to make sacrifices to move into the boundaries of Jewish authority?
Let us take the issue of kosher, for example. Many Messianics will keep what they claim to be “Biblical kosher,” which basically comes down to not eating pork and shellfish. However, they don’t take effort to remove all the blood (which, according to Acts 15 is incumbent on even Gentile believers), let alone order from kosher butchers and suppliers (those who slaughter the animal “as I [Hashem] have commanded you” [Deu. 12:21]), and freely eat sirloin in violation of Gen. 32:32. They very rarely try to separate meat and dairy, even though this has been the accepted understanding of “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exo. 23:19, 34:26; Deu. 14:21) since the times of the Messiah (m.Hullin 8:4f).
Is it possible to dispute the rabbinic interpretation of any of these passages? Sure. I can even point to Jewish authors who will dispute the meat-and-dairy proscription. But should we do so only for the sake of our own convenience at the expense of closing ears in the traditional Jewish community to the Good News? “Do not destroy with your food him for whom Messiah died” (Rom. 14:15).
It is not necessary in that every Messianic Jew take on the strictest form of glatt kosher. Even within the traditional community, rabbinic opinions vary widely on almost any halakhic decision. Any book on kashrut, for example will have as its most common phrase, “In case of [fill in the blank], consult your rabbi.” And there are certainly cases where there are direct conflicts between rabbinic teachings and those of our Messiah–not as many as many Christians assume, but they are there. In all such cases, we must of course follow our Great Rabbi.
Therefore, this is not a post calling for all Messianics to become Orthodox in their practice. It is rather a call to reconsider our blithe attitude towards the rabbis. A Messianic synagogue that follows the Shulchan Aruch is far more likely to fulfill its mission to provoke parallel zealousness in the Jewish community (Rom. 11:14) than one that is seen as a Christian church playing at being Jewish with a few Hebrew phrases. By the same token, just as levels of observance in the Jewish community today and the community of the days of the Emissaries vary greatly, we need to carefully define our own “boundary markers” of what it means to be a Messianic broadly enough to draw together in fellowship rather than disintegrate into sectarianism.