Fifth part of Derek Leman’s (Messianic Jewish Musings) superb series and I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am:
Jewish Roots and non-Jews, Part 5 by Derek leman
To the amazement of many Jewish people, we live in an era in history, an era comparable to the Roman period, when a fairly large contingent of non-Jews desire to follow Jewish customs.
In the Roman period Jewish communities thrived in such diaspora locations as Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. As Alexandria was one of the top few cities in the entire Roman empire and as about half the city was Jewish, it was especially there that interaction between Jews and non-Jews spread out.
Philo of Alexandria wrote about the many non-Jewish attenders of the synagogues there and about their practice. Josephus described the same phenomenon. Juvenal, the Roman satirist, poked fun at these monotheistic, Sabbath-keeping Romans. He felt they were in danger of losing their status and identity as Romans. The New Testament and later rabbinic literature use the term God-fearer for this rather large class of individuals.
It should be noted that God-fearers, were something like attenders only or associate members of the synagogues of their time. They did not become officers in the synagogue. They did not teach or hold positions of authority. Many of them were major donors for synagogue buildings, however. To read more, see Louis Feldman’s Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World.
Now, in our era, we have a variety of non-Jewish people in diverse movements keeping to differing degrees the commandments of the biblical Torah and customs of Judaism.
Are there lines inappropriate to cross? Are there Jewish customs which are inappropriate for non-Jews to practice?
Important caveat: we are discussing these matters. This is not about me, Derek Leman, laying down a ruling (as if anyone would follow any ruling I laid down anyway).
Fringes (Tzit-Tzit, Tallit, Prayer Shawl)
Interestingly the commandment that Israelites wear fringes is very specifically a commandment for Jewish observance. The passage in question is Numbers 15:37-41.
(1) It is to “the Israelite people.” Now, many people make the following assumption: a) the only people of God then were Israelites, b) the command is actually for all people of God but uses the only language available at the time, and c) it was not the intention of the Bible to limit this command to Israelites. But there are more considerations.
(2) The fringes or tassels are there to remind the people to keep all of God’s commandments and not to stray from them. Which commandments are referenced here? This must mean the commandments directed to Israel, given at Sinai to Israel, and some of which apply only to Israel (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary law, statutes in the land, etc.).
(3) The section is concluded with a statement of God’s relationship to Israel: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.” Did God bring the people of the nations of the world out of Egypt? (Someone will bring up the mixed multitude, no doubt, but note that God never makes the relational statements about the mixed multitude he does of Israel.)
There is a good biblical case to be made that the wearing of fringes (tallit, tzit-tzit, tallit katan, prayer shawl) is a sign of Israel’s relationship to God. This is also the Jewish tradition.
When a non-Jew visits a mainstream synagogue, the men will likely be loaned a kippah (skullcap), but never a tallit (unless the non-Jew wishes it to be assumed they are Jewish and does not inform the ushers).
In Messianic Judaism, it has been a long-standing custom that all the men wear a tallit in service. Is this justified? If it is not, how can we work toward a practice that differentiates?
Keep in mind what I wrote in the previous parts of this series. We have non-Jewish members with a variety of reasons for being in a Messianic synagogue. The universal wearing of tallit is perhaps the greatest symbol of our identity confusion. We have been encouraging non-Jews to dress as Jews in worship for so long people have become accustomed to this. Should we change it?
The Kippah (yarmulke, skullcap)
If the tallit is an example of a biblical commandment which has been appropriated in Messianic Judaism as a universal pattern, the kippah is the converse.
Covering the head (which most commonly involves the use of a skullcap) is a tradition, purely without biblical force. Yes, it derives from the biblical requirement of the priests in Exodus 28:40-42 (ordinary priests wore four garments: tunic, sash, turban, and breeches of linen). The logic of the head-covering tradition is simple: a) the priests were required to cover their head in the sanctuary since God was present, b) God is present everywhere, c) by covering the head at least during worship and study we are honoring God’s presence.
So, the kippah is a sign of respect for God’s presence. It is not something limited to Israelite observance.
Ironically, some people decline to wear a head-covering (“that’s not in the Bible”) but do wear a tallit (“it’s in the Bible”).
So the head-covering practice is something everyone (women have their own customs in this area with some diversity) could do in synagogue to honor God’s presence. And many do while some others refrain, giving as their reason that they only want to be biblical (but there is no such thing as following God only following biblical injunctions since God does not specify how to keep his injunctions to the level of detail).
Other Issues of Identity, Custom, and Practice
I will not attempt a complete list of observances about which we might ask if non-Jews should participate. I would be writing a 10,000 word blog post at a minimum. I will just briefly raise a few more:
–Circumcision on the eighth day and the celebration of Brit Milah as a party with friends and family. If you are a non-Jew and you do not plan to convert, why would you observe this command? Note: I am not talking about hygienic circumcision in the hospital soon following birth. In case the Chumash (five books of Torah) is not clear enough, the New Testament is very clear this is for Jews only.
–Reciting blessings which indicate membership in the Jewish people. For example, the Torah blessing says “who selected us from all peoples and gave us his Torah.” Can or should a non-Jew say this? The intention of the language is to talk about Israel’s corporate election (“God selected us as the Israelite people from all the other peoples”), but many people might read it individualistically (“God selected us individuals from all the peoples”). Why would a non-Jew recite a blessing before God indicating membership in the Israelite people when that is not the case? Some are proposing that in Messianic synagogues non-Jews not make aliyahs. Others are proposing that we have a variant blessing for non-Jews if they make an aliyah. What are your thoughts?
–Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Should we have a variant wording for non-Jews? Some have suggested Bar Avraham and Bat Avraham (terminology clearly used of non-Jews in the New Testament), but others object because Bar Avraham is a name given to a convert.
The Main Thing
For those non-Jews who are considering Jewish practice and for those non-Jews who already are living according to Jewish practice, is there an openness to discussing some differentiation in the future?
Would it be terrible if there were some differences (non-Jews refraining from wearing tallit, saying alternate blessings in some cases, etc.)?
Why is this so important? And, second, why must we be careful in proceeding?
The issue of Jewish identity and Messianic synagogues is important because when non-Jews assume Jewish identity, something precious to God is suppressed and even denied: that the people of Israel are the elect people whose role in world redemption did not cease at the coming of Messiah.
And proceeding with changes needs to go slowly because we owe it to people whom we have incorporated and authorized to assume Jewish practices not to dismiss their desires to continue and their fondness for the forms to which they are accustomed.