Six years ago, my oldest son, Peter, found himself hanging out at a Jewish summer camp in Rhode Island. The job he thought he had didn’t materialize, but he did some work and spent time talking to the rabbi as well as the Israeli soldiers who provided security. In August, I got a call from Peter saying essentially, “I have recommitted my life to God. And, uh, I think I am Jewish.”
In my heart there was a “Hallelujah” followed by a mix of exclamation and question marks. When he was one, I had visited Jerusalem and put a prayer for him into a crevice of the Western Wall. I believed there was a divine connection between him and Israel so the Jewish thing made sense to me.
But Peter has been raised Christian, so I haven’t quite known what to do with his Jewishness. Like many Christian teens, he had drifted from God for several years. His return to God was, of course, an answer to prayer.
Being Jewish in a remote logging town on the coast of Oregon isn’t easy, but Peter has tried. When he was living in Portland, he studied with a rabbi. And he continues to study online. As of now, he isn’t a Messianic Jew—he is drawn more to Orthodox Judaism.
I have been intrigued by what he found attractive about observant Judaism. After all, he is an Oregon kid and Oregonians are famous for non-conformity and independence. We hate rules and Orthodox Judaism has a lot of them.
Peter said he was attracted to the community he experienced at the summer camp. Everyone celebrated Shabbat, ate kosher, and shared a similar lifestyle. Walking with God was truly joining a family and community.
Related to that community was an approach to God that was all-encompassing. In Judaism, there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments from the Torah. And of those commandments each has, some rabbis say, a thousand related commandments. Every area of life is covered by the Torah and all the rabbinical teaching. There are also prayers and blessings for everything in life. Walking with God is what you do 24/7—not just a set of theological propositions you believe.
When I compare this to the evangelical Christianity in which Peter was raised, I realize two things. First, we don’t do community well. Like many non-observant Jews, we are well-assimilated into an individualistic American culture. In the west, rugged individualism is even more prevalent, so church tends to be something we get out of the way on Sunday morning rather than a gathering of the community we have been connected to all week.
My second insight is that we evangelicals often take a very rationalistic approach to God. We too easily reduce our faith to mental assent to a set of doctrines. This why it is increasingly difficult to distinguish evangelicals from other middle-class consumers. Except for Sunday mornings and a set of beliefs, our lives don’t look much different.
The central belief of evangelicalism is that we are saved by grace—not by 613 Torah commandments that rule over every area of our life. However, we often fail to grasp what this grace saves us into. Of course, we have a short list of things not to do now that we are Christians. And we are supposed to start being nice. But this is not a walk with God that fires the imagination. What’s the answer?
Only the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit can give the same or greater 24/7 walk with God provided by 613 mitzvot and dozens of rabbis. Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). We often, however, fail to see that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by giving the Holy Spirit who is the author of the all the Law.
At the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, the Jews to whom he was preaching asked what they should do to be saved. Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The gift of the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of all the law. They now had dwelling in them the Holy Spirit who could guide them moment by moment and day by day.
If we read a little further in Acts, we discover amazing community, the other thing my son valued about Judaism.
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. Acts 2:44—46
This sounds like a degree of community that even Crown Heights in New York would find hard to beat.
If we embrace a kind of Pentecostalism that practices the presence of God and results in us living in continual prayer and praise, we will indeed be a people as set apart as observant Jews. If we live as those always listening and led by Spirit, we fulfill all the promise of the Torah and enter into all the blessings that come to those who keep the law.
Paul makes it clear that through the Holy Spirit we are joined together as members of the Body of Christ. God’s Spirit is the common life that makes the Body of Christ one. It is not a list of shared theological propositions that unites us, but rather God’s Spirit blazing in each of our hearts and calling us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.
I don’t know if I can persuade my son that the Holy Spirit is the best rabbi, but I am convinced that only the life of the Spirit can fulfill the promise of the law.