Reflections from the Borough Park Symposium
By Lisa Loden, Beit Asaf Congregation, Netanya, Israel
As an invited participant to the Borough Park Symposium, it was with curiosity and some expectation that I attended this gathering. Meeting in a hotel, not in Borough Park, but at the LaGuardia airport, was a surprisingly varied group of Messianic leaders, teachers, and theologians.
The overwhelming number of participants was from North America with a small number coming from Britain, Germany, the Former Soviet Union and Israel. Leaders from within the Messianic Congregational movement, the Messianic Jewish Alliance, the Union of Messianic Congregations, Messianic educators, and staff from Jewish Mission organizations were all represented and were given equal respect.
An initiative of Chosen People Ministries, the symposium was hosted and organized by their staff. They did an admirable job of coordination and general administration. The meetings all began and ended according to schedule, conference papers were made available and the staff was always available and helpful.
Dr. Mitch Glaser gave an opening speech of welcome to the group. In it, he highlighted the growing nature of the Messianic movement, especially in Israel and the Russian-speaking world. In light of this, it was curious that close to ninety percent of the participants were North American. If future events like this are to be undertaken, it would be good to give more consideration to the demographic situation of the movement.
The purpose of the symposium
The purpose of the symposium was frequently reiterated. The declared intention of the organizers was to “begin a conversation” on basic and crucial theological issues. The organizers agreed, “...we would not seek to unite, but instead to listen to each other with deference and respect, without acrimony.”1 To this end, invitations were extended to a broad cross section of the Messianic movement. The resulting group was amazingly varied. While there is agreement that the Messianic movement exists as a diverse phenomena, the sharp differences in theology, practice, and approach have often led to painful divisions. It is common knowledge that historically; deep theological and methodological differences and strongly held opinions have frequently precluded any possibility of fruitful interaction. This is especially true in the North American context.
Coming from Israel
Coming from thirty-three years of life in Israel, I am aware of the issues and personalities but have not particularly experienced the tension first hand. The experience of living in Israel as the context of Messianic faith is a significantly different reality than that experienced in a North American context. As such, both the history and the issues that the Israeli Messianic community deals with are in many ways unlike those of their North American counterparts. In recent years, however, a number of Israeli believers have studied abroad and American Messianic believers have immigrated and settled in Israel. Some of them are in leadership positions, and they promote theology and methodology brought with them from the west.
What does it mean to begin a conversation? This question was at the heart of the symposium and the simple answer was that we must learn how to listen to each other. From my perspective, dealing with the issue of how we conduct a fruitful discussion was of utmost importance. Twice during the symposium, once at the beginning and again in the middle, David Rudolf spoke to the group on the subject of “Guidelines for Healthy Theological Discussion.” During the second session on discussion guidelines, he expressed the point (coming out of a conversation with Jeff Seif) that everyone at the symposium is engaged in asking the same questions, regardless of how today, or eventually, they might frame their answers. Not only did David Rudolf cover matters of methodology, but more importantly, he emphasized issues of attitudes; humility, the need to be open, to be disciplined in discussion, to be self critical, to be willing to consider and thoroughly understand positions with which we might disagree, to carefully clarify controversial points, and principally, to respectfully listen to one another.
In the main, these guidelines were respected. Although at times, due to the profound nature of the subjects under discussion and the passion with which views are held, the tension in the room was tangible. Still everyone behaved circumspectly and an honoring atmosphere was maintained. In gatherings of this sort, it is far easier to disparage those with whom you disagree than to engage creatively with their ideas and attempt to understand them. Being a part of this symposium where the latter interaction was evidenced was both satisfying and exceptionally stimulating.
The subjects covered were burningly important for all the participants. The topics were The Gospel message, salvation and the Jewish people, and, presenting the gospel to the Jewish people. The presenters came from a wide variety of backgrounds and theological persuasions. They were all given equal time to present their views. The presentations themselves were a fascinating mix of theology, biblical presentations, personal experience and narrative. The conference organizers successfully planned the sessions so that the broad spectrum of views was presented on each subject under discussion. It was refreshing in such a context to have both men and women presenting. Most of the presenters were well known within the movement and all were highly articulate.
Again, coming from Israel
Again, coming from Israel, it was unusual to see so many Messianic brothers wearing kippa and tzittzit on a daily basis outside of prayer services. It caused me to question if this was truly reflective of the character of the movement in North America or if the most articulate expressions are coming from a more torah observant perspective. The place of torah was not, however, one of the subjects under discussion. This seeming imbalance was also reflected in the presentations. On the two topics that had three presentations, two were expressing positions, differently nuanced, from the viewpoint of torah observance and identification with Jewish communal life.
The symposium lasted only two and a half days. Since time was limited, the discussions were, of necessity, brief. This meant that a high percentage of the symposium participants never had opportunity to speak. For example, except for Susan Perlman who was one of the presenters, the participants from Jews for Jesus were completely silent. Perhaps for them, it was an issue of taking seriously David Rudolf’s injunction to listen and learn.
When considering the actual content of the presentations and the ensuing discussions, I am left with mixed impressions and feelings. It would seem that the first subject, “the gospel message,” would have been the most uncontroversial and simple one. However, as the three presenters (Stuart Dauermann, Rachel Wolf and Arnold Fructenbaum) gave their papers, it became clear that there was no unanimity on the issue. Two of the presenters expressed deep, ongoing struggles, accompanied by uncertainty and personal confusion, in their attempt to articulate the content of the gospel message. Their difficulty was the challenge of the communal aspect of the message to the Jewish people that has classically been presented as a message for the individual. The struggle seemed to be a result of their continuing personal identity issues in the context of Jewish communal life as believers in Messiah Yeshua.
Stuart Dauermann’s focus on why is the good news so often bad news for the Jewish people became an ongoing theme of much of the discussion throughout the symposium. I was struck by the differences in approach between Stuart Dauermann and Rachel Wolf on one hand and Arnold Fructenbaum on the other. Dr. Fructenbaum predictably gave a straightforward, biblical presentation of the “simple” gospel message for the individual, whether Jew or Gentile. For him, the content of the gospel message was not a question at all and he framed his paper according to the title, “The Condition of Salvation for Jews and Gentiles in this Age.” This was in clear contrast to Rachel Wolf and Stuart Dauermann who both dealt with the subject from the perspective of his or her own personal struggles, subsequently looking to the scriptures for help in integrating Jewish identity issues with the content of the message to the Jewish people collectively.
The second session “Salvation and the Jewish People” also had three presenters representing different views. Each presenter, Michael Rydelnik, Mark Kinzer, and John Fisher all gave thoroughly researched, impressive presentations. It is always remarkable to me that, depending on which scriptures are exegeted and harmonized (or not), interpretations and conclusions can be so different. This was most evident in the way in which this topic was treated by the three presenters.
John Fisher’s emphasis on humility in our approach to scripture was refreshing. “…not all things in the biblical texts are equally clear, nor, by any means, are they equally clear to all readers. Certainly we can arrive at a sufficient—even if not perfect—understanding of what is vital for life with and under God. On the other hand, we should remind ourselves that while the Scriptures are infallible, the interpreter—and hence his or her understanding—is not. Moreover, a high view of divine inspiration does not automatically guarantee a high level of accurate interpretation. Thus, theological modesty remains a quality for all to cultivate…. we need to steer a path between claiming too much and saying too little. The former can easily lead to a needlessly harsh—and over-dogmatically self-confident position that drives people away from, rather than attracts them to, the person and power of the Gospel.” The latter may lead to subtly minimizing the uniqueness and centrality of Yeshua. To remedy this we hold two biblical principles together.
God desires that no one should perish, but rather that every person be rescued and transformed by coming to know him. (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) And two, Yeshua alone is the only way to experience such rescue, transformation and relationship with God. (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) Exactly how these two principles fully integrate and interweave with one another only God knows.”2
Michael Rydelnik’s personal narrative of his relationship with his father was deeply moving, particularly as this relationship caused him to seriously question previous held teachings about the fate of those who have not professed faith in Yeshua before death. I think Dr. Rydelnik spoke for every one who has ever questioned God about the eternal destiny of a loved one who never, to their knowledge, expressed faith in Yeshua.
Mark Kinzer’s distinction between the non-believer and the dis-believer, connected to the issue of personal accountability for all action before God was a perspective that is not often heard. Kinzer’s reference to the connection between eschatology and soteriology is a subject that needs to be more fully explored.
A variety of approaches
The final topic of “Presenting the Gospel to the Jewish People” required four presenters since such a wide range of approaches was represented in the symposium. It was in this session that the differences between the congregational movement presented by Sam Nadler, the more torah observant perspective presented by Tsvi Sadan, and the mission organizations presented by Susan Perlman were most keenly felt. Again in this final session, there was a variety of approaches to the subject, ranging from reasoned methodology to personal narrative experience, to communications theory. In addition to theology, motivation and attitude were helpfully highlighted.
Personally, I felt it was unfortunate that this was the only topic on which the non-North American presenters in the symposium were asked to share and that Tsvi Sadan from Israel actually represents an extreme that is not widely embraced in Israel today. On the other hand, Vladimir Pikman from Germany, formerly of the Ukraine, gave a fresh perspective that focused on a communicational perspective rather than theology. In the context of the symposium, his was a much-needed voice, bringing a practical adjunct to theology. Vladimir Pikman is a bright, young voice in the arena of Messianic Jewish theology. His views are based on much cross-cultural experience, study, and reflection that is rare in one so young.
An integral part of the symposium was the times of discussion following the presentations. These were stimulating and helped clarify some of the less clear statements made in the papers and presentations. There was, however, never enough time to discuss and interact with the presenters or to fully share responses and reflections. This was sometimes frustrating but it whetted the appetite for more in depth discussion and interaction on these and other issues that are crucial to our movement.
Finally, for me, the Borough Park Symposium was an important and valuable experience. I learned much and felt it a privilege to have attended such a gathering. Meeting brothers whose articles I have read and whose names are familiar to me was a wonderful experience. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, scholarship, depth and maturity of my brothers and sisters.
It is my hope that future symposiums will be conducted along the same lines. Having more participants from Israel would make a valuable addition to the symposium. Further, I would appeal for inclusion of specific theological concerns that relate more directly to Messianic Jewish life in Israel to be on the agenda of future symposiums. In addition, the voice of the younger generation needs to be more in evidence. A conversation was begun. Hopefully, everyone learned and was challenged. The conversation needs to be continued.
1. Mitch Glaser, 2007,
Borough Park Papers, p. 4.
2. John Fisher, 2007, Borough Park Papers, pp 11-12.