Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jesus. For Jews?

In last week's edition of the Jerusalem Post was an article on Messianic Jews in Israel. I just read it today because I had heard comments by some Jewish believers about it and wanted to see for myself what the fuss was all about. The comments, or I should say "criticism", was over the linking of Messianics with Christianity (mainly due to the history of Christian persecution of Jews throughout history). Messianics like to say they are practicing "Messianic Judaism" (as seen below) and not Christianity.

Before looking at the offending article, Jesus for Jews, most of the controversy about Messianics here is a continuation the long-held Jewish tradition that if a Jew believes in Jesus, he is no longer Jewish. It is part of the age-old unanswered question of "Who is a Jew?" - is one a Jew by heritage, adherence to traditional Judaism, or what? Never mind if the person was born of 100% Jewish parentage and lived a flawless Jewish lifestyle because belief in Jesus cancels it all out, even genetically. It sounds nonsensical, but this has been the standard understanding of Rabbinic Judaism from the beginning (and this understanding applies exclusively to Jews who believe in Jesus, and not to those Jews who may follow other religions or are secular atheists). It is an issue that arouses high passions amongmost everyone in the Jewish world.

This debate is really none of my personal business since I'm a) gentile and not Jewish, b) a believing Christian and don't practice Judaism of any sort, even "Messianic Judaism". But, as usual, I won't let that stop me from wading into the discussion.

Here's the offending section of the article and I'll note if there is any misrepresentation or justification for criticism by Jewish believers in Jesus:

However, their enemies are right about one thing: The religion these people [Messianics - ed.] believe in is not Judaism, it's Christianity. The belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, that he rose from the dead and that he's coming back one day to save mankind - that's not Judaism, that's the essence, the creed, of Christianity.
Is this true? Yes. Jews would agree with this assessment but Messianics would argue that they practice "Messianic Judaism" as opposed to Rabbinic Judaism, which is itself a form of Judaism itself that differs from what the Bible commands.
Messianic Jews believe that the New Testament Jesus is the messiah spoken of in the Tanach [Old Testament - ed.]. For evidence, they quote passages from both books, which are combined in one volume as their Bible.
Is this true? Yes.
They celebrate Jewish and Israeli national holidays, not Christian ones.
Is this true? Yes. Since holiday observance is not manditory for Biblical Christianity, this is not a theological issue.
They have their sons ritually circumcised according to Jewish tradition. But nearly all of them get baptized "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."
Is this true? Yes.
In terms of identity, those born and raised Jewish are Jews. Beyond that, they're all passionate Zionists and Israeli patriots, with army service being very important to them.
Is this true? Yes. One might even add that most Messianics quite often feel the need to demonstrate their Jewish and Israeli bona fides often, just in case anyone out there might not be 100% sure.
But their religion is indistinguishable from evangelical Christianity; they speak of themselves as "Messianics" or "believers" more than as "Messianic Jews." They pray in evangelical Christian churches and evangelical Christians pray in their congregations - they prefer not to use the term "synagogues" - with no changes in text or ritual necessary.
Is this true? For the most part, yes. Form may vary, but content is the same.
"There's no difference between Messianic Judaism and evangelical Christianity, although most Messianic Jews wouldn't agree," says Eitan Kashtan, an Israeli Jew who, with his wife, accepted Jesus 18 years ago and now publishes Messianic literature and leads a congregation in Rishon Lezion.
Is this true (about the difference)? Yes. Is this true (about Messianics agreeing with it)? Yes, which is evident by the comments I heard.
"If the Israeli establishment didn't cast such doubt on our Judaism," he continues, "we wouldn't work so hard to emphasize it. I'm a Jew by birth, but in faith, there's no difference between me and an evangelical Christian."
Is this true (about doubt cast of their Jewishness)? Yes. Is this true (about no difference between Messianics and evangelical Christians)? Yes.

It appears that this is merely a semantic disagreement on the part of Messianics. They prefer to call their belief "Messianic Judaism" since they believe they believe in God's promised Messiah and worship him in the way God intends for Jews who obey him, the true and authentic Judaism desired by God. Traditional Jews say that Messianics are Christians since everything about their belief is indistinguishable from and identical to Christianity, no matter how many outward Rabbinic Jewish practices they perform.

Although Messianics can try to create new terminology, categories, and labels about how they describe and identify themselves, as hard as they may try, acceptance by the mainstream Jewish community is not likely. But regarding faith, does acceptance really matter?

One thing is for sure: traditional Jews have never, and will never, accept Jewish believers in Jesus as fellow Jews in faith, practice, or as one of their own. On the other hand, believing Christians unconditionally accept these outcasts not only as brothers in Messiah, but also as true Jews in every sense of the meaning. And, ultimately, isn't the only thing that really matters is what God thinks of us?

Regardless, in this dispute one may not like the facts but it's quite hard to argue with them.

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