The UMJC Conversion Position Paper – The Majority Position
At the September 1983 UMJC conference, a show of hands indicated that roughly 90% of the congregational leaders represented favored the Majority Position in opposition to the conversion of Gentiles to Messianic Judaism and the remaining 10%, the Minority Position that supported the conversion of Gentiles to Messianic Judaism.
You may say this paper is nearly 24 years old, why are you commenting on it, hasn’t things changed in these years? Well this is still the official statement of the Union that is reference to in the FAQ section on the UMJC website, therefore it is still relevant. Hopefully like the author of this statement, who now supports conversion of non-Jews, other leaders and the Union will move forward in this important step to fully embracing our role as a Judaism, an authentic Messianic Judaism.
The UMJC statement points are in bold, my commentary in plain text below.
1. Despite inferential, contrary arguments, a clear biblical emphasis plus serious practical problems should prevent the UMJC from promoting any such conversions.
This appears to be more of a preamble to the statement’s further points that the statement will elucidate in the other points.
So then I will lay out a guiding view on my part to the issue. Based on the apocalyptic worldview of the early Messianic Jews, who believed the end of the age was quickly approaching and the return of the Messiah would be in their lifetime, we are left without clear guidance from the Brit Chadasha for our issue of conversion of non-Jews in Messianic synagogues outside of two issues:
1. The required conversion of non-Jews to Judaism before becoming followers of Yeshua, which was addressed in Acts 15
2. Conversion to Judaism to become a “super believer” as appears to be the problem addressed in Galatians
The conversion of a committed non-Jew to Messianic Judaism out of their desire to fully connect with Am Israel is not an issue addressed in the Brit Chadasha and with the apocalyptic vision of the early Messianic Jews this issue was not of importance to them with the soon end of the age.
2. Regarding conversions to Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, this can hardly be an option for any follower of Yeshua because these forms, despite their many differences, share an active disbelief in our Messiah. Close identification with, much less conversion to, any of these groups would be unbiblical.
The option of seeking out a conversion to other forms of Judaism is not a viable option for Yeshua believing non-Jews being that an essential part of the conversion process is the rejection of all previous religious beliefs, which would include the rejection of faith in Yeshua. This would be a huge problem and an option that no follower of Yeshua could do. So then the option of a conversion to Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism is not an option.
Though this is a valid point against conversion to other Judaisms it doesn’t deal with the issue of conversion of non-Jews to Messianic Judaism.
In my opinion the only option that there can be for the committed non-Jews is for there to be a conversion process within Messianic Judaism.
3. Several reasons may be offered against adopting a rite of passage for willing Gentile believers into Messianic Judaism.
a. In I Corinthians 7:18 Rav Shaul specially addressed the issue of conversion, directing all believers to be content in the state in which they were called. Gentiles should not convert to Judaism. Likewise, Messianic Jews should not consider it an option to forsake their divine calling as Jews.
The third point is broken into 5 parts (a-e) and will be dealt with separately. 3a is the first point dealing with a Biblical passage.
In I Corinthians 7, where Paul deals with not “changing status”, which is typified by the phrase “in the state in which you were called” is his instructions to the believers in Corinth that in the light of the soon return of the Messiah, grounded in his apocalyptic worldview, that rather than changing from being a Jew to being a Gentile or from a Gentile becoming a Jew that his readers should just believe in Yeshua and be ready for the soon end of the age and the return of Yeshua.
What is lost on the above point from the Majority Position is that in the same passage Paul also includes instructions for those unmarried to not marry (7:8-9), those married not to divorce (7:10-11) and slaves to not seek their freedom (7:21-22), if these were the state in which the person became a believer. This brings up the following issues:
- I was 6 years old and therefore single when I put my trust in Yeshua, should I not get married?
- Was it wrong for slaves to seek freedom during the Civil War, if they became believers while in slavery?
- Is divorce always prohibited if the parties became believers during the marriage?
I will imagine that the above questions would all receive a “no” answer. Then how can we take this passage as a Biblical mandate only for the conversion of non-Jews to Messianic Judaism?
I applaud and fully support the closing sentence:
Messianic Jews should not consider it an option to forsake their divine calling as Jews.
This is a vitally important issue but I Corinthians 7 should be understood as a passage that is rooted in the early Messianic Jews apocalyptic vision and should be understood as guidance to a community in preparation for the end of the age.
Paul and the other early Messianic Jews didn’t foresee the now 2000 year spread of time since the resurrection of Yeshua and sadly we are left without their direct guidance on how to deal with issues of note, specifically for our discussion on the issue of non-Jews converting to Messianic Judaism.
b. There is no example in the B’rit Hadasha of a Gentile believer becoming a Jew. Rav Shaul’s circumcision of Timothy (Acts 16:1-3) was a pragmatic measure primarily motivated by the Apostle’s desire to have Timothy accompany him into the synagogues of Asia Minor. More important, Timothy was already half-Jewish by his mother and according to II Timothy 3:15, was raised according to the Jewish Scriptures. Thus, his circumcision cannot provide an adequate example for any such practice involving Gentiles today.
The fact that there are not examples of Gentile believers becoming Jews can be understood as that within the context of the Brit Chadasha their still was a sense of two communities of believers the “congregation of the circumcised” and the “congregation of the uncircumcised”. This two-congregation approach can be seen in the ruling in Acts 15 that set forth the standards for the Gentile believers to live by and as Jews the Jewish believers had the Torah to live by. So then the issue of non-Jews in the Messianic Jewish congregations was really not an issue of their day. Paulwas reaching the Gentile believers and they were founding Gentile congregations.
Now to the issue of Timothy, in Second Temple Judaism the identifying sign of being a Jew for men was circumcision, basically Jewish status for men was dependent on whether or not they had a foreskin or not. So then Timothy even though a son of a Jewish mother and being raised according to the Scriptures may have made him a good follower of the G-d of Israel but until his circumcision he was not a Jew. Though in modern times there is more lax definition of who is a Jew, in the context of life in the Brit Chadasha whether one was circumcised or not was the key to Jewish identity. This can be seen in the Jerusalem community being referred as the ones reaching out to the “circumcised” and Paul’s mission to the “uncircumcised”.
Paul’s circumcision of Timothy was a conversion of a person of non-Jewish status, much like the conversions as an adult in Orthodox or Conservative Judaism for someone born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother; this was a matter of Timothy making a choice to embrace Judaism. It was also a practical matter for their outreach work in the Jewish communities so that Timothy’s Jewish identity would be clear.
So then the fact that there is a lack of examples in the Brit Chadasha of Gentiles converting to Messianic Judaism is primarily based in the fact that their were two congregations one of Jews and one of non-Jews and therefore this was not an issue as today when Messianic synagogues are mixed communities of Jews and non-Jews. Timothy was not a Jew until his circumcision according to the understanding of Judaism at the time and therefore he can be seen as a convert to Messianic Judaism. Timothy is a good example for us for those among us in our congregations who are of questionable Jewish heritage and via conversion can clear up ambiguities in their Jewish status or for those who are seeking to reclaim the “faith of their fathers”.
We can establish a credible Messianic Jewish conversion process and we must if we are truly going to build a mature Messianic Judaism for the future.
3c. Gentile believers who feel a strong identity with the Jewish people may join Messianic synagogues, participate in congregational life, and thus express a high degree of identification without actually becoming Jews. Conversion becomes unnecessary.
Though this is true that Gentile believers can express a high degree of identification with Jewish people via their involvement with the life of a Messianic synagogue, yet without a conversion process there is a roadblock to the ultimate identification with the Jewish people by joining the people of Israel like Ruth and others before have cast their lot with Am Israel.
This roadblock that bars the committed non-Jew from joining Israel is problematic for the non-Jew that seeks deeper involvement in the life of the Jewish people, whether that be in fully being a member of the Jewish people, being that their only viable connection is their attendance at a Messianic synagogue.
Like Timothy their is the issue of being able to function in ministry within the synagogue, being that the role of rabbi is exclusively a job to be held by a Jew, therefore without a conversion process this area of service is barred to the non-Jews in our midst who have this calling, yet cannot pursue this as a non-Jew. So then as we are now without a conversion process we are potentially keeping future rabbis from serving our synagogues being they cannot serve in the rabbinic role without being a Jew.
So then there are cases where conversion is necessary for the few committed non-Jews in our midst that would seek a strenuous and thoughtful conversion process. This is a step that we need to take in our move toward being Messianic Judaism.
d. A conversion to Messianic Judaism would not be recognized in Israel or among a majority of Jews in the Diaspora.
This point can be addressed in several ways, I will list three
1. Orthodox Judaism does not accept conversions as valid that were performed by Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic rabbis, yet all four movements continue to perform conversions.
Being that all Jews consider only conversions that are performed by an Orthodox rabbi as valid across the spectrum has not stopped the non-Orthodox movements to develop conversion programs. They perform their conversion rituals and recognize the conversions of other groups as valid. So then universal acceptance of conversion is not a bar to other Jewish groups, why should it be a bar to us?
2. Whether or not Israel recognizes our converts is not relevant, the fact that Israel has barred Jewish believers from citizenship hasn’t stopped Jewish believers from seeking to live in Israel.
We cannot decide our community standards and life to fit into the laws of Israel. Being that Messianic Jews have been barred from citizenship hasn’t stopped messianic Jews from seeking to immigrate to Israel.
3. A majority of Jews in the Diaspora do not recognize Messianic Jews as Jews.
Most Jews, I would say well over 90% would not consider Messianic Jews as Jews and Messianic Judaism as a valid expression of Jewish faith, does this stop us from being Messianic? The fact that our status as outsiders from the Jewish people has not hurt our claim to being who we are then why are we concerned with recognition of our conversions as valid? We need to do first and hope that the larger Jewish community will eventually recognize that we have truly committed non-Jews that are making a commitment to live with the Jewish people and dwell in Jewish space. As we have seen some inroads from the Jewish world to accept us as Jews who follow Yeshua, we hopefully can get recognition of these people that we are allowing to enter Am Israel.
So then we are already outside the Jewish people in the opinion of a majority of the Jewish community, yet we continue on as Messianic Jews, the question of the acceptance of Messianic conversions by the larger Jewish world should be less important than doing what is right for our community and the furtherance of Messianic Judaism.
e. Such a practice could easily result in “two-class” mentality among Gentiles in Messianic synagogues – the inner circle of converted Gentiles and the larger group of the “less committed.”
The above point seems to be trying to create a problem that in all reality would not exist with proper teaching and congregational leadership. If there is a Messianic Jewish conversion process and a non-Jew were to go through this conversion process then the non-Jew would become a Jew and therefore there is no “two class” problem, we are back to where we are now and that is Jews (both by birth or conversion) and the non-Jews. It appears that we are dealing in various ways with the Jew/non-Jew issue in our synagogues and a Messianic Jewish conversion process would not create a new issue.
This can only be an issue if there is a lack of rabbinic leadership and guidance of the synagogues and therefore any problems are the fault of lack of leadership by the synagogal leadership and not the fault of a well thought Messianic Jewish conversion process.
Even a non-obligatory conversion of Gentiles would be viewed as heretical by many in the churches. Messianic Jews can ill afford risking possible rejection by the majority of the believing community, as would likely happen once such a practice became widely known.
The concluding paragraph brings to completion the Majority Position with what may be the biggest hurdle to a Messianic Jewish conversion process and that being concern over the opinion by Christians that we are engaged in a heretical activity. Being that the preliminary points have been demonstrated to be outdated and without firm grounding this is the last leg for the argument to stand on.
We must ask ourselves why are we giving the Church a say in the development of our movement?
We are willing to go outside the norms of Christian life by embracing a Torah lifestyle, including:
- Shabbat observance
- Kosher dietary standards
- Jewish holyday observance.
Why are we not willing to truly embrace our unique and separate identity as the Yeshua believing community among the Jewish people and truly be a Messianic JUDAISM? I can understand our willingness to be under the authority of the Church in our days as Hebrew Christianity, when by our own naming we identified ourselves as Christians of Jewish heritage, but for a Messianic Judaism to be an identity with meaning we have to do what we need to do to build our Judaism identity and despite the conflicts that this may raise with the Church and even alienating many of our supporters in the Church is the price that we must pay.
Is it right for us to build a Messianic Judaism?
If so then the allowing of those committed non-Jews in our midst to fully connect with the Jewish people is something that we must do. A Judaism is defined by Jews living within Jewish space and therefore the allowing of those non-Jews who are called to cast their lot with the Jewish people to fully join with the Jewish people is part and parcel of what being a Judaism means.
This is in no way a slight to those non-Jews in our midst that are a vibrant and valuable part of Messianic Jewish life, yet they do not seek this deeper level of identification and connection. With proper guidance and clear standards the number of non-Jews seeking a Messianic Jewish conversion process will be small and many of the potential candidates that I know have been involved in Messianic Jewish life for over 15 years.
We have to ask ourselves do we want to build a Messianic Judaism and if this is so for us to be a Judaism we must make a way open for the committed non-Jews to fully connect with the Jewish people and this can only be done through a thoughtful and carefully developed Messianic Jewish conversion process under the leadership of respected Messianic rabbis and leaders.
So then let us step the nearly 24 years into the future from our Hebrew Christian past and embrace our Messianic Judaism future and make a way for those non-Jews amongst us to follow in the footsteps of Ruth and cast their lot with Am Israel.