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Some thoughts about Conversion - Meshumad?

Meshumad?

Some thoughts about Jewish conversion...

by John J. Parsons

To the Jewish mind the idea of "converting" is dangerous, evoking various images of persecution such as the Spanish Inquisition (i.e., "conversos"), Russian pogroms, and even the Holocaust itself.... For a Jew to convert to Christianity makes him or her מְשֻׁמָּד (meshumad) a term that connotes betrayal of the Jewish community. While a Jew who skeptically denies basic dogmas of Judaism is called אפיקורוס (apikoros) by the rabbis, a Jew who turns to another faith altogether (and especially to Christianity) is considered מומר (mumar) or פושע ישראל (poshea Israel) - a "transgressor of Israel." Simply put, conversion is not part of the milin havivin ("beloved words") of the traditionalist Jew.

Perhaps because of such negative connotations, a Messianic friend recently remarked to me, "Jews don't need to convert to Christianity; they just need to be "completed," like the Apostle Paul who became a completed Jew."

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Jews don't need to convert to Christianity; they just need to be "completed," like the Apostle Paul...

Now what do we make of such a statement? In relation to the words of Yeshua and his disciples, would the substitution of the word "completed" for "converted" prove helpful? Putting aside the negative connotation of the word "convert" for a moment, should we believe that there is such an "ontological difference" between Jews and non-Jews that a while a non-Jew may "convert," a Jew becomes "completed"?

But did the Apostle Paul, the greatest Torah sage and Pharisee of his day, become a "completed" Jew when he encountered the risen Mashiach on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22), or did something else happen to him -- something so radical that it is more fitting to say that he converted from his former life to a new one?  When he wrote about his Jewish pedigree and listed his zechut (merits) while living as a Torah observant Jew, was he not clearly contrasting all this with something surpassingly better, namely his identification with Jesus as his Master and Lord? (see Phil 3:1-15).

In Matthew 18:3 Jesus said (to his entirely Jewish audience) that unless you convert (στρεφω) and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses the same word after warning of Satan's desire to sift Peter "as wheat." He said, "but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again (επιστρεφω from στρεφω), strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32).

The LXX (the translation of the Tanakh into Greek by Jewish scholars) uses the same Greek verb (στρεφω) in Genesis 3:24 regarding the flaming sword that "turned every which way" while guarding Tree of Life. In fact, this verb actually appears countless times in the Scriptures, including John 12:40, Acts 28:27, both of which quote Isaiah 6:10:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

The connection between "converting" (στρεφω) and the Hebrew idea of teshuvah (תשובה, from שוב meaning to "turn") should be noted. Notice, however, that the shuvah mentioned by Isaiah during his great vision (Isaiah 6) pertained to the people's stubborn refusal to heed the warning of God to turn from their evil ways.  Consequently, punishment upon punishment would come, even including the exile of the Jewish people from the Promised Land (i.e., the Diaspora which Moses also foretold). However, even after the "tree of Israel" had been reduced to a "mere stump," the indestructible Seed of the Holy One would arise from whom the people would be regenerated (Isaiah 6:11-13): zarah kodesh matzavtah.

Now is this regeneration part of a continuum from an earlier life, or is it something entirely (and ontologically) new? In other words, does the "holy Seed from the stump" imply that those who later would "come from the tree" are in need of some sort of reformation (i.e., "completion") or is spiritual rebirth what is meant? How we answer that question will decide whether or not we should use the word "completed" or "converted" in relation to a Jewish believer in Yeshua.

In the New Testament writings, "converting" to Yeshua means repenting, or turning away (teshuvah) from other ideas about who He is (including those ideas now fossilized as the traditions of the rabbis). The Greek word μετάνοια (from 'μετα' (after, with) and 'νοεω' (to think) literally means "to think differently after" or to experience a "change of mind and heart." The word appears throughout the New Testament (Matt. 3:2,8; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 5:31; 3:3; 6:30; 15:7,10; 17:3,4; 24:27; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Co. 12:21; Rev. 2:5,21). The result of such rethinking involves "accepting" Yeshua's authority and "following" him -- i.e., becoming a talmid (disciple) who lives in within his presence and attempts to walk out the principles of his life. 

But "converting" also means that an "ontological" change happens within the heart as a result of the direct intervention of God.  This spiritual change is every bit as real (and perhaps more so) than the ethnic ontology of a given human being, since God can "make children of Abraham out of stones" (Matt. 3:9). When you genuinely accept the reality and authority of Yeshua, your life is not merely changed (or qualitatively "completed"), but you are reborn in the Spirit and you partake in His indestructible Life forever. This is not a metamorphosis of kind, but an entirely new kind of being itself (2 Cor. 5:17).

But as for the idea that a Jew does not need to undergo this change, or that he or she can just "add" Jesus to become "completed," there is no Scriptural warrant.  After all, the words of Jesus were words of a Jew spoken to fellow Jews. There was no talk of "completion" implied in His words -- no suggestion that someone like Nicodemus simply needed to append Jesus to his Jewish heritage in order to experience spiritual rebirth. No, something far more radical is intended, namely the miracle of imparted eternal life (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet. 1:23). You can't put new wine into old wineskins, chaverim (Matt. 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37, 39). Jesus didn't come to revive our commitment to Moses (and therefore to the rabbinical traditions), but to recreate us as a child of God Himself.

To return to the original question of whether a Jew should "convert," I think it is obvious that Paul did not understand such to mean abandoning his Jewish heritage in favor of a Gentile replacement. When a Jewish person is converted today, he or she is still an ethnic Jew -- just like an Asian remains an Asian, an Ethiopian an Ethiopian, and so on -- though of course he must now refuse Jewish religious authority (i.e., Talmudic Judaism) as normative in his life (this is no different than when a pagan convert must abandon his idolatry). The interesting question, of course, regards the "stickiness" of ethnic identity and how it is to be incorporated into the greater Body of Messiah, especially in light of Yeshua's repeated prayer that we would be "one" even as He was one with the Father (John 17:21-23).

In the end, perhaps my friend's comment has to do more with the object of teshuvah rather than the need to undergo it.  In other words, it is conversion to Christianity, understood as a Gentile institution, that's the real issue.  And to that I wholeheartedly agree, since Jews are not required to give up their ethnic Jewish identity in order to become followers of the Jewish Messiah!  Indeed, the predominantly Gentile Church has lost sight of its indebtedness to Jewish heritage, effectively cutting itself off from the "holy Seed" that is the very Root of Jesse.  This is perilously close to the idea of the branches "boasting" against the root (see Romans 11:18).

In modern Hebrew the word teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) means "an answer." It is the mind's turning to a sheilah (שְׁאֵלָה), a question, attending to it with honesty in the pursuit of truth. Yeshua, the King of the Jews, asks each of us to answer the call to the deepest questions we face in our lives...

 

A lot more could be said about this subject, of course, but this will have to suffice for now. Language ultimately has its limits, after all, and labels often do more harm than good. We often struggle to use words to point to what is Real and Abiding.  "By the grace of God I am what I am," as Paul said (1 Cor. 15:10) -- good enough for me!

May the LORD God of Israel give us grace and wisdom.

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