Whither Messianic Judaism?
by Paul Spinrad
Part 1: Back in the Day
In 1960, a 12-year-old boy named Daniel Juster was shooting baskets in the driveway of his family’s home in River Edge, New Jersey when he unexpectedly heard the voice of God tell him, “You should be relating to me.”
Daniel hadn’t had a religious upbringing, but his Jewish father had died three and a half years earlier, and his thoughts were occupied by spiritual matters. After young Dan heard God’s voice, he started attending church with some Gentile cousins, without any objection from his nominally-Christian mother. He came to accept Jesus, and after majoring in philosophy at Wheaton, a Christian college in Illinois, he did graduate work at Trinity and McCormick seminaries, got his M. Div., and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.
His first assignment, in 1972, was with a Hebrew Christian congregation in Chicago — people who, like himself, were Jewish by birth or background but had converted to Christianity. He and his congregation wanted to know if believing in Jesus meant that they had to completely give up their Jewishness, or whether they could retain this identity.
With the encouragement of his congregation’s board of elders, Juster studied the question for a year and a half. He learned about an obscure movement called Messianic Judaism, which argued that, in spite of centuries of historical precedent, Jewish believers in Jesus have a divine mandate to continue living as Jews, without leaving their identities and communities behind. Juster became convinced, and with the unanimous support of the elders, he changed the congregation’s name to Adat Ha Tikvah, moved the weekend service to Shabbat on Saturday, and steered it towards Messianic Judaism.
Some members left. The problem, of course, is that under most people’s definitions of the word “Jew,” it is impossible for a person to be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. A Jew can adhere to the practices of another religion, disregard religion entirely as an atheist, eschew Jewish commandments by eating pork, commit murder — but once they accept Jesus Christ, they are out of the tribe. Belief in the divinity of Christ as an entity separate from God violates the core tenet that a Jew shall accept no other god but Yahweh.
Messianic Jews use a different definition* [see Footnote at end or notes at right], describing themselves as Jews who believe in Jesus. Their quietly growing movement now has over 500 congregations worldwide, mostly in the U.S., Israel, and Ukraine.
Their growing movement now has 500 congregations worldwide.
Most Jews see Messianic Judaism as a threat rather than a legitimate form of Judaism; given thousands of years of Jewish history, it’s easy to see why. I once would have thought the same way (I am an agnostic and non-religious Jewish-American guy). But now I believe that overall, Messianic Judaism is a positive force that holds great promise, and that it should be accepted. It’s good for the Jews, perhaps just what our tribe needs.
Jews for Jesus?
“Oh, you mean the Jews for Jesus.”
That’s the reaction I got from my mother and others when I told them that I was researching an article on Messianic Judaism. The answer is no: the organization Jews for Jesus and the Messianic Judaism movement are two different things, although their raisons and histories are intertwined, and many Messianic rabbis have old connections to JFJ. According to Boaz Michael, founder of the MJ ministry First Fruits of Zion, there has been infighting over the past 20 years over whether Jews For Jesus should be called part of Messianic Judaism. But as sociologist and non-Messianic rabbi Shoshanah Feher writes, “many Messianics cringe when they are mistaken for members of Jews for Jesus.”
I first heard about Messianic Judaism several years ago, when I met an Israeli Messianic Jew named Gaddie through a mutual friend. I was intrigued, and when I started reaching out to Messianics and Jews for Jesus for this article, I expected that they might either assume that I was writing something negative and therefore not talk with me, or else see me as fresh meat and try to convert me. As it turned out, they did neither. They uniformly respected my non-belief and gave me their time with no strings attached. They all seemed like normal, well-adjusted people, not cult members or wackos (of which I’ve known a few).
“Many Messianics cringe when they are mistaken for members of Jews for Jesus.”
I also talked with authorities and scholars with views of Messianic Judaism from outside the movement, including a sympathetic Anglican vicar, an unsympathetic (but interested and helpful) rabbi, and non-Messianic religious scholars who explore the connections between Judaism and early Christianity.
I like the take of one such scholar, Professor Daniel Boyarin at UC Berkeley, who is himself orthodox Jewish. Over the phone, he told me that he’s been meeting quite a number of Messianic Jews lately, and although he doesn’t personally identify with their theological position, “it seems to make about as much sense as any other theological position. So, fine — so they have a theological position.” He gave this last point a gently distancing “mazel tov” inflection, then continued: “The ones I’ve met have been sincere, very well-educated, and are working with the best of scholarship. They are not working out of ignorance or talking nonsense. I like to engage in respectful conversations with such people, and I learn from them too.”
Many Jews view Messianic Judaism as simply Christianity relabeled with a name that’s specifically designed to mislead them into converting. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “’Messianic Jew’ is a terrible misnomer that owes more to marketing savvy than any theological truth.” Because you cannot be a Jew if you’re a Christian, the project of converting Jews to Christianity is equivalent to destroying Judaism. Throughout history, the argument continues, countless foes have attempted to wipe out the Jewish people, by converting them through violence and torture, or just killing them outright. Messianic Judaism is an insidious new threat that seeks the same end through gentler means.
Within its premises, this view makes perfect sense. But the history of the term “Messianic Judaism” shows that it is not meant as a trick, and although Jews may see themselves as a center of attention, the Messianic Judaism movement isn’t all about them. Messianic congregations are congregations like any others, not elaborate fronts for conversion operations.
Although Jews may see themselves as a center of attention,
the Messianic Judaism movement isn’t all about them.
The term “Messianic Jew” was coined around the turn of the 20th Century, when some Jewish converts to Christianity began rejecting the well-worn path of assimilation, arguing from scripture that it was against God’s plan. Instead, numerous New Testament passages make it clear that there are two types of believers in Christ; for example, Romans 11 likens Gentile believers to wild olive branches grafted onto a pruned olive tree, growing alongside the remaining original branches. And Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians should remain distinct — at least until the End Times, when under dramatic circumstances witnessed by the entire world, all remaining Jews will come to believe in Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew).
This new view remained fairly obscure until the hippie-led Jesus Movement (a.k.a. the “Jesus Freaks”) of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This movement sought to recapture the world-changing communitarianism of the early Church and distance itself from the hierarchical, politicized Christianity that emerged later. This was the psychedelic era: minds were expanding, the global consciousness was rising, and parallels to 1st Century Judea were obvious; Jesus and his followers were pacifist rebels opposing the imperial war machine of Rome, just like they were opposing the war in Vietnam. Jesus even looked like a hippie.
Meantime, American Jews were feeling newly righteous and proud of their ethnic identity. Israel (which had more Jewish support than it does today) had gained a stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967; books like The Joys of Yiddish and Sheila Levine occupied the bestseller lists; and Jewish heartthrob swimmer Mark Spitz dominated the 1972 Olympics in Munich, winning seven gold medals against a heartbreaking backdrop of Palestinian terrorism. Being Jewish was hip, and Jewish Americans did not want to give up their ethnic identity.
Books like The Joys of Yiddish and Sheila Levine occupied the bestseller lists; and Jewish heartthrob swimmer Mark Spitz dominated the 1972 Olympics.
Traditionally, Jews who sought to retain their Jewishness after finding Jesus had identified themselves as Hebrew Christians, and this was the term used by old-line evangelical organizations like the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA). But the spirit of the times demanded a new identity, and Messianic Jewish congregations sprouted up. In 1970, Hebrew Christian missionary Martin Chernoff saw the words “Messianic Judaism” in a vision, which led him and his wife Yohanna to start Congregation Beth Messiah in their living room in Cincinnati. Other Messianic Jewish congregations formed independently around the same time or soon after in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago (Juster’s Adat Ha Tikvah).
Messianic Judaism found rich soil in an open-minded new generation of Jewish converts. The radical, rule-breaking identity fit the spirit of the times, letting its adherents retain their Jewishness (which was never just about religion anyway) while distancing themselves from established Christianity and its centuries of anti-Semitic and un-Christlike baggage.
Daniel Juster recalls the experience of his three friends Eitan Shishkoff, Russ Resnik, and Richard Rubenstein, who also became leading figures in the movement. “They were hippie farmers living up in the mountains of New Mexico. One day, one of these psychedelic-painted Jesus Volkswagens drives up, and they all think it’s crazy. But the next thing you know, they’re having visions of Yeshua, and they become believers. Were they taking LSD or something? I never did any drugs myself, but that’s the kind of thing that was happening back then. It was wild.”
“But the next thing you know, they’re having visions of Yeshua, and they become believers. Were they taking LSD or something?”
(Resnik has since slightly corrected this account. His wife Jane converted while hitching a ride home on a “Jesus: One Way” painted bus. Her commune family and friends followed after she invited two guys from the bus over for dinner.)
Back at the HCAA, young Messianics and their kin were swelling the membership rolls. A missionary named Manny Brotman, who founded the organization’s new youth wing, pushed for the HCAA to change its name to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA). When Martin Chernoff was elected president of the HCAA in 1973, he agreed. Support for the change grew, and in 1975, at the organization’s annual convention, members voted to change the name . The MJAA was born, and with institutional support from the evangelical Christians, the Messianic Judaism meme had officially arrived.
In the U.S. today, most MJ congregations belong to either the MJAA or the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), and the cultures of these two organizations differ. The MJAA has more ties with mainline Christian evangelical organizations and leans more in that direction, with its right-wing politics and emphasis on outreach and conversion via television and video (e.g. Jewish Voice Ministries, Zola Levitt Ministries). UMJC congregations, meanwhile, identify more with mainstream Jewish communities, make more of whether its members would be considered Jewish under traditional definitions, and are more likely to keep kosher and otherwise follow Jewish law. These are generalizations, with overlap and exceptions, but they not unfairly cover the overall spectrum.
Very few MJ rabbis are ordained by mainstream Jewish yeshivas (religious schools), usually only those who came to Jesus after having been regular rabbis. But the MJAA and UMJC each oversee their own specifically Messianic Jewish yeshivas (the MJAA’s through its subsidiary, the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations or IAMCS). According to Rabbi Barney Kasden of the UMJC, they ordain about 6 new rabbis each year, and the larger MJAA probably ordains at least as many (the MJAA did not respond to my queries and calls). It’s possible that traditional rabbis learn the Talmud better than their Messianic kin, but either way, at least a dozen new Messianic Jewish rabbis each year go out into the world ready to establish new congregations.
Roughly half of all Messianic Jewish congregants in the U.S. were previously Jewish. The rest are Gentiles who feel called to Messianic Judaism, but who may not identify personally as Jews themselves. As Shoshana Feher writes, Messianic Jewish congregations have an unspoken hierarchy. Those who were born Jewish have the highest status, and below them stand two other categories: the Gentiles and the Roots Seekers, who are people born and raised Gentile, but who seek or claim Jewish ethnicity through their own genealogical work.
According to Shoshana Feher, Messianic Jewish congregations have an unspoken hierarchy.
With Gentile and Roots-Seeker congregants unofficially occupying a second-class, “separate but equal” position, some argue that MJ rabbis should be able to convert Gentiles to Messianic Judaism — and therefore to Judaism as a whole, even if the conversion is not recognized by other Jews. Other MJ rabbis are exclusionist, opposing the prospect of converting Gentiles unless they follow Jewish law. The issue has not been resolved, and for now, Gentile MJ congregants who are queried for their religion might want to check the “It’s complicated” box.
Complicating matters further is another growing phenomenon, the Hebrew Roots movement (a.k.a. “Hebraic Roots,” “Jewish Roots,” “Restored Covenant”) which consists of Gentile Christians who follow Jewish law and traditions. Some do this partially out of personal interest, to be closer to Jesus and as a more authentic form of Christianity. Others do it with Chasidic-level strictness because they believe that Jesus wanted both Jewish and Gentile followers of his to obey the Torah — the “One Law” doctrine. Many such Torah-observant Christians are Latinos who suspect or claim crypto-Jewish ancestry buried during the Spanish Inquisition — a possibility that is supported by recent genetic research and books like Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.
From the strict Messianic Judaism perspective, Hebrew Roots is a positive development only so long as it isn’t One Law, which eliminates the distinction between Jew and Gentile. But practically, Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots worshippers often belong to each other’s congregations, because it’s the only one in town that worships Jesus using Hebrew prayers. Many congregations welcome both Messianic Jews and Hebrew Roots Christians explicitly, including the largest Messianic congregation in the country, Baruch HaShem in Dallas.
(For more on Hebrew Roots Christians and the Roots-Seekers among them, see Menachem Kaiser’s fantastic article, reported from the Revive convention in Dallas.)
Many such Torah-observant Christians are Latinos who suspect or claim crypto-Jewish ancestry buried during the Spanish Inquisition
Not surprisingly, Messianic congregations are friendly to intermarried couples and their families. As Rabbi David Rudolph writes in Messianic Judaism: An Introduction: “A growing number of intermarrieds (i.e., Jews married to Gentiles) are embracing Messianic Judaism as an option for their families. Given that one out of every two American Jews intermarries, the Messianic Jewish community in North America is poised to grow exponentially [sic].”
Congregation Tsemach Adonai
To experience a Messianic Jewish congregation personally, I attended Shabbat services at Tsemach Adonai, a UMJC-affiliated congregation in Los Gatos. I enjoyed it! Tsemach Adonai occupies a plain building behind the main sanctuary building of Legacy Community Church, in a complex that’s next to the local Jewish Community Center. The morning services started with nearly an hour of music, as 100-odd congregants slowly filtered in.
Fronting the music was vocalist Kirsten Cohen, the congregation’s Director of Education and wife of head Rabbi Charlie Cohen. With her New York accent, Kirsten sang a mix of traditional Jewish songs and 1970's inflected Messianic songs, backed by acoustic guitars, electric bass (played by Rabbi Charlie), a djembe and congas off to the side, and tambourines in the audience. It was lively and fun, and reminded me of my Jewish summer camp.
Lyrics were projected via transparencies and an old-school overhead projector, and many of the Messianic song lyrics included authorship and copyright notices. I surmised that the Messianic movement has inspired many songwriters over the years, and there now exists a large repertoire of sweet, earnest guitar songs sprinkled with Hebrew phrases and references to Yeshua.
While the music played, a handful of girls and women danced together in open carpet space to the left of the chairs. The congregants who came in and found their places were diverse in both age and ethnicity, with a good number of Asians and Latinos. All of the men wore yarmulkes and many wore tallit, some under their clothes. I didn’t notice a single cross.
There now exists a large repertoire of sweet, earnest guitar songs sprinkled with Hebrew phrases and references to Yeshua.
The spoken service started out using the Conservative Jewish prayerbook (USCJ) and it included most of the main prayers that I knew or semi-knew from my Bar Mitzvah days, with no references to Yeshua. After the children were dismissed to their classes, the scriptural readings began, led by Francisco Reyes. The readings followed the traditional Jewish format, all in Hebrew, with honored guests called up to read that week’s parsha (chapter selections dictated by a yearly schedule) from the scrolls. This week, they came from Deuteronomy 7 and Isaiah 49, and both concerned God’s conditional promises to Israel. Congregants followed the readings with distributed copies of The Complete Jewish Bible, a Messianic version of the Old and New Testaments edited by David H. Stern.
Messianic parshas include readings from the New Testament as well as from the Old, but the service didn’t include these in the formal reading. I don’t see how they could have in any streamlined way — trotting out a New Testament scroll written in Classical Greek would seem too artificial, and no one would be able to read it anyway. But after the readings, former congregation president Ritchard Shadian was honored to present the parsha interpretation, which included the New and Old Testament readings. During both the music and the spoken parts of the service, audience members occasionally called out “Amen,” “Yes he did,” and other feedback. I liked this participation, which I haven’t seen in traditional Jewish services.
After the worship services, adults and kids reconvened and went upstairs for the potluck Oneg Shabbat, which also reminded me of summer camp. Over tasty homemade kosher food, I talked to several longtime Tsemach Adonai members, including Russel Smith, a tall, bearded surfer who works at Google. Russel told me about a few people he knows who are members or ex-members of the orthodox Jewish organization Chabad. One former Chabad rabbi friend of his came to believe in Jesus soon after the 1994 death of Chabad leader (and messiah candidate) Menachem Schneerson, after he saw that Schneerson’s body was not resurrected. Russel also met a younger Chabadnik who believes in Jesus on the down-low at his local Chabad House and who told him that several others there also secretly believe.
A younger Chabadnik who believes in Jesus on the down-low at his local Chabad House told him that several others there also secretly believe.
During the lunch, several people followed Kirsten to a classroom area behind a partition, where she then taught a Hebrew lesson. At my lunch table we discussed our varying Hebrew knowledge levels, and one woman noted that the language’s highly inflected grammar made it easier for congregation’s Spanish speakers to learn. Some good conversations later, I left Tsemach Adonai thinking that it was a nice scene and a nice, normal (in a good way) community.
Part 2: Borders and Compasses
The End Times
Messianic Jews, like other Christian Evangelicals, share the ancient Jewish hope for a better world under Messiah, and they see the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in current events. Specifically, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 fulfills Old Testament prophecy foretelling the Jewish people’s return to their homeland in the End Times. The exact script serves as an arena for debate among MJs and other Evangelicals, but the various scenarios all draw from a shared vocabulary of speculative events that includes Rapture, Second Coming, Tribulation, Final Battle, and Last Judgment. In all of them, the Gentiles, saved Jews (the remnant), and unsaved Jews play different roles and take different paths through the eschatological milestones. Messianic Jews can point to passages in the Bible describing the remnant’s important role in removing suffering from the world, and say, “hey, that’s us!”
Following these narratives, some Evangelicals try to actively hasten the coming of the Messiah (as do some Jews), by urging Jewish people to move to Israel, trying to convert them, and even breeding sacrificial cows. But all of the Messianic Jews I discussed this with questioned this approach. As Rabbi David Levine, who hosts the popular Messianic Jewish Teachings podcast, said, “Let God be God, let Him be on His timetable.” Aaron Trank of Jews For Jesus is horrified by the apparent plan of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) founder John Hagee to hasten the Second Coming by moving Jews back to Israel, whether they’re saved or not — after which the unsaved ones, having fulfilled their function, can literally all go to Hell.
Messianic Jews can point to passages in the Bible describing the remnant’s important role in removing suffering from the world, and say, “hey, that’s us!”
Politically, the Evangelical side of Messianic Judaism mirrors the larger Evangelical movement; it’s strongly right-wing and it supports the State of Israel generously and unquestioningly as a key player in the coming End Times. In 2010, the MJAA hosted right-wing presidential candidate Rick Santorum as a speaker at its annual conference. In 2012, right-wing media personality Glenn Beck was hosted by the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI), which is chaired by Jewish Voice Ministries televangelist Jonathan Bernis. Last year, the MJBI hosted George W. Bush as its keynote speaker.
For organizations aiming to appeal to typically left-leaning Jewish hearts and minds, these choices seem clueless. Some Jewish leaders called them offensive, as if they didn’t find Messianic Judaism offensive enough already. And from a Christian perspective, the moral compasses of these three figures seem informed more by the Old Testament’s most violent and retributive passages than by the love and acceptance espoused in the New Testament. But in Evangelical circles, such speakers are effective choices for fundraising, which is what keeps the host organizations alive.
Rabbi David Levine remembers reluctantly having to introduce Rick Santorum at the MJAA conference in 2010. As he told me, “I was the MC that night, and there wasn’t a way out of it, so I just decided to introduce him in a factual way and not in a glowing way, and I think that came across. I decided not to do that anymore, and I’ve opted out of similar opportunities.”
Evangelism and its Discontents
Politics separate the Evangelical side of Messianic Judaism from most mainstream Jews, but the main barrier for them is evangelism itself — the side that’s equated with Jews for Jesus. Since its founding in 1971 by Martin “Moishe” Rosen in the San Francisco area, Jews For Jesus has been (and continues to be) shameless to the point of embarrassment in pursuing the work of salvation. While the organization has received mainline Evangelical support since 1973, originally via Billy Graham, the public face of the group has resembled a cult, with young, rootless seekers in urban areas evangelizing on sidewalks with pamphlets and street theater.
As important as salvation may be, this approach doesn’t resonate with many Messianics. Rabbi David Levine, remembers seeing Rosen speak, and whispering to his wife, “It’s got to be a sin to turn a good Jewish boy like this into a Baptist.” He explains, “Their concept of evangelism is really different than the things that drive me.”
“It’s got to be a sin to turn a good Jewish boy like this into a Baptist.”
But some Messianic Jewish missionaries have joined Jews for Jesus in stepping over another line, by knocking on doors and identifying themselves as simply Jewish without being up-front about their belief in Jesus. Despite seeing themselves as Jewish and looking the part, they know full well that their prospects might not share their definition. But they delay any mention of Yeshua (a less offputting name than Jesus) in order to build up a false rapport with nonbelieving Jews who were vulnerable or confused about their identity, thereby facilitating conversion.
Such tactics have inspired Jewish counter-missionary groups like Jews For Judaism, who try to prevent Jews from becoming Jews For Jesus or Messianic Jews, and bring back those who have. Meanwhile, Messianic Jews have also begun to recognize that such tactics are harmful. As MJ blogger Mike Miller offered, it is especially problematic when Gentile Messianic Jews invite a Jew into the faith, and then it comes out that despite appearances, they were never normatively Jewish. Paralleling this, David Rudolph, a Messianic rabbi and author in Richmond, VA, notes that he sees such evangelism as a form of objectification “similar to the objectification of women by men.” Even if a charming missionary can form a personal connection with a lonely soul just to convert them, and then detach with another notch on their belt once the deed is done, it’s still not cool.
Such evangelism is a form of objectification “similar to the
objectification of women by men.”
In 1997, the Hashivenu leadership group, a subset of the UMJC, as one of its seven core principles, issued a collective apology regarding such overzealous evangelism:
The Jewish people are “us,” not “them.” [and] we realize now how wrong it was for… evangelistic concerns to be the sole axis of measurement of relationship with other Jews, even our own family members.
The UMJC, especially the Hashivenu group, represent the side of Messianic Judaism that’s closer to mainstream Judaism. They don’t do televangelism and they don’t elide the distinction between Gentiles and Jews, just so long as you’re saved. But many of them keep kosher, and smaller organizations like the Observant Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Association and Union of Conservative Messianic Jewish Synagogues seek to increase the number of kosher-keeping Messianic Jews, looking forward to the Second Coming of Yeshua, when all people will follow God’s law.
And if one of them tries to convert you, what’s the big deal? If it’s interesting, you can listen; if it’s not, you can change the subject; and if it offends you, you can tell them so, or go talk to someone else, just like anything else. We’re all adults here.
“At most circumcisions I perform, the people are just going through the formality.”
Like immigrants who embrace their American status with a fervor that the native-born often lack, these Messianics celebrate and perpetuate their Jewish identities more than many Jews. Dan Juster recalls leading Congregation Beth Messiah in Washington DC. Some congregants needed a local mohel to perform circumcisions, so they hired one who worked at the nearby conservative synagogue in Rockville, B’nai Israel. The mohel, Rev Goldberg, became good friends with Beth Messiah, especially with congregant Eitan Shishkoff. One day, the mohel told Eitan, “At most circumcisions I perform, the people are just going through the formality. But you folks really know what this is about and take it with full seriousness. You are really making covenant with God.”
The Holy Land
While Messianic Judaism in the U.S. is predominantly Evangelical with a smaller leftie wing that seeks closer connections with Jewish communities, the situation in Israel looks different: the Jewish majority is conservative, its politicians and leaders nurture their profitable connections to American Christian Evangelicals, and the Messianics are the grassroots liberals. As Boaz Michael explains, “On most political issues, the vast majority of Messianic Jews in Israel oppose the vast majority of Messianic Jews in the U.S.. Most of the ones in the U.S. are Republicans.”
The Israeli government has always been in the business of deciding who is and is not Jewish, because it automatically naturalizes all Jewish immigrants and gives them tax breaks. Over the years, Israel’s Law of Return and its interpretations have changed in ways that affect Messianics, and according to the U.S. State Department, “While Jews who are atheists or who state their adherence to other religions are conferred immigration benefits, Messianic Jews are routinely excluded, despite the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding the right of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain citizenship.” Messianic lawyer Calev Myers of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ) has successfully petitioned Israel’s Ministry of the Interior on behalf of several Messianic immigrants who were refused citizenship. The JIJ had another win for Messianic recognition earlier this year, when Messianic congregations were granted the same municipal tax-exempt status that’s afforded to traditional synagogues.
“On most political issues, the vast majority of Messianic Jews in Israel oppose the vast majority of Messianic Jews in the U.S.”
The first Messianic congregation in Israel, Jerusalem’s Messianic Assembly, was founded by Tunisian immigrant Victor Smadja in 1958. Today, a good number of Israel’s approximately 150 Messianic congregations are Russian-speaking, reflecting the country’s wave of Russian immigration in the 1990s. Some American Jews see Messianic Judaism in Israel as preying upon Russian Jews who don’t understand their religion. This seems unfair and ignorant: Russian Israeli immigrants tend to be more highly educated than natives, and Russia has a deep historical tradition of blending Judaism with Christian beliefs. The Subbotnicks, a diverse sect that has existed in Russia for over two centuries, stand as a strong theological antecedent to modern Messianic Judaism.
Israeli Messianic congregations tend to be small and independent, often meeting in homes, and Messianic media outlets like the Rosh Pina Project are similarly grassroots. But U.S. Evangelicals’ dollars do support Israeli Messianics and their views through organizations such as Maoz Israel Ministries, which operates Congregation Tiferet Yeshua in Tel Aviv and produces the popular Messiah’s Mandate podcast with Ron Cantor.
Some Israeli Messianics resent the abstract, detached view that their American counterparts can have of them. As Boaz Michael told me, “Some people in the U.S. look at the modern State of Israel through an improper filter, celebrating in a subtle, dysfunctional way the possibility that if war breaks out here, it will be the fulfillment of prophecy. I live in Israel and have two children that serve in the IDF, and we don’t want a war.”
Christ at the Checkpoint
According to Loden and Munayer, the growth of Messianic Judaism in Israel has led to an “increasing dissatisfaction with existing structures and growing disillusionment among those raised in Messianic homes.” Nowhere are intra-Messianic disagreements more virulent than surrounding the biennial Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which takes place in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, in the Palestinian-governed West Bank. Produced by Bethlehem Bible College, the conference aims to bring Palestinian Christians and Israeli Messianic Jews together, in the hopes of leading the region to peace. Christians are a minority among Palestinians and Messianics are a minority in Israel, so it’s a brave and beautiful idea to bring the two kindred groups together, in Christ if that helps, to serve as vanguards of reconciliation in the Holy Land.
Nowhere are intra-Messianic disagreements more virulent than surrounding the biennial Christ at the Checkpoint conference
The conference’s Palestinian hosts decided to emphasize anti-Israel politics as part of the program. The conference’s name and logo focus on the West Bank’s security fence — an apartheid wall, in the eyes of many — which Messianic Jewish conference speaker Oded Shoshani noted has reduced suicide bombings in Israel by “something like 99%.” The Program Coordinator for the conference is Rev. Stephen Sizer, a headline-grabbing, Al Sharpton type figure in defense of Palestinians and against Israel. And conference-led tours of nearby Hebron were designed to highlight “home demolitions and travel restrictions faced by the local Palestinians living in that area under Israeli occupation.” As Ron Cantor noted in his podcast, “I have concerns about the conference because it presents a theology birthed out of pain. You must first come to Yeshua, be healed, and then develop a theology — just as Jews cannot develop theology out of the Holocaust. It skews our understanding.”
Not unsurprisingly, many Israeli MJs oppose or are suspicious of the conference, seeing it as just a scheme to undercut Israel and its support from Evangelicals. One satirical article noted the swastika motif on the stone façade of the luxury hotel where the conference took place. (The hotel was built in 1910, predating any Nazi use of the ancient non-European symbol, and the hotel’s renovation in 2005 kept this original ornamentation intact.)
Nevertheless, Messianic participation in the Christ at the Checkpoint conference has grown. The 2012 conference was officially denounced by both the MJAA and the UMJC. In response, several Messianic attendees and comrades, including UMJC founder Dan Juster and Jews For Jesus UK president Richard Harvey, issued a statement defending their participation.
This year’s conference, which was held in March, had a larger Messianic contingent and more of them were included as speakers. If the MJAA and UMJC opposed the conference this time around, they held their tongues. And the concurrent issue of the Jews For Jesus publication Havurah featured several of the “CatC” conference presenters, under the editorial theme of Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation.
A shared project of combining Palestinian and Israeli narratives, led by followers of the Prince of Peace, can bring peace.
I only followed the conference remotely, but I love what it did and was especially excited by its launch of the book Through My Enemy’s Eyes, which was written collaboratively by Salim Munayer and Lisa Loden, a Palestinian Christian and an Israeli Messianic Jew. The book explains that national identity, ethnic identity, and all other group affiliations are based on narrative. When two groups are in conflict, such as Israelis and Palestinians, they see reality through different narratives based on different sets of facts. But resolution is possible if the two sides can listen to and understand each other’s narratives, then combine them into a new narrative that both sides embrace.
I believe in the possibility that Munayer and Loden offer, that a self-conscious, shared project of combining Palestinian and Israeli narratives, led sensitively by followers of the Prince of Peace, can indeed bring peace. And whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, it may be tactically wise for peace-seekers to support such efforts.
In the Holy Land today, the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus are outnumbered by the Jews who dominate commerce and hold the political power. But if they start a grassroots, outsider movement of peace that takes hold and spreads through the world, whether it’s through God’s agency or simply through good storytelling, it wouldn’t be the first time.
To summarize: American Messianics are mostly right-wing Evangelicals who honor Judaism in their worship and support Israel financially with an eye towards the End Times. Around half, or maybe fewer, originally come from Jewish backgrounds and are genealogically and culturally Jewish. Some of them relate less to Evangelicals than they do with other Jews, and seek greater connection with Jewish communities. In Israel, many Messianic Jews are Russian, and some are friends with Palestinian Christians with whom they hope to create a vanguard of peace. But most establishment Israeli Messianics disapprove of this group’s participation at an Israel-critical event produced by their Palestinian comrades, and have spent time processing the fact that they do this, to fit it into their world view. So nu? Why is this good?
American Messianics are mostly right-wing Evangelicals who honor Judaism in their worship and support Israel financially with an eye towards the End Times.
First off, Messianics who are conventionally Jewish, born or converted, are carrying on Jewish traditions, passing them onto their children, and even keeping kosher better than many nonbelieving Jews. That keeps the faith, and so what if they also believe that Jesus was messiah, or that Menachem Schneerson was, or anyone else? Why be such thought-police about it? I believe that a diversity of opinion is healthy, although others may disagree with me.
The basic theological response is that Judaism allows belief in only one God; this is the religion’s fundamental tenet, and the first of the Ten Commandments that the Bible describes Moses as having brought down from God to the Israelites. Seeing Jesus as also divine is incompatible with this strict monotheism, unless you see Jesus as a manifestation of the same entity as God. But that notion, that Jesus and God are in some sense the same thing, was declared heretical by Christian authority in the 4th Century A.D., unless it is framed within a Trinity that is mysteriously both separate and not separate at the same time.
Between Jesus’s life and 325 A.D. many Jews came to believe
in Jesus while retaining their Jewish identities.
In the centuries-long period between Jesus’s life and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. many Jews came to believe in Jesus while retaining their Jewish identities. But Judaism and Christianity grew in different directions that anticipated the strict and oppositional dividing lines that followed. Boaz Michael likens the split between the two religions as an acrimonious divorce.
But divorces don’t have to be hostile. Couples can reconcile, and Messianic Jews, along with many academics, are currently engaged in a sort of therapy for religious history. Drawing in part from archaeological evidence, scholars such as Daniel Boyarin, Pamela Eisenbaum, Amy-Jill Levine, Mark Nanos, and Michael Wyschogrod (none of whom are Messianic Jews) are uncovering the origins of the split between Judaism and Christianity, and between believing and nonbelieving Jews. They argue that the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish book that’s loyal to Judaism, including the writings of Paul, who is frequently (mis)understood as rejecting Jewish law. Following the metaphor of a bitter divorce, I read such historical narratives as showing all parties how things could have been different and better if each side had not been blinded by its own defensiveness, and had seen a more vulnerable and loving way forward.
Part 3: Back in the Day
Once Upon A Time
Like Munayer and Loden, I believe in the power of narrative to foster reconciliation, and I think that Messianic Jews are writing (or rediscovering) a great narrative that’s true to Jesus and has the potential to reinvest the world in his teachings and in the Abrahamic tradition in a positive way, whether or not God actually exists. I believe that Messianic Jews do have the potential to serve as a bridge to peace in the world, starting with Hashevenu in the U.S. and the friends of Christ at the Checkpoint in Palestine; in other words, the ones who aren’t right-wing.
Messianic Jews have the potential to serve as a bridge to peace.
Here’s my version of their narrative, which I offer as an amateur, not a credentialed religious scholar. It starts with the Jews before Jesus who already had thoughts and feelings that we think of as Christian today, many of which are inscribed in the Old Testament. Psalm 82 captures their changing conception of God from the jealous and vengeful force found elsewhere in the Old Testament to the warmer and more compassionate figure in the New. And Jesus’s summary of Jewish Law as the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is similar to the one attributed by the Talmud to Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived just before Jesus.
As for the specific embodiment of Christ, the book of Daniel describes a divine Son who sits with God in side-by-side thrones in Heaven, and who will be revealed in the End Times. Psalms, Second Kings, and other books describe a Messiah king descended from David who restores Israel. Isaiah 53 can be read to prophecy that this Messiah will be made to suffer physically, and Daniel Boyarin argues that it had been read this way before Jesus. The New Testament combines these two Old Testament traditions, a messiah king and a divine Son, but it’s not even the only Jewish book from the period to do so. The apocryphal Similitudes of Enoch does the same thing, with no mention of Jesus. (Confusingly, these writings refer to the victorious human messiah figure as “Son of God” and the divine son as the “Son of Man,” rather than the other way around.)
So the Jews wanted a messiah. As Boyarin writes, “The job description–Required: one Christ, will be divine, will be called Son of Man, will be sovereign and savior of Jews and the world—was there already and Jesus fit (or did not according to other Jews) the bill.” This expectation became tied up with the Jews’ belief in tikkun olam, or healing the world, the hope that the Jewish people would some day restore peace.
“The job description–Required: one Christ, will be divine, will be called Son of Man, will be sovereign and savior of Jews and the world — was there already and Jesus fit (or did not according to other Jews) the bill.”
Jesus himself was Jewish, as was his immediate circle and almost all of his earliest believers—the people who knew or witnessed him physically. We don’t know if Jesus intended to start a new religion distinct from Judaism, but we do know that he furthered an active strain of Jewish thought that was seen by many Jews as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. We also know that he and his followers threatened the authority of both the local priesthood and the Herod family, who ruled the province of Judaea as clients under Rome.
For a generation or so after Jesus, the growing group of believers in his messianic and divine status remained mostly Jewish. But many Gentiles also came to believe, especially the Godfearers, the ethnic Gentiles who had already embraced Jewish theology. Over the next couple of centuries, Christianity exploded and became predominantly Gentile. But meanwhile, Jewish Christians continued to follow Jewish law and live in their own communities — a lost identity that today’s Messianic Jews scripturally justify and seek to recapture.
Sidebar: Barbecue at the Great Temple
The Roman province of Judea in the 1st century is a familiar setting, often recounted, with tensions between imperial Rome and the local Jews of various sects: the lawyer Pharisees, wealthy Sadducees, hippie farmer Essenes, and rebel Zealots. Jewish worship centered around the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where worshippers made pilgrimages from all Judea, bearing choice livestock for ritual slaughter and burning. After the burnt offering, choice cuts of the animals were eaten by the priests, the priests’ families, and the pilgrims.
These rituals were prohibited elsewhere, which gave Jerusalem an enforced monopoly on what we would, from today’s more detached perspective, call barbecue. To modern sensibilities, the Temple operated as a glorified barbecue joint that honored life and the taking thereof, and a central controversy in the Old Testament is whether altars (a.k.a. “high places”) should be allowed to exist outside of Jerusalem, to enable people to butcher, partially burn, and eat clean animals locally.
To modern sensibilities, the Temple operated as a glorified barbecue joint that honored life and the taking thereof.
According to recent archaeological evidence, pilgrimages and animal sacrifices drove Jerusalem’s economy. It was against this background that the Lamb of God was sacrificed in Jerusalem, a liminal Trickster figure crossing between the realms of human and divine, bringing the high low and the low high.
Politics and Religion
What happened to these original Messianic Jews, the Jewish Christians? They were key figures in early Christianity, perhaps even with a divine mandate. But the Jews who believed in Jesus while also following the whole Torah grew apart from both mainstream Jews and Gentile Christians. And in the 4th Century, as Rome was becoming officially Christian, Christianity divested itself of many elements of Jewish theology and worship, and declared such sects heretical.
The Jewish Christians’ split away from the religious currents that became mainstream Christianity and Judaism began early. Around 50 CE, at the Council of Jerusalem (as documented in Acts 15), some of Jesus’s apostles decided that Gentiles could be good Christians without following Jewish law. This gave Gentile Christianity the green light, and the Gentile Christian population soon blew past the Jewish Christians numerically, as it crossed national boundaries, class boundaries, and boundaries of any kind. The Jews, Christian or otherwise, were primarily a nation united by a concrete culture, practices, and history, even in diaspora. This limited their population. But the Council of Jerusalem decision rendered Christianity a more abstract, inclusive, and radically portable new phenomenon — a religion in the current sense, based purely on belief, and unconnected to a people.
On the Jewish side, the Christians were pacifists, so they didn’t support the Jewish war against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Around 90 CE, Jewish synagogues began kicking out believers in Jesus, as noted in John 9:22 and 12:42. And in 132 CE, Jewish Christians also stood aside for the Jews’ final armed revolt against Rome, led by the self-proclaimed messiah Simon Bar Kochba, whose messianic claims were also supported by the influential Rabbi Akiba. The Jewish Christians didn’t believe in Bar Kochba, and they didn’t believe in violence. The Bar Kochba revolt was brutally crushed by the Roman army in 135.
The Council of Jerusalem rendered Christianity a radically portable new phenomenon — a religion based purely on belief, and unconnected to a people.
In the wake of the Jewish Wars against Rome, Judaism changed radically. The destruction of the Second Temple deprived Jews of a central place to teach and develop their traditions orally, and the dislocated Jews from all of the wars moved away to other parts of Rome, creating the diaspora. Scattered and without the Temple, Jews decentralized their worship, ended animal sacrifice, and started writing their traditions and arguments down based on rabbinical authority. The new form of Judaism that evolved derived most of its DNA from the Pharisees — Jesus’s ideological opponents in the New Testament.
During the first two centuries after Jesus, pagan Rome persecuted and martyred countless Christians. Roman citizens didn’t understand (and resented) how this nobody Jesus had such a grip on the hearts and minds of their servants and slaves. Meanwhile, the believers in Jesus enjoyed an upwelling of faith-inspired creative empowerment. Christians everywhere shared their stories and fan fiction about Jesus and his circle. Some of these writings were canonized in 367 CE as the New Testament, and others remained apocryphal, like the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, which describes how the baby Jesus’s used swaddling clothes miraculously did not burn in fire. Christian identity was in flux, and many voices were contributing to its various manifestations. There was plenty of room for Jewish Christian sects like the Ebionites and Nazarenes, who followed Jewish law and believed in Jesus. In contrast with the authority-based Jewish writings from the same time and later, the folklore dynamic of Christianity reflected Jesus’s democratic message.
The apocryphal First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ describes how the baby Jesus’s used swaddling clothes miraculously did not burn in fire.
The abstract nature of Christian belief enabled anyone to attain eternal life through faith alone. But this unlimited property also made it the perfect breeding ground for human politics because it allowed for conflicting theologies to emerge that were unanchored by any physical reality or specific cultural practices. Arguments over theological points like whether Jesus was of the same substance as God (homoousia) or of similar substance (homoiousia) became indistinguishable from power struggles, and grew to mark the borders of belonging vs. enemy territory, like different flag designs. This misdirection continues today, with conflicts over the control of land, water, money, behavior, allegiance, etc. represented as fights over religion.
This political side of Christianity is what cut the Jewish Christians out of existence. In 312 AD, prompted by Constantine the Great’s controversial vision of a cross with the words “In hoc signo vinces” (“By this sign you will conquer”), Rome started down the path of becoming officially Christian. For practical matters, this let the Roman government subsume the Christian churches’ social-welfare infrastructure, which had grown to feed, clothe, heal, and teach people throughout the Empire. And on the ideological side, the government sought to standardize Christian beliefs, which meant officially favoring some Christian authorities, groups, and theologies over others. The Roman government offered the Church a deal, which Rev. Michael Mautner, a born Jew who converted and now serves as Rector of St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Oakland, summarized this way: “You accept imperial involvement in your theological internal affairs, and we’ll give you a monopoly to run your hospitals and schools.”
Arguments over theological points like whether Jesus was of the same substance as God (homoousia) or of similar substance (homoiousia) became indistinguishable from power struggles.
Under both Christian Rome and the Church-dominated centuries that followed, Christianity divested itself of elements seen as Jewish. In 325, the Council of Nicaea declared as heretical the Christians who calculated the date of Easter using the Jewish calendar (the Quartodecimans). The Nicene Council also officially pronounced Jesus and the Father as different persons of the One God (homoousion) rather than considering Jesus as like the Father in all essential respects (homoiousion). This decision made Christianity incompatible with the strict and literal monotheism at the core of Judaism. The popular form of Christianity that held otherwise, Arianism, became heresy and mostly disappeared. Judaism became the ideological enemy, incompatible with Christianity.
As Orthodox Jewish Rabbi David Kasher told me, if this Council of Nicaea decision had gone the other way, belief in Jesus might have remained compatible with Judaism. But as it played out, Jews became the Christ-killers, justified by Matthew 24:25, in which the Jewish mob at Jesus’s trial say, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” All converts had to leave their Jewish identities behind, often under threat of violence. As Messianic Jews note today, it was the Church, not Judaism, that most vigorously perpetuated the notion that a person cannot be a Jewish Christian, often at the point of a sword. In response to this and to the associated centuries of Church-sanctioned genocide, Jews came to accept this framing. Judaism became more inward-looking and Jesus became the other, a focus entirely outside of Judaism.
All In The Family
Today, most Jews in the U.S. don’t consider themselves religious and seldom or never attend religious services. The religion of Judaism, defined as tradition-based worship and study practices centered around the Old Testament and Rabbinic literature, isn’t that important to most Jews.
And believing certain things was never the primary prerequisite for being Jewish. As Daniel Boyarin argues, Judaism was not considered a religion at all until Christianity defined it as one in opposition to itself. Before this, Jews had considered themselves a nation, if in diaspora, defined by a combination of culture, practices, beliefs, and history. Jews long resisted the characterization that they were defined by religious beliefs, and it wasn’t until the 18th Century that they even had their own word for their religion, the German word “Judentum.” As the old Jewish saying goes, if prayer really worked, people would be paid to do it.
If the Council of Nicaea decision had gone the other way, belief in Jesus might have remained compatible with Judaism.
I get the historical reasons why Jews see belief in Jesus as a special case, an especially threatening prospect that renders the term Messianic Jew a contradiction whereas BuJu (Buddhist Jew) is fine. But just because something has happened one way for a long time doesn’t mean it can’t change. Dan Juster recalls the leading Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod predicting that Messianic Judaism would be accepted by mainstream Judaism in a couple of generations, so long as it doesn’t assimilate into mainstream Christianity and it continues to carry on Jewish traditions and scholarship. “It needs to prove itself,” he explained.
But perhaps the Jewish mainstream’s non-acceptance of Messianic Judaism is shaded not just by the religious question of What is Judaism, but also by the more hotly debated question of Who is a Jew? Different authorities vary on this. The Orthodox Jewish definition hinges entirely on matrilineal descent or conversion, and has nothing to do with belief, which actually supports the Messianic claim. Reform Judaism allows Jewish identity to be passed through the father. Israel’s Ministry of the Interior makes their own determinations of whether prospective immigrants are Jewish in the eyes of that country. Many Jewish thinkers reject the whole project of determining who is or isn’t Jewish. As Douglas Rushkoff offered me, “I don’t generally consider people ‘Jews’ or ‘not Jews.’ I mean, is there some party they can only attend if they’re official? Am I granting them Aliyah? I don’t know if nature or God categorizes things like this.”
Messianic Judaism is a mutt. It isn’t classy. And for
elitist Jews, this may be its ultimate heresy.
Instead of using strict religious or hereditary definitions of who is Jewish, many Jews use the metaphor of a family or a tribe. They’re proud to belong to this old and important family, and regarding Messianic Jews, perhaps they don’t want to be too permissive about whom the clan should adopt in. For all of its proud Nobel Prize winners, public intellectuals, and cultural machers, believing in Yeshua has no part in their Jewish identities. Messianic Judaism is a mutt. It isn’t classy. As Dan Juster describes it, it’s a wild-and-wooly movement that recalls what the Pentecostals were like 100 years ago. And for secular, elitist Jews who couldn’t care less about antiquated notions like religious beliefs, this may be the Messianic movement’s ultimate heresy.
But this view is basically vanity. It runs counter to the ongoing Jewish hope for a messiah, for a peaceful and just world where all people join the Jews in following God’s law. Jewish history is littered with the remnants of such hopes, but practically, Jews have always needed to put their own family first in order to survive — just like other nations, ethnicities, and religions.
Now I believe that Jews have the power and proper conditions to be more inclusive, like Jesus was. We can leave our defensiveness behind, step up, and engage our narrative talents with those of Messianic Jews, Palestinian Christians, and others to fulfill ancient prophecies, or at least leverage them, in order to make the world a better place. We can take a lesson from the early Christian narrators, canonized or otherwise, and invite anyone who feels estranged to belong to the same reconciled human family that we belong to.
We can engage our narrative talents to fulfill ancient prophecies, or at least leverage them to make the world a better place.
In processing what I learned about Messianic Judaism, I was inspired to write some religious fan fiction of my own. Munayer and Loden’s call for creating shared narratives should apply to stories about the future, I believe, as well as about the past. So here’s what the muses gave me when I pondered what tikkun olam might look like, and whether it has room for elitism, exclusivity, and old grudges.
Part 4: The Shattering Conclusion
As it is written, the Jewish nation was born out of a struggle with God coming to earth in human form. In Genesis 32:22–32, the patriarch Jacob confronts and wrestles a man whom he takes to be God. That’s the moment when he is named Israel. Some interpretations explain this confrontation as a metaphor; Jacob was alone and mentally wrestling with himself. Either way, this origin story suggests that Israel was destined to wrestle with God literally walking the Earth, or else just struggle with the idea of it.
And it shall come to pass that researchers develop a cheap DNA microarray that tests for Jewishness with a claimed accuracy of ±5%. Makes a great stocking stuffer! From this test, many Jewish-identified geneology buffs are surprised to learn that they do or do not not have matrilineal Jewish ancestry. And rabbis argue about whether an 0.8 or 0.9 confidence level should be the threshold for official Jewishness on the test, others take it as a sign to shift their focus to the more important gift from the Jews: understanding we are defined by the stories that we tell about ourselves, and that they are worth writing down. As anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj argues, knowledge about our genes can reinforce or change the narratives behind our sense of self, but it’s our choice either way.
This origin story suggests that Israel was destined to wrestle with God literally walking the Earth, or else just struggle with the idea of it.
In that day, a normative Jew has a Messianic Jewish neighbor and friend. Over the years, their personal connection evolves to include practicing Jewish traditions together, and the Jew starts to consider his friend a genuine part of the Jewish family — in spite of the dividing lines decreed from above.
The secular intelligentsia reconsiders its weekend morning ritual. They realize that going out to brunch and reading the Sunday New York Times at their own tables alienates them from their local community and implies the insignificance of anything that isn’t blessed to appear in the newspaper’s pages. Some join their local Sunday Assembly, while others start attending more traditional congregations, infusing them with new blood.
A secular general-interest publication breaks the taboo against scriptural references (John 1:1) cited inline in articles that are not about religion. Some readers are offended and stop subscribing, but more appreciate the connections into texts with ongoing cultural relevance, whether or not they believe. Other secular publications follow.
Reading the Sunday New York Times alienates them from their local community and implies the insignificance of anything that doesn’t appear in the newspaper’s pages.
Roll-your-own religionists come out of the closet, standing up to criticism from both traditionalists and atheists. Together, they create a Neo-Crackpot movement that shares and collaborates on new, morally-centered theologies which they then user-test as compatible or incompatible with the established religions in their own communities. The movement’s bottom-up creative dynamics recall the cross-pollination and memetic ferment of early Christianity. Contributors under current religious repression, who are on the front lines of the movement, participate via anonymization tools, while the global community of Neo-Crackpots have their backs.
A participant in the Open-Source Judaism movement, which seeks to further Judaism’s history of collaborative innovation using the metaphor of software development, writes what he calls a Messianic Judaism plug-in that ports belief in Jesus to Judaism. In the ensuing discussion, many participants come to consider Christianity and Islam as versions or flavors of Judaism, because they’re based on the same kernel, just as Debian and Ubuntu are based on Linux. Following this reasoning, they start referring to Christians and Muslims as Jews, in mixed company, hoping to win over anyone who might take offense through respectful discussion.
In the Holy Land, Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians develop an alliance for peace and shared narratives. Palestinian Muslims engage with the idea, backed by religious scholars like Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, that Islam represents a return to Jewish law and principles, in reaction to Christianity. Because Arabs and Jews alike trace their lineage to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, Arab Muslims have a greater claim to being Jewish than Christian Messianic Jews, and should be welcomed as citizens of a state with a combined Jewish / Jewish-Muslim population — a one-state solution with a Jewish-Muslim majority.
Christianity and Islam are versions of Judaism, because they’re based on the same kernel, just as Debian and Ubuntu are based on Linux.
Believers see an End Times reconciliation of the ancient family estrangement between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael. Palestinian Muslims convert en-mass to their own Islamic branch of Judaism and claim Israeli citizenship. The conversions are not initially recognized by the State of Israel, but they are supported by Israeli Messianic Jews, liberal Israeli Jews, and Palestinian Christians. Among participants and supporters, these conversions feel righteous and intoxicating, like a family breakthrough.
The love, acceptance, and hope are infectious. Israeli Jews talk about Jesus’s sacrifice again, and Jews everywhere are emotionally struck and convicted by the underlying truth of his story, regardless of doubts about his literal physical resurrection. They realize that all humanity and all life are loved, for want of a more exact term, in some way that exceeds the love that we have for each other and eludes the compartmentalization and replicability of science.
Battling Israel’s militant and protectionist old guard, the inclusionist reformers look back and wonder if their country took a wrong turn in its early years, when it became a predominantly Jewish “Jewish State” rather than a “state for the Jews” guided by democratic Jewish ideals. They wonder what Israel would be like if, back in 1949, Joseph Klausner had been elected its first president, rather than Chaim Weizmann. Klausner, a renowned Jesus scholar, criticized the Jews’ rejection of Jesus and considered Jesus to be “the Jewish moralist par excellence,” according to A Tale Of Love And Darkness, by Klausner’s nephew Amos Oz (which will soon be a movie directed by and starring Natalie Portman).
They wonder what Israel would be like if, back in 1949, Joseph Klausner had been elected its first president, rather than Chaim Weizmann.
Under increasing criticism at home and abroad, the defensive rhetoric of Israel’s old guard stops resonating. Fed up with ugliness, the Israeli electorate have a come-to-Jesus moment in which they embrace the Enlightenment ideal of separation of Church and State — or as Jesus put it, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They accept the Palestinian Muslim converts as Jews, and voluntarily surrender themselves to the view that all Abrahamic faiths are basically Judaism. With new confidence, they negotiate for a unified one-state solution. They realize that the great and final lesson of the Chosen People for the rest of the world, is that the antichrist of exceptionalism will never bear good fruit, no matter who nurtures it. God guided the Jews through much of history to demonstrate this to everyone, and after the lesson takes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
With an Arab majority in Israel, everyone argues about what the country’s name should be and what its flag should look like. The dispute threatens to derail the whole agreement until everyone realizes that they’re arguing about an abstract word and a piece of cloth. As a compromise, they decide to rename the country Zion, and with that, humanity reaches a higher level of consciousness. An era of peace begins.
The dispute threatens to derail the whole agreement until everyone realizes that they’re arguing about an abstract word and a piece of cloth.
To commemorate the occasion, the government of Zion decides to throw a massive party in Jerusalem that visually fulfills all End Time prophecies of the Abrahamic faiths. Watched remotely by all nations around the world, as prophesied, the spectacular outdoor show weaves together an aerial battle between the Christ and Anti-Christ, the Mahdi, trumpets, horsemen, angels, and all of the other far-out apocalyptic imagery. It’s like a bar mitzvah party for all of humanity, and former nonbelievers are astonished at how it all came to pass, through these chosen people, just as promised thousands of years ago when Abraham put God above his son Isaac.
God smiles. After a rocky adolescence, His children are finally grown up, ready to obey the law, and as Monty Python’s Life Of Brian puts it, all work it out for themselves. That was His plan all along — and indeed what every parent wants.
Whither Messianic Judaism?
Provable facts stand on their own and are easy to believe, but stories and beliefs that strain credulity require constant maintenance. This gives them the beautiful effect of inspiring community and mutual personal support, where people help each other believe together. No one needs to repeatedly surround themselves with others saying that the sun and the moon exist.
That’s why, so long as we are capable of loving each other unquestioningly, we will bind ourselves together with far-out and unprovable notions that resonate with our hearts and provide hope. If atheists want to appeal to more people, they need to come up with an adequate substitute.
By themselves, beliefs don’t do anything tangibly important, at least not in this life. They don’t directly feed, clothe, shelter, teach, or heal people. But I believe that they are still worth working on with self-conscious attention because they underlie, and undergird, how we identify ourselves. And if we can modify the basic categories that seed our emergent and ever-changing fractal of social identification, we can make more people feel included rather than marginalized, and provide a framework within which people are more willing to help one another.
So long as we are capable of loving each other unquestioningly, we will bind ourselves together with far-out and unprovable notions.
My unprovable, possibly far-out, but hopeful belief is that Jews will some day accept Messianic Jews as their own, and that this brave example will help inspire people all over the world to creatively re-think long-held categories and narratives in a conscious and positively transformative way. Jesus may or may not be personally involved in this transformation, but if there’s an afterlife as promised, I hope he is. I shared this hope with Dan Juster, including my “Party Time” End Times vision above, and wondered whether he would object to its not being Messianically correct. He didn’t— he liked it and thought it was interesting, and said that such a scenario is indeed possible, so long as people can empathize with views that they do not hold.
Even if mainstream Jews come to accept and appreciate Messianics without its sparking any grand transformation, which is the normal and likely scenario, I think that would also be good. For any Jews who view such a change as a threat to their survival, I will point them to the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor: “I will survive, I will survive. As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive.”
[Sidebar: How to Know the Truth]
*Footnote — a note about word usage:
Ultimately, this is a story about words; in particular, the word “Jew” and its etymological kin. The questions “Who is a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” are old ones, but as with any other semantic debate, the answer is to unpack what each word represents in the worldviews of the people who disagree on it, and identify the differences underneath.
As biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use. The mere presence in the dictionary of a word… does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world.”
Definitions vary, so for simplicity throughout this article I will refer to Jews, rabbis, salvation, and other concepts directly, without questioning their use by the people I report on. I leave it as an exercise for you, gentle reader, to supply any quotation marks needed to frame these usages in a way that conforms to your own model of how the world works.
Thanks to Ed Baum, Chris Becktold, Gordon Becktold, Lynda Becktold, Wendy Becktold, Timon Birkhofer, Laura Cochrane, Thomas Coohill, Skye Corbett, Andrew Day, Brian Elson, Susan Esterly, Maureen Fitzgerald, Mark Frauenfelder, Robert Fung, Grace Gellerman, Tom Giesler, Mark Glaser, Adam Gomolin, Travis Good, Blake Hampson, J. D. Henry, Jeff Herzbach, Peter Hopkinson, the Inkshares team, Amandeep Jawa, Jenny Kassan, Lowell Kaufman, Harold Lee, Thomas Metcalf, Mike Miller, Sarah Minor-Massy, Liz Pallatto, Matt Payne, Gwyan Rhabyt, David Rudolph, Jonathan Sandlund, Noran Sanford, Sean Scullion, Michael Shuman, Sarah Marie Smith, Julian David Stone, Jonna Tamases, Amy Tanner, Jeremy Thomas, Brian Tierney, Vanessa Warheit, Ben Watts, Kirk Woerner, and Thad Woodman for generously supporting this writing project on Inkshares.
Thanks to Daniel Boyarin, Charlie Cohen, Barnaby Conrad III, Jennifer Epstein, Adam Gomolin, Dan Juster, Barney Kasden, David Kasher, Jessica Carew Kraft, David Lazarus, David Levine, Michael Mautner, Boaz Michael, Mike Miller, Charles Neveu, Gad Pratt, Russ Resnik, David Rudolph, Douglas Rushkoff, Russel Smith, and Aaron Trank for helpful discussion, input, and interviews.
Thanks to Barnaby Conrad III, Mark Glaser, Adam Gomolin, Dan Juster, Michael Mautner, Charles Neveu, and Stephen Rumph for helpful reading and feedback on draft versions.
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