What is Messianic Judaism?

Every society has that which bonds it: A common ancestry and a system of patriarchal lineage. Or a common language or common borders or governing body. Usually, it is a combination of several factors that mold a mass of people into a single whole.

The Jewish people are unique in that they have only a single nucleus—and it is none of the above.

All that bonds us is Torah. Nothing else has proven capable of holding us together for more than a generation or two. Nothing else, other than the same Torah that first forged us as a nation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Jewish Nucleus”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

When I became a follower of Yeshua, it was not a rejection of the God of Israel, but, on the contrary, a belief that Yeshua was a fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. I did not stop being a Jew, and did not stop living as a Jew. On the contrary, believing Yeshua to be the Messiah made me want to be more observant of the Torah than before. Believing in Yeshua enhanced my Jewishness rather than lessen it.

Whatever my experience is, it is not a conversion to Christianity. I do not criticize Christian practice, but simply state the fact, that their practices are not my practices, their form of worship is not mine. Whenever I have visited a church, I have felt out of place, like I was in someone else’s living room. Their culture was not my culture, their practices were not my practices. Their understanding of Scripture is not mine. The only conclusion is that their religion is not my religion.

I feel at home in the synagogue, any synagogue. Their practices and beliefs are familiar to me. Their understanding of God and of His love for our people resonate with mine. While traditional synagogues don’t acknowledge Yeshua, nevertheless, He is there. For me, He is the Messiah of Israel.

-Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman
“Messianic Judaism and Christianity: Two Religions With The Same Messiah”
Drschiffman’s Blog

What is Messianic Judaism? Who is a Messianic Jew? These are questions I’m probably not qualified to ask let alone answer, but I have a special interest in the topic for a number of reasons. One important reason is that I’m a Christian husband married to a Jewish wife, so I am keenly aware of the intersection between our two outlooks on faith, the Messiah, and God as it expresses itself in our family life (I also have three Jewish children to add to the mix).

On top of that, most of my “Christian” religious life has been spent worshiping within the context of a One Law congregation (which isn’t really “Messianic Judaism” but I’ll explain that by the by). Within that venue, I gained an appreciation of (if not an actual proficiency in) Jewish religious thought and practice. I find not only many of the mitzvot quite beautiful and meaningful, but the symbolism and conceptualization behind the mitzvot, as the Rabbinic sages have expressed it, to be illuminating of God and oddly enough, my own Christianity.

Additionally, I have enough friends and acquaintances who are Jewish and Messianic and I desire to understand them and their unique experience better. That understanding I believe, will be critical for the Christian church as a whole (if the church can be said to represent a whole) to grasp as the days of the Messiah draw near and he calls His people Israel to return to him along with the nations of the world (“first to the Jew,” however). Without a firm foundation in the “Jewishness of Jesus” and how our world will one day be ruled by a Jewish King descended from the Throne of David, the traditional Christian will become lost and unable to connect to who and what Jesus truly is and what it actually means to be a Gentile disciple of the Messiah.

In addition to the Rabbis I’ve quoted from above, this “meditation” was inspired by a series my friend Judah Gabriel Himango has just started on his own blog called The State of the Messianic Movement. He intends to examine the three overarching groups that exist under the “Messianic” umbrella: Jewish Christianity, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots. This should require a definition of each of these terms and what (and who) they represent.

For myself, I’ve found that my understanding of what “Messianic Judaism” is has morphed over time. I used to think the term was a big “bucket” that contained what I thought of as Messianic Judaism proper, or groups of primarily Jewish people who worship Jesus as Messiah, One Law, which are groups of primarily non-Jews who believe that the Sinai covenant and its conditional statements, the Torah, are applied with perfect equality between Gentile and Jewish believers, and Two-House, which is made up of groups of primarily non-Jews who believe that their attraction to Torah and Judaism means they are “hidden” Jews who are descended from the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” (By necessity, these definitions are brief and do not contain all of the details and nuances to completely describe each group)

It would take too long to explain how and why I changed my paradigm for understanding Messianism, but a large part of the process was watching my wife rediscover her own Jewish identity during the last several years, moving from atheism, to traditional Christianity, to One Law, and then entering the community of Jews locally, first in our combined Reform-Conservative shul, and then finally becoming involved with the Chabad. I can say all that in a single sentence, but the reality of the experience is extremely complex and involved and having lived through my wife’s journey as her Christian husband (often observing but not significantly able to participate), it has been a remarkable and life-changing progression.

The missus and I were sitting at the kitchen table taking about subjects related to this and we landed on the “hot topic” of whether or not she thought Messianic Jews were Jews. Her answer surprised me just a little. She said that non-Jews who converted to Judaism but who did not renounce other religions (including or perhaps especially Christianity) were not Jews. During the last part of the conversion process, the almost-convert is asked if they voluntarily surrender any and all affiliations to any other religions or faith traditions. If they expect to complete the conversion and enter the mikvah, they always answer “yes”. If they answered “yes” but retained a faith in Yeshua (Jesus), then they lied and their conversion is null, as far as she’s concerned. If, for some reason (and I’ve heard unsubstantiated rumors of this occurring occasionally), the officiating Rabbi fails to ask the question and the convert continues to silently harbor a faith in Yeshua, then again, as far as my wife is concerned, the conversion isn’t valid. A non-valid conversion means the person entered and exited the mikvah as a Christian. End of story.

On the other hand, if a halalaic Jew in any way shape or form, came to faith in Jesus and worshiped him as Messiah, as mistaken as my wife thinks that person is, they are still a Jew. It would be like a Jew who practiced Buddhism or some other religious tradition. They’d still be Jewish. Her brother, for instance, is a born-again Christian and as far as I know, he continues to deny that his mother (and my wife’s mother) was Jewish (my mother-in-law passed away many years ago). To look at him, his wife, and his children, they are the perfect picture of a traditional Christian family. The idea of being Jewish just doesn’t compute within him and I’m sure he doesn’t understand why my wife and children consider themselves Jews. Nevertheless, if he should walk into our local Chabad synagogue on any given morning, and the Rabbi was aware of his status, he could still join the minyan for Shacharit prayers.

I’ve said everything above by way of introducing my humble definition of Messianic Judaism.

First of all, as Dr. Schiffman said on his blog, Messianic Judaism isn’t Christianity. Oh, it shares a number of common elements, not the least of which is the same Messiah. Jesus the Christ is the same guy (forgive me if that seems irreverent) as Yeshua HaMashiach. He is the Lord, the Savior, the Jewish Messiah King, who came once to redeem the world and who will come again, in power to redeem and restore Israel and to rule all of humanity.

However, who we are as disciples of the Messiah makes a huge difference. Regardless of how the movement of “Jesus worshipers” was started, first among the Jews and then among the Gentiles, 2,000 years later, Jews and Christians represent two wildly differing cultures and practices. As Dr. Schiffman said, he doesn’t feel comfortable in a church. He doesn’t belong there. His “spiritual home,” if you will, is the synagogue, any synagogue, Messianic or otherwise. I know of at least one other Jewish person who is Messianic and yet attends an Orthodox synagogue. I suspect there are others who quietly worship in their Jewish communities and yet who nurture a deep faith in Yeshua.

What is Messianic Judaism given all of this? In my opinion, it is a Judaism in the same manner as Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and so on. It is an expression of religious and halalaic faith and devotion of Jewish people as they relate to the Torah and God. It is the lifestyle, cultural, ethnic, religious, and halalaic context within which each Jew is Jewish. Most, if not all of the other modern Judaisms will certainly disagree with my opinion as will most Christians and the vast majority of non-Jews who are attached to the Hebrew Roots movement in some manner or fashion. So they’ll disagree.

My definition of a Messianic Jew is a person who is halachically Jewish and who practices a form of religious Judaism which includes acknowledging the person of Jesus (Yeshua) as the Jewish Messiah King, and who acknowledges the legitimacy of the Gospels, the Letters, and the Apocrypha in what most people call “the New Testament” as valid for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) This person’s ethnic, cultural, religious, and lifestyle practice should be virtually indistinguishable from any other religious Jew (it would be interesting to find out if various Messianic Jews pattern their halakhah after different sects, such as Orthodox or Reform, but I lack information here). As Dr. Schiffman said, a Messianic Jew practicing Messianic Judaism (sorry if this sounds redundant, but it’s important to be clear on this point) should look and act the same as any other religious Jew from the viewpoint of an outside observer.

The twist is that there aren’t (probably) that many Messianic Jews practicing Messianic Judaism as I’ve just defined those terms. Even in synagogues that are strictly Messianic Jewish, that is, shuls that are governed by a halachically, ethnically, religiously, and culturally Jewish board, Rabbi, Cantor, and so on, the majority of attendees will still be non-Jewish. The type of synagogue practice should again, be indistinguishable from any other synagogue apart from portions of prayers and services that acknowledge Yeshua as the Messiah and the heir to the Davidic throne. Synagogues like this are most likely very rare in the western world. I’ve only attended one in over ten years of being aware of Messianic Judaism, and I only visited there last spring.

So, while it’s understood, from my perspective, that Messianic Jews practice Messianic Judaism, do the non-Jewish attendees also practice Messianic Judaism alongside the attending Jews? The answer to that question is probably the same as asking if I practiced Judaism when (this was years ago) I attended our local Reform-Conservative synagogue with my Jewish wife and our children.

In other words, “no”. I certainly worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and privately in my own heart, acknowledged my Lord and the King of the Jews during the prayers, but I was a Gentile among Jews in a completely Jewish context. From their point of view, the best they probably thought of me was as a righteous Gentile, and it’s not unusual for Noahides to worship alongside Jews (where else would they go?). In fact, I know of many Christians who periodically or (for a few) regularly worship in one of the local synagogues, either because they’re intermarried like me, or they have some other affinity for the Jewish people and for Judaism.

In a sense, whether you worship in a church or a synagogue (assuming you are a believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah) depends largely on your sense of personal identity and in which culture you feel more comfortable. This isn’t really unusual. Some Jews feel more comfortable in an Orthodox synagogue than those of the other Jewish sects, and some Christians feel more comfortable in a Lutheran or Baptist church than in a Methodist or Episcopal church. Some of that is theological, but a lot of it is cultural and believe me, different Christian denominations have their own cultures. So why not different Judaisms?

I’m sure my descriptions and definitions are far from complete, but trying to define Judaism in any sense, let alone Messianic Judaism, is a very difficult and involved task. This is really more of an introduction than anything, but as I said, some of the material I’ve been reading lately has been tugging at me and I needed to respond. As always, many people will disagree and many people will become upset, troubled, and even incensed and outraged. I’ve talked recently about how poorly some people tend to respond when another person disagrees with them online.

It’s OK if we don’t agree. Please try not to take it personally. As I live with Jewish people every day, I’m kind of in tune with how they are like me and how they are not like me. I’m just extending that personal awareness into a public arena. Your mileage may vary.

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11 thoughts on “What is Messianic Judaism?”

  1. Very, very interesting. My husband and I were both raised in the church of Christ, left it 16 years ago, but yet just this past month realized that we raised our daughter “culturally church of Christ”. She spent a week with a whole group of them and really realized that that is where she came from. It was a bit disconcerting for us at first, because theologically we are so far from them now. And I literally used that term with my husband, “culturally church of Christ”. At 19 years old she now understands who I am and so many of the small things about how she was raised that are so different than her friends. She is in the middle of a 6 week stint in Israel right now, where she is very much experiencing the cultural differences. This article makes perfect sense to me.

  2. Hi Linda. Thanks for commenting.

    We’re all used to thinking about people in other countries as having a different culture but the reality is that we have just tons and tons of cultures available to us right where we live. It’s just amazing the habits and attitudes we teach and pick up during our lives that we’re not even aware of. I’m glad my blog post resonated with you. We don’t have to travel to learn about diversity. We have it in our own backyards (which is what Dorothy learned at the end of the “Wizard of Oz”).

    Just as an aside, when my daughter was 15, she left us to live in Japan (near Tokyo) for 11 months as an exchange student. She spent her 16th birthday in Japan and had many adventures, but she truly realized from the experience of living in another country in another culture (or multitude of cultures) how completely different other human beings can be compared to what we’re used to.

    I hope your daughter enjoys her stay in Israel.

  3. What a nice post, I appreciate someone taking the time to differentiate between the “one law”, “2 house” and true MJ. It’s so complex and at times I can understand why Christianity went the supersessionist route when you see how fast Gentiles go into crises mode when they begin to study and see the scriptures and Messiah in their Jewish light. That is, if that’s why Christianity went that route. Maybe that’s one reason among many.

    However, I’d like to ask about what you said regarding your in-laws. Did your mon-in-law even know she was Jewish or is it something your wife found out after her mother had passed? It just seems strange that the brother deny’s it. There’s so much baggage tho…

  4. Good morning, Lrw79.

    The short version of the story is this. My Jewish mother-in-law had a falling out with her birth family, who all lived in the Boston area, around the start of World War II. Mom-in-law joined the Marines. I don’t know where exactly she served, but at the end of the war, she went on a blind date with my father-in-law (who as in the Navy), who is not Jewish, and they eventually married and settled in Southern California.

    Growing up, my wife knew she had Jewish relatives on her mother’s side but never made the connection that her Mom was Jewish. Her Mom never, ever mentioned that fact and it never came up in conversation. Then, my wife went off to university and her college roommate was Jewish. They started talking and my wife mentioned that her Mom’s sister and cousin were Jewish. Her roommate helped her connect the dots, and on school vacation, my wife went home and talked to her mother about it. Her Mom said “yes” when my wife asked if A. her Mom was Jewish and B. If that made her Jewish.

    But that was the end of the conversation and that information remained dormant for quite awhile. This is why there is no “Jewish identity” perceived by my wife’s siblings.

    I’ve never met any of my wife’s Jewish family. Well, I did meet her cousin Eddie at our wedding, but he died five months later. Her aunt also passed away and the rest live back east. My wife has visited with them there on a few occasions, but they never became close. Through the local Chabad, my wife was able to trace her family history back a few generations and confirm through documentation (birth and death records) that the family is Jewish.

    That’s about it.

  5. I just wanted to say that it is so wonderful that Messianic Judiasm is literally being found all over the world, and people are realizing that a Jewish believer in Yeshua is a “completed” Jew. Thank you for providing a great article.

  6. Thanks, Jim. Just to let you know, I edited your comment so it didn’t seem quite so “spam-like.” If anyone wants to know more about the music you’re interested in, they can click on your name which links to that site.

    In the future, you are welcome to comment about the content of my blog posts, but not for the purpose of simply promoting visits to a website.

    Oh, and I don’t think that non-Messianic Jews are somehow not “complete.” I do pray that one day, the identity of the Jewish Messiah will be revealed to all of Israel and the world.

    Thanks.

  7. Just a brief clarification about the requirement for a convert to renounce former religious affiliations – The actual halakhic requirement is to renounce idolatry. This is often “modernized” and amplified to apply it to any other religious view, particularly in the case of Christian converts whose prior doctrinal training probably viewed “Jesus” as the post-Nicene Church Fathers did, which was as a pseudo-Greek-style demi-God alongside a Jove-like or Zeus-like Father God. For a Jew, this sort of view would constitute idolatry, though there is some halakhic allowance for non-Jews to hold to a “triune” view without being considered as idolators. However, it is possible for a former Christian convert to have asimilated Jewish views sufficiently to enable him to distinguish Rav Yeshua as an exalted/glorified Servant Messiah from HaShem the One-and-Only G-d. From this perspective, rejection of affinity with Rav Yeshua would not be required for the conversion to be valid (though it would certainly be appropriate to renounce the fictional demigod “Jesus”). But I doubt that anyone has really tried to put this to the test, because Rav-Yeshua messianists as a whole have not embraced such a distinction, and it represents a subtlety that most rabbis are likely to miss or dismiss. In general, there is insufficient familiarity with how the conditions applied to Henoch-as-Metatron might also be applied to Rav Yeshua as described by Rav Shaul in Phil.2:5-11 (which also puts a different spin on the initial 18 verses of Yohanan’s besorah, not to mention Rav Yeshua’s appearance as described by Yohanan in his Revelation).

    There is also a term that I learned more than 30 years ago, describing non-Jews who were so assimilated into the Jewish community and its religious praxis that they were indistinguishable from any other Jew (or convert). These unofficial converts were termed “sociological Jews”. I have no idea how this demographic could ever have been identified or counted, but I read an article about them in one of the few existing Jewish magazines or newspapers. I mention them because it seems that you might be counted among their number, and I presume you have your own reasons for not seeking official conversion and accepting full official responsibility for bearing the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven”.

    As for your attempt to describe a taxonomy for the contents of a big bucket under a messianic umbrella – I would suggest that it needs more work, even though I do think you’re on the right track.

  8. I can see what you’re saying ProclaimLiberty, however, I think that if I were about to enter into the mikvah as the last step in my conversion to Judaism, and use your explanation for my continued faith in Jesus as the Messiah to an Orthodox Jewish Beit Din, they would probably yield what I think of as a predictable response…though it’s not the response that you would predict.

    Thank you for believing that I’m on the right track. I’m one of those people that don’t believe we often reach a final destination in pursuit of our faith, just that we must continue to pursue it.

  9. Well, I did say that I expect that most rabbis would not recognize or value the distinction between rejecting the “Jesus of the Gentiles” and appreciating the real Rav Yeshua in a Metatron-like condition; and most would not likely bother to do any research to seek a halakhic justification for it on your behalf, merely to accept your conversion. I’m not sure that they would even listen to a convert who could present a comprehensive halakhic dissertation on the subject. They might be impressed by the scholarship, but they would not wish to be seen as the first Beit Din to authorize such a conversion. Sometimes merely being right is not enough to move entrenched bureaucracies into new and socially risky territory. I mentioned it mostly to address the concept of validity, even if the convert maintained a discrete silence on the subject and side-stepped any question about it from a Beit Din (which some have done).

    I think also that you may have overestimated the application of my comment about being “on the right track”, which was limited to your attempt to describe various groups who might be categorized as being under a “messianic” umbrella. Nonetheless, it is also true that I have no criticism of your general conduct, or its “track”.

  10. Thanks. In any event, I’m not seeking conversion, so for me, most of this is hypothetical. We are who God created us to be. For me, that isn’t Jewish, however I don’t seem to fit very neatly into anyone’s pre-defined “box.” I’ll continue the “journey” and see what turns up.

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