Messianic Judaism is a Judaism committed to Yeshua. It is a Judaism because its core purpose is to provide a home for Jewish followers of Yeshua where we may live out our covenantal relationship with God based on the Abrahamic promise, the teaching from Sinai, and the revelation of God which is in Messiah Yeshua. Our historical narrative begins immediately after the appearance of Messiah in this world, when the first to follow him were Jews in the land of Israel.
The modern origins of the emergence of Messianic Judaism are more complicated than the pure definition above. There are two time periods that relate to the modern Messianic Jewish movement. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s a number of religious Jews, even a few rabbis, came to believe in Yeshua. They formed a movement within Judaism of Yeshua-believers. Their movement was wiped out, however, by the Holocaust. Yet we will come back to this lost movement after explaining the next emergence of Messianic Judaism. We will come back to it because its lessons need to be reclaimed and remembered.
The current Messianic Jewish movement is an outgrowth of the hippie revolution and the “Jesus freaks” of the late 60’s in America. There had already existed within Protestant Christianity a movement of “Hebrew Christians.” They were Jewish by birth but mostly rejected Jewish life in favor of Christian culture and worship. Nonetheless, they held conferences to discuss what it meant to be Jewish and Christian at the same time.
As a significant number of Jews became “Jesus freaks” during the hippie revolution, and it was at the same time as Israel recaptured Jerusalem, change began to occur among the Hebrew Christians. Some realized it was appropriate to call Jesus “Yeshua,” to meet on Saturdays instead of Sundays, and even to keep Jewish dietary restrictions and use Jewish prayers.
Although this new Messianic Jewish movement adopted some surface characteristics of Judaism, it was based on evangelical Christian and sometimes Pentecostal/Charismatic forms of Christianity. This can be seen in many modern Messianic Jewish congregations in America, Israel, and in other countries. The “Judaism” of much “Messianic Judaism” is only skin-deep.
I am always learning and sometimes I come upon a sea change in my way of thinking. Some conversations with Boaz Michael in Jerusalem recently led me to modify my understanding and explanation of MJ history. It is the Messianic luminaries of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who are the real fathers and mothers of Messianic Judaism. To keep up with the latest news, writing projects, and to get extras, sign up here for the MJ Musings weekly email. To read the daily Torah portion, a daily Gospel portion, and my commentary, sign up here for the Daily D’var email.
Yet in the 1990’s a growing number of Messianic Jews began to assert our primary identification as being within Judaism and not as an outgrowth of the church. Inside one of the key Messianic Jewish denominations two sub-groups formed. Hashivenu arose as a think-tank for Messianic Judaism and advocated a “Jewish Messianic Judaism.” Similarly the organization Tikkun arose, strengthening the Jewish practice of its members.
Still, Messianic Judaism has a long way to go. The lessons of the lost Messianic Jewish movement prior to the Holocaust need to be remembered. An educational institution, Vine of David, which is publishing imprint of First Fruits of Zion, exists to re-publish and make known the works of the lost Messianic luminaries. Names like Paul Philip Levertoff, Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, Rabbi Joseph Rabinowitz, Theophilus Lucky, Abram Poljak, Pauline Rose, and many more need to become known once again.
While Christianity in its various forms is good for believers from the nations, it is not the highest realization for Jewish believers. Yeshua is Israel’s redeemer, first and foremost. If Jewish believers choose to live and exist outside of the Jewish community and the world of Judaism, this is equivalent to hiding Yeshua under a basket (Matt 5:15). The evangelical Christian and charismatic Christian forms of Messianic Judaism are not setting Yeshua on a hill to shine to our Jewish people. The tens of thousands of Jewish believers who choose to exist in churches are missing the calling to be salt and light to Israel. A Jewish Messianic Judaism is needed and it has existed and does exist. May its tribe increase.
The realization that Messiah is the Redeemer of the Jewish people is central to Messianic Judaism. We who have seen that vision will never be the same. We are a people anticipating the age to come, living now as though the days of Messiah are here. Our tradition is Judaism, just as the tradition of Yeshua and the apostles was Judaism. We keep Sabbath with the Lord of the Sabbath. We study and live Torah in the Living Torah, who is Yeshua. We pray Shema and the other prayers of Israel with Messiah himself, who embodies the hopes of Israel’s prayers in his person. We recognize Yeshua as the Son of David, the shepherd of Israel, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the righteous branch, and the coming King.
We believe in the coming of Messiah and the world to come that he will make on earth. We live as Messianic Jews in anticipation of it and we seek to model it now on earth as much as possible.
The meaning of the terms Messianic, Messianic Jewish, and Messianic Judaism are often misrepresented by groups that are not clearly Messianic or Jewish. By properly Messianic, we mean belief that Yeshua, who appeared for a while in the land of Israel and was executed, rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, and was then revealed to be equal with God, to have been pre-existent, and to have been God’s way of drawing near to us. He became what we are to make us what he is. Groups that do not adhere to belief in Yeshua’s messiahship and divinity are not Messianic Jewish in the strict sense of the word. By properly Jewish we mean that the people and practices of the group are consistent with Judaism. Some “Messianic” groups or organizations and individuals who use the label reject Judaism, reject the idea that the Jewish people are chosen by God as the priestly people on earth, or that God granted to the people of Israel freedom to add tradition to fill in the ways of keeping the Torah.
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. Our movement is well-served by the 2013 volume Introduction to Messianic Judaism (eds. David Rudolph and Joel Willits). Other books important for defining core values of Messianic Judaism include Mark Kinzer’s Postmissionary Messianic Judaism and my own book, Divine Messiah, explains our reasons for and defines the meaning of our belief in Yeshua.