Friday, June 12, 2009

Leaving Us Behind? Some Thoughts On Messianic Judaism

I originally published the following essay in three parts when I was the Editor of the Judaism topic section of BellaOnline.com. The piece stayed online for a while after the site was taken over by a new Editor, but has since dropped off the Internet. It made readers think and I got a lot of positive feedback from it on both sides of the equation, so I have decided to post it again here, with a few very minor edits. A few years have passed since I wrote this, but my view stays the same. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew and we should be allowed to believe whatever we want.


What I am about to say is going to make me very, very unpopular.

Over the past several years I have been reading a lot about the work of Jews for Judaism, and other so-called “anti-missionary” groups. These groups exist to bring Jewish people back into the fold of Judaism, from cults and other religious affiliations, particularly Christianity. They have extensive Web sites and send out lots of literature warning against the spiritual dangers of “Messianic Judaism,” which they say are really churches that use Jewish trappings to lure unsuspecting Jewish people away from Judaism and into Christianity. They answer theological questions, aiming to shoot down Christian doctrines and beliefs. Sometimes, they even go so far as to say that Jews who are involved in Christianity are no longer Jewish, and should no longer call themselves thus. Messianic Judaism is described as being just another Christian denomination that is deceptive and heinous, because of its use of Jewish liturgy, symbols, and holidays.

But are Christian missionary groups really as much of a threat against the future of Judaism as Jews for Judaism and other such groups think? And is Messianic Judaism as insidious and sneaky as they portray it to be?

I say no.

Jews leaving Judaism and converting to other religions for perceived social status or marriage is nothing new. It has happened throughout history, but is occurring more frequently in recent decades because some young (and not so young) Jewish people are finding little spiritually edifying in Judaism, either due to lack of education or having negative associations with Judaism from anti-Semitism or unsatisfying experiences while growing up. A few Jewish holidays thrown together haphazardly, going to the synagogue once or twice a year on the High Holidays (if at all after one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah), and no talk about G-d or spiritual matters does not a positive Jewish experience make.

The Rabbis talk about a spark that resides within the soul of every Jewish person. This pintele yid causes one to yearn for a deeper relationship with the Almighty. If they are not getting it from their immediate Jewish surroundings, they will search for it elsewhere.

Christianity is a logical turning point, since much of Jesus’ teachings come from out of the Torah, and because, at least for those of us in Western societies, it surrounds us in our culture. When a Jewish person gets involved in evangelical, Protestant Christianity (and even Catholicism, although some people have compared Catholicism and Judaism because of the emphasis on ritual), he or she often sheds their Jewish identity and heads into church life like it is newfound gold.

This, of course, is very sad. Whenever a Jewish person gives up their Jewish identity, it is pitiful. However, Christianity, which anti-missionary groups spend most of their energy and funds targeting, is not the only religious alternative for unsatisfied Jews – nor is it the most common one.

In fact, I read a statistic a while back that one in four Buddhists were originally Jewish. Jews are involved in cults, Eastern religions, Wicca, Ba’hai, atheism, or retreat from religion altogether, at an alarming rate. Another scary statistic that I came across is that every day, approximately 700 people in the United States who originally identified religiously with Judaism (for the sake of the point I am trying to make, we’ll consider someone Jewish if they considered themselves Jewish in the first place, and not on their biological parentage) convert to another religion.

Yet we do not hear about great efforts to bring Jews back from atheism, or from Buddhism. Nor we do we hear Rabbis crying geschrei gevalt and declaring such persons no longer Jewish.

Then, there are those Jewish people who have declared that they believe Jesus is the Messiah, but continue to call themselves Jews and practice Judaism. These are the Messianic Jews. They object to the term Christian, believing the word to hold specific Western cultural concepts that come out of paganism.

In many ways, Messianic Judaism is very much like the early church, which consisted mostly of Jewish people who chose to follow Jesus and his teachings. Here is a very concise and over-simplified history of Messianic Judaism. The great split between Judaism and Christianity occurred when the Emperor Constantine declared Rome a Christian society in the 3rd century. He ordered Jewish believers to either give up their Jewish traditions join what ultimately became the Roman Catholic Church, or to return to the traditional synagogues, where they were harassed for their beliefs. As a result, believers in Jesus who were openly Jewish basically disappeared until movements such as "Jews for Jesus" in the 1960’s and the Jesus People of the 1970’s came about.

There are now Messianic congregations all over the world. Most of them use a Siddur (and use a traditional Artscroll one at that), follow the Jewish calendar and observe all of its holidays, do not recognize Christmas or Easter, and encourage adherents to follow Torah commandments and be an active part of the Jewish community.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi in England and widely-published author on a variety of Jewish issues, wrote a book a few years back, simply entitled Messianic Judaism. He investigated the movement and came to the conclusion that those involved with the Messianic Judaism who are indeed Jewish, should be considered part of the Jewish community and the movement itself as another branch of Judaism – in other words, as another expression of Judaism, just like Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

I agree with him. As someone who has studied both Christianity and Messianic Judaism for the past several years, I have found that the Messianic community strives to get Jews who believe in Jesus out of mainstream churches and into their congregations, where they are encouraged to maintain Jewish customs and identity. In fact, some Jewish people who are fleeing from who they are, rather than seeking an expression of their faith in a Jewish context, find Messianic congregations to be “too Jewish” for their comfort zone.
According to Jewish law, if someone is born a Jew, he or she dies a Jew. For anyone, even Orthodox rabbis, to declare someone who espouses beliefs that differ from their own, as being not Jewish, is in direct violation with Jewish law. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that a certain proportion of the Orthodox rabbinic community declared Jews who are Conservative or Reform to not be Jewish.

And why is it that the far greater number of Jews who leave Judaism altogether either for total assimilation in the secular world, or in Buddhism, or in the multitude of other places where Jewish people hide themselves, are still considered Jewish? This is a question that has never been answered to my satisfaction. While history shows a volatile and often tragic relationship between Jews and Christians, the fact remains that the first “Christians” were actually Jewish, and never stopped considering themselves thus or being recognized by the local rabbinic authorities as such.

As far as being deceptive and using Jewish trappings to “snare” unsuspecting Jewish people, I can only speak from my own experiences. Messianic congregations tend to be open about who they are and what they stand for. They use Jewish symbols to express their Jewish affiliation (for those adherents who are Jewish) or admiration and love of Judaism and Israel (for those adherents who are gentile). They celebrate Jewish holidays, follow Torah commandments, and worship on Saturday because they feel they are keeping in accord with Biblical accuracy and living a lifestyle the way Jesus did. The tragedy of how the church ended up straying for its Jewish roots is fodder for another essay.

The people who I know who are Messianic do not go storming the local synagogues trying to round up converts. The ones who are gentile do not pretend they are Jewish to fool people. They donate more money to Jewish and Israeli causes than many of the mainstream Jewish organizations and synagogues locally, and take part in community events. While many adherents are gentile-born, many others are halachically Jewish or have a traceable Jewish lineage. They are Jewish people who happen to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and consider the New Testament to be divinely inspired. These are not traditional Jewish beliefs, but then again, neither is the acceptance of intermarriage or the ability to pick and choose which commandments to observe, as is commonly taught in Reform. And frankly, thanks to the rise of intermarriage, many synagogues, particularly the more liberal ones, are filled with gentiles also.

These are people who, unlike those who accept Christianity not only in terms of faith but also of culture and assimilate into a church, are serious about remaining Jewish. Far more of a threat to Jewish continuity are those Jews who seek to disappear from Judaism, in their own lives and future generations. Whether they do this through intermarriage, conversion, or just deciding that they no longer want anything to do with Judaism, the result is the same. It is better to be a Jew who is for Jesus than a Jew who is for nothing.

As a result, anti-missionary organizations would do better to pursue Jewish people who are assimilated, disenfranchised, and disillusioned. The Christian groups who target Jewish people for conversion would not have much of a chance if the Jewish people they targeted had positive, enriching Jewish experiences to begin with. As a Messianic pastor once said to me, “if you want them to stay, give them a reason to stay.”

Jews convert to other religions and philosophies rather than Christianity or Messianic Judaism at a far greater rate, with worse consequences. Messianic Judaism is not the pariah that anti-missionary groups make it out to be. If the movement and its adherents are accepted by the mainstream Jewish community, those involved who are halachically Jewish will remain part of the community and ultimately part of Judaism.

3 comments:

ElderChild said...

What of The NEW Covenant, and The New Covenant "Jew"(Believer)?
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Jer 31:31-37 "Behold, the days come, says YHWH, that I will make a NEW COVENANT with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: NOT ACCORDING TO THE COVENANT THAT I MADE WITH THEIR FATHERS IN THE TIME THAT I TOOK THEM BY THE HAND TO BRING THEM OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT FOR THEY BROKE THAT COVENANT, although I was an husband unto them, says YHWH: (Thankfully no longer natural "fathers" but YHWH, "Our Father" in "the NEWness of The Spirit not the letter")

But this shall be the NEW covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, says YHWH, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts(not in stone, but in their heart consciousness); and I will be their Elohim, and they shall be MY people. ("Come Out of her, MY people"! Come out of this world and it's systems of religion)

And every man shall no longer teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, "Know YHWH", for they shall all know ME, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says YHWH: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Thus says YHWH, which gives the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divides the sea when the waves thereof roar; YHWH of hosts is HIS name:

If those ordinances depart from before ME, says YHWH, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before ME for ever.

Thus says YHWH; If Heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says YHWH."
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The NEW Covenant established The Truth that, "he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, whose circumcision is that of the flesh, he is a Jew who is one inwardly, whose circumcision was of the heart" as he was immersed in, of, by and through The Holy, Set Apart Spirit that is of The Only True G-D, Father(Creator) of ALL. And all gentile NEW Covenant Believers are "grafted into The Good olive tree".......

And The NEW Spiritual Israel?

(continued)

ElderChild said...

"A Holy nation".......

"A nation of kings and priests" indeed and Truth, and all New Covenant Believers are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" whose "citizenship (Life) is in Heaven".

They are not of this wicked, evil world and it's systems of religion because they have taken heed unto The Call of The Only True G-D, Father (Creator) of ALL to "Come out of her, MY people".......

And The NEW Covenant Believers are exhorted to "set their affections on things above, Heavenly things" and not be of those "whose god is their bellies, and whose glory is in their shame, because they mind earthly things".......

Sadly, there are multitudes who profess a belief in The Messiah with their mouth only for they are "friends of this world", and they "love this world and it's things" and "love their own life in and of the world" .......

All such will hear those woe filled words, "Depart from ME all you workers of iniquity".......

Thankfully The NEW Covenant Believers, The Brethren of The Messiah, have their "citizenship(Life) in Heaven" for they are "A Holy nation" of "kings and priests", all of whom are thankful that, that which was "decaying and waxing old" DID "vanish away" with the destruction of the natural, earthly kingdom centered in jerusalem.

At that time "THY Kingdom" DID "Come" for The Messiah delivered up The Kingdom unto His G-D and Father(Creator), and The Kingdom of The Only True G-D in Heaven WAS, IS, and ALWAYS WILL BE indeed and Truth.......

No longer old, natural, earthly and temporal, The NEW WAS, IS, and ALWAYS WILL BE Spiritual, Heavenly and Eternal.......

And so it is that yesterday, today, and if there be a tomorrow, that "the chosen ones", "the elect", The NEW Covenant Believer, the Spiritual Jew, "The Brethren of The Messiah" continue to "fight the good fight of Faith" as they but seek and desire that which is Spiritual, Heavenly and Eternal.......

Father Help! and HE does.......

All Thanks, Praise and Glory Be Unto The Only True G-D, Father (Creator) of ALL.......

Sadly, pagan catholicism and her harlot christian daughters are so perverse that "The Way of Truth is evil spoken of".......

The DestructionOfTheEarth.Wordpress.Com

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