The Messianic Jewish Rabbi

1.3 The Messianic Jewish Rabbi: Decisions & Commentary

1.3.1 A Messianic Jewish Rabbi is a Jewish follower of Yeshua qualified by a supervised course of study, authorized by his or her ordaining authority, and empowered by the Spirit through the rite of ordination to expound and apply Torah as fulfilled in and mediated through the person, teaching, and work of Yeshua. As a custodian of Israel's revelation and holy tradition, including the Apostolic Writings, and as a disciple of Mashiach Yeshua Rabbenu, a Messianic Jewish Rabbi teaches Israel the ways of God and models this tradition for the members of the Messianic Jewish community in a manner imbued with the Spirit of God.

This definition of the nature of a Messianic Jewish Rabbi builds upon an understanding ofthe essence of what has been and continues to be common to all rabbis throughout every generation. A rabbi is defined first and foremost by his or her relationship to our sacred tradition and our community. In this role, a rabbi serves as a teacher and symbolic exemplar of Torah for the community, principally in matters of religious practice and instruction. This historical understanding of the nature of a rabbi is reflected in the text of the MJRC's Teudat Semikha (Ordination Certificate):

This document certifies that (insert full English name) has completed a course of study in the Tanakh and its interpretation, the Apostolic Writings, and the writings of the sages of the Jewish people and demonstrated exemplary character, spirituality, and fidelity to the commandments of Torah in order to become a spiritual leader and be known as a Rabbi and Teacher in Israel.

May Adonai be with him/her and prosper him/her through the Holy Spirit in his work to elevate the Torah and reverence of God. May he merit to magnify and exalt the practice of Torah as it is fulfilled and mediated in the person, the teaching, and the service of the Messiah, Yeshua, to influence all streams of our people and to draw them near to Yeshua our Messiah. Amen.

According to this definition, five things qualify an individual to serve as a Messianic Jewish Rabbi. First, a Messianic Jewish Rabbi must be Jewish in accordance with the standards of Jewish status affirmed by the MJRC. Stating explicitly that a Rabbi must be a Jew is an assertion that the MJRC stands in the historic understanding of the rabbinate in the wider Jewish community.

Second, a Messianic Jewish Rabbi must be a follower of Yeshua who exhibits commitment to Yeshua in both word and deed. Commitment to Yeshua is what distinguishes the Messianic Jewish Rabbinate. Messianic Jewish Rabbis should exemplify the life, message, and teachings of Yeshua as they seek to teach “Israel the ways of God and model this tradition for the members of the Messianic Jewish community.”

Third, a Messianic Jewish Rabbi must be qualified by a supervised course of study. Attainment of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinate cannot be acquired through self-study. Anyone aspiring to rabbinic ordination must study Scripture, learn halakhah and the traditions of Israel, and be strengthened in devotion to Yeshua the Messiah through a course of training under the supervision of one or more Messianic Jewish Rabbis (1 Peter 5:5). Such a course of study is essential for the personal and spiritual formation of the candidate and for the development of Messianic Jewish Rabbis who display integrity of thought and action (kol talmid chacham she’ein tocho kevaro einno talmid chacham “Any talmid chacham whose character does not correspond to their exterior is not a talmid chacham”; b. Yoma 72b; cf. Matthew 15:11). This understanding of rabbinic education is modeled on the practice of Messiah Yeshua and his disciples and is also evinced in classical rabbinic education (e.g., Matthew 4:18–25; b. Berachot 27a).

Fourth, ordination to the Messianic Jewish Rabbinate can only be authorized through the agency of an ordaining authority, which is normally affiliated with the educational institution overseeing the candidate’s preparation for the rabbinate. This understanding of the role of the ordaining authority in ordaining a Messianic Jewish Rabbi is adopted from traditional Jewish practice and is consonant with historic Christian practice.

Fifth, a Messianic Jewish Rabbi must be empowered by the Spirit through the rite of ordination. The Spirit plays a central role in ordaining people to particular vocations (e.g., Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9; 2 Kings 2:14–15; Acts 6:5–6, 13:2–3; 1 Timothy 4:14). Throughout the Scriptures, the giving of the Spirit is conjoined with the laying-on of hands by those in authority.

According to this definition, four functions are the essential responsibilities of all Messianic Jewish Rabbis. First, Messianic Jewish Rabbis “expound and apply Torah as fulfilled in and mediated through the person, teaching, and work of Yeshua.” The statement understands Torah in the broadest sense. At its core, the Torah entails the Scriptures revealed to Israel and canonized in the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. The Messianic Jewish Rabbi expounds and applies this Torah in light of the tradition, including the historical enrichment of the biblical heritage within the life of the community. For a Messianic Jewish Rabbi, his or her relationship to our sacred tradition and our community is approached through the person, work, and teaching of Yeshua our Rabbi and is informed by the teaching of the historic and universal Body of Messiah.

Second, Messianic Jewish Rabbis are custodians “of Israel’s revelation and holy tradition.” They stand at the nexus between the continuous tradition of the past and the communities of the present. They are the link mediating the heritage of the past to living communities today. For the Messianic Jewish Rabbinate, the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible and the Apostolic Writings constitute God’s special revelation to Israel. Israel’s holy tradition consists of the historic tradition of rabbinic interpretation and halakhic discourse. As custodians “of Israel’s revelation and holy tradition,” it is incumbent upon all Messianic Jewish Rabbis to attain Hebrew literacy, i.e., the ability to read and teach our texts, including the Siddur, with comprehension. Attainment of competence in Modern Hebrew is also commended as it exhibits the concern of Messianic Jewish Rabbis for the State of Israel and the ability of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinate to interact with this significant center of Jewish life. Basic competence in Aramaic and Greek is also commended.

Third, central to the vocation of Messianic Jewish Rabbis is the role of teaching “Israel the ways of God.” Their vocation is not merely exercised within the Messianic Jewish community but also extends to all Israel. Messianic Jewish Rabbis should call all Jewish people to deeper faithfulness to their covenantal responsibilities as Jews through the mitzvot and to clear and ongoing commitment to Messiah Yeshua. Messianic Jewish Rabbis should not regard the calling of teaching Israel the ways of God lightly. Assisting all Jews in life-cycle rituals or in the performance of any mitzvah is an opportunity to help another Jew fulfill his covenantal responsibilities and thus live in greater accordance with God’s ways. In doing so, Messianic Jewish Rabbis model and teach Messiah’s mandate to call all Jewish people back to greater covenantal faithfulness (Matthew 15:24).

Fourth, Messianic Jewish Rabbis are called to serve for the Messianic Jewish community as exemplars of the tradition they have received. The Tanakh, the Apostolic Writings, and rabbinic literature are filled with examples of people learning the ways of God not only through verbal teaching but also through their actions. Messianic Jewish Rabbis should be attentive to the fact that their modeling of the tradition cannot be undertaken apart from the work of God’s Spirit (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 2:11–12). They should seek to model “this tradition for the members of the Messianic Jewish community in a manner imbued with the Spirit of God.”

It is important to note that this definition is not meant to define how a Messianic Jewish Rabbi should spend the majority of his or her time, nor suggest that the essential and universal rabbinical role defined here captures the most important functions that every rabbi must fulfill. In fact, many, if not most, of our rabbis will continue to focus the majority of their time and energy in their roles as spiritual leaders for our congregations, administering our communal organizations, serving as chaplains, teaching in our educational institutions or serving bi-vocationally.

1.3.2 In the context of congregational life, the senior rabbi appointed by that community serves among them as their Mara d'Atra, i.e., mentor, guide, and authority in matters of religious practice and teaching, encouraging growth and unity that express the life of the Spirit of God.

The MJRC affirms the wisdom of traditional Jewish practice of deferring to the senior rabbi appointed by that community to serve as their "mentor, guide and authority of matters of religious practice and teaching." This role, known in Aramaic as Mara d'Atra (literally "Master of the Place") is based on Tannaitic precedent (m. Avot 1:6; b. Chulin 116a) and is affirmed by the later Amoraim and Geonim (e.g., b. Shabbat 19b, 46a; b. Eruvin 94a). The importance of the Mara d'Atra in local synagogue life continues to be affirmed in the Conservative or Masorti and Orthodox communities.

The Mara d'Atra is appointed to serve his or her community and provide for them in all areas oflife. The Mara d'Atra should encourage personal and spiritual growth among the members of the community, guiding them to deeper fidelity to the Torah and Messiah Yeshua. This point is particularly important given that the Mara d'Atra is responsible for the spiritual care and leadership of the community (Hebrews 13:17). While the responsibility and authority of the Mara d'Atra are great in a local synagogue, he or she is not immune from criticism if his or her decisions are made in error or in opposition to explicit biblical commands (see the comments of Rabbi Menachem Meiri and Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, i.e., the Ritva, to b. Eruvin 94a).

The appointment of Mara d'Atra is important for each local community in that it establishes clearly from whom members of that community should seek definitive guidance in matters of religious practice and teaching. In communities of which several ordained rabbis are members or appointed to serve in rabbinical roles in the community, the adoption of the tradition of the Mara d'Atra clarifies lines of authority among them and for the community.

1.3.3 In concert with the example of Messiah Yeshua and the teaching of scripture concerning the leadership roles of men and women, we affirm the ordination of women as Messianic Jewish Rabbis.

In issuing this standard, the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC) welcomes women to use their God-given spiritual gifts in our community as leaders, rabbis, and teachers.

Scripture contains a number of examples of women who hold significant roles in leading and shaping the life of the people of Israel and the early community of Yeshua's followers - Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Esther, Junia (Romans 16:7), and Phoebe (Romans 16:1) to name a few. Scripture often describes these women as having significant positions of leadership within the community: judges, prophets, deacons, emissaries, etc. We regard these women leaders in the Tanach and Apostolic Writings as models rather than as exceptional cases reflecting communal disorder or the lack of men of sufficient caliber to serve as leaders in the community.

In the case of Deborah, the book of Judges describes her as both prophet and judge, roles which Jewish tradition understands as central to the position of rabbi (Judges 4:4). Traditional interpretation of Deborah's work as judge views her as a paradigm of the role a woman can have in Jewish religious life (see the Tosafot in b. Gittin 88b; b. Baba Kamma 15a; b. Nida 50a; cf. Sefer haChinuch 158). According to these opinions, a wise woman (Ishah Hachamah) can teach and instruct, and a community may accept such a woman as its spiritual and halakhic guide, which are central communal roles of a rabbi.

In addition to the cases where women are explicitly named, scripture may testify to women serving in leadership roles where groups of leaders are mentioned and scripture does not specify that the group only consists of men. In both ancient Greek and Hebrew, mixed groups of men and women are described with nouns, pronouns, and verbal suffixes that are marked as masculine (e.g., benei Yisrael = "children of Israel," not "sons of Israel"). Given Paul's reference to specific women serving as emissaries and deacons (e.g., Romans 16:1, 7), it may well be the case that when Paul speaks of broad categories of assembly leadership in other letters written by him that those lists include both men and women (1 Corinthians 12:28; Philippians 1:1; Ephesians 2:20; 4:11).

Additionally, Messiah Yeshua himself elevated the status of women in a highly patriarchal Greco-Roman culture. For example, he transgressed social boundaries by talking with the Samaritan woman at the well about theology, worship, infidelity, and eternal life (John 4). He also welcomed women into his circle of students and friends.

These women were the last at the cross (Mark 15:40–47). They were the first at his tomb and first to bear witness to his resurrection, the very substance of the besorah (e.g., Matthew 28:8–10). Messiah Yeshua’s first disciples continued this tradition of transgressing the dominant cultural norms of their day by elevating the status of women in their communities. Paul also makes no distinction between spiritual gifts given to men and women (1 Corinthians 12:1–31). In fact, the outpouring of the Spirit recorded in Acts 2:17–18 (quoting Joel 2:28–32) includes both men and women exercising spiritual gifts (in particular, prophecy) in partnership and equality in God’s kingdom.

We recognize that there are passages in the letters of Paul that historically have been interpreted to restrict women’s participation in teaching and communal leadership in settings involving men (1 Corinthians 14:26–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15). The broader trajectory of Scripture regarding women, the examples from the Pauline epistles of women functioning in leadership roles (including teaching) noted earlier, and Paul’s own teaching on the equality of spiritual gifts complicate such a reading. In the case of 1 Corinthians 14:34, we understand the specific injunction to be made to women who are in the position of learners not teachers and concerns their talking (lalein) disruptively while someone else is instructing the congregation. In the case of 1 Timothy 2:12, there is good support for understanding the restriction as being against women who domineer or usurp (authetein) proper authority (see Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 291–444). In this regard, the restriction is not against women exercising authority or teaching per se but in exercising authority in such a way as to usurp appropriately ordained or designated authority.

We make this decision to affirm the ordination of women because of the teaching of Scripture and tradition regarding this matter. Nevertheless, it is important to note that we are not alone in our affirmation of the ordination of women. There is in fact a great transition in the wider Jewish world to welcoming women to serve the community as rabbis (as well as women being ordained as ministers and serving in pastoral roles in a number of Protestant denominations). There are rare cases of women serving in rabbinical roles before the 20th century. For instance, in the 17th century Asenath Barzani served as a rabbi among the Kurds. In the 19th century, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher was a female Hasidic rebbe in Ludmir. The first formally ordained woman was Regina Jonas in Germany in 1935. In America, major streams of liberal Judaism have followed suit: Reform (1972), Reconstructionist (1974), Renewal (1981), Conservative (1985), and Humanist (1999). In general, the various streams of Orthodoxy have not embraced women’s ordination. Some leading figures and institutions in Modern Orthodoxy such as Rabbi Avi Weiss in America and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem have founded rabbinical training programs in recent years that either include women or are specifically geared towards women. Rabba Sara Hurwitz was ordained by Rabbi Weiss in 2010. Some leading Orthodox rabbinical figures have issued teshuvot in support of women’s ordination including Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, and Rabbi Joshua Maroof.

Consonant with the standards of the MJRC, we affirm that all Messianic Jewish Rabbis, male or female, should view the observance of the mitzvot as central to their rabbinical vocation. Women who are studying for the rabbinate or ordained as Messianic Jewish Rabbis should voluntarily take upon themselves the obligation to observe time-bound mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted (e.g., Shema and Tefillin; m. Kiddushin 1:7; m. Berachot 3:3; see Section Men, Women, and Basic Practices Related to Prayer” of the MJRC Standards).