This is the third part of a dialogue with Dr. Rivkah Adler of Breaking Israel News on the question of whether the biblical concept of ger, or foreigner, could be considered as a possible status for Torah-keeping non-Jews. It began with Rivkah’s article, “Are We Witnessing the Restoration of an Ancient Biblical Status for Non-Jews?”, followed by my commentary, “The Dilemma of the Ger”, and her observations in “A Jewish Response to the Dilemma of the Ger”.
Dealing with the Kinslaying
Albert J. McCarn
A motif running through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction works is the exile of the Elves from Valinor, the Blessed Realm of the Valar, the gods of Tolkien’s world. Those who read The Lord of the Rings first encounter the exiles as the High Elves who aid Frodo and his companions in their flight from the Shire. Readers who venture into The Silmarillion learn that the High Elves are the Noldor, one of three Elven clans who answered the Valar’s invitation to leave Middle Earth and live in Valinor. The Vanyar and Teleri – the other two clans – remained in Valinor, but the Noldor rebelled against the Valar and returned to Middle Earth to fight against Morgoth, Tolkien’s equivalent of Satan.
The Noldor had justification for their actions. Morgoth had stolen the Silmarils, the matchless jewels fashioned by Fëanor, greatest of the Elven craftsmen, and had killed Finwë, Fëanor’s father and king of the Noldor. Nevertheless, their rebellion under Fëanor’s leadership incurred a sentence of exile and separation from any help the Valar could offer. Over the next several centuries the Noldor and their allies among the Elves and Men of Middle Earth proved unable to defeat Morgoth, and they suffered a long defeat. At the end of their strength, the humbled remnant repented and begged help from the Valar. When help came, Morgoth was defeated and the Valar granted clemency for the Noldor to return to the Blessed Realm, bringing with them the remaining Elves of Middle Earth who had never seen Valinor.
This is the unseen backdrop for the Elves appearing in Tolkien’s later and more popular works. Those who pick up the story with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings meet wise Elrond, stern yet kindly Thranduil, and gentle Galadriel, but they have no understanding of their history. Galadriel, for example, was Fëanor’s niece, and along with his sons and her brothers led the Noldor in rebellion. Upon passing the test of refusing the Ring of Power when Frodo offers it to her, she proves that she, the only surviving rebel leader, is indeed ready to return home as a humble penitent.
In Galadriel’s story we see the stunning panorama flowing through the body of Tolkien’s works. Yet there is one missing detail: he never tells us what happens when the exiles return. It is a significant omission. We can imagine the scenes of reconciliation as the Noldor made amends with the eternal Valar, but we do not know what happens when they encountered the brethren they had wronged. At the beginning of their flight from Valinor, the Noldor demanded of their kin, the Teleri, use of their ships. The Teleri refused, resulting in a terrible battle known thereafter as the Kinslaying. As Tolkien describes it, “Thus at last the Teleri were overcome, and a great part of their mariners that dwelt in Alqualondë were wickedly slain.” If that were not enough, when they arrived on the shores of Middle Earth, Fëanor gave orders to burn the wondrous Telerian ships, craft of great beauty the like of which could never be made again.
What happens when the prodigal Noldor return home is a tale we do not know. We hope they are reconciled with their brethren, but achieving reconciliation requires conscious effort to overcome the debt of blood between them. Until that debt is paid or forgiven, the bliss of the Blessed Realm remains unbearably diminished.
Tolkien’s epic thus becomes a parable for us, the returning exiles of the House of Yosef (Joseph). Like the Noldor, we are guilty not only of rebellion against our God and the king He had anointed, but also of an endless Kinslaying of our brethren of Judah.
That is what colors our relations to this day. It is what shapes our differing approaches to this tragic dilemma. Although we identify as long-lost Hebrews, our Jewish brethren do not see us as such. Since we abandoned them 3,000 years ago, and since our dispersal to the four corners of the earth, they and the rest of the world have rightly understood Israel to be the Jewish people and them alone. It is inconceivable that the Lost Tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar would ever return as anything but Jews. Yet they never were Jews. King David seems to have understood this, having been king of Judah for seven years before the non-Jewish tribes acknowledged his authority, but his grandson Rehoboam apparently did not. Rehoboam’s attempt to exercise tyrannical power over all the tribes provided the catalyst for Jeroboam to lead Ephraim and the other tribes in rebellion against the House of David, but the seeds of division had been sown long before.
Even during David’s reign, the rivalry of the two parts of the nation reared up from time to time – such as in the aftermath of his victory over his mutinous son Absalom (II Samuel 19:40-20:22). In this we see what Isaiah 11 describes as the envy of Ephraim and the harassment of Judah: the younger brother covets the ruling position of the elder, while the elder brother demands conformity and obedience from the younger. Today that sibling rivalry takes the form of a younger brother awakening to his long-lost identity and demanding not only recognition from the older, but that his Jewish brother deal with the splinter in his eye. The older brother cannot see Israelite identity in any form but Jewish, and therefore these Hebraic Christians can only be considered friendly strangers – gerim.
To be honest, we who consider ourselves Ephraimites have not yet presented the Jewish people any good reason to take us seriously. Perhaps it is because this awakening is still so new. Most of us were traditional Christians from various denominations until a few short years ago. It is not an exaggeration to say that this work of God in bringing us to appreciation of Torah and awareness of our Hebrew heritage has caused us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew. In the process, we have found much in our Christian upbringing that is incorrect, and still more that is not wrong, but not by any means the full truth. Some are beginning to see where this journey will take us in time (perhaps a very, very long time), but most are still flailing around in an attempt to make sense of this new identity. The result is what I can best describe as an immature tendency to lash out against everything that is suspect, whether Christian, Jewish, and even other Messianic/Hebrew Roots perspectives. Even though we say we are Hebrews, comparatively few have made the effort to connect with Jews and gain an appreciation of what has been the only identifiable expression of Hebrew culture for millennia. Fewer still have experienced Israel even in a pilgrimage tour, and only a handful have actively supported the Jewish people and the State of Israel through monetary contributions, purchase of Israeli products, and volunteer service in the land. We are indeed gerim, and we have a lot of growing up to do before we can be taken for anything other than that.
But are we really gerim? If, as you say, the definition of ger is, “A 100% kosher non-Jew”, then we do not qualify. When it comes to food, for example, we understand the requirement to eat “biblically clean”, meaning abstain from those things which the Bible says are not food (pork, shellfish, birds of prey, etc.). However, not many of us observe kashrut requirements. In other words, we are not 100% kosher. Although we observe the biblical commandments as best we know how, there are many Jewish practices which we do not follow. Our intent is to follow the written commandments of God rather than what we perceive to be human tradition. The Torah Awakening is in fact an awakening to the reality that much of our Christian practice as it has developed over the centuries features human traditions which differ greatly from what is written in the Bible. That is why we evaluate every practice (both Jewish and Christian, as well as those from other sources) against the Scripture to see whether it is something God requires, or a human innovation that could be instructive, but is not mandatory. Admittedly, we have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water, and therefore have missed out not only on the illustration of Torah principles that many Jewish practices convey, but also useful instruction from the various Christian streams. This, too, is something that will be corrected in time as we mature into our Hebrew identity.
Our endeavor to follow the Word of God and that alone reveals an even deeper division between us: the very definition of Torah. We who come from the Christian side regard the Torah as the five books of Moses, and nothing more. Judaism regards the Mishna (Oral Law) as the revealed Word of God, but we do not. We respect it and the rest of the Talmud as valuable instruction, but we do not place it on the same level as what God revealed to Moses. Conversely, we hold the Apostolic Writings (the New Testament) as Scripture, but Jews do not.
Thus we arrive at our first great impasse. I am not a scholar in such matters, but I believe it is in the Talmud that one finds the basis of the statement, “Torah does not provide me a way to accept the claim of a person who identifies as a Hebrew but who remains attached to Yeshua.” It is in the Apostolic Writings that we find claims by Jewish writers about how a Jew named Yeshua who lived in the first century CE fulfilled much of the messianic requirements given by Moses and the Prophets, and promised to fulfill the remaining requirements upon his return. Yet this very body of writings is something most Jews do not accept as authoritative.
This is where our conversation could end even before it begins. It is more than a matter of definition; it is a matter of what each of us accepts as unassailable truth. That is why this process of reconciliation is the ultimate test for us all, and perhaps for all humanity. We from the Christian side and you from the Jewish side share a Hebraic tradition of covenant instituted by Almighty God for the purpose of redeeming humanity and ushering in the Messianic age of universal peace. Given our differences, can we continue to associate? If so, then we prove that our trust in Hashem is greater than our differences of belief and practice. If not, then the world is doomed.
It may be that our best approach is not in logic or rational argument, but in building relationships. I can assert with great eloquence my belief that it is necessary, possible, and logical for God to become a human for the purpose of redeeming mankind. You can assert with equal eloquence that it is not only illogical, but blasphemous to think so. Perhaps the tone of our conversation would be different if it were taking place 2,000 years ago. I understand from reading authorities on the subject that Judaism in the first century contained a doctrinal thread that embraced the concept of a divine Messiah. I am not certain what changed along the way, but I surmise it began with the way Yeshua was tried and executed. If the Apostolic Writings are correct in their historic details (regardless what one may think of their spiritual implications), Yeshua’s teachings challenged the status of a hidebound and corrupt religious leadership (the Pharisees and Sadducees), and an equally corrupt civil authority (the Herodian dynasty). His claims to be the divine Messiah provided sufficient cause for his trial and execution, and for the persecution of his followers by Jewish authorities.
Where this becomes tragic is in the division that happened over the next several generations. Many Jews in Judea and Galilee were convinced of Yeshua’s messianic claims, and thus Jewish society there and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world was faced with a great crisis of faith. As Yeshua’s followers spread their message with great enthusiasm, many Gentiles also became convinced of Yeshua’s credentials – and of the need to follow the commandments of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the great revelation we non-Jewish Torah keepers are beginning to understand: that Yeshua did not come to establish a new religion, but to teach the commandments of Hashem correctly, and to open the way for all people to enter into relationship with the Creator. More than that, they taught that followers of Yeshua, regardless of their ethnicity and lineage, would become partakers of the Abrahamic Covenant and be “grafted in” to Israel. In other words, these non-Jews could become Israelites – Hebrews – without converting to Judaism.
It was a radical message, and I confess that even now I am only beginning to understand how radical and how offensive it is to Jews. What I see now is that the influx of non-Jewish Torah keepers (“God fearers” is how the Apostolic Writings refers to them) ensured that the crisis of faith within Jewish society soon became a crisis of identity. The great wars Rome waged against the Jewish people in the first and second centuries compounded the problem to the point that it became expedient for both sides (Jews and non-Jewish followers of Yeshua) to separate. By the middle of the second century CE, the animosity had escalated on both sides to the point that the split between Jew and what had come to be known as Christian became a fact of life.
Ever since then the Jews have borne the worst of the feud. Nearly two millennia of Christian-instigated pogroms, expulsions, enslavement, massacres, forced conversions, rape, and cultural genocide have of necessity caused the Jewish nation worldwide to turn in on itself simply as a matter of survival. Now we come along, neo-Hebrews who claim that the Jesus who motivated our forefathers to turn from everything Jewish is Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah who was actually telling people how to keep the Torah correctly. Why should any Jew believe us? The last time someone broke with prevailing Christian practice by placing Scripture above church tradition, it was Martin Luther, and he and his Reformer contemporaries did not exactly turn out to be friends of the Jews.
The divide is still with us, and it is nearly insurmountable. I realized this recently while preparing for Passover. We have acquired several haggadahs over the years, and in reviewing them I came across these words:
This has been the story of Passover. A heroic rebellion against oppression and of glorious freedom from slavery. No other people has a story more exciting, not one that is as true now as it was thousands of years ago. Throughout the years, Passover has meant freedom. Be it escape from Egypt, rescue from the crusaders, or liberation from the Nazis.
Just as the Jewish people overcame their enemies in the land of Egypt, so will they always vanquish their oppressors because of God’s help. This is the message of Passover which must forever remain in our hearts.
A casual reading will miss the centuries of pain infused in these words. I missed it for over a decade. First of all, the authors of the haggadah uphold the Jewish insistence that everyone who came out of Egypt were Jews. No, they were not; in addition to the mixed multitude of non-Hebrews who joined the Israelites, the eleven tribes who were not Judah definitely were not Jews. All, however, were fully Hebrew. Thus it is more accurate to say that God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, not merely the Jews.
But the more important point comes in the previous sentences: “Throughout the years, Passover has meant freedom. Be it escape from Egypt, rescue from the crusaders, or liberation from the Nazis.”
Everyone knows the Egyptian oppressors of Israel were evil, and everyone knows the Nazis were evil, but the crusaders? Yes, they were. The medieval military campaigns to free the Holy Land from the Muslims began with bloody assaults on Jews in Germany, and Jews remained a primary target of soldiers bearing the cross thereafter. That much I knew; what I didn’t know is how deeply ingrained the fear and animosity toward the crusaders remains in Jewish thought. Whatever good came of European Christian civilization (and much good indeed has come of it), Jewish eyes still see Christianity and Christians through the lens of the Crusades. What, then, does it mean when Jews see crusaders on the same plane as Egypt’s Pharaoh and as Nazi Germany’s Hitler?
It means that no matter what I say, nor how impeccable my arguments, nothing can penetrate the wall of pain that my forefathers built between me and my Jewish brethren.
No wonder the idea of a divine Messiah is anathema. No wonder the Talmud finds no place for someone like me, who keeps Torah because Yeshua is my example. No wonder I remain a ger in the eyes of those who have too often over the centuries seen Christian professions of brotherhood and friendship turn into betrayal unto death. Like Tolkien’s Noldor, I and my fellows have gained forgiveness from and reconciliation with the Almighty, but we have yet to be reconciled to the long-lost brethren who can scarcely believe that we are who we say we are.
There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Just as our division did not happen overnight, our reconciliation cannot happen quickly or easily. It requires determination on both sides to persevere through our differences, relying on the God we mutually adore and serve to do just as He said. We wait on Him to make a way where there seems to be no way. In the meantime, there is still much we can do to get to know one another, to learn to love one another, and to build the trust that has eluded us for far too long.