Recently, I had the privilege of reading the Torah portion “Lech Lecha” (Genesis 12:1-17:27) at my synagogue in Atlanta. This was a special opportunity because this was the same Torah portion that I read twenty-seven years ago for my Bar Mitzvah.
As I was preparing to read from the Torah scroll, the melody for chanting the portion sounded familiar, as if a distant echo from my past. Being that Lech Lecha describes Abraham’s journey (both physical and spiritual), I was moved to reflect upon my own “Jewish journey” and all that has transpired since the last time I read this parashah from the Torah scroll.
Twenty-seven years ago, when I turned thirteen, I wasn’t much interested in Judaism. Having a Bar Mitzvah was something that my Jewish friends and I took for granted. It was part of growing up in a Jewish family. But it wasn’t something that I embraced as a landmark, or turning point, or commitment that I was making to Judaism for the rest of my life. Sadly, the hard work that I put in to prepare for that big event didn’t generate in me a love for Judaism or a desire to stay Jewish (acknowledging that one born Jewish can’t stop being Jewish…but they can stop living as a Jew). After my Bar Mitzvah, I lost all interest in Judaism. Baseball, girls, and eventually Christianity consumed my attention. Upon becoming a Christian in college, I was content to leave my Jewish identity in the past and move forward as a Christian.
When I became a Christian, it brought confusion and embarrassment to my family. My mom grew up in the Pikesville section of Baltimore — which in a loving way some of us called “Jew-ville”. So when you’re a Jew from Pikesville, and your kid punts his Jewish identity and becomes a Christian, it’s not so easy to swallow. My family and friends figured I wasn’t Jewish any more. And frankly, they had plenty of good reasons for thinking that way being that my life began to revolve around the church. My folks handled the embarrassment so incredibly well though. Truly, I learned from them how to love your kid, even when they do things that you are not so proud of.
A major turning point in my Jewish journey came when I met my first ever Messianic Jew named David. I was fascinated by the fact that David was a Christian, but he still did a lot of Jewish stuff. His message to me was that following Jesus and being Jewish are not opposites, but rather go hand in hand. That was an idea that would revolutionize my life.
Spurred on by David’s encouragement, I began to read, ask questions, and investigate what it means to be a Messianic Jew. Little by little, I incorporated Jewish practices back into my life such as the holidays, Shabbat, basic kosher practices, and I made my all-important first trip to Israel. My family was bewildered that it was my faith in Jesus that was inspiring this resurrection of my Jewish identity. I remember my family being blown away, in particular, that I started building a sukkah each year for the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). They were like, “Simmer down, Ryan. We didn’t do that when you were growing up.” Although they could do without the Jesus stuff, my family was happy to see that I was returning to my Jewish roots.
At this point in my journey, I thought of myself as a Messianic Jew. But the foundational thinking under my Jewish expression still needed some development. I was growing into a Messianic Jewish lifestyle because it was part of my heritage, and also because I wanted to be a good evangelistic witness to my Jewish family and friends. That was progress in my thinking. However, my sense of rootedness and connection to the Jewish people and Judaism still did not run very deep.
As my journey progressed, I began to interact with ideas that expressed a more mature Messianic Jewish viewpoint. Perspectives from the likes of David Stern, Mark Kinzer, and First Fruits of Zion began to expose me to the viewpoint that identifying as a Messianic Jew involved a covenant responsibility on my part. I took hold of the idea that the Torah is the constitution for the Jewish people until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:18). I saw that being a disciple of Yeshua was intended by God to be a means of strengthening my observance to the Torah, not abolishing it.
Today, my journey finds me as a fully committed adherent to Messianic Judaism. For some time, I have sensed that God wants me to devote the rest of my life to strengthening our small, but incredibly important movement. That I would be expressing devotion to this kingdom work would have seemed so unlikely twenty-seven years ago. But here I am, and I am thankful to God.
A few weeks ago, when I read Lech Lecha from the Torah scroll, twenty-seven years after I had done so for the first time, three major thoughts, which sum up my Jewish journey, came into clear focus:
- I would not be reading this today if not for Christianity, because Christianity introduced me to Jesus, which provided me with salvation and led me on the path back to covenant fidelity as a Jew.
- I would not be reading this today if I had stayed in the church as a disciple of Jesus, because unfortunately, despite much that is good in the church, it does not encourage Messianic Jews to develop as Jewish followers of Jesus.
- I would not be reading this today if not for Messianic Judaism, because Messianic Judaism provides a home for Messianic Jews to grow as disciples of Jesus and live out a life that is faithful to Torah and Judaism.
Messianic Judaism is small and sometimes feels marginalized. But God is using it for many of his kingdom purposes - in the lives of both Jews and Gentiles. I am thankful that I am still part of the Jewish covenant. And I have Messianic Judaism to thank for that.