A Review of Boaz Michaelâ€™s Tent of David (FFOZ, 2013)
This is the second part of Rob Vanhoff’s review of Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David.Â In the introduction to this review, Rob dealt with some of the larger issues and pitfalls that Tent of David falls into.Â You can read his introduction here: “Slippery When Wet, or Duplo Dogma.”
A Swing and a Miss
I wish I had it on video. It was November 2012 at the Society of Biblical Literatureâ€™s (SBL) annual conference in Chicago. David Rudolph, a respected scholar within Messianic Judaism was at the podium speaking to the audience of about 80 people or so. â€œBaruch Hashem,â€ I thought. â€œHere we are in an international professional academic environment and a Torah-honoring, Jewish believer in Yeshua has got the attention of all these people.â€ Rudolphâ€™s voice was clear, but kind. His presence was gentle and his smile shining.
At a certain point in the talk, he began to discuss the different â€œcallingsâ€ there are for the people of God, as conceived by the Apostle Paul: a â€œcircumcisionâ€ calling and an â€œuncircumcisionâ€ calling. Paul taught that Jews were to continue in Judaism, to live the â€œcircumcised life,â€ argued Rudolph. Gentiles, on the other hand, are to stay â€œuncircumcised,â€ i.e., not convert to Judaism. Torah, with its â€œcovenant responsibilities,â€ was for Jews and Judaism. The Gentile â€œcallingâ€ was something different. Needless to say, not everyone in the room accepted this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7.
Right down the row from me, listening intently to Rudolph, was one of my favorite Christian writers and speakers, N. T. Wright, whom I was surprised to see there at all. â€œI donâ€™t think heâ€™ll agree,â€ I thought. Wright had his Greek Bible out and was following along, flipping a page or two here and there. It was at this point, when Rudolph gave his twist on â€œcallings,â€ that I couldnâ€™t help but notice Wright, shaking his head back and forth adamantly, several times, showing publicly but silently his staunch disagreement. (Wright is a prominent figure in theology circles, and I would guess that most if not all the attendees were aware of his presence. But only those next to or behind him would have noticed this. Rudolph had to notice.) The Q&A didnâ€™t come until after the last speaker, so I was secretly hoping that Wright would hang around and challenge the presenterâ€™s hermeneutic. â€œThis will be good!â€ I thought. Â At the end of the talks, many in the audience clapped. I looked over to see Wright sitting, unmoving, unsmiling. And he did not stay for the Q&A.
â€œA swing and a miss,â€ I thought.
Tent of David (FFOZ 2013), by Boaz Michael
In his new handsome book, Tent of David, Boaz Michael cites at least three books by Wright, and at least three works of Rudolph. But Michael is either not aware of the sharp disagreement between these scholars or he smooths it over. In any case, N. T. Wright is a popular author beloved by tens of thousands of Christians — layperson and pastor alike. He is very well respected in the academic world too; his talks at SBL are usually standing-room-only. For Michael to bring Wright into his book is a clever move. I donâ€™t say this to question his sincerity, but I find it telling that for a book looking to appeal to Christians, he will naively (or at least uncritically) reference one of their own, as if Michael and Wright were somehow on the same page. But in fact, the very foundation of Michaelâ€™s bilateral ecclesiology is rejected by N. T. Wright — and this view represents the whole new trajectory that First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) has taken these last few years. Â But readers of Tent of David will not know this. So, Wrightâ€™s name is brought into the book, but for what feels to me like a superficial effort to connect with his Christian audience.
â€œAssumption is the foundation of all poor communicationâ€ (Tent of David, p. 186). This truism, ironically, voices well my conclusion about the authorâ€™s present perspective and the â€œswing and missâ€ that is the book Tent of David. What follows is an effort to get at some of the governing concepts that have determined the shape of Michaelâ€™s thinking.
Iâ€™m glad he wrote the book, because it provides a snapshot of how FFOZ and like-minded organizations have interpreted some critical issues facing Torah-pursuant Messianic Jews and Gentiles today. This is not a â€œreviewâ€ in the sense that I am going to give a guided tour of the book. But after spending several hours over a weekâ€™s time reading and reflecting on the message of Tent of David, I feel like I can fairly express my deep concerns with some core assumptions that Boaz Michael makes.
Some Basic Misconceptions: Three Examples
Boaz Michael and his team are making a mistake at a basic conceptual level, and Tent of David exemplifies it. This mistake can be best boiled down to Michaelâ€™s misuse of the terms â€œJudaismâ€ and â€œthe church.â€ By giving personhood to these abstract entities, this book dumbs down its audience at the ground level. In an effort to keep my review as short as possible, I will give three citations from the book that demonstrate this problem.
1. â€œJudaismâ€ in History
…as Christian doctrine has its roots in Second Temple Judaism, there should be a way to articulate the core doctrines of Yeshuaâ€™s identity in the Hebrew language, in a way that Second Temple Jews would have been able to understand. (Tent of David, pgs. 45-46)
This statement contains what I believe is something very dear to Boazâ€™s heart. (I say â€œBoazâ€ here because Iâ€™m shifting to a more personal reflection. I recall us having coffee together in late 2011 and hearing his passion for reaching Jews with the Gospel of our Master Yeshua. I praise Adonai for the blessing it was for me that Boaz would fit a few afternoon hours, after making the long drive to Spokane from Seattle, to spend with me before his speaking event that evening. For me, it was a grace filled, edifying time. Any criticisms leveled in this article are in no way to be taken as a doubt in Boazâ€™s sincerity, love for Yeshua, passion and hard work for this movement, or his very evident gifting as a leader in the Messianic movement.)
Back to the statement above. As a whole itâ€™s confused. A good editor would have insisted, â€œRevise.â€ First off, â€œSecond Temple Judaismâ€ is too vague. Like Iâ€™ve said elsewhere, this term is a giant Duplo piece — itâ€™s bright in color and everyone can see it, but you canâ€™t build much with it, and whatever you do manage to build with it canâ€™t be depended upon to stay together. Jacob Neusner, pointing to the great diversity of Jewish expression in the Second Temple Period, suggested that scholars adopt â€œJudaismsâ€ (plural) rather than â€œJudaism.â€ Another highly respected Jewish Talmudist-historian, Daniel Boyarin, has pointed out the problems of using the term â€œJudaismâ€ to describe Jewish religion in the first century altogether. Nevertheless, when readers see â€œSecond Temple Judaism,â€ theyâ€™ll probably assume this was some real thing, as opposed to a scholarly construct used by historians as they try to talk about the past.
The second part of the statement, â€œthere should be a way to articulate the core doctrines of Yeshuaâ€™s identity in the Hebrew language,â€ is good in-and-of itself. That is, the truth of the Gospel of Yeshua and His person should by all means be communicated so that native Hebrew speaking Israelis can clearly understand it (as it should for every language!). But how this follows the â€œSecond Temple Judaismâ€ clause is not clear. The last piece helps us understand.
â€œ…in a way that Second Temple Jews would have been able to understand.â€
We donâ€™t have any Hebrew from that period written by believers in Yeshua. What we do have are the inspired Greek Apostolic Writings, written by Jews, for Jews and Gentiles of that era. I find it presumptuous to intimate we could know what combination of Hebrew words would express the doctrines of Yeshuaâ€™s identity so that Jews at that time would have understood. Itâ€™s a fanciful notion, but without a time-machine, impossible. Moreover, the Hebrew language today is very, very different than it was then. (Even the rabbinic, â€œMishnaicâ€ Hebrew of the late second century is in many ways different than the Hebrew found in the Dead Sea Scrolls; both of those are very different from that of the medieval rabbis, and so on.) An Israeli today and a Jew from the first century, even if they both spoke Hebrew, would not understand â€œthe core doctrines of Yeshuaâ€™s identityâ€ on the same terms. What they could both look at, however, would be the passages from Tanakh used by the Apostles.
But here, we donâ€™t have to guess. We have the texts! So where Michael writes, â€œthere should be a way…â€ I would reply, â€œThere is a way: The Scriptures themselves.â€ To be fair, perhaps he has in mind later Christian doctrinal developments, and not Tanakh passages themselves. If this is the case, itâ€™s all the more problematic to assume we could take third or fourth century expressions (Greek or Latin) of Yeshuaâ€™s identity and translate them so our imagined first-century Jewish conversation partner would grasp them in his native Hebrew (The vast majority of 1st century Jews spoke either Aramaic and/or Greek. But for the sake of Michaelâ€™s comment, we can suppose that Hebrew had not already become a language of the educated elite). Rather, the truth of Yeshua has been and will continue to be communicated in Hebrew by many competent missionary organizations in Israel. What we need are teams of fluent Israeli Messianic Jews to become experts in Koine Greek; what we need is the sharpening of our Modern Hebrew translation of the Greek Jewish Scriptures, with solid commentaries that engage todayâ€™s best scholarship. What we do not need is more unverifiable speculation of what a hypothetical Hebrew-speaking Second Temple Jew might or might not have understood. (I suspect that a similar fuzziness in thinking was involved when Michael and his team decided to translate and publish Franz Delitzschâ€™s Hebrew translation of the Gospels (from the 1800s) into 21st century English. It could be likened to playing an old record on a Victrola, recording the music with a little handheld cassette machine, and then playing back the cassette into your laptopâ€™s microphone for the purpose of burning it onto a high quality CD. Not a strong methodology; so much information lost.)
2. â€œJudaismâ€ Today
…I want to state emphatically that Judaism does not need or want Gentiles taking on Jewish identity or becoming Jewish. (pgs. 179-180)
We see here the same fuzzy thinking as in the first statement. At what we could say is one of the most poignant moments in the book, â€œJudaismâ€ is presented as having personhood. It has needs and wants. Not only that. Boaz Michael has put himself in a position to â€œstate emphaticallyâ€ what those needs and wants are. My criticism here is simple. â€œJudaism,â€ however you define it (to my knowledge Â Michael provides no definition), does not have needs or wants. People want things, need things. And as with any other person, individual Jews have needs and wants. But â€œJudaismâ€?
This is not to say that I believe Gentiles should convert to Judaism. On the contrary, Gentiles should stay Gentiles. My point here is that Michael and his team are promoting a cloudy picture of a â€œJudaismâ€ that has personhood and for which he is a spokesman. The problem is that â€œJudaismâ€ is an ideal with various definitions depending upon who you ask. Michael has ignored the lines that divide the real Jewish denominations represented by actual institutions and organizations with â€œofficialâ€ leadership, interpretations, agendas, and halakhot (if any), and which can be criticized and can criticize each other. In the place of real Judaisms he presents his Christian audience with a â€œJudaismâ€ that has needs and wants but no official definition. We only have Michael to speak on its behalf. To exaggerate somewhat, perhaps a new creed for the Messianic Jews and Gentiles could be: â€œI believe in Judaism, and Boaz Michael its spokesman!â€ I know this sounds flippant, but that is what I hear in the book.
3. â€œThe Churchâ€
I stated above that the church is good, and it is. Yet often, â€œgood is the enemy of the great.â€ (pg. 181)
At this point Michael provides an endnote referencing the 2001 best seller by Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Donâ€™t. The reader is left to wonder why or which parts of Collinsâ€™ book might apply to Michaelâ€™s criticism of the church, and weâ€™re not told whether Good to Great principles were ever instituted at FFOZ. This is troubling for at least two reasons, which I will explain. One has to do with Michaelâ€™s idea of â€œthe church,â€ the other with the application of a corporate America business success model to the Great Commission.
To start with â€œthe churchâ€: Here and again throughout Tent of David, Michael uses this term much the same way as he does â€œJudaism.â€ The first chapter after the Introduction is even entitled, â€œThe Church is Good.â€ Later in the book he spends time describing some of the nuances differentiating institutionalized forms of Christianity, but we know that the label â€œChristianâ€ is tricky, even for those who self-identify as such. (One only need look as far back as the 2012 presidential race to see the transformation of evangelical leaders and churches into supporters of the devoted, high-ranking Mormon priest Mitt Romney for debates about â€œwho is a true Christian and who is not.â€ The question of the day was, â€œAre Mormons â€˜Christiansâ€™?â€) Of course, Christians do not tend to self-identify as such on an ethnic basis, whereas ethnicity is the primary criterion for being Jewish. On this note, if we want to talk about a â€œJudaismâ€ and a â€œChristianity,â€ we would have to establish whether or not they are even two types of the same thing and in what ways they may be profitably compared.
Just as he is a spokesman for Judaism, Michael is a spokesman to â€œthe church.â€ But whereas he offers no criticism of the former, there is a clear plan (and the needed sets of FFOZ training materials) for changing the latter. His vision has two aspects: Messianic Jews are to reconnect with Judaism and Messianic Gentiles are to bring correction to the church, at whose feet the â€œburdenâ€ of the tragedy of â€œsecular anti-Semitism which lead to the Holocaust… Crusades, the Inquisition, and other atrocities… is properly laidâ€ (181; cf: 69ff). It is just and good that institutionalized expressions of faith and their leaders – Christian and Jewish – be held accountable for bad theology or skewed conceptions of history, particularly when it ignorantly profanes the name of Messiah or hampers the Gospel going to the Jews. (That great care is required when the Shoah/Holocaust is mentioned in Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be overstated. The immensity and horror of the destruction of the many millions of Jews and others (including Christians!) boggles the imagination; pain, anger, and helplessness would be completely overwhelming if not for the many precious stories of risk, hope, light, and triumph. Confronted with hints of â€œthe churchâ€™sâ€ responsibility, Christians may easily mistake their own faith with this abstract entity (â€œthe churchâ€) and slide into feeling guilty for a crime they didnâ€™t commit. Their next logical step is then to look to the Jew (or even â€œJudaismâ€!) with a repentant attitude seeking some kind of forgiveness. Careless Holocaust conversation can attribute personhood to both â€œthe churchâ€ and â€œJudaism.â€ Remember the Duplo analogy.) All this aside, Michael has demonstrated with his own testimony as a member of his local Baptist church that a Jew is just as capable as a Gentile of bringing basic Jewish awareness to Christian communities through relationship building founded on love and patience in the Messiah. The absence of a local Messianic Jewish synagogue has not deterred him from being effective in a local confessional church.
Regarding his reference to Good to Great, is the â€œthe churchâ€ really comparable to an American corporation? Granting for the moment that â€œthe churchâ€ is definable and is a candidate for such a comparison, in what ways can we do so? Michael doesnâ€™t provide an explanation, leaving his readers to figure it out.
Just look on your local bookstore shelves. Many books, from authors such as John Maxwell and Laurie Beth Jones, teach about how the Bible, Christian faith, and the workplace rightfully belong in the same sphere. If good businesses run on biblical principles, why shouldnâ€™t â€œthe churchâ€ run like a biblical business? (Again weâ€™re temporarily sidelining the issue of giving entity to â€œthe churchâ€ rather than individual churches.) Certainly Messiah calls us each to lives of integrity; to fulfill the Shemâ€˜a, â€œ…with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength…â€ To compartmentalize faith from the workplace is completely wrong-headed, and there is certainly nothing wrong with an organization seeking greater efficiency in achieving its aims.
But there is a certain applicability of Good to Great that deserves questioning, and I believe Michael missed a great opportunity to clarify. For those who know the book, itâ€™s the â€œget the right people on the bus, the wrong people off, and then decide where to driveâ€ principle. Jim Collins unpacks this in his third chapter, called â€œFirst Who… then What.â€ The main thrust is that any organization, if it is to experience sustainable growth, needs to prioritize in a manner that might seem at first counterintuitive. A business is likened to a bus and its leader the bus driver. One would normally think that the bus driver knows where heâ€™s headed before people get on the bus. Not optimal, says Collins. Rather, before he decides where to go, the CEO/bus driverâ€™s task should be to get the right people on the bus, in the right seats, and to get the wrong people off the bus. Then, and only then, will the bus driver have good counselors helping him map out a destination and a driving route to get the company to the â€œGreatâ€ success they dream of.
Iâ€™ve worked for a few different Christian â€œfor-profitâ€ business owners over the years, and each was interested in bringing faith into the workplace. Iâ€™ve also worked for religious organizations, both Christian and Jewish. Somewhere in the mid-2000â€™s, one of my Christian employers and his managers used the book Good to Great to â€œstep up the gameâ€ and increase productivity and profits. I remember how the company culture changed during the months that â€œChapter 3â€ was being applied. It wasnâ€™t pretty. Until Messiah Yeshua separates the sheep from the goats, this can never be applied within the Body of Messiah. I could see it used in actual churches or synagogues, where there is a payroll, a volunteer base, etc., but not in â€œthe churchâ€ or even in â€œJudaismâ€ as holistic categories of â€œreligion.â€ Either way the thought is quite scary. Who decides who gets kicked off the bus? Who does the â€œkickingâ€? You have to have a man-made institution for this type of personnel management to even be an option.
While reflecting on this problem, and Michaelâ€™s silence on the issue, I recognized a larger pattern being played out here. Gentiles are being asked to return, as Messianic emissaries (Michael follows Chabad and uses the Hebrew word shlichim), to the church and Messianic Jews are encouraged to reconnect with Judaism. Thus, the dissolution of Torah communities (Jewish and Gentile believers worshiping together as equal heirs to the covenants of Israel) is implied. In order for Michaelâ€™s vision of â€œMessianic Judaismâ€ to get to its destination (the stated goal being â€œto reconnect with Judaismâ€), it has to get the wrong people off of his bus. I can only assume that these â€œwrong people,â€ to use Collinsâ€™ model, are none other than the Messianic Gentiles. The â€œright people,â€ then, are those Jews who believe thereâ€™s a good core to â€œJudaismâ€ and a good core to â€œChristianity,â€ and that God has ordained and endorses both; that believing Jews only need remain in Judaism and believing Gentiles in the church. Is Michael thinking that if he gets the Messianic Gentiles off the bus and the right Messianic Jews on, heâ€™ll know where to drive? On the flip side, letâ€™s not suppose for a moment that heâ€™s leaving the Messianic Gentiles on the side of the road to fend for themselves. Rather, he has another bus already set up for them, with the promise to deliver the education and training theyâ€™ll need (that is, driving tips and maps). This way, theyâ€™ll be sure to get to where he wants them to go.
Over the years Boaz Michael and his team have contributed significantly to the larger effort of bringing knowledge of the Jewishness of Jesus and its implications to the marketplace. His love for Yeshua, the Scriptures, the Jewish people, and his artful skill as a publisher, author, and teacher are not in dispute. What I take issue with here are some fundamental assumptions that in the short term have crippled his conception of ecclesiology and in the long run will undermine the success of his vision. As times get tough, and the saints persevere, the education level of pro-Torah believers (Jew and Gentile) around the world will only skyrocket. Technology will be on their side. Competency in the original languages and cultures of the Bible, rabbinic literature, and the history of Jewish-Christian relations will be such that the conversationalists will no longer lean on conceptually vague non-entities like â€œthe churchâ€ and â€œJudaismâ€ to build their cases. Rather, real educational engagement within and between Torah communities, a solid grasp of the the primary sources, contemporary scholarship–all in the context of a life walking with and worshiping Yeshua the Messiah in the Spirit–will be the order of the day. Churches will continue to be the fluid things they are, as will synagogues. Just as David Rudolph was given a platform to speak at such a prestigious forum as SBL, so will the conversation continue to develop and arguments become corrected and better substantiated. There is much more good to come at the level of scholarship, which, beâ€™ezrat Hashem, will slowly but surely permeate the universities and seminaries, colleges and institutions that are equipping Jewish and Gentile, Christian and Messianic leaders of tomorrow.
All this being said, Michaelâ€™s observations and concerns about Messianic â€œmessinessâ€ are not off-base. And I agree that a big part of helping this movementÂ (which we probably define differently; cf: Tent of David, p. 214, n.6., where One Torah communities are not mentioned, likely because they are viewed as illegitimate and supersessionist at the core) step forward will be proper, patient educational outreach mixed with blameless, Messiah Yeshua-centered Torah living. But inasmuch as it writes Jew-and-Gentile Torah communities out of the picture with its reification and personhood-ization of â€œthe churchâ€ and â€œJudaism,â€ Tent of David is a step in the wrong direction. If it has any success at all, it will be in inoculating its readers from clear thinking and honest, reflective thought.
This is where TorahResource Institute has an important part to play. With Adonaiâ€™s help, we will continue to help educate and equip Yeshua-loving, Torah-upholding individuals – not necessarily shlichim – who will be ready, willing, and able to gracefully and competently serve Messiah within our movement and without. They will have an answer for the hope that is in them. They will continue to grow, build relationships, and bring correction and healing for the many Messianic Jews and Gentiles who have received miseducation from well-meaning Messianic teachers.
Tent of David urges, along with other FFOZ authors (for example, D. Thomas Lancasterâ€™s The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, (FFOZ, 2011) p. 195), that times are urgent: American Jews are being lost to assimilation. Michael calls this the â€œAmerican Holocaustâ€ (Tent, p. 180). About ten years ago this argument was used by local orthodox rabbis to convince one of my fellow worship leaders serving a Messianic synagogue that the Jews were dying off and that if she didnâ€™t come back under their wings, she would be in effect guilty for the catastrophe. She was Jewish (thatâ€™s why the rabbis were so insistent!), and our community leadership was unable to keep her focused on Messiah Yeshua. Fear won the day and, as could be expected, the transition arrangements were made and she moved into the â€œfrumâ€ community. The rest is history.
I get that assimilation is an issue. But who is in charge of preserving Israel? To use the â€œHolocaustâ€ as a whip to scare believers into submission is abusive. This kind of fear is of man, not of Adonai. Lancaster calls Jewish believers â€œan endangered speciesâ€ (Holy Epistle, p. 195). Is God not faithful? Even Paul had to be schooled in the hard lesson of Elijahâ€™s presumptuous cry, I alone am left, and they seek my life! (Romans 11:3). The Scriptures are clear: even in Israelâ€™s disobedience, God watches over His own. He will fulfill His promise for His namesake; it does not depend upon what man does. Any Jew (or Gentile for that matter) drawn to the Torah and observance of the holy mitzvot in the name of Messiah Yeshua do so by a move of the Holy Spirit, Who is a gift! Indeed, the very faith we have is a gift, lest that any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).