Can Messianic Judaism Directly Reach Out To Atheists?

An atheist cannot find God for the same reason a thief cannot find a policeman.


Before anyone becomes upset, I am not saying that atheists are thieves. The quote simply means that an atheist cannot find God, not only because he/she isn’t looking for Him, but also because they are actively avoiding Him, just like a thief would avoid a law enforcement officer.

But it’s an interesting comparison, because if a cop did find a thief in the act of committing a crime, the thief would be “busted.” Once the thief saw the police officer and knew he/she couldn’t get away, they’d be facing the consequences for their actions.

arrestWhat happens when God “catches” an atheist? Well, this is where the metaphor starts to break down, because while God is aware of all human actions, we humans (and this is certainly true of atheists) aren’t always aware of God. Thus, although God sees our “crimes” (and any human action that opposes the will of God is the short definition of “sin,” which is analogous to “crime” in this example), we don’t see him “catching” us.

Rabbi Kalman Packouz posted the above-quoted sentence on this week’s Shabbat Shalom Weekly online column. He also said this:

Recently a friend of mine asked me, “Do you really believe in God?” When I answered “for sure” his response was “really?” Personally, I don’t find it particularly hard to believe that a rabbi believes in God. However, he seemed to be amazed that anyone believes in God.

In our experience at Aish HaTorah (a major international Jewish educational outreach organization), if you ask the young people who come through the doors of our world center in Jerusalem if they believe in God, four out of five will say “no.” What’s fascinating is that if you don’t ask the question directly, it’s possible to demonstrate to them that they do believe in God. Why? They are influenced by the society, the educational system and their friends to think that they don’t believe in God.

Do you want to demonstrate to someone that deep down they not only believe in God, but that they believe that God loves them? Here are the questions to ask…

I highly encourage you to click the link I provided above and read all of Rabbi Packouz’s discussion on how to illuminate anyone (or at least any secular Jew) to investigate their lack of belief in God. It’s really quite interesting (an equally enthralling question is if R. Packouz’s “method” were applied to non-Jews, would they become Noahides?). I’m not sure how it would play out for the rest of us, but on the surface, his arguments are compelling.

He finishes up his column with the following:

How can one intelligently deal with the question of the existence of God? Start on Aish.com and search the articles on “God” and “Evidence of God”. Go to AishAudio.com (search “evidence”) and listen to the four lectures “Evidence of God’s Existence” by Rav Noah Weinberg (the founder and head of Aish HaTorah and my teacher). Also, I highly recommend Permission to Believe by Lawrence Kelemen available at your local Jewish bookstore, at JudaicaEnterprises.com or by calling toll-free to 877-758-3242.

Credit: jewishvenice.org

I’m actually considering buying the Kelemen book (I’ve checked and it’s not available through my local library system), since it would be interesting to see how religious Jews reach out to secular Jews (besides the methods employed by Chabad).

It occurs to me that there’s a vacuum of this sort of information relative to Messianic Judaism.

Oh sure, Christianity’s efforts to evangelize the world are quite well known. If a traditional Christian wanted to know how to reach out to secular people in his/her community, all that person would have to do is approach their Pastor. I’m sure churches give classes on this sort of thing, and I know churches periodically organize their parishioners to canvas their local neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and handing out pamphlets.

But what does Messianic Judaism (and I’m using the term in the widest possible way) do to attract new members and to share their perspective on the “good news of Messiah?”

Just about anyone I’ve ever encountered, either within a Messianic Jewish (MJ) or Hebrew Roots (HR) environment, came to those venues by way of the Christian church. That is, whether they were Jew or Gentile, they first became a Christian and attended one or more churches before something happened to take them away from a particularly Christian viewpoint, and shifting them to a more Judaicly-aware perspective.

Oh, there may have been one or two exceptions, but I feel pretty confident, even based on anecdotal evidence, that most people, Jew and Gentile alike, come to a Judaic interpretation of all of the Bible, including the Apostolic Scriptures, only after converting to Christianity. I’m not saying that to be insulting. It just seems to best reflect the reality of how people come to the MJ or HR movements.

Of all of the resources available online and in brick-and-mortar stores, I can’t think of even one single book, audio, or video that teaches people like me how to share the message of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) specifically from a Messianic Jewish perspective.

You may be wondering why some slight adaptation of traditional Christian evangelical methods couldn’t be used. However, Christians and religious Jews see the Bible, God, and faith in fundamentally different ways (Christians tend to be internally based, with their faith hinging on personal beliefs, while Jews tend to be externally based, with their faith being acted out through performance of the mitzvot). Messianic Judaism isn’t just Christianity wearing a kippah. It’s a Judaism that acknowledges the revelation of the Messiah as illustrated in the Apostolic Scriptures, and one that has an unusually liberal policy on Gentile admission.

With all that said, is it even possible to share a Messianic Jewish view of our Rav and what the Bible is saying about him and redemption directly with an atheist, or must Christianity and the Church always be the first step?

encounterActually some time ago, I thought I’d found one such resource. It was either a book or a lecture (or lecture series) on audio CD, but a Google search does nothing to find it. Maybe I was mistaken, or maybe whatever it was has leaked out of my memory for good.

Christians have a well-honed machine for evangelizing as many people as it can reach, and at least some corners of Orthodox Judaism understand how to communicate their faith to secular Jews, but what does Messianic Judaism bring to the table? Instead of appealing to Christians in churches to take a Messianic look at the Bible, at their faith, at their Christ, can they reach out to people who do not have faith at all?

Christians can (which is how I came to faith in the first place). Jews can (and I know of more than one religious Jew who started out as a secular adult, and then became religious). What about Messianic Judaism?

10 thoughts on “Can Messianic Judaism Directly Reach Out To Atheists?”

  1. I read the rabbi’s article in your link, and found some of his definitions unjustifiable. His definition of faith as an emotional (i.e., irrational) leap to a conclusion may be a popular misconception, but it is far from the biblical definition of faith — which is to trust in the evidence one has, sufficiently to act upon it. His definition of an atheist as one who has evidence that there is no God is inaccurate. An atheist is not required to produce evidence of his negative assertion (which, logically, is impossible to prove, anyway). He or she is an atheist merely because of the claim to *believe* that there is no G-d, even if the claim is entirely irrational. Hence the rabbi’s suggestion to ask: “What is your evidence?” is essentially a useless challenge. Similarly, his definition of an agnostic as one who has evidence that a person cannot know if there is a God suffers the same logical shortcomings, and the same susceptibility to irrationality. All that is needed to assume the label is the lack of confidence that it is possible to verify the existence of such a being. He is undoubtedly correct, nonetheless, that the primary reason people make such claims is their dislike or their fear of the implicit restrictions and responsibilities that would follow an acknowledgement of G-d’s existence.

    I *am* curious about his claim that most people would answer affirmatively if asked whether their prayers were ever answered. It seems to me likely that those who claimed either the atheist or agnostic label would not answer affirmatively, and might likely claim that as at least part of their reasoning for their belief or lack thereof.

    As for your questions about outreach methods employed by Jews — in general, Jews do not practice “outreach”. We may practice something that has been called “inreach”, which is addressed to those *within* the Jewish community who may be disaffected from Judaism to some degree. This is also called “kiruv”, meaning “drawing closer”, and it consists of providing Jewish information and demonstrating the warmth of Jewish community by means of invitations to Shabbat dinners and other (hopefully inspirational) Jewish events. This is one of the reasons why MJs established a congregational movement rather than pursuing the Christian-style evangelical methods that Hebrew-Christians and missionary organizations did employ. MJs wanted a Jewish place (preferably also offering Jewish food!) to which they could bring their Jewish friends and family to demonstrate the positive effects of Rav Yeshua’s teachings. While this theoretical model was not always pursued thoroughly, it was the initially-intended methodology. The congregational communal context was also envisioned as the appropriate venue in which to present MJ-related information and responses to spiritual and religious questions. Of course, a great many gentile seekers also came to participate in these services and study-sessions, not because of outreach but because they were allowed to do so after somehow hearing about the novel nature of MJ explorations into the biblical texts. It wasn’t a secret, but somebody must have blabbed about it for that to happen. Maybe they overheard one MJ inviting another Jew to some event and they asked if they could tag along, or perhaps they were dragged along by a Jewish friend who wanted their moral support while investigating this strange new movement and whether or not it was really a Jewish thing. However it happened, the novelty and the spiritual depth of meaning encountered in this venue caused the movement to flourish. Of course, its effect on anyone who came to listen was and still is entirely dependent on the quality of the content and experience encountered therein, whether the hearer was or is starting from complete ignorance of spiritual or religious matters or whether they had or have more advanced concerns and questions.

    1. I guess my concern is that, if we want to promote a better understanding of the Bible from a more pro-Israel, pro-Judaism, pro-Jewish people perspective for Gentiles, one way is to “mine” churches in one sense or another, but why not cut out the middle man and figure out a way for Gentiles who are already on board to reach out to secular Gentiles with a more “Messianic” interpretation of scripture. Trouble is, how can this be done (or can it be done)? Must a non-Jew (or a Jew for that matter) always have to transition into a church before actually learning about the theological/doctrinal errors mainstream Christianity has about what the Bible really says?

      1. Almost 50 years ago, during the early days of what became the Jesus movement in the USA, it was somewhat common for people to meet in private homes and other non-church venues in order to discuss alternative religious and philosophical views in an alternative environment unaffected by the flavor and influence of church culture. It was, at that time, also a reflection of the counter-cultural nature of this socio-religious movement. It was also, incidentally, very much in the same pattern as the first-century house fellowships formed by Rav-Yeshua disciples, both Jews and gentiles, whether together or separately. Out of such communities grew the MJ congregational movement, still preserving a strong sense of family warmth and community. I imagine that some gentile groups similarly formed non-denominational evangelical fellowships and alternative churches in this manner. In a number of cases, the federated house fellowship model continued to be employed, in order to maintain the warmth of small-group cohesiveness. This structure continued to serve as a venue for new visitors to be invited and be exposed to ideas and a sense of community that they would never hear or experience otherwise.

        So the answer to your question is: No, the church venue is not the only venue, nor even the appropriate venue, for an uninitiated someone to become exposed to the presentation and discussion and experience of a new set of ideas and perspectives. Individual hospitality is probably the best venue for an individual to receive initial exposure, though a small group functioning like an extended family is better to supply the intellectual and emotive stimulation for the further exploration of those ideas. A small-community extended family model can serve both functions in the context of a special event or celebration, if visitors can also receive individual attention and explanatory guidance through the processes of the event.

        What, then, is the function of the larger gatherings represented by a church or synagogue venue? It is possible to stage therein more generalized lecture-style presentations or educational classes, and, of course, it is there that an entire community may conduct and demonstrate group rituals of corporate worship and learning, and community-wide celebrations of religious holiday events. While visitors may observe these also, they are less likely to feel any sense of connectedness unless they first have experienced the more individualized introductions described above. These are the structural and social considerations, as I see them, that best support the presentation and absorption of the informational content you cited and about which you write in this blog.

  2. I’ve been trying to find around my house a book a friend gave me that, regretfully now, I have never read. It seemed to me to be full of a discourse with which I was already familiar. But now I would like to look and see if this is/was something like you’re talking about. It was called something along the lines of “I have a Jewish friend.”

  3. http://prophecyrevealed.com/DiscipleshipBook/page7.html
    I found this online, James — different book (by the same author, I think). I’m not aware as to who the author is in terms of reputation. Reading, so far, it seems worth at least taking a look to determine if it could be helpful. It reminds me of my telling people who have asked where to get good tracts that they can, if they like tracts, make their own tracts or booklets instead of feeling like they have to buy things that are slickly produced. I decided to link to this page instead of the home page and instead of the first page or table of contents for a couple reasons. Not counting the fact that this is how far I’ve gotten, which is a third and not very important reason, it is significant that at the bottom of the page a reader can select paging forward or backward.

    The other reason I’m linking to this (seventh) page is potentially a topic of controversy. I mean, I know that it is controversial to some people but don’t know if it will be to anyone who reads here (understanding there is a significant number of people who read but don’t post). The topic is when the Holy Spirit comes into a person’s life. Right before the author says the Spirit comes into your life when you’re atoned/saved [I’m using wording, these two words, that the author has used this way — and am pretty sure he means when you believe in Jesus], he has shared a verse stating that we don’t know when the Spirit enters a person’s life. I think it is the case we can’t define when it is this happens, although I don’t think the author took it that way or is saying that.

    1. @Marleen — I don’t see how your link contributes to answering the question of James’ essay: “Can Messianic Judaism Directly Reach Out To Atheists?” It begins with questions that already assume curiosity about something that atheists believe can’t exist. Having raised that fundamental criticism, I’ll refrain from any analysis or discussion of the conceptual theological problems in the linked presentation.

  4. While I prefer his (fairly widespread) definition to another common one I’ve heard (favored in “charismatic” modern Christianity at least of the twentieth century), and I think it is possible and even probable that his “definition” is what he himself experienced in his own life, I don’t believe that the Spirit isn’t in the life, for example, of some or many Jews who have not learned more about Yeshua than persistent misperceptions that prevent (for a time) seeing Yeshua as Messiah.

  5. You have a good point there. I found this one to read online and thought it would give more background or context for the author. But, as for the specific topic I commented on, a reason I see it as significant is that there are implications for thinking and teaching this is how it (always) works. I listened to a few recordings before and right after James left the church he was relatively recently attending (not very recently but more so than other places he attended); the pastor preaching at that place said you’re (Christians are) supposed to follow or live the law after getting saved — that is, after specifically. I would hope that Messianic Judaism, as a direct way of reaching out to people, could back away from that approach as definitional or for all people.*

    Visiting (non-Jewish, non-Messianic but Christian) old friends inadvertently reminded me in conversation last summer that they (and a sizable chunk of Christianity) really look down on people as not responsible to or capable of much decency, or any, until they become Christian. And then, at that point, “the law,” or what really you’re supposed to do [as some such people may prefer not to use the terminology “the law” but do have rules or commands as if law, and some of it from some of the actual law of the Hebrew scriptures], kicks in. I’m thinking it’s an aspect of replacement, whether it replaces how G-d works (and what life is really like) or replaces Judaism. {These two are the people who want to go around threatening others.}

    * It’s based in the idea that the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with anyone’s life until they believe certain things or one thing. A benefit of going “directly” would be not teaching wrong tenets.

  6. I was having this conversation with a friend yesterday over coffee. From his perspective, a person has to have an encounter with God before anything can proceed. Now just what form that encounter might take is highly variable. For me, it was a series of human encounters over many months that, added all together, finally clicked the light bulb on over my head.

    No one person’s “approach” convinced me of the existence of God or the revelation of Messiah. If Hashem hasn’t prepared the individual to be open to Him, no amount of “convincing” by an evangelist is going to have the desired result.

    I did recall a small booklet written by Darren Huckey called The Four Responsibilities of a Disciple which I reviewed nearly two years ago, but the material is most appropriate to disciple someone who has already had the encounter and is in a congregation, not someone who is still uninitiated into the ways of Messiah.

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