Stuart Dauermann and I are engaging in an interesting discussion regarding Messianic congregations over at the Messianic Agenda blog.
Any Messianic worth their salt should know of Stuart Dauermann; perhaps the greatest Messianic Jewish scholar, he’s also been called the Father of Jewish Gospel music, having authored hundreds of Messianic songs since the 1960s (!). To this day, he’s still laboring in the fields – serving as a Messianic Jewish rabbi, serving as a founding member of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, a resident scholar at the MJTI center in Jerusalem, and even hosts a weekly radio show. He’s a longtime servant of the Lord and I have the utmost respect for him.
But I had to take issue with some of his recent blog posts due to a concerning direction he – and indeed the greater Messianic world – is now moving in.
You see, some years ago, Rabbi Dauermann changed his direction: having previously been involved with missionary organizations to Jews, he discovered that Jewish mission organizations like Jews for Jesus were, besides bringing some Jews to Jesus, harming Jewish identity and covenant responsibilities: that is to say, Jews that came to Jesus stopped being Jews; organizations like Jews For Jesus created converts who were disconnected from the Jewish world, no longer keeping the Torah, and eventually became indistinguishable from gentile Christians.
And worse, the descendants of these Jews-turned-Christians tended to eventually lose all Jewish identity. They’d marry gentiles, their children would eventually stop calling themselves Jewish, and in a generation or two, the Jewish identity would be lost.
Jews –1, Christians +1.
Rabbi Dauermann, and others, saw this trend, and sought to reverse it by creating a congregational movement, Messianic Judaism, that is faithful to Judaism and Yeshua. A place where Jews who follow Yeshua can still be Jews: still connected to the Jewish world and practice Judaism.
So What’s the Problem Anyways?
All this sounds like a positive change in direction: we should preserve Jewish identity; following Yeshua should not require Jews to stop being Jewish. In fact, since Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, following him ought to bring about a more Jewish and commandment-keeping lifestyle.
However, Dauermann’s recent blogs have tended towards criticism of our existing practices within the Messianic movement as Not-Jewish-Enough. He is arguing for more Yiddishkeit – Jewishness – in our Messianic congregations. And he does so by critiquing the practices of existing Messianic congregations:
For example, In Varieties of Jewish Yeshua Believers Part Two, Dauermann criticizes Messianic congregations that utilize Messianic music and Messianic dance:
[Such] services may be what I call “Jimmy Swaggart with Yarmulkes,” where what is going on is really American Pentecostalism or charismatic culture but done in a minor key, perhaps to the accompaniment of dancing. Or such services might be what I term “B’nai First Baptist Church,” where the entire structure of the service, its feel, what Jews call its “ta’am” [“flavor”], is not really Jewish, despite the use of Jewish terminology, decorations, and even some service elements.
He singles out Messianic dance as particularly egregious and Not-Jewish-Enough:
Another model is what I term “Arthur Murray Goes to Tel Aviv.” For these congregations, their main investment in Jewish ambiance and authenticity is dance, while other substantive areas are subject to neglect, ignorance, or tokenism. It is this disproportionate reliance on what is termed “Davidic Dancing” to the neglect of substantial Jewish religious communal engagements that is the problem here.
He labels these congregations trayf, non-kosher:
You might summarize all of these models as the “ham and cheese on a bagel approach.” There is something Jewish in there, but there is so much that is alien to the Jewish ethos, that authenticity is lacking. The problem is one of substituting a thin veneer for the real thing. The danger is that such models of services and congregational culture produce Jewish believers whose Jewishness is an eighth of an inch deep—at least to other Jews if not themselves.
His sentiments appeal to many Messianics.
More Jewishness, more authentic Judaism. You see this trend in Messianic organizations like First Fruits of Zion, UMJC, and so forth. As an insider to the Messianic movement for over 20 years, I believe this trend will continue to grow within our ranks.
Bottom line: Dauermann’s sentiments are praised by most in the Messianic movement, and this trend is growing.
In my own mind, I wanted to agree with Dauermann because it sounds so good, but I knew something was off. The difficulty was articulating exactly what was wrong with this sentiment.
I also knew if I spoke against this trending belief, I would receive some flak for doing so. It’s the nature of trending ideas. Even so, I had to speak up for sake of Messiah’s presence in our congregations.
So what is wrong with this trending agenda? It sounds so good – more Jewishness in our congregations, more connection to the Jewish world – what could possibly be wrong with such positive sentiment?
The problem is an imbalance of priorities.
This trending idea of more Yiddishkeit, although well-intentioned, is being taught with priority over things God has given us.
Taking Messianic music, for example. God has blessed, uplifted, strengthened thousands of his people through Messianic music. Dauermann acknowledges this. I’ve seen it first-hand as a Messianic musician myself, and as author of best Messianic radio on the web, Chavah. Even so, Dauermann ultimately argues for less Messianic music and more Yiddishkeit.
Because he believes that if our congregations are more authentically Jewish, with a real connection to Judaism and the Jewish world, we’ll be a true light to Jewish people for Yeshua. Furthermore, we’ll grow in our own Jewishness, being better Jews ourselves, and from that, we’ll be more faithful to God’s convenants as we walk in his commandments.
A noble goal.
But step back and look at what’s being said here, and it’s implications: “We ought to have less of [God-given, grass-roots Messianic, Spirit Life-giving element] and more [thing Judaism already has].”
More succinctly, we ought to subtract from a [God-given element] and add more of [human religion element].
Before you criticize me for being a Cowboy Religionist type, hear me out.
The implication is that we can, by our own doing and reasoning, build a better religion by displacing the things God has given us over the last several decades.
To be sure, Jewishness is also a God-given element, but here we’re really talking about elements from Judaism’s religious services, which are neither here nor there. Take more of those, and displace the things God has given us.
That’s the imbalance of priorities: the Make-Us-More-Jewish agenda is given priority over the Spirit-Life-giving agenda.
Messianic music is just one example. Dauermann also critcizes Messianic dance which, though it can be awkward, is nonetheless a native, joyful expression of worship, one that is authentically grass-roots Messianic.
Despite this being a true and authentic joyful expression of worship, Dauermann sees it a priority to have less Messianic dance and more Jewishness.
Less authentic joyful worship, more Jewishness.
Imbalance of priorities.
The same goes for most any specifically-Messianic practice: blowing shofars at any old shabbat service, using tallits to cover wives and children in prayer, you name it. A distinctly Messianic element, even if merit, should be displaced to make room for more Jewishness.
The Messianic agenda is one that calls for more Jewishness at the expense of Spirit Life giving elements.
And it’s for that reason, I told Dauermann the following:
You are one of the greatest scholars in the Messianic movement, a valuable visionary leader, and above all, a brother in Messiah, one whom I hold much respect for. (Thank you, Lord, for Rabbi Dauermann and his faithful service to your people!)
So it’s with great care and respect I say the following:
Your priorities are not sound. In particular, you place an extraordinarily high priority, perhaps above any other, on our services mapping well to the traditional Jewish religious service. When you see a practice in Messianic congregations that is outside the norm of traditional Jewish religious service, it almost automatically becomes an offense that must be eradicated or lowered in significance, bowing to the strictly traditional elements of Jewish religious service. You give such practices a label, and use that label to make a caricature out of the practice.
I will give an example, then explain why it is an unsound priority.
You see congregations utilizing Messianic music and dance as “Jimmy Swaggart with Yarmulkes.” The implication in this label is that Messianic congregations that employ Messianic music and dance are putting on a Pentacostal entertainment show with only superficial connection to Judaism. You further suggested influences like Messianic music is, referring to Messianic leadership, “almost always because of their own prior sojourns in evangelical Christian space.”
Let’s get to the heart of the matter: does Messianic music exalt God, and has it produced good fruit? You and I have witnessed the uplifting of many thousands of Yeshua’s followers through Messianic Jewish music and dance. On a personal level, it’s a strengthening of my soul, being able to worship God to music in this uniquely Messianic way. I have not received that same spiritual renewal in any other form of service, from either Evangelical churches or traditional synagogues.
Before you accuse me of being a self-centered, individualistic Messianic, consider the community: looking at it from the community-of-Israel perspective, what a great loss Jewish people have suffered in being void of nearly all musical communal worship in Jewish religious services! Where is the joyous sounds of stringed instruments praising him, the choirs singing, that great joy that King David exhorted the people to take part in? Why isn’t musical worship an integral part of traditional Jewish religious services? In the synagogues I’ve visited, these things aren’t present. At very most, we chant some liturgical poems, maybe li-li-li to a niggun, or in a great while sing zemiros. With respect, these are no replacements for the musicial instrument-accompanied, choir blasting, whole communal joyful praising described in the Psalms. It says something about the Jewish world that the most well known Jewish religious music today is from a beat-boxing reggae artist from New York. And even that artist’s talents came about from his sojourns in the secular world; Judaism itself is rather stifling in this regard, these expressions come from outside the synagogue.
Messianic Judaism is in a unique and historical position to change Judaism. Messianic music and dance is one such reform; restoring a Scriptural practice, one that uplifts and strengthens and heals.
But instead of seeing joy and healing and restoration and uplifting of thousands, you see Jimmy Swaggart in a Yarmulke.
I suggest your priority of connection to the Jewish world has taken precedence over nearly every other priority in the Messianic world, leading you to diminish righteous practices in favor of More Jewishness, where More Jewishness is defined as better emulation of Judaism’s traditional religious services. More traditional Judaism service emulation, less everything else. That is the undertone sensed in your writings.
If that is not what you are intending to convey to the Messianic world, then I would very much like to hear from you an element of Messianic services without a correlating element in traditional Jewish religious services, but one you still deem righteous and good and in good balance.
If you cannot think of such a thing, I propose to you that your priority on connection to the Jewish world has become for you and unbalanced priority, blinding you to righteous things God is doing in our congregations.
Since I left that comment, there has been a bit of back and forth with Dauermann, which I very much enjoyed. He’s a guy that engages in discussion in a scholarly way, he doesn’t beat around the bush, he’s totally upfront and direct in his criticisms.
I think we’re at the point in the discussion, however, that he is now misunderstanding my position, and criticizing a position that I don’t hold. It’s really inevitable in current online discussions, which invariably degenerate as more words are spoken and misinterpreted. So for the time, I’ll likely leave the discussion where it’s at. I have spoken what I felt desperately needed to be spoken, and I did so in a way that was respectful and in love towards a brother in Messiah.
What do you fine blog readers think: should we have more Jewishness in our congregations, even if it’s at the expense of Spirit Life giving elements like Messianic music?