What Good is There in the Hebrew Roots Movement?

rootsNOTE: I wrote this commentary a few days before my recent blog post, Can Jesus Inherit Lineage from his Adoptive Father Joseph?.

I’ve heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who define themselves by what they’re for, and those who define themselves by what they’re against. I know it’s really more complicated than that, but if you’ve spent any amount of time in the blogosphere, it might seem just that simple. I sometimes get the feeling that the Internet was created to assist the latter sort of person to quickly, easily, and sometimes anonymously express their opinions about who and what they oppose.

I try to define myself by what I am for and generally post blogs on whatever happens to be rolling around inside my skull at any given point in time. I also have participated in debates about the relative merits of Christianity, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots (I’m using these terms in the most general way possible). I want to talk about some of the differences between certain groups, primarily Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots but first, I’d like to provide some links that quickly define Christianity and Judaism just to be able to set them to one side.

The next set of definitions are based on well over a decade of experience in the Hebrew Roots movement. Not everyone is going to agree with me, but as I’ve suggested, that’s the nature of the blogosphere and probably human nature as well.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a blog post called What is Messianic Judaism, so you can refer back to that for additional details, but as far as a thumbnail sketch goes, the following should serve fairly well.

Messianic Judaism, in its ideal form, is a stream of Judaism that operates alongside the other branches of Judaism such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and so on. It’s principle difference is the belief by the Jewish adherents within that stream that Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth, as we see him in the Apostolic Scriptures, is the prophesied Messiah, who came once to redeem humanity from sin, and who will come again to liberate Israel, restore the captives to their Land, and usher in an era of worldwide peace.

In its current form (again, I’m speaking generally), the majority of members of Messianic Jewish congregations are non-Jews who have chosen to come alongside the Jewish believers while maintaining the distinction between Jews and Gentiles worshiping within a Jewish context. Messianic Jewish groups are led by the Jewish membership, and established by and for Jews in Messiah. Additionally, like other Jewish streams, many traditional and cultural practices are upheld, such as common halachah observed by many religious Jews. Both Torah and Talmud are studied, the traditional festivals are observed, observance of a Saturday Shabbat is practiced, and worship services are what would be found in any synagogue setting.

Hebrew Roots is a general umbrella term defining groups of primarily non-Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) who adopt some Jewish/Hebraic religious practices and traditions to varying degrees. There are a number of sub-sets within Hebrew Roots, the two primary groups being:

  • One Law: This group tends to practice what they call “Messianic Judaism” and believes that the New Testament supports Jewish and non-Jewish believers having no distinctions in identity and practice. In the ideal sense, it makes no difference if the groups are organized and operated by Jews or Gentiles, although the vast majority of One-Law groups are almost always Gentile driven. One Law groups distinguish themselves from Messianic Judaism and the other Judaisms by a general dislike if not disdain of anything that isn’t “written Torah,” although it is impossible for them to practice any religious, synagogue-like service without borrowing heavily from Jewish tradition. One Law groups also tend to dislike if not disdain the traditional Christian church and claims that Christians are universally “anti-Judaic” and even apostate.
  • Two House: This group tends to believe that non-Jewish people who are attracted to Judaism and the Torah are the descendants of the “lost ten tribes” of Israel and that God has supernaturally inspired them to return to a Jewish/Hebraic worship practice and lifestyle. They do not believe that non-Jewish Christians have the same obligation to the Torah as Jewish people do, but they believe that, because they are “Israelites,” they are not truly non-Jewish, and therefore are part of the modern Jewish people. A different stream of two-house doesn’t literally believe that they are the biological descendants of Israel, but that they are spiritual descendants and thus not really Gentiles.

many people

I want to make clear that my definitions are extremely general and within those two groups, there are multiple (probably hundreds) variations of belief and practice. Also, “Hebrew Roots” can include any congregation of Christians (though most won’t claim that particular label), that incorporate some “Jewishness” in their religious lives. This could include church services that use certain Hebrew words, keeping a “kosher-style” diet based on Leviticus 11, wearing kippot and tallitot during services, but not necessarily believing that the full yoke of Torah is incumbent upon them, let alone any significant number of traditions. The one element that unifies all Hebrew Roots groups is the belief that something went wrong in traditional Christianity, usually its historic rejection of the Jewish/Hebrew identity of Jesus and his teachings. The label “Hebrew Roots” is used to separate this group of non-Jewish believers from what they see as the flawed theological, doctrinal, and cultural identity typically associated with the “Christianity” label.
Just to give you an idea of how some Hebrew Roots groups define themselves, I culled the following comments from a One Law blogspot:

As for Seventh-Day Adventists…don’t know much about them except they are Christian and, therefore, anti-Judaic.

In short, the Christian message to Jews is anti-Judaic: “Stop practicing Judaism!”

Yeshua kept the Law, but not any form of Judaism.

Christians believe that the Sinaitic Torah has been abolished; Messianics believe it is valid. Christians believe that the New Testament is anti-Judaic; Messianics believe that the Apostolic Writings are pro-Judaic. And there are divisions with the system of Christianities and also within the Messianic movement. These are all caused by certain convictions.

Are these convictions worth dividing over?

I believe so. We can’t build Messianic communities in the same way that Christians build their communities.

Admittedly, these comments were taken out of context (I added the emphasis because it was apparently missed before), but as you can see, they communicate a less than complementary attitude toward any form of Christianity and sometimes Judaism (although arguably, each and every one of the non-Jewish followers in this movement are Christian by definition).

To be fair, I should mention that at times, there is a positive and supportive connection between Hebrew Roots and the Christian church.

Now that I’ve got all that out of the way, what good can I say about Hebrew Roots? It’s not a matter of whether or not I agree with their basic doctrines. What we all share is faith in Jesus Christ. In that sense, Christianity, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots have a common Messiah and thus a common bond. Where we differ is how we conceptualize the meaning of the Messiah in our lives and what we believe our response should be to him and to the human beings around us. Probably thousands if not tens of thousands (or more) books, blogs, and websites have been created and dedicated to waging the “war” between Messianic Judaism vs. Hebrew Roots, or Hebrew Roots vs. Christianity, or Christianity vs. Messianic Judaism. I don’t want this to be another blog post carrying on the battle.

I’m not saying I won’t complain again, but I want to take this opportunity to say that in spite of our different outlooks, we must admit that we have things in common as well…all of us who claim the name of Christ, though others call him Messiah.

We believe in the God of the Bible. We believe that all of the Bible is “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We believe that Jesus (Yeshua) is the Messiah spoken of in the Jewish prophesies, that it was necessary for him to come once to redeem us from sin, and that he’ll come a second time to establish the Messianic Kingdom and bring world-wide peace. We believe that Jesus taught from the Torah and the Prophets, and that we all have a responsibility to follow teachings such as feeding the hungry, clothing the unclothed, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, and performing many other acts of kindness as “the weightier matters of the Torah.”

Hebrew Roots folks also uphold the “Jewishness” of Jesus and his Apostles, the continued authority of Torah, the continued Jewish practice of Paul, of Paul not teaching against Torah, the continued vital importance of the Jewish people and Israel in God’s plan. Traditional Christianity isn’t as good at recognizing this and although some of the details between Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots differ, we all should recognize what we hold as common beliefs.

more-silosBut as long as we continue to define ourselves by who we oppose, we will always be stuck inside our little silos and the only people we will ever talk to is ourselves. One of the reasons I chose to return to a church worship setting is that I didn’t want to get stuck in a silo. I wanted to talk to people who didn’t always think like me, in order to build bridges, share information, and contribute to mutual learning “across the aisle.”

Given my regular meetings with my Pastor and some other relationships I’m nurturing within the church I attend, I think I’m headed in the right direction. Nothing is perfect, and sometimes I become frustrated and discouraged, but overall, I’ve been able to express a number of my opinions and beliefs and not only have I not been given the boot yet, but some people seem authentically interested in continuing our dialog.

That wouldn’t be possible if I took the attitude that anyone who isn’t like me or who doesn’t think or believe as I do must be “bad.”

I once heard President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Boaz Michael say (this isn’t an exact quote) that hitting someone over the head with a Torah scroll won’t give them a different insight into the Torah. We can’t just beat people up with our beliefs. Plenty of atheists complain that Christians are hitting them with their Bibles in their evangelical efforts and guess what? Hostile or aggressive behavior doesn’t change people. You can’t yell at someone as an effective method of convincing them your position has merit. You certainly can’t inspire someone to listen to you if you call them names and denigrate their faith and their worship context.

But we all do that all the time.

While I agree there are some lines in the sand I am not willing to cross, I also must admit that it is important to acknowledge good in someone when you see it, even if you don’t agree with that person on other occasions. In the blogosphere, we all get caught up too much in being theology police. Building the road to accepting each other as members of the body of Messiah requires a willingness to talk to people who are different than you, and to listen to them as well. You may never come to a place where you will always agree on everything, but you may build a place where two people who both love Messiah can get together and share who they are with each other. Once you do that, who knows what you could end up learning and building upon the foundation you’ve started?

Every person you meet has a wellspring deep inside.

If you can’t find it, your own wellspring needs clearing.
Remove the rust from your shovel, sharpen its blade, and dig harder and deeper.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Dig Deeper”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Addendum: August 8, 1:15 p.m. Mountain Time: Peter, the person who commented below, chose to take our conversation back to his blog. To be fair, I thought it was important to display the continued results of our dialog which can be found in the comments section. I see we have a long way to go.

8 thoughts on “What Good is There in the Hebrew Roots Movement?”

  1. James,

    In the interest of fairness, here’s the context of that excerpt from my blog (Orthodox Messianic):

    “I believe so. We can’t build Messianic communities in the same way that Christians build their communities. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find times to fellowship with one another.”

    You conveniently left out the part where I advocated continued fellowship between Christians and Messianics.

    Lastly, the Apostolic Writings didn’t teach Christianity (it hadn’t been invented yet); they didn’t teach the idea of an entity called the “church”–the actual word in the Greek source text is Ekklesia, a word that denotes Israel. In short, there’s only Messianic Judaism and nothing else (except distorted versions of an originally Messianic Jewish faith).



    [I’m guessing this will be auto-deleted?]

  2. Your guess is wrong. I told you in the past that I would allow your comments (as well as Judah’s) but that I would moderate them as part of my being a responsible blog owner. I previously moderated Dan’s but I finally took him off of the “moderated” list. I’m quite willing to be fair and yes, you can insert the full context of my quotes from your blog post.

    I agree that the first believers were part of a Jewish stream called “the Way” and that “Christian” and “Christianity” occur very infrequently in the New Testament text. I use those terms, along with “church” as a matter of convention, since I’m trying to address the widest audience possible, including Christians. My understanding of the word “Ekklesia” is that it can be any group of people gathering for a common purpose. That purpose can be to worship or they can be a lynch mob, so in that sense, I agree it doesn’t have to mean “church.”

  3. James,

    Re: “My understanding of the word “Ekklesia” is that it can be any group of people gathering for a common purpose.”

    First-century Jews read the Septuagint and cherished it. The Apostles all quoted from it. Your namesake quoted from it in Acts 15. It was an integral part of their culture.

    Now, if you think that first-century Jews were not aware of the fact that their Bible used the term “Ekklesia” to refer to Israel, then how do you explain passages like Acts 7:38?

    So your understanding of the word “Ekklesia” is incomplete until you acknowledge what this term meant to the first-century Jews who grew up on the Septuagint.

  4. I don’t think my understanding is that far off. I just did a check of different translations of that verse, and common translations in Christian Bibles are “assembly,” “congregation,” and incredibly, “church” (the “church” in the wilderness?).

    Even if my understanding is off a bit, given the theme of this blog post, it’s still a rather minor point. In any event, I don’t want to spend all day discussing the various ways to understand a single word. I posted this missive to try to say something quite different.

  5. Thanks for highlighting my blog post on how God used Hebrew Roots to bring Messianic Judaism + Jewish Christianity + gentile Christianity to worship God together as one body.

    I aim for stuff like that at every opportunity. It’s why I vehemently take a stand when I hear Messianic Judaism people talk down about Hebrew Roots.

    Hebrew Roots is this: following the Jewish Messiah, the Torah that he kept, and taking our identity as members of the commonwealth of Israel.

    There is much good in this movement, in fact, I believe God is using Hebrew Roots for his purposes to shake off the anti-Semitism of the Church, bring the nations into an Israel-centric faith in the God of Israel, culminating in spiritual life from the dead for the Jewish people. Hebrew Roots is that, and I’m honored that God’s used me in it.

  6. There is no small irony in the fact that I conceived the premise for this blog post several Sundays ago when I was in services. I actually took a piece of paper out from the program someone handed me as I entered church that morning and jotted down a note to remind myself to write this. I suppose it may be a stretch to believe that I momentarily encountered God in church and He had something to say to me, but I choose to believe it’s so.

    Thanks for stopping by, Judah.

  7. Thank you James for writting this. I have come to feel the same way in the last 3 or 4 years. It seems that I went through each cycle of trying to understand my place in the Messianic movement. I am a Gentile, plain and simple. The problem I had was learning to see what that meant. And I am now at peace with who the Lord made me to be in the body of the Messiah.

    As the Apostle Paul (Shaul) says, “…the body is made up of many parts…” This is the best example I believe which shows the diversity in the Body of the Messiah. In other words, if we are all Jews, then where are the Gentiles? As Shaul states, “…can we all be the eye?” (I’m paraphrasing). No. The body is made of many parts and this is what Paul is so elogently stating.

    I believe that the Hebrews Roots movement will serve to educate Gentiles in how to see themselves in relation to the Jews. For too long Christians have be isolated from Jewish literacy and worldview. It is time to begin the process of healing between Jews and Christians, not that Jews and Christians have been at odds that much this century, but both traditions are isolated from one another.

    I believe that it will be a long road but it will set a sure and solid foundation. I am speaking in regard to the Theological upheavals which will ensure in the coming years. And what does it all come down too? “Christianity” (the false concept, not the actual thing) and “Judaism” (the false concept of), both wish to be the owner of all revelation. Christians (or I should state Gentile Christians) are going to need to relinquish their “right’ to “own” the specific promises made to the Jewish people such as in matters related to priesthood and temple work. Likewise, Jewish Messianics are going to have to learn to embrace and accept Gentile Messianics into their folds as well as build common bonds with dare I say..Evangelicals. 🙂

    Peace in our Lord. 🙂

  8. Christians (or I should state Gentile Christians) are going to need to relinquish their “right’ to “own” the specific promises made to the Jewish people such as in matters related to priesthood and temple work. Likewise, Jewish Messianics are going to have to learn to embrace and accept Gentile Messianics into their folds as well as build common bonds with dare I say..Evangelicals.

    Well said, truthceeker. I think there are individual congregations on both sides of the aisle that are moving in this direction. Even the most Jewish of Messianic Jewish congregations have a majority Gentile membership, at least outside of Israel. And if any individual Christians and Christian churches are attending to the programming at FFOZ TV, then they are learning to look at the covenant promises through a Jewish lens and to embrace their original intent.

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