Issues of Status

2.1 Introduction: Who is Jewish?

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" (John Donne). The same could be said of our movement - we are not an island, entitled to do exactly as we please without reference to others. We are inter­connected, not only with each other in our congregations and in our movement, but also with our people Israel, with Yeshua-believers from all nations, with all humankind, past, present and future. Therefore, what we do must be done with due respect for all concerned.

Because Jews are a shrinking minority, the issue of who claims Jewish identity and on what basis is an especially heated one. Although being Jewish in 21st century America exacts little or no social cost, this is a recent phenomenon. All of us who are Jews have parents, grandparents, or great- grandparents who endured persecutions, deprivations, and devastations simply because they were Jews. And since we are connected not only to our immediate families, but also to the Jewish people throughout time, when we claim Jewish identity we are laying hold of something precious and costly to a people who have suffered millennia for the privilege of calling themselves Jews.

The Jewish people exists today, and will exist forever, because God has promised that it will do so, and because God is faith­ful to His promise. At the same time, the primary causality of God is normally active in the world through intermediate causes. In this case one of the means God has used to preserve Israel has been Israel's concern for a national consensus on who is and is not a Jew. As a divine instrument employed for a holy end, this concern - and the discussion and decisions it has produced - should be treated with honor and respect.

Therefore, whenever we in the Messianic Jewish movement lay claim to Jewish identity, or whenever we attribute that identity to one of our number, we must take pains to do so in a manner that respects the norms of the wider Jewish world.

In a movement like ours, with many Gentiles who value Jewish life, it would be easy to succumb to the temptation to assign Jewish identity to whoever wanted to lay claim to it. We must not do so. People do not become Jews on their own terms, nor on the basis of their avowed spiritual testimonies. Jewish identity is a communal reality that can only be granted by appropriate community representatives, not something one grabs for oneself from the table of available options, or establishes independently through private revelation.

This must not and does not mean that Gentiles are to be denied status in our movement, or that such persons should regard themselves, or be regarded by others, as second class citizens, God forbid. Never­theless, of those who are born Gentile only those who have gone through a responsible halakhic conversion are entitled to claim the name "Jew." Some, who have Jewish ancestors three or four generations past, should more properly identify themselves as persons of Jewish background.

For those of us who are Jews, or converts through a credible communal process, the definition provided in our standards is one the Jewish world can appreciate as being respectful of the wider community at whose table we are now claiming our place.


2.1.1 Following the consensus of Jewish tradition, we recognize as a Jew anyone who is born of a Jewish mother or who is a convert to Judaism.

We also recognize as a Jew anyone who is born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother if that person has undertaken public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.

In 1947 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) of the Reform movement affirmed in principle the traditional understanding that children born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother required conversion to be considered Jews. However, they also ruled that the conversion need not be a formal event involving mikveh and beit din: "With regard to infants, the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion." In practice, therefore, the children were accepted as Jews if the parents raised them as Jews, though the language of "conversion" was retained as a link to the traditional understanding. This link enabled them to present their approach as application of the Jewish consensus in new circumstances rather than as a radical innovation.

In 1968 the Reconstructionist movement adopted the same practice as Reform, but eliminated any reference to the child's "conversion": "the Reconstructionist Movement and its affiliated institutions will consider these children Jews if the parents have committed themselves to rear their children as Jews, by providing circumcision for boys, Jewish education for boys and girls, and if the children fulfill the requirements of bar and bat mitzvah or confirmation." This decision of the Reconstructionists did not elevate patrilineal descent to the same level as matrilineal descent as the basis for determining Jewish status, since the conditional quality of the child's Jewish status only applied to those born of non-Jewish mothers, whereas the children of Jewish mothers and non- Jewish fathers were accepted as Jews without condition.

In 1983 the Reform movement abandoned its attempt to present its approach as a mere application of a historical Jewish consensus. Not only did it drop the language of "conversion" in reference to the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, it took the momentous step of placing matrilineal and patrilineal descent on the same level. The same conditional quality of Jewish status would now apply to the children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: "This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the status of a child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or the father is Jewish."

Like the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, we in the MJRC accept patrilineal descent as sufficient for Jewish status if it is accompanied by appropriate actions. According to the Reconstructionists, those actions include the following: "if the parents have committed themselves to rear their children as Jews, by providing circumcision for boys, Jewish education for boys and girls, and if the children fulfill the requirements of bar and bat mitzvah or confirmation." The Reform movement speaks in general of "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people," and then provides specific examples of what it has in mind: "mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant [i.e., circumcision], acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, bar/bat mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation)." Thus, patrilineal descent is not sufficient in itself to establish Jewish status. Such descent must be accompanied by public and formal acts of commitment to the Jewish faith and the Jewish people if it is to confer upon a person the privileges and obligations inherent in being a Jew.

The Reform ruling also addresses another case that is especially relevant in our circumstances, namely, the situation where an adult born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother reclaims his or her Jewish inheritance: "For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi."

Nevertheless, we in the MJRC are not entirely in accord with the Reform movement's approach to Jewish status. In contrast to the Reform movement, we in the MJRC do not treat patrilineal and matrilineal descent in an equivalent manner. This would lead to a narrowing of the traditional reckoning of Jewish status rather than its broadening. One could conceive of cases where Orthodox and Conservative authorities would accept someone's Jewish status whereas Reform authorities would deny it. As Messianic Jews, we should never find ourselves in a situation where we deny Jewish status to those accepted as Jews by most in the wider Jewish community.

The Reform decision also departs dramatically from the historical Jewish consensus regarding the sufficiency of matrilineal descent for determining Jewish status. In this matter we see no good reason for such a radical departure.

 

2.2 Kohen and Levi

Following the consensus of Jewish tradition, we recognize as a Kohen (Priest) a man who is born to a father who is a Kohen and a mother who is herself born to a Jewish mother. Similarly, we recognize as a Levi (Levite) a man who is born of afather who is a Levi and a mother who either is herself born to a Jewish mother oris a convert to Judaism.

The Torah very clearly defines priestly status based on patrilineal descent from Aaron, who was himself a descendent of Levi (e.g., Exodus 4:4; 28:1). Similarly, the tribe of Levi holds a special status within the Jewish people and has a special responsibility for the care of the Tabernacle and later the Temple and its accoutrements (Numbers 3:12; 1:50). According to Jewish tradition the status of an individual as a Levi is determined by their birth to a father who is himself a Levi and a mother who is born to Jewish parents or who is a convert to Judaism. Concern for the identification of proper priestly lineage continues to be an issue outside of the Torah in later biblical materials (see Nehemiah 7:63–65) as well as in the Mishnah and later halachic literature (e.g., m. Ketubot 2:7–8; Tur even ha-ezer 6:3; Isurei Biah 19:17)

The Apostolic Writings also reflect a concern for a person’s status as a Kohen, a Levi, or a general member of the Jewish people (Yisra’el). Paul describes himself as a member of the tribe of Benjamin by birth (Philippians 3:5). At the beginning of Luke, John the Immerser’s father Zechariah is described as a priest belonging to the priestly order (mishmerah) of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, is similarly described as the daughter of a priest, a bat Kohen (Luke 1:5). In doing so, Luke designates the herald of Yeshua as himself a priest. The writer of Hebrews also describes Yeshua as a Kohen, albeit of a different order than the Aaronic priesthood (see Hebrew 5:1–10).

Kohanim are consecrated for priestly service in the Tabernacle and later the Temple according to the Torah (e.g., Exodus 29:1). The Torah itself reflects a strong concern for maintaining the sanctity of the Kehuna (priesthood) and hence enumerates a number of restrictive commands to ensure the ritual purity of Kohanim (e.g., Leviticus 21; Numbers 18). This act of delineating the purity requirements of the Kohanim (and by extension the Levi’im) proceeds out of a desire to ensure the sanctity of the Temple and emphasizes its importance in the life and devotion of the Jewish people. As the Rambam notes, “In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honor; and the Priests and the Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest” (Moreh Nevuchim III.24). Yeshua and the early followers of Yeshua exhibited a similar concern for the sanctity of the Temple. Yeshua himself regularly went up to Jerusalem on pilgrimage for the festivals (e.g., John 10:22). After Yeshua’s ascension, Kefa and John continued to go to the Temple to participate in prayers services held in conjunction with the sacrificial service (Acts 3:1). Paul exhibited a similar regard for the sanctity of the Temple and purified himself in order to enter the Temple and to participate in its sacrificial service (Acts 21:26).

The MJRC’s concern for ensuring proper identification of who is and who is not a Kohen or a Levi proceeds out of a concern for fidelity to Scripture and the weight of Jewish tradition as well as for ensuring the sanctity of the Temple and its role in Jewish life. As such, we have adopted a stricter position regarding maternal status in determining who is a Kohen or Levi than we do in determining Jewish status (see 2.1).

Similarly, this definition does not reflect an egalitarian position regarding who is a Kohen or a Levi and recognizes only men as having the full and unambiguous status of a Kohen or a Levi. As such, the MJRC holds that the daughter of a Kohen (a bat Kohen) or a Levi (a bat Levi) does not confer the halachic status of a Kohen or a Levi to her children. In making this ruling, the MJRC does not address the question of what functions a female from a Kohen or Levi family could perform but only determines that she does not confer the halachic status of a Kohen or a Levi to her children. Whether a child is a Kohen or a Levi is a status only conferred by the child’s father if he is a Kohen or a Levi himself.

 

2.3 Jew, Gentiles, & Messianic Jewish Congregations

What is a Messianic Jewish Congregation?

The MJRC understands messianic Jewish congregations to be synagogues that honor Yeshua as Messiah and find in Him the embodiment and fullness of Judaism. They differ from Christian churches in that full membership is not based solely on a confession of faith (and its sacramental enactment in baptism) but also entails commitment to, identification with, and participation in the Jewish people and its distinctive way of life embodied in the Torah. The Messianic Jewish congregation thus sees itself as part of a wider Jewish community.

Because of its faith in Messiah Yeshua it is also joined to the Churches of the Nations -- or, rather, those Churches are joined to it, inasmuch as they are attached to the nation of Israel through union with Israel’s Messiah. The relationship of love and cooperative action between the Messianic T Jewish community and the Christian Churches is the crucial sign that these Churches are now part of an expanded People of God and can look to Israel’s history as in a sense their own. However, this sign only has validity insofar as the Messianic Jewish congregation is in fact participating in and expressing the life of the Jewish people as a whole.

This means that the Messianic ekklesia consists not only of individual Jews and Gentiles, but also of Jewish and Gentile social environments. For a social environment to be Jewish, it must operate according to patterns and principles that express the Jewish communal experience around the world and through the centuries. Among such patterns is a clear definition of those practices that express the distinctive character of Jewishidentity, and which are only appropriately undertaken by those who are Jewish. For a social environment to be Jewish, it must also consist largely of Jewish members who bear responsibility for determining its distinctive communal character.

Given the pluralistic character of Western society; the level of assimilation of many contemporary Jews; the intimate bond that joins Messianic Jews with Gentile Christians; the appreciation many Christians have for Judaism; and the particular history of the Messianic Jewish movement, we recognize that Messianic Jewish congregations – especially in the Diaspora – will always involve the participation of non-Jews. Nevertheless, a clear distinction must exist within the Messianic Jewish community between Jews, who are themselves fully part of the Jewish people, and those who are not fully part of that people but participate actively in its life.

By establishing a responsible conversion process, the MJRC has demonstrated its belief that the Jew-Gentile boundary which runs through the midst of the Messianic Jewish congregation must be permeable rather than hermetically sealed. But the establishing of a conversion process likewise demonstrates the MJRC’s conviction that the boundary exists. To be real, this boundary must find concrete expression in congregational life. However, it should not be so conspicuous that it undermines the love and mutual respect in the Spirit that should predominate in any community rooted in Messiah Yeshua.

The following decisions seek to uphold such a boundary while honoring both our history as a movement and the many Gentiles who dedicate their lives to promote our movement’s success.

Distinctive Jewish Practices Within a Messianic Jewish Congregation

There are many Jewish practices which may suitably be adopted by non-Jews in a way that honors the Jewish people and tradition. Resting on the Seventh day and avoiding the consumption of pork products are illustrations of such practices. The MJRC does not believe that Gentiles are required to observe these practices, nor do we see Messianic Judaism as a movement charged with promoting such practices for Gentiles. Nevertheless, we also recognize that such customs are permissible, and – when undertaken with the right motives and reasons – may even be commendable.

In contrast, there are other Jewish practices in which the Jewish identity of the one engaged in the practice is integral to the practice itself. There are two types of such distinctive Jewish practice that will be addressed here: (1) Fundamental rites of passage; and (2) Ritual privileges which identify the person participating in them as a member of the people of Israel and a recipient of the Torah.

We need to consider thoughtfully all of these various practices and rules, in order to fashion a communal set of standards that will enable our congregations to flourish as Jewish social environments dedicated to Messiah Yeshua.

 

2.3.2 It is our conviction that the direction of Messianic Jewish congregations should be the responsibility of Jews alone. Criteria for becoming a member or a leader in a Messianic Jewish congregation should take account of this conviction.


2.3.2 Rites of Passage

Fundamental Jewish rites of passage are reserved for Jews. Such rites of passage include:

  • B'rit Milah on the eighth day (ritual circumcision), and Simchat Bat Brit, as public events initiating ritually the child into the covenant
  • Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the first-born)
  • Bar/Bat Mitzvah (we may have a parallel rite of passage for children of Gentile members; however, we will use another name to refer to it)
  • Union of marriage solemnized through the traditional rites of Jewish marriage (e.g., Huppah, Ketubah, Sheva Berachot). These may be employed in the case of intermarriage, but not in the marriage of two Gentiles (we may have a parallel marriage rite for Gentile members that includes certain elements from the Jewish rite)

2.3.3 Ritual Privileges

2.3.3.1 Privileges Associated with Full Membership in a Jewish Community

Jewish ritual privileges associated with full membership in a Jewish community are limited to Jews. This includes wearing tallit or tefillin; being counted in a minyan; serving as Shaliach Tzibur; reciting a mitzvah berachah; or receiving a Torah aliyah.

However, Gentiles may participate in certain rituals: reciting a mitzvah berachah with the congregation or with Jewish members of their family, receiving a Torah aliyah when done jointly with a Jewish member of their family, and participating in the Torah service as described below. Gentiles may also read publicly from the Besorah and recite publicly English prayers that do not involve the mitzvah berachah and do not refer to the election of Israel or the gift of the Torah to Israel.

2.3.3.2 Torah Aliyot

Messianic Jews should honor the traditional custom of reserving for Jews Torah aliyot that involve identifying oneself as a direct recipient of the Torah (such as reading from the Torah and reciting the berachah for the gift of the Torah). Nevertheless, it is essential that we also acknowledge that the redemptive work of Yeshua and the sanctifying power of the Spirit bring Christians into a wider orbit around the Torah even as they bring them into the expanded multinational commonwealth of Israel. This acknowledgement should be reflected in Messianic Jewish practice. As an appropriate expression of this reality, we affirm the right of Christians to honor the Sefer Torah by means of physical contact. At the same time, certain ritual roles occur in liturgical contexts that so express the Torah’s intimate bond with the Jewish people that they should not normally be undertaken by Christians.

Non-Jews may kiss the Torah as it passes in procession, and they may dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah if the entire congregation is doing so. They may also carry the Torah in the Torah procession. Lifting the Torah (hagbah) and dressing the Torah (gelilah) should normally be restricted to Jews – not because contact is forbidden, but because of the role these ritual acts play within the wider framework of the liturgy.

According to Jewish custom, non-Jews are not permitted direct contact with a Sefer Torah, as an expression of the unique bond between Israel and the Torah. The Torah is Israel’s Ketubah with Hashem, and only the people of Israel are responsible for the fulfillment of all its mitzvot. Thus, in traditional Jewish settings non-Jews may not lift the Torah, carry the Torah, or dance with the Torah.