This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary


Modern religious movements struggle with a delicate tension between the contemporary focus on individual expression, and the requirements of conformity to standards of orthodoxy. In recent months, the Canadian public has had occasion to observe such a struggle over the "unorthodox" pronouncements by new moderator of the United Church of Canada.

From my vantage point in an academic department of Religious Studies, I try to the best of my abilities to avoid personal involvement in such questions. Nevertheless I find myself approached with increasing frequency by individuals who have been stirred to question their received religious traditions. For all my reluctance to missionize or tamper with people's faith, I do not always succeed in wriggling out of these encounters.

A recent interview of this sort involved a young man who was seriously considering conversion to Judaism. As it turned out, he had Jewish ancestry (on his father's side), and had even spent time in Israel, though he had been raised as a Christian. Unable to accept the beliefs in Jesus' divinity or the virgin birth, he had arrived at a realization that his authentic religious identity must be as a Jew. Towards that end he was ready to take on the yoke of the commandments.

In spite of my misgivings, this situation seemed to hold some initial promise. As our conversation proceeded, however, certain statements started to raise alarms. First of all, he made a sharp distinction between the revealed laws of the Bible, and that "oral tradition" that he did not acknowledge.

Now this in itself was not an insurmountable obstacle. I recalled the Talmud's story about Hillel the Elder, who, unlike his less patient colleague Shammai, had accepted a potential convert on precisely those terms, in the hope (subsequently borne out) that the candidate could eventually be persuaded to accept the authority of both the written and oral Torahs.

However, as we continued our chat he confided that his rejection of Jesus' being the "son of God" did not imply denial of his role as Messiah. Once I had established that he was convinced of this point, I told him that the matter was to all intents and purposes closed: No rabbi, knowing of such views, would agree to accept him as a convert.

While this may have neatly answered the immediate question, it was clear that it did not solve his existential personal crisis. After all, he no longer saw himself as a Christian, and was unlikely to feel at home in a Christian community. Since religion is not an affair for isolated individuals, I found myself upset by his predicament.

As is my scholarly custom, I tried to think of historical parallels to his situation, and was surprised at how readily they came to mind.

There was, for example, the case of the ancient Ebionites. They were mentioned by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius as a pernicious heresy, allegedly founded by an individual named Ebion. Among their eccentric doctrines were a commitment to observing the laws of the Torah, including the Sabbath, and a rejection of the claims that Jesus was son of God or born of a virgin.

Scholars now realize that there was never a person named Ebion. The Hebrew word, which means "poor," was in reality used to refer to the simple life-style followed by the remnants of the original Jewish-Christian church of Jerusalem, led by Peter and members of Jesus' family. While the mainstream of Christianity had followed a different course, becoming an overwhelmingly gentile religion defined by its faith in the godhood of Jesus, this small sect precariously maintained its identity as a movement within Judaism distinguished only in their belief in the Messiahship of Jesus, but rejected by the vast majority of Jews and Christians alike. By Eusebius' time, orthodox Christianity found it unimaginable that a group of that description could be designated "Christian" at all. Unable to find a place in either Judaism or Christianity, the Ebionites gradually dwindled and were virtually forgotten by history.

Similar tragedies befell some of the Marranos of Spain and Portugal. Though many of them strove stalwartly to maintain their Jewish identities secretly under the threat of the Inquisition, they had no access to authentic Jewish texts or tradition, and fashioned the best substitute they could on the basis of their knowledge of the "Old Testament."

When opportunities did present themselves for Marranos to flee to more tolerant lands in Italy or Northern Europe, they were frequently shocked by the disparity between their previous expectations of Judaism and what they encountered in living, breathing Jewish communities that did not live solely according to the Bible, but according to a venerable historical tradition.

This led to the appearance of spiritually rootless personalities who no longer felt at home in either their old or new religions. The most famous example was probably Uriel d'Acosta (1585-1640), whose unsuccessful attempts to fit in to the Amsterdam Jewish community reportedly culminated in his suicide (a tragedy that has been portrayed in several plays and operas).The excommunication of Spinoza should probably seen, at least in part, as a product of similar circumstances. In fact, historians have suggested that the presence of so many misfits in Europe may have been one of the chief factors in the rise of the Enlightenment in the 17th century.

A more recent manifestation of this phenomenon seems to be arising out of the success of the "Messianic Judaism" movement. Although their message is clearly a disingenuous cloak for a straightforward missionary campaign, they do call for their adherents to embrace Christianity as Jews, including a commitment to the religious commandments (particularly those that are susceptible to Christian allegorization). It appears that many of the Jews who have been drawn to the movement have been taking that message much more seriously than was intended by their self-professed "rabbis" whose initial intention was simply to deceive the uninformed into thinking that they were entering a synagogue rather than an evangelical church.

At any rate, this process is leading to the emergence of a distinctive stream on the contemporary Christian scene that affirms the validity of the Jewish covenant as embodied in the observance of the commandments of the "old Testament." The fact that "Messianic" Jews are observing Shabbat and kashrut does not dovetail with the standard Christian notion that the Torah was rendered obsolete with the coming of Jesus. This is clearly not to the liking of many of the conventional Christians who initiated this project, and it is not yet clear whether this will lead to the evolution of yet another orphaned religious movement.

The spiritual statelessness of such groups and individuals--whether they be Ebionites, Marranos or "Messianic" Jews--is on the whole a tragic phenomenon.

If nothing else, it might inspire us to be more compromising when our individualism causes us to chafe at the restrictions of community standards. For belonging to even an imperfect community can be preferable to not belonging at all.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 26, 1998, pp. 12-13 (as "The tragedy of spiritual rootlessness").

  • Bibliography:
    • R. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity, Jerusalem and Leiden, 1988
    • C. Roth, A History of the Marranos, New York, 1966.
    • L. W. Schwartz, Memoirs of My People New York, 1963.
    • S. G. Wilson, Related Strangers, Minneapolis, 1995.