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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

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.