This week on Emerson College’s Chagigah Sunday morning radio program there was a discussion of Joshua Nelson whose nickname is “the prince of kosher gospel”. In introducing one of Nelson’s works, the host of the show gave his listeners some interesting background about this unique Jewish singer.
Joshua Nelson is an African-American Jewish gospel singer born of Jewish parents. He was raised in Brooklyn, attended a black Orthodox Jewish synagogue there, and was later educated in Israel. He blends Hebrew texts with gospel melodies as well as arranges Jewish liturgical songs in gospel style. Joshua is equally comfortable teaching Hebrew at his Reform Jewish synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, as he is as the director of music at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark, which “coincidentally” is located in a building previously owned by a synagogue. He has performed with Aretha Franklin as well as the Klezmatics, just a couple of a long list of gospel and Jewish music celebrities, as well as before Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem.
From a review entered in an educational media review service in 2018(!) regarding the 2001(!) documentary on his life (HaShem on the move in these days(!)):
“Mr. Nelson sees no difficulty in combining his African-American ethnic self with his Jewish religious self, and being able to sing as sincerely among Christians as among Jews. He reminds us that Jesus was a good Jew and says connection with God supersedes culture or race.”
What a journey to this viewpoint today where he shares the beauty of these two worlds of music – traditional Jewish and gospel – through music which resonates, literally, with Jews and Christians alike. His music creates a safe place of commonality to heal the emotional scarring from generations of our sometimes difficult historical relationship with the Church. A Jewish person listening to this music, performed by another Jewish person, allows the listener to feel God’s love, insider to insider, perhaps even to feel the presence of Yeshua’s healing power. A Christian person listening to gospel music sung by a Jewish person helps the listener’s view of him to not be of “the other”.
God made a covenant with the Jewish people through Abraham. We were/are to be a light to the Nations. Is that best accomplished by reflecting it through modeling righteous behavior? In some traditional Jewish circles, that would be true. On the other hand, perhaps sharing the light more directly touches even more deeply. Sharing it doesn’t mean we have to convert. It means we live lives that radiate God’s light through our love of others and of this created world, demonstrated through our words, and our actions or inactions. As Messianic Jews, we have an even greater charge, to be a light demonstrating and proclaiming God’s sacrificial love as evidenced through HaShem’s giving of Yeshua to mankind and as evidenced by Yeshua sacrificing His life for us.
Jews and Gentiles are to be “one in Him”, not in the sense of a pureed soup, but rather, as identifiable morsels/mortals of goodness, each contributing enhancing, interesting flavors, shapes, and sizes of joyful delight, all surrounded by a loving warm broth of love. Yes, the amazing soup of life we are all in, sometimes tasty, sometimes not, sometimes boiling, sometimes cold, but at all times in Him in love.
It does seem we, as Messianic Jews, are well positioned to bridge the gap vis-à-vis Christians and Jews. At the least, we can be a comfortable facilitator for each to hear the other, as emotional barriers are softened. What better way for this to happen than through music, the universal language? Joshua Nelson, through his very being, represents a person of blurred boundaries who uses that amazingly awesome ambiguity and his musical gifts, fostered by his place in multiple worlds, to bring together all who hear him, Jew and Christian alike. What a blessing!
Appreciating blurred boundaries such as these helps us expand beyond our preconceptions to bring into focus the greater plan of uniting in Him. The softening of the edges helps us to see our likenesses in each other and to open new pathways to see deeper truths. These times are for a purpose, for each of us to strengthen our faiths, and share. The result will be a world with diverse myriads embracing His light, shining in even more places than one can imagine.