Is The Christian Movement Called "Messianic Judaism" a Form of Judaism?
Our goal here is to convey the understanding that Judaism and Christianity are two separate faith systems. A Christian who was born Jewish may call his belief by any name but it is still Christianity, not Judaism. There are radical differences between Judaism and Christianity. What makes Christianity Christian is its belief in "Jesus Christ: Son of God, God incarnate." What makes the Christian movement called "Messianic Judaism" Christian is its belief in "Jesus Christ: Son of God, God incarnate. What makes Judaism Jewish is Israel's covenantal relationship with God expressed through God's instructions to Moses on Mount Sinai, both Written and Oral.
The early Christians replaced Torah with Jesus as the access to God; soon forgiveness of sin was said to be possible only through belief in Jesus. Theological reflection on the significance of Jesus ultimately led to the doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Judaism and Christianity are entirely different and essentially unrelated religions. The two religions bear different messages and distinctive meanings, each for its own faithful. The Christian concept of God is not the Jewish concept of God; in essence, their God is not our God. One cannot replace Torah with Jesus and still have a reason for Judaism or truthfully call the new entity "a form of Judaism." The respective adherents to Judaism and Christianity are part of distinct faith communities.
Starting in the late 1960's, Christian missionary groups involved with Jewish evangelism (attempts to convert Jews to fundamentalist Christianity) began to increase their use of Jewish customs and traditions. More than ever before, their use of Jewish customs and traditions was seen as a more effective means of "witnessing" to the Jewish community. In the forefront of this type of evangelization was what came to be called the "Messianic Jewish movement." This movement includes, among others, all those groups advocating what they see as a return to first-century style Jewish-Christian worship, with certain twentieth century modifications. Citing the Jewish roots of Christianity as justification for this style of worship, the proponents of the so-called "Messianic Jewish movement" have often presented a confused and contradictory theology. Often they allow people to think that the movement is something other than it really is.
Historically, those groups of Jews who followed the teaching of Jesus faded away in the early centuries of the Common Era. Traditions concerning Jesus, his teachings, and his followers found no position in the continuing life of Jewish people. However, they became central to the gentile church. All present-day Christian denominations and sects are theological offshoots of the gentile churches that developed separate and distinct from first century Jewish groups that held Jesus to be the Messiah. Present-day so-called "Messianic congregations" are usually predominantly made up of non-Jewish members. Their ritual and ceremonies and general mode of worship puts an ersatz Jewish veneer on what is actually fundamentalist Protestant Christian beliefs. In essence, they maintain that Christianity is what Judaism should become. The Judaic content of their religious services (often distorted) derives from rabbinic Judaism, that is, the interpretations of the rabbis.
Since the first century, Christianity has been at odds with most of rabbinic interpretation. Why did missionaries begin to use rabbinic Judaism as a basis for the so-called "Messianic Jewish movement"? Simply because it was a more effective way of getting Jews to convert to Christianity. All Jews today are descendants of adherents to rabbinic Judaism. What did first century Christians believe? In the pre-70 C.E. period most Jewish Christians were still part of the Jewish community. They believed that not only was Jesus the Messiah but that Torah observance was incumbent upon all Jews. In the same period, Paul made Gentile Christianity (which included some born-Jewish Christians) into a distinct sect. He taught his followers that the Torah is of no importance for salvation, whether one observes it or not is immaterial. As a result, the Pauline Gentile Christian community was distinguished from Jewish Christians mostly by its lack of traditional Jewish practice, rather than its strict adherence to Torah. It is this belief of the Gentile church that Torah is irrelevant to salvation that became the dominant doctrine in the New Testament and later Christianity. It is the belief adhered to by so-called "Messianic Jewish" groups today despite whatever use they make of traditional Jewish practice.
Any self-defined Christian today that claims Torah observance is incumbent upon Jewish-born Christians would be considered a heretic by other Christians. So-called "Messianic Judaism" has had results in attracting the ill informed by establishing a false religio-cultural setting that is neither truly Jewish nor truly Christian, but a misrepresentation of both. However, its basic religious loyalties are to Christian beliefs associated with Protestant fundamentalist church denominations. Indeed, many of its so-called "rabbis" are ordained Christian ministers; many are not even Jewish by birth. Fabricating a counterfeit ritual and cultural milieu, this self-styled "Messianic Jewish movement," creates an illusion of adhering to a form of first century Jewish Christianity as practiced by the early Jewish followers of Jesus. The ritual and cultural milieu they depict never existed.
The so- called "Messianic Jewish" movement disregards that Jewish prayer, liturgy, and service have undergone almost two millennia of development (within the parameters of rabbinic Judaism) since the splitting off of the Jewish followers of Jesus from the main body of the Jewish people. In that time period, Christianity underwent its own separate development not the least being the distinctive theological formulations that irrevocably set Judaism and Christianity apart.
We are not here questioning the right of any Christian group to insert into its ritual prayer and practice the ceremonies of any other religion, even Judaism. But, what becomes reprehensible is when there is a denial of true motives for these additions and the sowing of confusion among potential believers. Henry J. Heydt, who was a Christian missionary to the Jew, wrote in his column that appeared in a missionary magazine (The Chosen People, June 1981, p. 15):
QUESTION: Is there a limit to the extent to which a person may go in becoming all things to all men as Paul said he did in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22?
Answer: Certainly. All one has to do is to consider the extremes. Do I become a thief to reach a thief, an adulterer to reach an adulterer, a drunkard to reach a drunkard? Obviously not. A study of Paul's actions in this respect as seen in the Book of Acts will show that it had to do with his outreach, not with his instruction for the Church or his conduct in connection with the things of the Church. Read how he resisted Peter when Judaism was creeping into this area (Ga. 2:11). In fact, the entire letter to the Galatians demonstrates his reaction to any Judaizing tendencies within the Church. In this realm we have a truth to uphold, and we do not try to show the Jews how much we love them by bringing yarmulkes and prayer shawls into our Christian worship. If we go to the synagogue we apply Paul's principle, but we do not bring the synagogue to us. When the Jew comes to us he needs to see the distinction. The example of the Lord Jesus Christ should settle the matter for us. When it came to the occasion of the washing of the hands as a traditional thing He did not have His disciples do it. Read His severe attack upon the Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-9. It must also be remembered that His strict observance of Mosaic legislation was due to the fact that He was "made under the Law" (Gal. 4:4), and its jurisdiction did not end until He nailed it to the cross (Col. 2:14). One additional matter needs to be kept clear. A reenactment of the law or some aspect of it for the purpose of demonstrating its Christological significance is not wrong. Thus we can show "Christ in the Passsover" and such aspects of the truth as our approach into the Holiest by the blood of Christ as over against the use of phylacteries, prayer shawls, and head coverings. This is why there can be a millennial temple with its sacrifices, not as reestablishing the old, but as a memorial and as a demonstration to the nations of all that they signified in God's typical and prophetic purposes. Let us maintain a clear, truthful, and unhypocritical testimony before both Jews and Gentiles. We are not to sin that grace may abound. To give the impression that we adhere to any of the ceremonies of the old covenant, which are but shadows (Col. 2:17), is to deny their fulfillment in the reality, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Heydt was definitely in favor of missionary work among the Jewish people. But, at a time when so-called "Messianic Jewish" groups were crafting their religious approach to Jews so as to make it appear as if they were Jewish, he called upon Christians not to give false impressions but to make it clear who they are. Another Christian perspective values using one's Jewish ethnic background as a means of bringing about conversions to Christianity. Moishe Rosen, founder of the Jews for Jesus missionary organization, wrote in The Jews for Jesus Newsletter (vol. 9:5737 , pp. 1-2):
. . . In 1970, still under the same mission board, I came to San Francisco to do the work of an ordinary missionary again. This time, I was determined to pioneer a different strategy and to use unique tactics based on some of the insights that I had gained. . . . Even when a witness is carried on lovingly, tactfully and sensitively, there is no way to tell the Jewish community about Jesus without risking the displeasure of the Jewish community leaders. I committed myself, and taught those who followed me in the work, that disapproval and rejection are a normal part of our ministry. . . . The third problem I saw was the culture gap. In the early 1800's the general mission movement made many mistakes as it tried to impose a Western or American Christian culture on those who received Christ. As a result, a communications failure developed between the Christians and those to be evangelized. Slowly, this mistake in judgement began to be corrected. Mission leaders started recognizing that the basic principle of most effective missions was to win the people of a certain nation, tribe or culture pattern to Christ and then to train them and send them back to witness to their own people. Missionaries, instead of imposing their alien culture on the new Christians, learned to let them work within the framework of their own culture pattern. They no longer tried to make Western-type Christians out of the natives. However, this basic principle was neglected in the Jewish mission field. The missionaries expected Jews who came to Christ to start behaving like the Gentiles who came to Christ. It was as if somehow by eating pork we could prove that we were really Christians. What I recognized almost from the beginning was that we should heed Paul's example, to be as a Jew to those who are Jewish. We started using the elements of Jewish culture-Jewish melodies to sing praises to Jesus, Jewish holidays such as the Passover and the Day of Atonement-as occasions to show that Christ is the Lamb of God and that He is our atonement. Instead of retreating from Jewish culture, we valued our Jewish heritage more as we grew in Christ. In this way, other Jews could recognize that we had not abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they could see that Christ was indeed the fulfillment of the Law. At the same time, it was of the utmost importance to us that we maintain a very strong tie with the church. We are not a separate sect. In order to serve with Jews for Jesus, one must be a member of good standing in a local church. We look on our ministry as being an arm of the church to reach into the Jewish community in a way that the church has never been able to do before.
Of importance to our discussion is not only Rosen's claim to value "Jewish heritage more as we grew in Christ." This statement contrasts dramatically with Paul's comment that he counted his Jewish heritage as "dung in order that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8). What is also significant in Rosen's comments is that even when Jewish-born Christians use "elements of Jewish culture" in their religious services they are "an arm of the church to reach into the Jewish community in a way the church has never been able to do before." They are, in other words, Christians by religious affiliation and allegiance. Their Jewish birth becomes a devise to achieve the aspirations and goals of the church. They have no loyalty to the Jewish community outside of how it can benefit Christian missionary efforts.
It is impossible to preserve the cultural aspects of the Jewish people while replacing the spiritual, the theological, and the salvific grounding and reason for that culture with a non-Jewish faith system. Jewish religious life finds its theological and spiritual meaning through the life of Torah, not through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is a common understanding among Jews of all denominations that Judaism, understood as the culture and religion of the Jewish people, contains all they need to achieve spiritual fulfillment, that is, salvation.
Those aspects of Jewish life that bind Jews together through time and space are salvific, providing them with a sense of transcendence, fulfillment, and meaning. It is a matter of internal Jewish debate as to exactly what aspects of our tradition fulfill this function. Answers contain a broad range of views from the orthodox system of mitzvot, that is, directives from a loving God fulfilled in loving response to the call of that God, to the Jewish secularist's commitment to Jewish cultural expression from within his/her own Judaic tradition. We speak of three main branches of the Jewish faith-Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. But, in actuality, each of these divisions is a loose grouping of diverse views linked, however, tenuously to rabbinic Jewish interpretation of the Torah. There is willingness on the part of some in the Jewish community to include within the overall tradition trends and opinions that were previously excluded.
It is not the function of this article to debate the merit or wisdom of each and every inclusion. Our sole focus here is on the Christian movement that refers to itself as "Messianic Judaism." Only those within the framework of the Christian faith system can say what it means to be a Christian; only those within the framework of the Jewish faith system can say what it means to be a Jew. This excludes those who, although at one time part of the faith community, now express beliefs that locate their (official or unofficial) affiliation and allegiance outside the community. Within a faith system, groups and individuals may differ on definitions and expressions of faith, but those who are no longer in the faith community or never were there have no such right.
There should be respect for the internal integrity of each religious tradition and the ensuing need for persons of different traditions to define for themselves who they are and what they believe. However, this call for self-definition raises a problem: When an article of belief is shared by two or more traditions, and interpretations of this item differ between or among traditions, whose interpretation is to be considered authoritative or correct? In insisting on self-definition there is the implied dimension that members of traditions have the right to say that when it comes to interpreting an article of belief that is perceived to be chiefly theirs the interpretation can only come from within the faith community (even when there is disagreement within the community).
Traditional Christianity pictures Judaism as an incomplete religion because it does not include belief in Jesus. Some Christians seek to bridge this imaginary gap through the invention of the self-styled "Messianic Jewish" movement. But, what they desire is Christian, not Jewish! And, that is the point. Judaism is not and has never been an incomplete form of Christianity. It is completely compatible with God's instruction to Moses. Judaism (as variously and solely defined by its practitioners within the community) is a different religion from that of the many Christianities that have developed over the last two thousand years; including the Christian movement that goes by the name "Messianic Judaism." Any attempt to artificially blend the two is disingenuous to both.
© Gerald Sigal 1999