Jews and Jewish Christianity - On Jews, Gentiles, and “Jewish Christians

Several times in the course of our discussion of Judaism and Christianity we have distinguished between Jews and gentiles. At the outset, we emphasized that this book is directed in part at Jews who are thinking of converting to Christianity. In the chapter dealing with the divinity of Jesus, we explained that for a Jew to believe that Jesus was God constitutes idolatry, while the same trinitarian belief is not idolatry when held by a gentile. These points may have raised certain questions.

What is a Jew, and how is he different from a gentile? Are different things expected from Jews and gentiles? What is the meaning of the Law (Torah), and are only Jews supposed to obey it or is everyone so obligated?

Most religions consist of a set of teachings dealing with right conduct and man’s obligations to God or the gods. Membership in these religions is generally open to anyone who subscribes to the teachings of the religion and endeavors to live in accordance with them. In fact, not only is such membership open to all, but great efforts are often made to attract people to the religion in question. Such missionary efforts are made because these religions believe themselves to be in possession of important truths that they wish to bring to the attention of all, and often because they teach that salvation depends on the acceptance of their belief.

In this respect, Judaism is different. It believes itself to be the religion of the Jewish people, with its teachings obligatory only for Jews. Judaism believes that at Mount Sinai God gave Moses the teachings contained in the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), which regulate the life of the Jew. The Pentateuch contains teachings that deal with every aspect of human life, ranging from the ethical to commandments and prohibitions that regulate our diet, sex lives, and ritual observances. These commandments, traditionally said to be 613 in number, exist in written form in the Pentateuch and are elaborated in the Oral Law, which was also revealed to Moses at Sinai but orally rather than in writing. Later these oral teachings were written down, and these writings are called the Talmud. Together, the Written and Oral Law have guided Jewish life for over two thousand years.

But why is there a special set of laws that are binding only for Jews and not for gentiles?

The answer is found in the Bible. There we are told that God selected Abraham as his particular servant, promising that his descendants would become a great people who would be God’s particular people (Genesis 12:1-3). And here we come to the crux of the matter, which is Israel’s election, a doctrine that many people over the ages have found difficult to fathom. Isn’t God the father of all? Doesn’t he love all nations equally? If there is any group that God prefers, wouldn’t it be the group consisting of all those who love God and deal justly with their fellows, no matter what nation these good people come from?

From our human point of view, this does sound like the fairer way of proceeding. But it is not what the Bible tells us God did. He chose Abraham as his beloved and the descendants of Abraham as the nation of God. Whatever God’s reasons for choosing Abraham, the people of Israel, once chosen, thereby becomes the elect people of God from whom God demands a code of conduct far more stringent than that demanded of anyone else. That is why the Torah is binding only for Jews. But is a person a Jew if he does not obey all of the Torah? From the Jewish point of view, whether someone is a Jew is determined by his mother: if a mother is Jewish, so are her children. Whether they are good Jews depends on the extent to which they obey God’s commandments. But the election of Abraham is an election of his seed, and it is therefore physical descent that determines membership in the Jewish people.

If your mother was Jewish, so are you, no matter what you believe. It is, of course, true that conversion to Judaism is possible. But it has generally been discouraged in Judaism. Why?

The answer is that Judaism believes all good people to have a share in the world to come. In order to clarify this, we must now speak of the Noachide laws. As we have already seen, the Torah and its 613 commandments are intended only for Jews. How, then, is a gentile to live? Does God not care how gentiles act, or does he make demands of gentiles as well as Jews? Judaism teaches that God does indeed make demands of gentiles, though they are different from those he makes of Jews. The Talmud speaks of the laws that are binding for gentiles as the Noachide commandments, basing itself on Genesis 9:1-17. There, God makes a covenant with Noah never again to cause a flood to come upon the world. At the same time God demands of Noah and his descendants not to take human life (Genesis 9:6), and the rabbis include other aspects of moral law, such as theft, adultery and incest, idolatry, etc. Judaism believes that a gentile who obeys the Noachide commandments has a place in the world to come. This is the basic eason why conversion to Judaism by gentiles is discouraged. A gentile who wishes to convert to Judaism is told that, as a gentile, he can find favor with God by adhering to the Noachide commandments. Were he to convert, he would be obligated to fulfill all the commandments of the Torah, and since this is a difficult thing to do, he is advised to stay with the Noachide covenant, under which it is easier to please God. Should a gentile persist in his desire to become a Jew, he must indicate his willingness to accept all the commandments of the Torah. He is then circumcised and miraculously becomes a Jew with all the obligations of a Jew.

Now that we have discussed the Jewish teaching on the obligations of Jews and gentiles, we can inquire as to the Christian point of view on this matter. Here matters become somewhat complicated. There is what might be called the traditional Christian teaching, and there is the teaching that emerges from a more careful reading of Christian sources.

The traditional Christian teaching has been that with the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, all differences between Jews and gentiles are erased (Galatians 3:28). The Law was obligatory only until the coming of Jesus. With his coming the Law is no longer binding. The Jew who has faith in Jesus can stop obeying the Law. He can marry a gentile, so that within two or three generations all Jewish identity is lost, and this is indeed what has happened throughout the centuries to Jews who entered the church. Needless to say, Judaism considers a Jew’s severance of his bonds with the Jewish people a tragedy. It is the faith of Israel that the election of this people is eternal and irrevocable, and that the Law remains obligatory for all Jews for all times.

A more careful reading of various passages in the New Testament indicates that what has been described as the traditional Christian teaching may not be the original teaching of the early church. In Acts 15 we read of the Jerusalem Council, which discussed whether gentile converts to Christianity need be circumcised and obey the Law. The decision rendered was that they need not embrace the whole Torah, only the Noachide commandments (Acts 15:20-21). The very fact that the question whether gentiles who embraced Jesus needed to obey the Law could be discussed at length indicates rather clearly that there was unanimous agreement that Jews who believed in Jesus were obligated to continue obeying the Law. If this is so, the intention of the early church was for a church with two branches, the Jewish and the gentile. They would have their faith in Jesus in common but would differ in that Jews would remain under the commandments of the Torah while gentiles would be bound by the Noachide laws. If this is so, then the original Christian view of how Jews who have faith in Jesus ought to behave is quite different from traditional Christian teaching.

In recent years various groups have come into being that consider themselves “Jewish Christians.” They preach Jesus as their savior, yet seem intent on maintaining a form of Jewish identity. What is the Jewish reaction to such groups?

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We have already explained why Judaism rejects the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. But the claims of these groups to Jewish identity are made even more dubious by the fact that they are generally quite unclear about their commitment to Jewish practices and even Jewish survival. Some of them practice various Jewish customs, such as wearing tsitsit (fringes) and lighting candles on Friday nights. But do they believe that a Jew is obligated to obey the whole Torah? Do they believe that Jews must only marry only Jews, or do they believe, because of their faith in Jesus, that intermarriage with gentiles is permitted? In short, do they believe that it is the will of God that the seed of Abraham remain in the world as an identifiable people chosen by God? There is very little reason to think that they do. In fact, their primary identification seems to be with gentile, evangelical Christianity. As such, it is to be expected that the traditional pattern will be repeated. The descendants of Jews who come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah will disappear as Jews within two or three generations. And that is clearly not the will of God.

A Jew attracted to “Jewish Christianity” must ask himself whether he is willing to contribute to the dissolution of the Jewish people. If the group he joins consists of Jews and gentiles, if this group does not consider the commandments of the Torah binding on Jews, if it can be expected that Jews in this group will gradually be absorbed into the larger, gentile Christian community, then such a Jew is opting for the dissolution of the people God wants to remain his eternal people. It is imperative that Jews know this.

Furthermore, every form of “Jewish Christianity” in existence today teaches Jesus as God and not only as the Messiah. Any Jew who embraces this belief commits idolatry. While he does not thereby cease to be a Jew, since a Jew always remains a Jew, he commits one of the gravest sins of which a Jew is capable. It is imperative that Jews know this.

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Berger, David, 1943-

Jews and “Jewish Christianity”.

Bibliography: p.

1. Judaism-Apologetic works.

2. Jewish Christians.

3. Missions to Jews. I. Wyschogrod, Michael, joint author. II. Title

BM648.B45 296.3 78-9423

ISBN 0-87068-675-5