The Big Mess about Messianic Jews
By Rabbi Daniel Brenner
As a rabbi who works each day with Presbyterian ministers and lay people at a historic Presbyterian seminary, I have to admit that I was deeply concerned when I received word that a “Messianic Jewish Community” opened in a Philadelphia suburb with over $300,000 of Presbyterian Church USA money. The new church (which does not call itself a church) is named Avodat Yisrael, which literally means “sacrifice of Israel”, and it opened in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. Since its first service, on Rosh Hashanah, I’ve heard that few people have actually joined the congregation but that many questions have been raised. Some have asked - What is so offensive to the Jewish community about Messianic Jews? Others want to know –Is there any way that Presbyterian churches can reach out to Jews without causing a media frenzy?
These are challenging times for those of us who are committed not just to individual clergy or houses of worship, but to national religious organizations. More people are choosing their religious identity the way they choose items at a salad bar, a story told best in books like Generation of Seekers and Spiritual Marketplace by Wade Clark Roof. As a result, there is theological fluidity, borrowing of ritual, and a general freedom to create religious life that is unprecedented.
These forces are not necessarily detrimental to traditional religious communities. As a rabbi, I have viewed genuine Christian interest in Jewish ritual and practice as an overwhelmingly positive development, one that is by no means a new phenomenon. The many Christian communities who hold Passover Seders are just one example of this flowering of Jewish ritual in the church. Rabbis across the country who serve on local clergy councils have truly enjoyed teaching for Christian groups and have seen first hand the sincere desire for spiritual dialogue that exists between Christians and Jews. It is of no surprise to me that some Christians are even interested in learning Hebrew, studying kabbalah, and reading Chassidic tales. I know that many Christians have discovered the Judaica section of their local Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore and have begun to read about Jewish history and religious life. The vast majority of Presbyterians and others who seek out Jewish practices and Jewish insights, or even read a Bruce Feiler book on the Bible, do so in a desire to deepen their relationship to Christ and do so with a genuine respect for Judaism.
It is also true that in a society that is increasingly open, people choose to convert to a religion that they did not grow up with. The latest National Jewish Population study found that many Christians have found homes in the Jewish community and that many Jews have chosen to join Christian communities. In working with Presbyterians, I have heard stories of the Jewish men and women who have become active in churches across the country. Many of these folks are Jews who have married committed Protestants, but some fall into the category of intellectual or spiritual seekers. In their new homes they have found the religious community that they were seeking. Lauren Winner’s recent book Girl Gets God tells her story of a Jewish seeker finding Christ, and in my work I have met not only Christian lay leaders, but Christian ministers who grew up in Jewish homes. Their spiritual journeys led not simply to an embrace of Christ’s teachings, but to a decision to become part of the Church, to enter the covenant of the church community, and to carry on the church’s historical legacy. These folks do not call themselves Messianic Jews. Rather, they are proud to be Christians, and carry in their hearts the Church’s struggles between tradition and innovation.
Messianic Jews are a different type of spiritual seeker. In contrast to Jews who become Christians, most Messianic Jews do not want to be called Christians (hence the title “Messianic Jews” instead of “Hebrew Christians” – an earlier manifestation of their religious community) or to call their congregations churches. Instead, they emphatically state that they are Jewish – Jews who pray in the name of Jesus. Among Messianics there is some disagreement about what type of Judaism they are. To quote one Messianic Jewish leader, Michael Wolf, his mission is to “Commit to, and grow in a lifestyle of faith called Biblical Judaism.” A leader of another wing of Messianic Jews, Stuart Dauerman, claims that “Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cosmetically altered "Jewish-style" version of what is extant in the wider Christian community.” Many Messianic Jews view Christianity from the third century onward to be an aberration of Christ’s teachings and they argue that to join a Christian church would be to “assimilate” into a European Christianity that is antithetical to Jews. The Union of Messianic Judaism’s recent paper Defining Messianic Judaism calls Presbyterians and others “the Gentile Church”. In some communities there has even been heated discussion about whether Christians who join Messianic Synagogues must convert to Judaism to be full members or to participate in all activities in the congregation – for example, the Union has stated that “Gentiles are certainly welcome within Messianic Jewish Congregations…but congregations remain Jewish, not expressions of ‘one new man’ that is neither Jew nor Greek. Much of their life is based, not strictly on Scripture or on universal precepts for all believers, but on Jewish teaching and tradition. Gentiles moved by Ahavat Yisrael will participate in the Messianic Jewish congregation on these terms.”
Messianic Jews are creating an interesting hybrid religious identity – one that satisfies their personal desires to carry on talmudic based religious rituals and one that gives them a Hebraic path to accepting Yeshua, Jesus. They have taken two traditions that were often at odds with one another (with Jews often the persecuted party) and have inherited the theological, ritual and historical confusion inherent in syncretism. And while both Catholic and Protestant church bodies have worked to correct the bloody legacy of crusaders and church sponsored persecutions against the Jews, and have affirmed that Jews still remain in covenant with God, Messianic Jews continue to target Jews for evangelization – often in deceptive ways. As a result, their eclectic mix does not fly well in a Church or Synagogue. For these reasons, both Jews and Christians have declared Messianic Jews to be a “fringe religious development” – one that stands outside the boundaries of both the Church and the established Jewish religious movements.
That said, though, perhaps someday Messianic Jews will have the makings of a genuine religious movement – a well articulated philosophy and theology, an accredited seminary, a national network of religious schools, shared educational curricula, a mechanism to provide social services for those who are in need - and the other components those of us affiliated with religious movements work so hard to sustain. But today they are a loosely connected group (or groups – they have numerous “national” bodies) with a unknown number of adherents. From my initial research, I see that their “seminary” amounts to one class taught by an adjunct faculty member at an Evangelical seminary and their “Yeshiva” is a series of audio lectures. Their teachings and practices vary greatly from congregation to congregation, and with a few exceptions (the minister in Plymouth Meeting one of them), they are currently served by leaders who have little or no formal religious training. Some of them call themselves rabbis, other ministers. Perhaps half of their adherents come from Jewish backgrounds.
So what does this all mean for Presbyterians who wish to grow the church and to reach out to new communities?
It is obvious to me as an observer of the Presbyterian Church that the new energy brought into the church by Chinese, Korean, and Pakistani Presbyterians has given many communities new hope. But when one funds a new religious category in the name of attracting new members, such as Messianic Judaism, one has generated the opposite effect. Instead of evangelizing in a way that welcomes people into the Church community, the Church has funded a separate entity – one that borrows from both Christianity and Judaism - and only further distances both Christians and Jews from their spiritual homes. It is clear to me that the Messianics do not want their followers to become Presbyterians nor do they personally want to follow Presbyterian practices. But apparently they have no problem spending money collected from the members of the Presbyterian Church USA to fund a congregation that not only hides the cross and baptismal font, but advertises to Jews in a manner that has been described as deceptive. The minister of this Messianic Jewish congregation took a great leap of faith to leave Judaism and to join the Presbyterian Church and become an ordained minister. I imagine that when he was ordained he vowed to uphold the theology and practice of the Presbyterian Church - isn’t it ironic that he does not urge his followers to do the same?
It is no surprise to me that my fellow Jews view the new church Avodat Yisrael as a cheap advertising gimmick. It is as if mainstream Jews funded a savvy Conservative rabbi to sing Amazing Grace, recite the Lord’s Prayer and read selected New Testament verses in an attempt to lure inter-faith couples.
So how should the Presbyterys respond to inter-marriage and outreach to inter-married families? There are other, more dignified paths. Many churches already have adjusted to new American religious trends and now offer classes for young families entitled "When mommy is Jewish" or "When daddy is Jewish" to help inter-faith families face their issues in an open, non-judgmental environment. Others offer classes particularly on Hebrew Scripture or create a book group that includes a book of Jewish interest. Some have invited in rabbis to teach. Probably the most interesting development in this arena is the award winning local television program in Larchmont, New York that features a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi discussing theological issues over breakfast at a diner. These activities send the message to Jews that they will be welcomed without judgment and spoken of with respect within the Church. When that happens, inter-married families will not only join churches but become amazing assets for furthering the Church’s goals. I’m sure that many of you have seen this with your own eyes.
Decades of work have gone into building a strong relationship between Presbyterians and Jews. In the wake of the holocaust, theological dialogue led to new understandings of an ancient connection. Both Jews and Presbyterians are challenged by America’s new religious realities. It is my hope that Presbyterians across the country will continue to affirm the spiritual journey that Jews and Christians walk together in light of God’s teachings and that further efforts to outreach to inter-married families can be done with true sensitivity and compassion. I hope that in the upcoming assembly that the Presbyterian Church USA’s membership will raise their voices, put an end to further allocations to Messianic Jewish groups and reaffirm the Church’s historic principles regarding Jewish-Christian relations.