Messianic Judaism – The Ecumenical Factor

Print Friendly

Fr. Antoine Levy, OP

When it comes to ecumenism, the common view is that it is a movement involving the main traditional Christian denominations. Besides, it is generally perceived as a peripheral issue, even for these denominations. The primary task of a Church or a congregation is self-assessment and the search for inner coherence. Dealing with the reasons that separate it from the rest of Christian confessions or planning friendly cooperation with them only comes in second. The Messianic movement, with its constellation of congregations and institutions, is a fairly recent phenomenon, at least sizewise. Despite a few interesting developments, the problematic of ecumenism is still very far off the horizon for mainstream Messianic believers. More than anywhere else, priority is given to self-assessment and the exploration of the different ways of implementing the Messianic faith. Notwithstanding, I will argue here that the Messianic movement should not only become involved in the ecumenical problematic, but that this involvement is an issue of life and death for the whole movement. Of course, the type of ecumenism I have in view is a very specific kind of ecumenism. If ecumenism is something that concerns all the followers of Jesus, I would define this species of ecumenism as something that merely concerns the Jewish followers of Jesus. I will devote the first part of this presentation to identify the main challenge that faces such a Messianic ecumenism. I will hence proceed to point out the ecclesiological reasons that make it necessary to face this challenge, no matter how demanding this task might appear. Finally, I will try to sketch out the theological framework of this new undertaking.

The Challenge of Messianic Jewish Ecumenism

If I had to give a short definition of ecumenism, I would say it is the choice of the disciples of Jesus to give priority to their unity, a unity that flows from their common faith, over differences of interpretation regarding the content of their faith, and ways of actualizing this unity among themselves. To this effect, a prayer group gathering Christians of different confessions is as ecumenical as an official commission appointed to resolve Church-divisive issues on a theological level. This being granted, I would contend that Jews who have become disciples of Jesus are not exactly in the situation of Gentile Christians. Anthropologically or ethnically speaking, these Jews form a group that, in some way, could be compared to black Africans or women. Black Africans that are disciples of Jesus have a lot of issues to discuss among themselves. No matter which Christian denomination they belong to, all these black Africans have one issue in common: their interaction with their white brothers and sisters. The same holds true of Christian women regarding their interaction with the male members of their respective denominations. Now, when it comes to Jews and their interaction with the Gentile component of their movements or churches, the question is slightly more complicated. The thing is that Jewish identity, as you know, can only be partially defined in anthropological or ethnical terms. Since, according to the Jewish as well as to normative Christian tradition, what lies at the foundation of the Jewish nation is the sovereign choice of God, Jewish identity also has to do with religion, that is, with the subjective belief in the objective, ontological action of God. Consequently, the way Jewish disciples of Jesus are bound to one another is not something peripheral to what unites all Christians: it touches on an intimate aspect of the Christian faith—namely, its Jewish roots. The situation of Jewish disciples in the wider Body of Christ, as the virtual whole composed of all the disciples of Jesus taken together, is, therefore, very peculiar. Joining traditional churches or Messianic congregations, these Jews have ipso facto inherited—and, volens nolens, made their own—a proto-history of conflicts and Church divisions. Although the newcomers bear no direct responsibility in this history, these foreign lines of divide between denominations are the most evident hindrance to the actualization of the unity between the Jewish disciples of Jesus. Jewish disciples of Jesus cannot worship together, form an entity of their own, whatever may be its ecclesiological mode, because they belong to Church traditions that are, for a series of reasons, hostile to one another. The question raised by the possibility of a Messianic Jewish ecumenism is whether the Jewish disciples of Yeshua are called to overcome the barriers that separate them on a confessional level due to their specific unity on an ethnic-religious level. In other words, is their “natural” or “supernatural” unity, as God’s first-chosen people, a sufficient basis to initiate a confessional process with the goal of achieving a visible form of unity among themselves?

Luckily, the question is pure rhetoric, since it already contains the answer. If the unity of Jewish believers touches upon a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, that is, the Jewish dimension of the Body of Christ, how could any Christian dismiss the importance of giving some kind of expression to this unity? It is the whole Body of Christ that longs for the restoration of a Jewish dimension, because this dimension pertains to the core of its mystery. The next question, however, is no longer rhetorical: Is it possible to restore this Jewish voice within the Body of Yeshua, and if so, how? In more precise terms, does Jewish unity, as a given, have the potential to overcome, in some way or another, the historical barriers that separate the different Christian denominations?

There is no reason, indeed, to think that the key to solving dogmatic issues that keep puzzling professional theologians of good will might lie in the unity of the Jewish disciples. However, if a prayer service or some charity program that gathers Christians from different denominations are considered to be steps towards the visible unity of the whole Church, why should a gathering of Jewish believers from different denominations not be viewed as additional proof that the unity of the Body of Christ lies far beyond the issues that divide these denominations?

In this sense, I believe one should reflect on the fact that actual or potential disagreements over doctrinal issues have done so little to hinder the spectacular rise of Messianic congregations in the last few decades. Messianic believers show a lot of concern about different styles of worship. They aim at striking the right balance between elements borrowed from both Christian and Jewish traditions. They are busy defining the respective positions of born Jews and so-called “God-fearing” Gentiles within the community. Trinitarian or Christological issues do not seem to arouse similar interests or infighting, to say the least. That an undetermined number of Messianics will not—or not so simply—acknowledge that Yeshua is God incarnated, is an issue that can upset a few Messianic theologians, but it is hardly a hindrance to the development of concrete Messianic congregations. It all goes to show that, in contrast to traditional Christian denominations, it is not a dogmatic consensus that holds a Messianic congregation together. Actually, it is nothing other than a common striving to restore and experience the Jewish dimension of the belief in Jesus the Messiah. Correspondingly, if this pattern works within Messianic Congregations, ad intra, why could it not work ad extra; that is, in relationship to Jews who are affiliated with traditional Christian denominations? What, in particular, could make Messianic theologians rely on a set of homogeneous dogmatic truths to oppose a move towards union with traditional denominations, when a Messianic corpus of dogmatic truths does not exist, and (but this is only my personal opinion) will probably never see the light of day? If doctrine is not a problem, worship can hardly be one either: the difference in the ways and styles of worship has never constituted an obstacle to visible unity. True, one cannot readily conceive of a unique ecclesial body in the absence of consensus on doctrinal matters. But why could a gathering of Jews of different Christian persuasions not be considered as a remarkable step towards the achievement of Church unity?

I am not claiming that such a move can easily materialize. Simply, as I see it, the obstacles that stand in the way do not pertain either to dogmatic consensus or to liturgical variety. They are of a specific ecclesiological nature, and I believe we need to face them in a straightforward manner.

To put it bluntly, what splits the Jewish followers of Jesus into two apparently irreconcilable parties is the attitude towards traditional Christian denominations. Few among us will disagree with the claim that none of these traditional denominations has been spared from the plague of anti-Semitism. To a lesser or greater degree, over a more or less extensive period of time—if not explicitly, then at least implicitly—anti-Semitism has exerted its noxious influence on all traditional Christian denominations without exception. I will not go into the details nor shall I endeavor to assess which of these venerable traditions is, in this respect, most indebted to Satan. Notwithstanding, what all Jewish followers of Jesus will argue about are the conclusions that one needs to draw from this painful lesson in Christian history. To cut it short, the question is whether anti-Semitism is an accidental or an essential element in the life of these traditional Christian denominations. If a Jew can be a Lutheran, a Catholic, or an Orthodox, it is because he or she is convinced that anti-Semitism is an accidental element of his or her Church tradition, something that one can, if not entirely repudiate, at least ignore. Meanwhile, the rise of the Messianic movement rests on the idea that the anti-Semitic past or present of traditional denominations provide the proof that rot has penetrated into their core, or else that it came to vitiate this core at the very start of their historical existence. In this situation, what remains to do is to establish a new community or a new Church, call it whatever you like, on an entirely different basis; namely, on the basis of empathy and sympathy towards Jews and Judaism. As a result, Messianics will tend to see Jews that belong to traditional denominations as traitors to their Jewish identity or “politically uneducated” in the best case, while the latter will consider the former as schismatic sectarians, if not heretics. Yet this is precisely the point where things, in my view, start becoming interesting. Indeed, I consider that the duty to overcome these mutual prejudices hangs upon more than contemporary forms of clerical correctness. Ecclesiologically speaking, I claim that this task is a matter of life and death—maybe not for the large traditional denominations, but certainly for the small number of Christians for whom giving Jewish identity a voice constitutes a priority on their agenda. Let me expand on this point right now.

Facing the challenge: Ecclesiological Reasons for a Jewish Messianic Ecumenism

The benefit of building bridges between denominational and Messianic Jews is quite obvious for the former. Even in countries where there has been, quantitatively and especially qualitatively speaking, a significant move of Jews towards a traditional denomination, as in Russia towards the Orthodox Church since the 1970s, the overall proportion of Jews in the Church is still negligible. Besides, levels of Jewish education and awareness are almost infinitely varied. Moreover, the different meanings that these Jews attach to their identity, within the Church context, are probably as numerous as the quantity they constitute together. One Jew, two synagogues; two Messianic Jews, three Church movements fighting one another. But even if a significant attempt was made to make a united Jewish voice heard within the Church, it would unavoidably—in a country where the Church and national consciousness are so tightly bound together—stir up indignation and scandal among the vast majority of Orthodox believers, laypeople as well as clerics.

In contrast to Orthodoxy, a number of pro-Jewish groups, whether constituted of Jewish converts, Gentiles interested in Judaism, or both, do benefit from official status and recognition in such traditional denominations as Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Kehillah for the Hebrew speaking Catholics living in Israel or the Lutheran “Apple of my eyes” are among the most prominent witnesses to this state-of-things. Without doubt, such ventures are the consequences of the remarkable steps taken by these denominations, in the aftermath of the Shoah, to acknowledge their measure of responsibility in this major human disaster. Often times, these official steps have gone together with a new theological awareness regarding the special status attached to the remnant of Israel in God’s historical design. However, no matter their degree of independence, these pro-Jewish groups are integrated into structures that are so vast and so pervaded with different and sometimes directly opposed agendas that their influence on the global policy and spiritual climate of their respective churches is generally destined to remain utterly restricted.

For all these reasons, as suspicious as they might be of the Messianic movement for doctrinal and ecclesiological reasons, denominational Jews, be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Lutheran, can hardly avoid sensing that the Messianic movement is actually doing what they are unable to do: constitute an independent Jewish voice within the Body of Christ. In actual fact, the only chance denominational Jews have to raise the level of “Jewish awareness” within their own Church lies in the existence of a sufficiently strong and united Judeo-Christian movement, something that is unlikely to see the light of the day without the support of the Messianic movement.

The converse is, however, much less evident, at least at first sight; namely, in what way could the Messianic movement benefit from an alliance with denominational Jews? The whole attention of the Messianic movement is focused inwards, as we have already said. It is true that the inner tensions the movement is facing are enormous, and leave little space to ecumenical reflection. Admittedly, in order to engage in dialogue with others, one has to know who one is and where one stands. What I will contend is that, notwithstanding, there is a good possibility that the key to handling these tensions lies in developing enduring ties with denominational Jews. Let me try to formulate what I see as the core of the Messianic movement’s dilemma.

No Church or religious movement that confesses Jesus as Messiah and Savior can survive if it is not convinced that it is faithful to his will. Accordingly, every new Church or movement has a natural tendency to believe that it is THE response that God’s will, as manifested in Jesus, finally or at last elicited, whereas all other responses that occurred in the course of history have failed. The Messianic movement feeds on the assumption that its response is the true one, since it includes the Jewish dimension that is nowhere else to be seen in the Christian world. That is all well and good but, according to the Scriptures that the Messianic movement acknowledges as inspired by God, the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul especially, it looks as if the movement that corresponds to the will of Jesus also needs to include Gentiles. The problematic issue is the following: what will preserve the Jewish dimension of the movement on a long- or even middle-term basis if Gentiles and Jews are welcome to join in on an equal footing?

We all know that if the Jewish nation has survived until the present day, and this not for lack of tribulations, it is because of the obligation, coming simultaneously from the inside of the Qahal Israel and from outside it, of securing the distance between Jewish communities and the surrounding Gentile society. This is the reason why contemporary Judaism considers the growth of intermarriage as the greatest current threat posed to the survival of the nation. Accordingly, in contexts where Jews are no longer prey to social discrimination, how could the Messianic movement avoid facing the same threat as it de facto suppresses all the barriers that Orthodox Judaism carefully sets between Jews and Gentiles? Nothing is easier for Messianic theologians than to claim that the disintegration of the Judeo-Christian element is due to the anti-Semitic attitudes that have emerged in the different Church traditions. However, these theologians usually avoid tackling the problematic consequences of intermarriage in religious bodies where Gentiles constitute an overwhelming majority. It would be no small paradox, as well as the evidence of a far too hasty judgment passed on the traditional denominations, if the Messianic movement, in its attempt to constitute an independent entity, were to experience the fate of the ecclesial bodies they have rejected; namely, the acceleration of the death of the Jewish nation due to the rate of intermarriages. However, in the history of the Jews, love and communion between Gentiles and Jews have always been a much greater factor of disintegration than anti-Semitism. The biblical history of Israel bears sufficient witness of this fact. Accordingly, what can the Messianic movement do in order to avoid the gradual whittling away of a genuine Jewish dimension and awareness within itself?

I do not view the re-establishment or rather the establishment of barriers between Jewish and Gentile members of Messianic congregations as a possible solution. Not only would this hardly fit in with the Pauline understanding of the communion, the koinonia that should reign between Gentile and Jewish disciples of Jesus, but it is simply not destined to work. If these barriers take the form of observances or mitzvoth practiced by Jewish members, what on earth should prevent Gentiles from taking up these mitzvoth in the name of their love for the Jewish tradition? Once it is admitted that Jewish mitzvoth retain a meaning for Jews that confess Jesus, why should their observance be less meaningful for Gentiles who love Israel? One can of course artificially, on disciplinary terms, forbid Gentiles to observe a series of Jewish observances. First, it should be said that there are more convincing proofs of self-coherence than being reduced to prevent believers from exercising their love of the Jewish tradition in a religious body committed to such purpose. The main problem that I see, however, is the fundamental absence of legitimate reasons for recreating the distance between Jews and Gentiles within a religiously united body. Non-Christian Jews rely on the difference of faith—call it a denial of idolatry—to perpetuate the biblical distance between Israel and the surrounding Gentiles. The conviction that Jewish religious practice separates the holy from the unholy, the community of Israel from idolatrous Gentiles pertains to the very essence of the Jewish religious practice. Are Messianic Jews who reclaim this practice for themselves to consider Messianic Gentiles as unholy or idolatrous because those who share their own belief did not have the chance to be born Jews? Is that objective, if not subjective, a consequence of creating artificial barriers within a community not the exact mirror reflection of anti-Semitism? Gentiles are to be kept apart, even when they share the same faith, because there is something impure in the sheer fact of being born a Gentile.

Another option, exactly opposite, would be to aggregate, be it in the shorter or longer run, all Gentile God-fearers of the Messianic movement to the Jewish nation. The problem is that, from the beginning, faith in Christ has been announced and proclaimed as something different from the transmission of Jewishness. As Paul said to his brothers and sisters of the synagogue when they do no want to hear about the Messianity of Jesus: “We had to proclaim the word of God to you first, but since you have rejected it, since you do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life, here and now we turn to the gentiles” (Act 13:46 NJB).

If Jewishness has a place in the Body of Christ, it is not because it constitutes a faith of its own, but because the distinction between Jews and Gentiles retains its validity in the Body of Christ. It is as naturally structural, but also as deeply transfigured by faith, as the distinction between men and women. The Church is the Church of Jews and Gentiles taken together. This means that if the Jewish disciples of Jesus are still able to transmit their Jewishness on a biological level, they do not have the power to transmit it in the name of their faith, since their faith is no longer the faith of Jews taken alone. Accordingly, the decision to call the Gentile members of the Messianic movement “Jews”, and to act as if they were Jews, would not lead to an increase of the real number of Jews. On the contrary, it would multiply the threat posed to Messianics and traditional Jews alike: biological disintegration through intermarriage.

It remains true, notwithstanding, that it is impossible to guarantee the survival of a Jewish entity without a criterion of distinction between Jews and Gentiles that are members of a unique religious body. But if neither the separation of the Jewish element from the Gentile one nor the integration of the Gentile element within the Jewish one make Christian or Jewish sense, what will be able not only to guarantee the genuinely Jewish character of the Messianic movement, but also the perpetuity of this dimension within the movement?

I believe that going back to the most fundamental question at stake could help us to distinguish a path out of this apparent conundrum. The question is: Why on earth is it so important to preserve a Jewish element in the Body of Christ? Why is it, for instance, more important than to preserve the access of the American or French nations to the Gospel? First, one has to emphasize that speaking of Jews or Gentiles as nations has little to do with the political sphere. They are nations in a very specific religious sense, where the biological is subordinated to the spiritual. If ensuring the biological survival of the Jewish nation is important, as when one tries to limit the effects of intermarriage, it is because the Jewish nation is a specific spiritual vector in the history and consciousness of mankind. However, it is decisive that the essence of this spiritual capacity pertains to the sphere of biology or, as it were, nature, in contrast to a determinate religious practice. What Paul of Tarsus, Rabbi Schneerson, but also Spinoza, Trotsky, Einstein, etc. have or have had in common throughout the differences of times and persuasions is a certain spirit that we call the Jewish spirit. Woody Allen is probably a very bad Jew, but it is difficult to argue that he is not a Jew. He might as well become a Buddhist, but he will never stop being a Jew, even if he tried very hard. By way of contrast, one could mention Louis de Funes, a famous French comic, who played “Rabbi Jacob” in a movie. All the humor consisted of the fact that, no matter how close De Funes came to mimicking Jewish religious habits, he remained a quintessential goy. This all goes to say that something decisive happens when the Jewish element, as a specific spiritual capacity anchored in a natural substrate, becomes “fertilized” through the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. This unlikely—and even miraculous when one takes past history into account—encounter generates a spiritual reality that all Messianic Jews, in the broadest sense of the word, have in common. Being biologically born a Gentile, someone does not access the truth of the Gospel as a biologically-born Jew. Both approaches to the Gospel are necessary. Both are crucial since, put together, they reflect the one and supreme truth that is concealed in it. What a Russian Orthodox Christian Jew, an American Lutheran Jew, a French Catholic Jew, and a Messianic Israeli have in common is the fundamental experience of coming to know Christ as Jews. In other words, what distinguishes each of these Jews within their respective bodies of religious affiliation, what qualifies them as Jews in contrast to the Gentile members, comes from this unique spiritual horizon they happen to share with Jews that are members of different ecclesial bodies. Indeed, the Jewish dimension that each of these Jews conveys does not derive from a structural feature of their movement—otherwise Gentiles would be able to convey it too. Jews do not receive their Jewishness from a specific movement, no matter how sympathetic to the tradition of Israel this movement might be. On the contrary, it is they who transmit a Jewish dimension to their Church or movement. It somehow naturally flows from their experience of being Jews and disciples of Christ at the same time. Consequently, the Jewish dimension of any movement of disciples of Jesus does not come from within, but from outside their boundaries. And if it comes from without, it is also secured from without.

Let us, therefore, imagine that these Jews who have become members of different Christian denominations or movements decide to join forces in a mode that remains to be defined. This does not mean, of course, that they should separate from the movements of which they are members, otherwise the ecclesiological issues that we mentioned above would repeat themselves indefinitely. Rather, if Jews were allowed to hold a double “denominationalship”, as it were, being at the same time faithful members of their respective movements and members of a purely Jewish configuration of disciples of Jesus, would that not be a solution in securing a Jewish dimension to the Messianic movement? This was the purpose of the highly artificial and unlikely to succeed striving to limit the threat of intermarriage. What, now, if intermarriage within the congregation did not threaten this Jewish dimension, since it would exist as an independent spiritual reality outside the congregation, as the expression of an entity formed of all born Jews that became disciples of Jesus? As isolated as they might find themselves within their own congregations, inborn Jews could still draw on the support of this inter-confessional entity to further carry their mission of insufflating a Jewish dimension within their respective affiliations. Besides, the decline of the biologically Jewish element present in the different churches and movements would be compensated by the regular flow of Jews joining simultaneously the different movements and this interdenominational entity.

All that we have said until now can be summed up in a few sentences. Jews who have become affiliated with traditional Christian denominations now long for the emergence of a Jewish voice within their congregation. Jews who have joined the Messianic movement are worried about the possible whittling away of an authentic Jewish dimension of the movement. All these Jews are moved by one and the same aspiration: to make it possible for a Jewish voice to be heard in the Body of Christ, not once, not fleetingly, but on a long-term basis. So why should these Jews, instead of competing on a preformatted apologetic basis, not join forces to constitute one single, albeit flexible, ecclesial entity? Even if anti-Semitism did pertain to the core of traditional Christian denominations, even if the Messianic movement was meant to bring about a new schism in the Body of Christ, asking to respect the choice of people who sincerely believe otherwise, is not, I surmise, an outrageous demand. But what form could such an entity take? On what concrete principles should it be conceived? More precisely, how could doctrinal diversity avoid being sacrificed on the altar of unity or doctrinal flexibility not reduce the common purpose to naught? Let me shortly address these series of issues as I come to the ultimate point of this presentation.

“On Eagle’s Wings”: The Mode of Realization of a Messianic Ecumenism

When I try to figure out what this ecumenical entity should look like, the analogy that continuously presents itself to my mind is Zionism, the movement that Theodor Herzl launched a little more than one hundred years ago. Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Messianic Jews have a substantial and almost indefinite number of disagreements related to such areas as doctrine, sacraments, leadership, worship, etc. The distance that separates them is certainly wide. These issues have been and still are the object of a continuous process of ecumenical dialogue that bears no distinct relationship to the Jewish dimension of the Body of Christ. The question is whether the distance that separate all these Messianic Jews, in the broad sense of the term, is wider than the one which, a hundred years ago, separated Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines of Lida, the leader of Mizrahi, the Jewish Orthodox Zionistic party, and Aaron David Gordon, the founder of Ha Poel ha tsair, the socialist, more or less atheistic wing of the same movement. Actually, the only thing they these Jews had in common was a definite ideal: to create a national home for Jews in the land of Israel. The State of Israel came to existence because these Jews, who had very few convictions in common and a lot that were mutually irreconcilable, managed to work together. We know but too well that the ideological tensions of Hertzl’s movement did not disappear with the foundation of Israel. They remain exactly what they were at the time. If one thing, they have only been exacerbated. Nonetheless, without those tensions, the State of Israel would never have seen the light of day, and it would probably lack the inner energy to continue fighting its way throughout our exceedingly dangerous times.

This analogy with Hertzl’s movement has also the advantage of bringing about the one and only relevant question that needs to be answered in this presentation. Namely, if the creation of a Jewish state was the goal of Zionism, that which unified all these ill-assorted Jewish activists, what would exactly be the goal of a Messianic Jewish ecumenical movement? I mentioned above the idea of making a Jewish voice heard in the Body of Christ. But why is that so important? And what does that mean concretely?

Let me put it this way. All the Jewish disciples of Jesus I have in mind are struggling in order to build a spiritual home for Jews within the Body of Christ. This is a vital necessity for the Gentiles that constitute the greatest part of this Body, because this Body will never be complete without the existence of a living connection with its roots. Equally, this is a vital necessity for Jews who cannot find their way to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, because they cannot distinguish, in his Body, a home that would be their home. Indeed, this home does not exist yet. I do not think that the most self-conscious Messianic community would claim that it has found the perfect ecclesial formula, the one that would fulfill all the legitimate expectations of the Jewish disciples of Jesus. And even if it were the case, the fact that many Jews simply do not want to join it and prefer to remain members of separate churches and congregations would immediately evince the childish nature of such a claim.

This home does not yet exist and never will it, unless we unite our forces. In order to do so, we have, I assume, not so few convictions in common. We all know that we need to build this home on the firm foundations of the teaching of Christ, as transmitted by the series of books that compose the so-called “New Testament”. At the same time, we do not believe that the ecclesial forms in which this teaching has crystallized along the centuries adequately reflect the Jewish dimension that belongs to them. Whether they had once, at the very beginning of Church history, reflected this, is not immediately evident. What we know is that, in order to restore this Jewish dimension, we cannot merely draw on the series of books that constitute the so-called “Old Testament”; we also need to take into account the living Jewish tradition which has, along the centuries to the present, carried forth and developed the insights that we perceive in the “Old Testament.” However, we cannot either wholly rely on this tradition, since it has evolved independently of the Messianic faith in Christ, and often directly against it. I believe that we are left with no other option but to rub, as it were, the tradition of the Church against the Jewish tradition. In order to display the full Jewish dimension of the teaching of Christ, one has to understand the manner in which this teaching brings about the authentically divine insights conveyed by the Jewish tradition. In actual fact, we are all looking for more than a mere “Judeification” or “Yiddishisation” of the New Testament. One cannot be blamed for preferring the original product to its imitation. The thing is that we are doing something very different from trying to inculturate the Christian faith in a non-Christian cultural context, as it is usually the case with the announcement of the good news to pagans. What we are doing is placing the teaching of Christ back to where it belongs. We are trying to dig up what Christ wanted to do with his people, what he wanted to give to the Jews of his time, although he was unfortunately prevented from doing so. What he was offering is a dignity of which the Jewish tradition, confined to a religious, if not a geographical exile, could only faintly conceive. For the Jews of the Second Temple era, suffering under Roman rule, meant a return to the Hebraic condition of sons and daughters of God. It meant a return to the freedom from Egypt, to the reception of the land, although in a new and unheard form, a form superior to the law of Moses, because it was the implementation of Moses’ law. I like the fact that the author of the Letters to the Hebrews, who precisely attempts to explain the teaching of Christ in terms which were familiar to Second Temple Judaism, did not, precisely, address his letter to the Iudaioi, which was the accepted term, but to the Hebraioi, thus referring to the glorious period of the granting of law and of the land. Together, we are called to create or rather explore this spiritual land wherein their Messiah is willing to lead those Jews who have finally come to him.

To achieve that, we need to meet and discuss together as regularly and informally as possible. We need to start building through exchanging views on the doctrine, the leadership and the worship that correspond to the will of Jesus for the people from whom he comes. It does not mean that a Messianic Jew will cease to be a faithful Messianic Jew, or that a Jewish member of the Russian Orthodox Church will cease to be a faithful Orthodox faithful—not any more than being a Zionist socialist or a Zionist Hassid could prevent them from being respectively good socialists and good Hassids. What we are aiming at building together is not a new Church, be it the ultimate, the finally pure one, destined to replace all the ecclesial entities that have betrayed the will of Christ along the centuries. Our goal is much more interesting, because it is not the umpteenth version of the oldest Christian nursery rhyme. What we would like to see taking shape is what is still missing in all our different congregations, movements, and churches, with all their good and less good aspects: the Jewish side of the whole Body of Christ.

Such striving is not ecumenical only according to its mode of realization. Of course, it would lead Jewish disciples of Jesus to overcome the historical divisions between their respective ecclesial bodies, divisions that they were forced to accept when they joined these bodies, but that have nothing to do with the positive reasons for which they joined these bodies. What I believe is that this striving is ecumenical according to its very principle and goal, or rather according to its essence. All Church confessions and Christian movements are rooted in the one faith of Israel as their origin. Accordingly, seeing the Jewish disciples gathering into one, the whole Body of Christ will be given the opportunity to contemplate its own unity at its source. Christians might well receive the necessary inspiration to come together as they witness Jews gathering to celebrate a Messiah who happens to be, by the same token, their Messiah. This would, I believe, provide a striking clue to the thoroughly mysterious prophecy that we read in the prophet Zechariah:

Zechariah 8:20-23 Y-hw-h Sabaoth says this, “In the future, peoples and citizens of many cities will come; and citizens of one city will go to the next and say: We must certainly go to entreat Y-hw-h’s favour and seek out Y-hw-h Sabaoth; I am going myself. Yes, many peoples and great nations will seek out Y-hw-h Sabaoth in Jerusalem and entreat Y-hw-h’s favour.” Y-hw-h Sabaoth says this, “In those days, ten men from nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say: We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you. (NJB)

Canaph: translated as “sleeve” above, a corner, the fleeting part of a shirt. What are we indeed, but a small corner of the Body of Christ? What do we pretend to be, but this informal, flexible, flying part of the new and splendid cloak in which God has garbed all the disciples of his Son? However, the original meaning of Canaph discloses the great calling associated with this small corner, this fleeting part of a shirt. Canaph means that which gathers under. Canaph is the wing of a great bird that protects the chicks and carries them to their destination, the place where they would be unable to go left to their own resources: Exodus 19:4 You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (ET)  If God has once taken us on his eagle’s wings in order to free us, he might well do it again. This is, actually, what he himself announced in the messianic promise that one hears from the mouth of the last of his prophets, Malachi: Malachi 3:20 But for you who fear my name, the sun of justice will rise with healing in his rays, and you will come out leaping like calves from the stall… (NJB) “With healing in his rays” can mean a small corner, the fleeting part of a shirt becomes the instrument of a healing destined for the whole Body of Christ, a Body wounded by almost two millennia of quarrels and divisions? Canaph: does anyone here want to take part in a new, exciting, and slightly meshuggah ecumenical movement? If no one else then at least me, for better and for worse.

 

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)