On Messianic Judaism as a Home for Jewish Believers

prayeringwith_tefillinTo 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.

7 Comments

  1. So what is it exactly that these ‘priestly people’ are to teach to the Gentiles, if not Torah… Horah, math, their traditions? If their election was, as you say, “never meant to limit the knowledge of God” then how can you say that Torah is limited to those direct descendants of Abraham? How else will God have both order and righteous judgment, but by Torah and if we gentiles, as you argue, shouldn’t and can’t keep it…well, I am either in deep trouble or deeply confused or both.

    1. Michael:

      The question you ask is a good one. From the tone of your comment (which is sarcastic) I assume you believe the intention all along was for Israel to teach non-Jews the Torah and after that I am not sure what you envision happening if Gentiles had come to Israel seeking God in ancient times. Would those Gentiles have moved to Israel so they could join in three-times-a-year worship at the Temple? Would they have built additional temples in Tyre, Thebes, Ninevah, Babylon, and Susa?

      I wonder if you have considered, when studying the Torah, how much its systems and laws assume residence in the land of Israel. How would this non-Israelite Torah have worked?

      Still I admit your question is a good one. If Torah or the prophets had occasion to answer your question more specifically (they did not) then perhaps we would have less confusion today.

      But let’s talk about what actually happened. Gentiles were not drawn in significant numbers to Israel’s God until the late Second Temple period. They were accepted as either converts to Judaism or God-fearering non-members of the synagogues of the time until the Yeshua movement came along and especially Paul and his congregations and disciples. And Paul taught the Gentiles to learn from the parts of Torah that had universal application without taking on identity markers of Jewish people (Sabbath, circumcision, food laws, fringes).

      And let’s talk about where the idea originated in recent times that non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua must keep Sabbath, food laws, circumcision, and the wearing of ritual fringes. It came about among people who wanted to have a meaningful faith and follow Yeshua’s example. But they erred. They failed to observe the distinctions Yeshua himself made, that Paul made, that the Torah makes. They took on a pseudo-Jewish identity that is unwise.

      And now we have a mess.

      I am trying to help people sort it out with honesty and integrity in reading Torah and prophets and New Testament.

      1. Derek, Thanks for your reply and while sarcasm is one of my many faults it wasn’t (intentionally) employed in my question. However since you somewhat sarcastically bring up the point with your question of “I am not sure what you envision happening if Gentiles had come to Israel seeking God in ancient times. Would those Gentiles have moved to Israel so they could join in three-times-a-year worship at the Temple?” Well, what is going to transpire in the millennium? Aren’t the (Torah observant?) Gentiles going to come up 3 times a year to the temple from every land and nation to worship and participate in the sacrifices? The fact that God used the almost 2,000 years to preach the glad tidings of the Kingdom to the Gentiles (exclusively by Jews for over a millennium before the resurrection and for decades afterwards) means everything has its time and place, but had “the fullness of the Gentiles” come wouldn’t God have made room for them just as He will yet do? I do appreciate your labors, they are not in vain. I am learning, albeit slowly. I have most of your older books and can see an evolution both in your thought and practice. I admire that trait and wish to emulate your humility and sincerity.

      2. I have a question regarding part of your comment above. If non-Jews who serve HaShem through Yeshua are not to observe the food laws, what is the decree in Acts 15 about? Can we eat pork only if it is bled properly and not offered to idols? That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m sure you have something else in mind and I’m wondering if you might be willing to explain.
        My other question is regarding the Sabbath. I have been informed by many Jews that Sabbath is not for me and neither is the Torah. I get it. But I question how things were in Paul’s day – if non-Jews weren’t in the Synagogue on Shabbat, how were they hearing these messages about Yeshua and gentile inclusion? How would they have heard the Jerusalem Council’s decree in Acts 15 if they weren’t assembled in a Synagogue on Shabbat? Never mind Isaiah 56 that speaks of the foreigner as opposed to the sojourner.

        I am not intending to be sarcastic, but I am curious as to what you mean above. Are you referring to distinctions among the people who observe such things, or are you really saying that non-Jews are not to be observing these things? If you are saying the later, could you help me understand that perspective in light of the passages I mention (as well as others?) I have tried to understand this statement when it’s been made by others in the past, but I guess I just can’t wrap my mind around what you’re saying regarding these two specific issues. Maybe I do need a paradigm shift and I’m asking for your help in understanding it.
        Thanks ~

  2. Michael,

    To answer you (and perhaps Derek) the mission of Israel, and the purpose for the becoming Priests (via the giving of the Torah), was to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6 & 60:3). The Rabbis have always understood that the “light” of Israel was the Torah; in fact it is the very “light of the world” and the original “light” of creation. Thus, the idea of being a light is shining “that” light and that light is Torah, i.e. Judaism, the worship of the One True G-d etc, etc. In fact, this idea is made very poignantly with the words of the prophet who said, “And I will select some of them (the goyim) also to be priests and levites, says HaShem.” (Isaiah 66:21) That is a remarkable contrast to “messianic Judaism’s” stance today! HaShem prophesies that some of the nations will be ingrafted to the degree that they will actually serve in the Temple! So much for “keeping the distinction”. This concurs with the Targum’s translation of Genesis 12;3 where “will be blessed through you” is rendered “shall be ingrafted into you”. This bespeaks of the Rabbinic and prophetic meaning of the promise. It is not that the nations will simply “be blessed” by the knowledge of Abraham (and his offspring) but that they will actually be made his offspring. This is why Shaul (Paul) said that you, as a follower of Messiah, are a “child of Abraham” which is the legal definition of a Jew by Jewish halacha. As it is written, “a house of prayer for all nations” the context of this passage is in speaking about the gentile who binds himself to the Torah ~ of which Shabbat observance is the quintessential aspect. (Isaiah 56).

    One need look no further than Isaiah 2:1-3 for the heart of HaShem on this subject. All nations are to come to Zion to receive the Torah. Not part of it…not the “universal aspects”….the Torah, period. Incidentally, “Torah observance” presumes conversion, that is, teshuvah, a turning away from idolatry (or false religion) and an acceptance of the G-d of Israel. Therefore, I agree with Derek that “Torah observance” devoid of Jewishness is a perversion and an error. I could quote numerous other scriptures that indicate that the heart of HaShem was and is the spread of the covenant to the world. It is pretty clear, and with respect, I don’t understand Derek’s assertion that it isn’t. Even Judaism understands that, in the end, the entire world will keep the Torah as they worship the True G-d of Israel. We express this each day in the Aleinu והיה יהוה למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה יהוה אחד ושמו אחד (HaShem will be King over all the world, on that day HaShem will be One and His Name will be One!)
    I believe that two things are missing from “messianic Judaism”. The first thing is Judaism. I know a great many messianic leaders and none of them are observant. Second, a conversion process for non-Jews. Clearly many non-Jews are being awakened to the Torah. It is, in my opinion, absurd that we keep pushing them back to the church. Frankly, this is why we have the cult like pseudo-messianic movements today. It is messianic Judaism fault for trying to have a Jew-exclusive club and not a priestly ministry of conversion / proclaiming the besorah (aka ingrafting). It is time for a change.

  3. I see the Jews functioning as teachers thru doing the “Jewish identity marker type things” so that they act like parables, the physical things done is a way to point to the spiritual.

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