Jewish? Non-Jewish? What’s the big deal?

617321_50915298If you’re just joining me in answering the question “How did I get here?”, please check out these previous posts: and

As I mentioned, I was spending time with many Jewish families and learning about the history of the Jewish people. Especially because of that, I was always very careful about answering the question, “Are you Jewish?”

The more I learned about our family history, the more evidence I found of Jewish ancestry.  Despite that, I didn’t want to identify myself as being Jewish because I was not raised in a culturally or religiously Jewish home.  I knew if I just embraced what I was learning and what others were telling me by saying, “I’m Jewish,” people would assume that I also meant,  “I was raised culturally and religiously in a Jewish home and community.”  I didn’t want to misrepresent myself.

Eventually though, I began to internally identify myself as Jewish, yet I still would not introduce myself to people as Jewish (even though most Jewish people I met still assumed I was).  There was an uncomfortable tension growing within me. However, there were also reasons very important to me for not reconciling the tension.

Some of those reasons caused some people confusion in the RHE “Ask a…..”  interview.  My reasons also reflect a really important issue to me within the Messianic world. Therefore, before I share how I was drawn towards Messianic study and worship, I want to explain the issues surrounding “belonging” a bit more.  I’ll start with the background and then address the modern day issue.

Lessons from an olive tree

A key teaching underpinning Messianic teachings is the illustration of the Olive Tree that Paul gives in Romans 11.

The Christian Church started as a Jewish sect. Over the first 30-300 years, as the Church experienced social and political tension, the believers separated from Judaism. As more and more non-Jews were getting saved and joining the community, it eventually became separated to the point of being a Christian community that had stripped the Jewishness from itself.  Joseph Stern’s Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel is a great look at this stage in Church history.

Within Judaism there is an ancient teaching that presents Judaism as an olive tree that has everyone from Adam to Abraham as the roots of the tree.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the trunk of the tree, and out of Jacob come the first 12 branches of the tree.  Everyone within Judaism is born out of their father’s branch, and the tree grows over the generations.

There are also wild trees of 70 nations on which people can be born.  These are not God’s trees – they are not held to the standard that God has given to His the people on His tree.  It is taught that when someone on a wild tree lives out God’s standards, without knowing them or being expected to uphold them, it is counted to them as righteousness.

Anyone from the tree of Israel is able to choose to remove themselves from the tree and attach themselves to a tree from the nations, removing themselves from God’s protection.  Anyone from one of the wild trees of the nations is able to remove themselves from that tree and, through their efforts towards learning and living God’s standards, and confirmed through the act of conversion, may attach themselves to Israel’s tree.

This is where it’s important to note that in raising olive trees, the domestic and cultivated trees produce the best fruit, but the wild trees have the strongest roots.  The practice, then, is to attach the domestic branches to the wild trees so that they can benefit from the stronger, heartier roots and produce better fruit.  This is the opposite of what Paul describes being done to the olive tree in Romans 11.  I find this important because horticulture cannot explain what Paul is teaching and only the teaching about the trees – a teaching that he would have known as a Pharisee who had studied these things – explains the point he is making.

It’s important to note where Paul’s explanation diverges from the ancient teaching.  Paul explains that it is not by the efforts of the individual that he moves from the wild olive tree to the domesticated tree of Israel. It is by grace through faith in Yeshua HaMashiach – Jesus the Messiah – that he is moved from one tree to the other. He is no longer part of the wild tree of his nation of birth, but he is part of Israel – God’s Kingdom.

Next time I will talk some more about Romans 11, including what changed for me and what I did about it.


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Part 2: What’s so important about the Olive Tree

Part 3: Change leads to awareness, leads to acceptance

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