To some degree, today’s short piece is a follow up to yesterday’s post in which I explained and defended the interest in Messianic Judaism we find among many non-Jews. I begin with a statement about MJ as a Jewish place, a home for Jewish believers. I then move into responding to the emotional situation reflected in comments yesterday by some non-Jews who feel left out.
For most of the last twenty centuries there has been no place at all for Jewish believers in Jesus. Their options included either remaining Jewish and secretly believing in Jesus while attending a mainstream Jewish synagogue or pursuing faith in Jesus in churches that demanded they give up their Jewishness. A Jewish Christian would see the end of their family’s Jewish lineage within a generation or two. What I mean by that is that a Jewish person attending church would see their children marry Christians and it would be in one or at most two generations that no one remembered or cared that the family was Jewish. This happened to many thousands of Jewish families and it still happens today in spite of the existence of Messianic Judaism as a place for Jesus-believing Jews. By far most Jewish believers in Jesus in our time attend churches and most are already in the process of erasing their Jewish heritage. (No, I don’t believe I worded that too strongly).
The situation of Messianic Jews could be compared in a limited way to that of European Jews after World War II. That is, there seems to be nowhere for them to go. So just as Jews made their own home in the land of Israel after the war, Messianic Jews have had to make their own place of residence in Messianic Judaism. There is one place where Jewishness dies, which is a Jew in a Christian community, and another where it is impossible to follow Messiah Yeshua, which is mainstream Judaism.
Messianic Judaism is a home for Jewish believers. It is the only place they can follow both halves of their identity, as faithful followers of Yeshua and faithful members of the covenant God made with Abraham’s descendants at Sinai.
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As a corrective to what I wrote yesterday, I want to offer a sharply worded challenge to some Messianic Gentiles who don’t understand Messianic Judaism. If you think Messianic Judaism is about you, then you don’t get it. Messianic Judaism did not come into existence so you could have a community to keep the Sabbath and Jewish holidays as a non-Jew. If you wish to have a Sabbath and Torah-keeping congregation where Jewishness is not valued, then please do not think this is Messianic Judaism. It is a kind of Judaic Christianity.
I’m not just talking about history, because the historical origins of Messianic Judaism are not the only reason for my insistence that it is a Jewish movement. But here is a concise summary of the history of Messianic Judaism. Some Jewish Christians in the late 60’s and early 70’s, whose numbers had increased because of the Jesus movement among Jewish hippies, decided to make a Jewish home for Yeshua-believers. That is how the modern expression of Messianic Judaism came into existence (see more here at “What Is Messianic Judaism?”).
But it is more than history. It is also what we find revealed in the text of scripture. God made one people the priestly people on earth. It is a people whose continuation happens by birth, not by religious choice. It is a physical people, descendants of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham.
This election of Abraham’s line as the priestly people was never meant to limit the knowledge of God or the blessings of knowing him as a Jewish privilege. The blessing comes to all the Gentiles through Abraham’s line, as Torah repeatedly says and the psalms and prophets, especially Isaiah, affirm.
But what has happened now is that Messianic Gentiles have arrived in American Messianic Judaism. Most are supportive of the Jewishness of the movement. In the synagogue I serve here in the Atlanta area, I have virtually no pressure for us to be “less Jewish.” I am surrounded by a community of Jews and non-Jews who believe very much in the values of a Jewish Messianic Judaism. But I am very much aware, through interactions with people online, that there are many non-Jews who feel threatened (sadly) by the Jewish identity of the movement. Messianic Judaism in many of its forms is not very Jewish, which breaks my heart.
I said yesterday, If you don’t understand what makes a certain kind of person who they are, the thing to do is seek understanding. I do seek to understand the needs and powerful spiritual motivations of Messianic Gentiles. I hope people will do the same and understand the needs of Jewish believers.
Here are a few bold statements that I’d like to ask Messianic Gentiles to try and understand. God did not give the Torah to the nations, not even the Ten Commandments. Read Exodus 19 and ask yourself, “Who is being addressed here?” Read verses like Exodus 31:13, “you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you,” and ask for whom is the Sabbath a sign. Ask who is sanctified in the Torah. This is not and never has been about Jewish privilege. It is and always has been about Jewish responsibility as the revelatory people. (See more here in “How to Read the Bible If You’re Not Jewish” and “Torah and Non-Jews: A Practical Primer”).
Many questions came up in the comments to yesterday’s article, “Why Non-Jews Are Drawn to Messianic Judaism.” One was about conversion. I refer people to the excellent materials at http://OurRabbis.org for more answers. I will say this briefly, converting is not a choice one makes in order to keep Torah. Converting is something that should be pursued only by people who live and breathe in the Jewish community, who feel they have a Jewish soul, whose desire is the Jewish people (not the Jewish Torah). And most Messianic Gentiles have no reason to convert. They are able to join in with Jewish people in observing Torah, while preserving the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, in a Messianic Jewish congregation.
Another commenter lamented their lack of satisfaction with African-American churches and their hurt at not being more accepted in a Messianic Jewish congregation. My response is this: Messianic Judaism is a home to many African-Americans but is not as a movement an African-American church and is not intended to solve the issues of African-Americans. If you think about it for a minute you’ll realize Messianic Judaism is not here to “fix” the problems of churches at all, but to be a home for Jewish believers and those who are not Jewish but wish to be supportive of that reason for existence.
Another commenter said I wasn’t exclusive enough in presenting Messianic Judaism as a place for Jews. I responded to them with a number of points about the need for including Messianic Gentiles among us. Not least of the reasons is that in American half of Jewish families are intermarried. That is, a lot of Messianic Gentiles are married to Jews. Second, I believe God has genuinely, and with scriptural support, called some non-Jews to be catalysts in drawing Jews back to Judaism and to faith in God and Messiah. Third, I have seen and believe in the phenomenon of Messianic Gentiles. A Jewish person living in virtual Jewish isolation may simply be unaware of the phenomenon. But once you encounter it, it is difficult not to see that God is in this. Even my most “Jewish-only” colleagues will talk about “exceptional cases.” Yes, Messianic Gentiles are an exceptional case, in both senses of the word exceptional!
The bottom line is the Messianic Judaism is a Judaism committed to Yeshua. And I hope to be a voice welcoming the non-Jews who wish to support our vision. Yet I also hope to challenge and reorient those who wish to turn Messianic Judaism into Torah-Christianity or a place for people to pretend to be Jewish.