Is Messianic Judaism Jewish?

JewChristianA board member of Jews for Judaism contacted me a few weeks ago via my blog. He didn’t mention, of course, who he was or why he contacted me. He made it seem like he was Mr. General-Public with a question. He said his understanding of Christianity and Judaism is that they are distinct belief systems. What did I think?

Here is part of my response to him:

The New Testament — most of its authors, all of its ideology — is Jewish. The Yeshua movement was a Judaism following Yeshua in the beginning. In recent times, academics and some religious movements (including Messianic Judaism) are recovering this original sense of what it means to follow Yeshua. You can say we are wrong about who Yeshua is, but to deny that my statement here is correct would mean you have to take on the entire academic enterprise of Jesus research. Feel free to say that hundreds of published, peer-reviewed scholars are wrong, but I hope you won’t attempt that route.

He never responded. I am interested to hear what you, dear reader, think about this.

Of course we could discuss the fact that the label “Messianic Judaism” is used by a wide range of types of congregations. Searching the internet will reveal many whose way of doing things doesn’t look very Jewish at all. To understand, for example, why there are so many “Christian Messianic Jewish” groups please see my article explaining the recent origins of Messianic Judaism here. Yes, some Messianic Jewish congregations look very Baptist or Pentecostal or that blend popularly known as Bapti-costal.

And then there are many groups, especially on the internet, who use the label Messianic Jewish and are Torah observant but partially or completely reject Judaism. Yes, I know its weird. A friend of mine who is a leader in Messianic Judaism has, for years, been calling this unfortunate trend “silly self-defined Torah observance.” It is usually practiced by groups who have either no Jewish people or only a few involved. It is part of our modern DIY age, where anyone with an internet connection can become an “expert”.

I discuss the solution to this in another article, “Judaism That Is Messianic,” which you can find here. And I say this about the groups who are coopting our name: When it comes to people who don’t share our commitment to Judaism but who use the label “Messianic Judaism,” my answer is simple. We have to win. The name belongs to us. They can’t take it. And the way to keep them from taking it is to commit ourselves to its real meaning. The power of the genuine article, real Messianic Judaism, is such that I believe it will win anyway.

Is Messianic Judaism Jewish? You better believe it! And among the tens of thousands of people (I wish it was hundreds of thousands) who get it, our commitment needs to be for strengthening and supporting a Jewish Messianic Judaism. As I said in my “What is Messianic Judaism” article: The stream of Messianic Judaism represented on my blog draws from historic Judaism and Christianity, advocates Torah observance by Jewish people, distinguishes between Jewish and non-Jewish obligation in Torah, and seeks to promote both the ongoing peoplehood of Israel and the Messiahship of Yeshua.

For insight into the more Jewish side of Messianic Judaism, I encourage you to take a look at the website of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, which you can find here:

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  1. I’m curious, Derek — How did you discover that your interlocutor was a board member from Jews for Judaism?

    As for your title question, of course MJ is Jewish and it is, in fact as well as in theory, a stream of Judaism (regardless of who does or does not recognize it so). But, as you point out, it is not uniformly practiced as such, and some who falsely claim our label are actually practicing something else. But we might as well ask whether all of the other religious and cultic streams that claim a Jewish label are actually Jewish or practicing a form of Judaism. Are BuJus practicing Judaism? Are secular humanist Jews doing so? Is Reconstructionism really able to do so without recourse to HaShem? These may be fully populated with Jews and expressing some subset of Jewish cultural or even religious traits, but can they be said to practice Judaism? Here’s the harder question: Is the practice of Judaism as such dependent on interaction with traditional halakhah? If so, that would invalidate the praxis of most Reform and even some Conservative Jews (not to neglect all-too-many MJs).

    So, would you agree that the determining factor for the adjective “Jewish” is the control of an organization or social movement by a significant majority of Jews rather than by gentiles emulating Jewish behaviors (in other words, “pertaining to Jews” or “belonging to Jews” rather than merely “looking like Jews”)? Likewise, is the determining factor for the noun “Judaism” a comprehensive lifestyle praxis that reflects traditional halakhah (even if in some adjusted, modernized form)? I suppose I should note for clarity’s sake that reflecting traditional halakhah implies a need for traditional studies as one of the practices required to support it, because I’m not certain how widely this is understood.

    Nonetheless, drawing the boundary lines as I have suggested does beg the question of how a companion body of interested supporters should be labeled, who are not Jews and should not be expected to practice Judaism, but who are nonetheless dedicated to advocating, distinguishing, and promoting as you described in your next-to-last paragraph. Many of them wish desperately to know what to practice and what to call themselves, to distinguish themselves from the errors of variegated religious praxis expressed in prior centuries as well as to reflect the positive characteristics of their current dedication to an ancient Israeli rabbi, to the teachings presented by him and by his Jewish disciples, and to the encouragement of modern MJs.

    1. ProclaimLiberty:

      You ask a lot of great questions. Are BuJus (I call the phenomenon JuBus, Jewish Buddhists) practicing a form of Judaism? I think it could be possible to incorporate some Buddhist practices into a life of Judaism, but that opens up another can of worms, since I do not think pantheism is compatible with Torah. But meditation and certain practices of Buddhism could be compatible.

      Do Messianic Jewish congregations have to have all Jewish leaders? I don’t think so. But if a congregation has no Jews or very few, I like what some have done, calling themselves a “Sabbath Fellowship” instead. But I think a Messianic Jewish synagogue with Jewish and non-Jewish leaders can work, just as I believe an intermarriage can work.

      Life often does not look like some ideal where all the M&M’s are separated into colors and everything is lined up systematically. Reality is often messy. I know it was in Torah. I might point out that Joseph, Moses, and Boaz all married non-Jews. And intermarriage is not forbidden unless there is idolatry.

      1. Regarding mixed congregational leadership, as well as intermarriage, perhaps the critical issue for both is the locus of control and cultural influence. In the ancient days of “Joseph, Moses, and Boaz”, the ultimate control was with the Jewish community. Yosef’s sons were effectively adopted by Yacob, Moshe virtually invented the Torah community, and Boaz complied with the Torah prescription to redeem his relative’s allotment which included responsibility for producing children with the virtuous Ruth. In each case, the patrilineal tribal Jewish identity prevailed. Nowadays, between three and four millennia later, Jewish identity in mixed situations depends on Jewish mothers who produce Jewish men for Jewish leadership positions, and on conversion to fulfill the absorptive functions once performed via tribal incorporation. Now, with conversion, we don’t require multiple generations to complete the absorption, though perhaps we should still exercise some caution (additional training and experience) before placing converts into Jewish leadership positions. To me it seems obvious that even greater caution would be required in the case of unconverted gentile leadership candidates.

  2. Wasn’t the original question whether you thought Christianity and Judaism are two distinct belief systems? I agree that the NT is a Jewish book and that believers in Yeshua ought to be following Torah as He taught and lived it. However, traditional western Christianity does not believe or teach this. Therefore, even though both faiths read the “OT”, only one actually uses it to direct their lives…which means that they are separate and distinct belief systems.

    Now, if the question had been SHOULD Christianity and Judaism be separate belief systems, I would answer no. Yeshua did not come to start a new religion. He came to bring full understanding of Torah, to live as our example to emulate.

    1. @Erin — You’re right that the question with which Derek entitled this essay was not identical to the one implicit in the request that asked for his opinion about a statement that was not actually a question. Even if one were to agree that “C” and “J” are at present two quite distinct belief systems, one could still ask if they were always so. A corresponding question, then, would need to explore why the questioner would pose a question with a superficially obvious answer to someone like Derek, whose writings might be seen to suggest something else. The more interesting unasked question might have been whether the belief system of Christianity is distinct from the belief system of the “Christ” upon which it is presumed to be based.

      Then we must also consider the aspect you touched upon, which is not belief but behavior, along with prescriptive considerations of what “should” have been or what should be done in the present. This could bring us to the question about whether Jewish behavior, including that of Rav Yeshua’s Jewish disciples, *should* be different from that of his non-Jewish disciples in some ways. A “full understanding of Torah” would have to render an affirmative answer to that question; but then we must define specific distinctive categories such as “ceremonial” behaviors, lifestyle or cultural behaviors, and more general “moral” behaviors, in order to describe how these disciples should differ and in what ways they should be the same.

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