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A deeper look at Messianic Judaism

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For Christians or Jews who want to learn more about Messianic Judaism, a great place to begin is by reading Shoshanah Feher’s book, Passing Over Easter: Constructing the Boundaries of Messianic Judaism (AltaMira Press, 1998). Feher, who describes herself as a “normative Jew”, spent several months attending a Messianic congregation in California while doing doctrinal research. Her book, while not endorsing Messianic Judaism, doesn’t at all provide an unflattering account of Messianic Believers, and Feher should certainly be commended for producing such a fair, unbiased portrayal of them.

Feher doesn’t treat the Messianic Jews she interviews as “specimens”, but as real people, showing them respect, even when disagreeing. She even became good friends with some of the congregants, serving as a bridesmaid at one of the congregant’s wedding. She points out what she regards as Messianic Judaism weak points, but is quick to point out mainstream Judaism’s weak points as well. In contrasting Messianic Judaism with Orthodox Judaism, Feher does not hesitate to highlight what she regards as the faults of Orthodox Judaism. For example, she said, “Orthodox Jews marginalize women who do not marry or… who are childless.”

1. What is Messianic Judaism?

Believing that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior and the sole source of ultimate good for all people, of whatever ethnicity, Christians long for the day when all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, will put their trust in Jesus Christ. For Christians, Messianic Judaism represents a real revival among Jewish people.

For Messianic Jews, embracing the religion of mainstream Judaism is like settling for Act 1 of a two-act play, leaving the theater while many of the issues of the first act remain unresolved. For Christians and Messianic Jews, the Old Testament only makes sense in light of the New. This explains why some Messianics prefer to call themselves “completed Jews” or “fulfilled Jews.”

For Messianic Jews, the Christian church has neglected to properly appreciate Jesus’ Jewishness, and the Christian church has suffered as a result, often ripping the New Testament out of its 1st century Jewish context—a context that is necessary to properly understand the text.

Messianic Jews affirm both the Old and New Testament, celebrate the traditional Jewish holidays, and are conscientious to use Jewish terminology when articulating their beliefs. For instance, their preferred term is “Yeshua”, the Hebrew pronunciation of Jesus. They prefer to say “Messiah”, rather than Christ. The World English Bible’s Messianic edition replaces the word “church” with “assembly”.

Rabbi Jason, pastor of the Messianic congregation Feher attended, said that similar to Hispanic, African-American, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese churches in America, Messianic Believers regard themselves as a Jewish ethnic group within the universal Body of Christ. Many congregations are mixtures of ethnic Jews and Gentile Believers who want a more Jewish way of worshipping God or who “have a heart for Israel”.

2. Mainstream Judaism’s rejection of Messianic Judaism

Church history is tragically littered with sad examples of anti-Semitism, creating what look like insurmountable barriers between the Jewish community and Christian church. As might be expected, generally speaking, mainstream Jews do not regard Messianic Judaism as a valid expression of the Jewish religion. They regard it as, at best, a misguided, erroneous brand of Judaism, and at worst, a subversive, underhanded movement meant to trick Jews into converting to Christianity.

Feher herself picked up on the apparent unfairness of this by pointing out that Jews who become Buddhists or who join new religious movements (some of them cultish) are not ostracized by the Jewish community, although they are not nearly as culturally Jewish or as proud of their Jewish heritage as Messianics are.

On one level, it is easy to sympathize with Jewish people who are leery of the Messianic movement. For them, Messianic Jews are viewed similarly to how ultra liberal Christians are viewed by more historically orthodox Christians. For example, C.S. Lewis said of his own Church of England that when a clergyman ceased to believe the doctrines espoused by his church, the most honest thing for him to do would be to resign. Lewis didn’t deny that some might, after studying the faith, honestly conclude that they no longer believe it; what he couldn’t stomach was the notion that a person could cease to believe in Christianity, begin preaching an unbiblical version and still call it “Christianity”.

For some Jews, Messianic Believers are committing the same error—calling themselves by one label, while secretly hoping to woo people over to a position historically viewed as antithetical to that label. As Feher said, “Messianics are a threat not because they are Christian but because they refuse to recognize the Jewish/Christian boundary.” For some Jews, it’s merely a matter of being honest. As one of Feher’s respondents, Rabbi Greenbaum, said, the issue is not so much with Jews who decide to become Christians; the issue is with Jews who become Christians who still want to identify as Jews.

Are Messianic Jews deceptively misrepresenting themselves, in hopes of winning converts, in the same manner that C.S. Lewis warned against? No. The notion that labels like “Christian” and “Jew” are mutually exclusive is not one that comes from the Bible itself. Feher concedes that the first Jewish Christians were Jesus’ disciples—individuals who “were born Jewish, observed Judaism, and believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This belief did not remove them or their followers from the Jewish community.” After Israel’s Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the growing gulf between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire widened, making Christians stand out more and more as an entity unto themselves, rather than merely a Jewish sect. Nevertheless, if the 1st century Christians could identify themselves as both Jewish and Christian (as did all of Jesus’ 12 apostles), there’s no reason why a 21st century person couldn’t likewise self-identify as both.

3. Messianic disillusionment with mainstream Judaism

Messianic Jews, who see Yeshua as the key to understanding the Bible, sometimes wonder in amazement how Jews can read the Old Testament without concluding that Yeshua, who fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, must be the Messiah. For many liberal Jews, though, even the Old Testament is regarded as unhistorical, not to be taken literally. C.S. Lewis touched on this 65 years ago, saying, “If [a person] doesn’t believe in the signs and wonders in Egypt, or the passage of the Red Sea, or the miracles of Elijah, then quite clearly he is not holding the real Jewish faith.”

Adam, one of the Messianic congregants Feher interviewed, relayed a conversation he had once had with a Reconstructionist Jewish rabbi. When Adam stated he believed the Bible to be inspired by God and therefore inerrant, the rabbi had asked, “What about the miracles?” When Adam replied by saying he believed they had happened just as the Bible stated, the rabbi replied, “So what’s to stop you from believing that guy Jesus really is the Messiah?” For Adam, this story illustrates the fact that skepticism about the Bible in general—a skepticism that would have appalled the ancient patriarchs of the Judaism—is behind much of Judaism’s rejection of Jesus.

Feher pointed out that Messianic Jews, like other Christians, pray to God for specific guidance about specific life choices. “Congregants call on the Lord,” she said, “to determine not only whether a married mother should work outside the home, but also what type of job or career she should pursue.” Though this might seem like the most natural thing in the world for Christians, Feher said, “Personal communication with God for this purpose is foreign to traditional Jewish theology since a ‘personal relationship’ with God is not part of the religious belief system.”

In her 1953 book, Smoke on the Mountain, Joy Davidman, herself a Jewish Christian, said of American society as a whole, “For many contemporaries, God has dwindled into a noble abstraction, a tendency of history, a goal of evolution; has thinned out into a concept useful for organizing world peace—a good thing as an idea… Not a Personality that a man can feel any love for. And not, certainly, the eternal Lover who took the initiative and fell in love with us.” It’s understandable, against this backdrop, why Messianics are drawn in, wanting a faith where God is not an idea, but a lover—a faith where a personal relationship with God is not only a part of the belief system, but the very core of it.

4. Christians and Jews need to continue communicating

Feher’s book very helpfully highlights what believers in Jesus and mainstream Jews have in common, as well as what divides them. Her book provides a helpful tool for helping followers of Jesus and Jewish people have more honest, engaging conversations. It is extremely refreshing to come across a book on this subject that is as diplomatic and non-polemical as Feher's is.

Open and honest communication between Christians, “normative” Jews, and Messianic Jews is sorely needed and Feher’s book is a great aid in that endeavor. However discouraging Jewish/Christian relations may appear at present, let us not lose heart, remembering the words of St. Paul in Romans 11:26—“And so all Israel will be saved.”