What is Israel? Who is a Jew?

Hayim H. Donin HaLevy wrote in his classic book To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life, “The terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew have historically been used synonymously and interchangeably. The Bible refers to Abraham as Ibri (Hebrew), probably because he migrated from the other side (east) of the Euphrates River and Ibri means “from the other side.” Israel was the alternate name of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Hence his twelve sons and their descendants became known as the children of Israel, or the Israelite Nation or People. Jew is derived from Judah, the son of Israel, the most prominent of the Twelve Tribes. This became the prevalent name for the entire people when the Judeans from the Kingdom of Judea survived the downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. when Ten Tribes were led into captivity. Thus today, the people are called Jewish, their faith Judaism, their language Hebrew, and their land Israel.” Rochel Chein of Chabad states, “The name Yehudah shares the same root as the Hebrew word hoda’ah, which means acknowledgement or submission. One who acknowledges G‑d’s existence and submits to His authority–to the extent that he is willing to sacrifice his life for the sanctification of His name–he is called a Yehudi.”

Many erroneously believe, especially in the Messianic / Christian world, that a “Jew” is someone descended from the tribe of Judah. Although it is true that the word “Jew” is derived from “Judah” the word “Jew” has a much broader meaning within Judaism, starting even from Biblical times. The first individual to be called a Jew (Yehudi) in the Scriptures was Mordecai. Esther 2:5 states there was “a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai.” In Acts 21:39 Paul also declares “I am a Jew” and in Philippians 3:5 specifies he is “of the tribe of Benjamin.” The term Jew has been used for anyone who remained faithful to the covenant, ever since the Ten Tribes broke off from Judah and started “doing what was right in their own eyes” instead of staying faithful to Hashem and Torah.

A Jew, according to halachah is someone who has accepted and committed to the Torah as given at Sinai, and the God of the Torah – this is a “Jewish convert.” A Jew can also be someone who can trace their ancestry through their matriarchal line to someone who has accepted the Torah and the God of Torah – this is a “born-Jew.” Halachically, or according to Jewish law, there is no reason that someone who believes in Yeshua, Schneerson, Nachman, or any other person as Mashiach should not be able to be a Jew or convert to Judaism. Jews today who try to “disown” fellow Jews for simply believing in Yeshua as Mashiach actually do so in opposition to Jewish law.

There is a prohibition, however, that Jews should not worship Hashem in any way that is foreign to our ancestors. Yeshua did not come to change the worship of Israel or to establish a new religion, i.e., Christianity or Catholicism. He said to the Samaritan woman who asked him a theological question, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Yeshua worshipped Hashem, he was a Jew, and his religion was Judaism. Yeshua said in John 8:50, “I do not seek My own glory.” He glorified the Father, not himself, and directed people to repent such as in Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 24:47.  He exhorted his followers to walk in Torah, such as in Matthew 5:17, Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20. He touched people’s hearts so that with their mouths they glorified the God of heaven, such as in Matthew 9:8, Mark 2:12, Luke 5:26. This is in harmony with all of the Torah and the Prophets.

The earliest believers of Yeshua were Jews, a sect called Nazarenes. There were no Christian churches, of course, during Yeshua’s time, and both he and his talmidim (disciples) went to Jewish synagogues. During this time of Roman captivity in Yeshua’s day, proselytization by Jews was extremely common. Acts 15 sets the minimum standard of observance for new believers, which is in harmony with the Noahide Laws. These were later expected to grow in Torah, as verse 21 states, ““For from the first ages there have been preachers for Moses who read him on every Sabbath in every town in the synagogues.” Although not required for salvation, many Gentiles converted to Judaism during this time. It was not until the Bar Khokhba revolt that there was a formal split between the Jewish believers of Yeshua and the greater nation of Israel. This split was detrimental to the Nazarene faith, and this lack of unity with the Jewish people is partly to blame for all the paganism that crept into Christianity.

Although there was no Torah yet in Abraham’s time, midrashically, in Judaism, Abraham is considered the first Jew. He was the first to re-establish monotheism, the exclusive worship of the One True God, in his day and age. Rochel Chein states, “As the first person to use his own cognitive abilities to discover and recognize the one G‑d, reject the idolatrous ways of his ancestors and contemporaries, actively publicize the truth of G‑d and was prepared to give his very life for these goals–Abraham epitomized “Jewishness” many centuries before the term came into common use.” It is because of Hashem’s promise to Abraham that the Jewish people even came to be, as stated in Genesis 26:4-5, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these lands; and by thy seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves; because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.’” It is by faith that we know that Abraham would have accepted the whole of Torah just as the all the people of Israel did at Sinai when we became a nation, because he faithfully did all as Hashem commanded him when he was alive. This is why we call Abraham, “Avraham Avinu,” or “Our Father Abraham,” because he is the father of our faith.

The Jewish people is not just a nation confined by borders, since even in the Diaspora, when we were exiled and dispersed among the nations, we have maintained our identity as a people. We are not just a religion, because even if a Jew leaves Judaism he is still considered a Jew, because the marriage covenant between God and Israel can not be revoked, which is why Romans 11:28-29 says that “in The Election they (the Jewish people) are beloved because of The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).” “For God does not change in his gifts and in his callings.” This is partly why Jewish outreach efforts are directed mostly at turning Jews back to Judaism – because it is our duty and heritage to walk in Torah and be lights to the world as a nation of priests. When a Jew stops keeping Torah, they don’t become a non-Jew, they become a rebellious Jew. However we are more than a nation and more than a religion – we are a family. This is why all over the Torah we are called “the children of Israel” – because we are a family, and Abraham is our spiritual Father. Malachi 4:22-24 says,

“Remember ye the law of Moses My servant, Which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, Even statutes and ordinances. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming Of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to the children (of Israel), And the heart of the children to their fathers .”

When anyone converts, they are in effect adopted into this family through faith. Hayim HaLevy continues in his book saying that this family “did not claim exclusive rights to this faith, but on the contrary, were eager to attract others to it (through conversion). As this God-intoxicated family and those who joined them in faith grew in number, accepting the Torah as their Divine Constitution, taking possession of the land promised to them by the Master of the universe, they assumed the characteristics of a nation, a people speaking a common language, living within a specified geographic area, sharing common memories and a common destiny, and exercising the attributes of national sovereignty.” Yeshua says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” Was his intention to start a new religion? No! Yeshua taught Judaism, for he was a Jew. He said to teach them “to obey everything I have commanded you.” What did Yeshua teach? Torah. Our Rabbi and Master Yeshua was a Jew who taught Torah Judaism. Hayim continues saying, “Thus, the convert to Judaism not only becomes a partner in faith with the children of Israel, but through faith, the proselyte himself becomes one of the children of Israel, sharing fully in its heritage and its privileges and assuming its burdens and tribulations. lations. In accepting the Jewish faith, the proselyte thus joins the Jewish people or nation. In accepting the religious duties of the present, and in assuming the spiritual mission of the future, he also ties himself to the collective past.” This is why a Jewish convert takes on a Hebrew name with the term “ben Avraham,” meaning “son of Abraham,” appended to it.

This brings us to the purpose of our group, Benei Avraham. There are many churches and synagogues out there, but few who are willing to follow Yeshua in the faith that he walked – Judaism. We are not doing a new thing. We are trying to revive the same principles of faith as the early Nazarenes walked in. Some of us in Benei Avraham are born Jewish, and came to know Yeshua but refused to leave the Torah or Judaism. Some of us have Jewish ancestry, and are reconnecting to the Jewish heritage that was lost or stolen from us. Some of us have not a single drop of Jewish blood that we know of, but our souls long for Hashem’s Torah and to be one with the Jewish people. Our mission is two-fold:

  1. If you have Jewish ancestry, regardless of whether it is matrilineal or patrilineal, no matter what religion or denomination you grew up, we invite you to reconnect to your roots, to the Torah of Moshe and the faith our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the faith of Yeshua.
  2. If you are a follower of Yeshua, and believe that through him you are grafted into Israel, then we invite you – not compel, but invite you – to become one with Israel formally through conversion, and to live under our constitution, the Torah, and with us join in our mission to be a light unto the world.

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