Though there are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the U.S. and 350,000 worldwide, according to various counts, they are a tiny minority in Israel — just 10,000-20,000 people by some estimates — but growing, according to both its proponents and critics. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and that the Bible prophesizes that God’s plan is for him to return to Jerusalem, prevail in an apocalyptic battle with the Antichrist, and rule the world from the Temple Mount. Unlike Jews for Jesus, which focuses on bringing Jews into churches, Messianic Jews seek to make Jews believers in Jesus while still maintaining congregations that identify as Jewish and observe Jewish customs and holidays.
While these Messianic Jews are derisive of Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism (particularly what they call its “legalism”), they pick and choose some of the practices of traditional Judaism, such as weekly Torah readings — although they add New Testament verses to it.
They import to Israel many of the worship practices and the political agenda of the American Christian right. They are tightly knit with an American-born global revival movement that holds that modern-day prophets and apostles receive direct revelations from God, forming an elite army of prayer warriors on a mission to carry out God’s plans to purify Christianity, “restore” Israel, and bring the Messiah back.
“Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land”
An article written for
In a previous blog post, I mentioned that it’s helpful to take a look at that entity we call “Messianic Judaism” from outside the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots contexts. We have a tendency to see our arguments through a very narrow tube that significantly limits our vision, not only of who and what Messianic Judaism is (along with Hebrew Roots and its variants such One Law, One Torah, Sacred Name, and Two-House), but how the rest of the world perceives it and them.
The above-quote from a recent online magazine article was apparently written by a Jewish reporter who, in all likelihood (but I can’t know for sure), is not religious (I say this based on the overall content of the full article). Her description of Messianic Jews in Israel was either so biased as to make the Jews she interviewed seem overly Christian (and certainly not Jewish in a cultural or halakhic sense) or indeed, the Jews she spoke with were very “Christianized.” But if the latter is true, then did this reporter choose a representative sample of the Messianic Jews in the Land or did she bias her research to only select the most “Christian-like” Jews in the Israeli Messianic environment?
In other words, are there any authentically, halachically, and culturally Jewish Messianic Jews in Israel, and can Messianic Judaism be fairly assessed by a Jewish reporter who may have “issues” with whether or not the Jewish participants in Messianic Judaism are actually Jewish?
When I write about Messianic Judaism as a Judaism (as opposed to “a Christianity”), I’m usually criticized, typically from Hebrew Roots proponents, saying that the majority of people involved in what I term as Messianic Judaism are not Jewish. True enough. As I’ve said before, Messianic Judaism as it exists today is a goal or an ideal. It is not a fully realized movement among the other Judaisms of our era.
And that’s probably Christianity’s fault.
Granted, “ownership” of the Jewish Messiah passed from Jewish to Gentile hands nearly 2,000 years ago and it’s only within the past century or less that any Jews at all have even considered the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah and that it’s “Jewish” to honor him. Tsvi Sadan in his article “You Have Not Obeyed Me in Proclaiming Liberty”, written for the Fall 2012 issue of Messiah Journal, says of past and present Messianic Judaism in Israel:
In the past, leadership was largely in the hands of Christian missionaries. Today leadership is predominately held by American Jews, American “wannabe” Jews, and American Christians. Where Jewish Israelis are in leadership, they have received their education – if they have any – from Christian institutions either in North America or Great Britain. In addition, with the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russian speakers began to establish new churches and assume leadership positions in existing churches (congregations). Yet though some of the people and organizations have changed, the present-day leadership is essentially operating in the same way as their missionary predecessors did. While Hebrew is now the spoken language in most Israeli churches, modes of operation and models of leadership which grew mostly out of evangelical worldviews still dominate the scene.
In the meantime, Messianic Jews are assiduously attempting to, essentially, redeem Israel from its Jewishness. That seems to be the task at hand at the Jerusalem Prayer Tower, another 24-7 prayer meeting place located on the top floor of an office building on the bustling downtown thoroughfare Jaffa Street. At the “Restoring Jerusalem” prayer meeting, an American Christian woman read about Jezebel from the Book of Revelation, and exhorted the half dozen people in the room to pray to “purify” and “cleanse” Jerusalem.
Another woman prayed for the Jews “to change their mind, to feel you, Lord, to convert to you, Lord.” The first woman resumed her prayers, hoping that Jesus will give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a great understanding of who you are.” She seems to earnestly believe this is a plausible scenario. “Help him, Lord,” she implores. “Bring him to Messiah.”
I was especially taken by the statement, “Messianic Jews are assiduously attempting to, essentially, redeem Israel from its Jewishness.” This comment clashes incredibly against what most of the Jewish Messianics I interact with tell me. In the article “Messianic Judaism: Reconsidering the One-Law, Two-House Trajectories” written by Boaz Michael, also for Messiah Journal, in addressing Gentile and Jewish roles, Boaz states:
In rejecting the right and responsibility of the Jewish people to define what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism, One-Law theology strikes directly at the core of authentic Judaism. One-Law replaces the Jewish rabbis and sages with self-appointed Gentiles who believe that they are divinely sanctioned to interpret the Torah outside of a Jewish context: whatever conclusions they come to are given greater weight than those of Jewish halachic authorities.
There is a struggle to define Messianic Jewish practice as Jewish and some of the Jews in the Messianic Jewish movement are caught between two forces: Evangelical Christianity and Hebrew Roots. Both groups of non-Jews are vying for the opportunity to define the Jewish worshipers of Christ in some manner that removes significant parts of what it is to be a Jew. In the vast majority of cases, this isn’t done from the malicious desire to harm Jews or Judaism, but intentions aside, the results are obvious. Even many Jews in Messianic Judaism believe that to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, they must reduce or eliminate their Jewish identities. Those Jews who accept the One Law proposal are required to surrender their unique Jewish identity to any Christian demanding an equal share in the Torah.
The latest discussion (as I write this) in the “Messianic blogosphere” on this struggle is Derek Leman’s article, CRITIQUE: Tim Hegg’s Article on Acts 15. By the time you read this “morning meditation,” the comments section of Derek’s blog will most likely have heated up to the temperature where lead melts (621.5 degrees F or 327.5 degrees C). There is a great deal of tension in this communications dynamic largely because each group, Evangelical Christianity, Hebrew Roots (One Law, Two House), and Messianic Judaism, have “turf” to defend. But while both Evangelical Christianity and Hebrew Roots see themselves as pro-Judaism and pro-Israel, it has been strenuously asserted by Messianic Jews that their impact is otherwise.
Boaz Michael says:
These movements damage and diminish Jewish identity in several ways. In one way, a very practical and real diminishing of Jewish identity occurs when people who are not Jewish begin to dress and act like they are Jewish (particularly like Orthodox Jews). When Jewish customs and Jewish apparel are taken on outside the context of a Jewish community and authentic Jewish identity, it diminishes real Judaism and real Jewish life. It sends a message to the Jewish people: “All of the things that make you unique and identifiably Jewish are mine too.”
Tzitzit are a prime example. In a traditional Jewish context, tzitzit have real meaning. They send a specific message: “The person wearing these is shomer Shabbos. They keep a high standard of kashrut. They are serious about traditional Judaism.” To see a person with tzitzit, for example, eating a cheeseburger or driving on the Sabbath actually diminishes the Torah and casts Messiah (and Messianics) in a negative light. It is application without understanding. It strips tzitzit of their meaning and significance.
That final statement could be extended to say that such a person “strips Judaism of its meaning and significance.”
Again, the large portion of the blame for this mess is Christianity, not in its intent but in its approach. Sadan stated that many Jews in Israel have come to know the Messiah, not through Jewish people or contexts, but through Evangelical Christians or Jews who have an Evangelical mindset. In the United States, many Jews come to know the Messiah, either through the traditional Church or through Hebrew Roots churches, and particularly One Law groups. My wife and I were introduced to “Messianic Judaism” through a local One Law congregation and for quite some time, we thought this was the only expression of Messianic Judaism. It was our introduction to “Judaism” without having to actually enter into a Jewish community (the vast, vast majority of people present were Gentiles). Jewish customs and practices were very poorly mimicked and an understanding of even the prayers was only elementary.
It wasn’t until my wife joined first our local Reform-Conservative shul and later the Chabad, that we both began to understand actual Judaism. From my wife’s point of view, it was in the form of a real, lived experience, and for me, it was largely by observation.
But I got to observe a lot.
Tsvi Sadan’s article presents an alternate method of introducing the Jewish Messiah to Jewish people in Israel:
Instead of this traditional Mission approach with its “proclamation of alienation,” Messianic Jews should consider the “proclamation of Keruv,” not as a tactical maneuver but as a state of being. Keruv is a Hebrew word that comes from “near” (karov). Essentially therefore, Keruv is a mission to call Jews to draw nearer to God and one another, first and foremost through familiarity with their own religion and tradition. The Jewish people, as taught by Jesus, cannot comprehend his message apart from Moses (John 5:46). Talking about the significance of Jesus apart from the everlasting significance of Israel is that which renders evangelism ineffective. Keruv on the other hand is all about reassuring the Jewish people that Jesus came to reinforce the hope for the Jews as a people under a unique covenant.
It’s impossible to change the past but we have the power to summon the future. We have the ability to change directions and to correct our mistakes. In order to introduce the Jewish Messiah to Jewish people without damaging Jewish identity, either by removing it or co-opting it from Jews, it must be communicated that Judaism and the Jewish Messiah are mutually confirming and supporting. Instead of Messianic Judaism being seen as trying to “redeem Israel from its Jewishness,” it must behave in a manner that is totally consistent with restoring Jewishness to Israel and the Jewish people. This is not to say that Israel and Jewish people aren’t currently Jewish, but that the Messiah affirms, supports, and restores the rightful place of Israel and the Jewish nation as the head of nations and as a people called out by God to be completely unique from among the nations and peoples of the earth, including Gentile Christians.
This doesn’t diminish the Christian in the slightest. Even non-Messianic Jews assert that Jews are not better than Christians or any other group of Gentiles, just different and unique. I’ve said many times before that we Christians have a responsibility to support Jews, both materially and in their return to the Torah of their Fathers, all for the sake of the Kingdom and the return of the Messiah. As Boaz Michael said in a recent blog post, “The completion or resolution of Israel’s story does not and will not occur until she is redeemed from her exile, planted firmly in the land God has promised to her, and returned to a state of loving obedience to the Torah under the leadership of the Son of David, Yeshua the Messiah.”
We serve One God and we have one Messiah King who will return to rule over all of Creation. As servants and sons, we each have our roles and duties. We can’t afford to let our limitations, biases, and human ambitions restrict who we are and who God created us to be…both the Jew and the Gentile. Christian support of Israel does not mean taking control of the process of defining Israel. It’s allowing the Jewish people and nation the space to define themselves, and supporting them in this effort through whatever means are at our disposal. That is a Christian’s unique role and purpose in life. It’s time we start living it.