“Jews” for Jesus? No Way!
The term “pluralistic institution” can often seem quite oxymoronic.
Pluralism is generally defined as a state where two or more worldviews, groups, or sources of authority can co-exist without much strife. An institution is generally defined as an establishment centered around a single set of values, authority, or goal.
It is therefore no surprise that many pluralistic institutions are often faced with existential questions of their own limitations and Jewish pluralistic institutions are no exception. Maintaining the dual identity of being both Jewish and pluralistic can be a difficult task as it creates implicit questions that constantly hover over the institution.
What standard of Jewish practice should we uphold?
Who is Jewish and how is it defined?
What does it even mean to be Jewish?
And, finally, who gets to decide the answers to these questions?
These are all difficult issues that pluralistic Jewish institutions have been wrestling with for years and inevitably one group’s answers will differ from those of the next.
However, there seems to be one issue where there is near unanimous agreement (a rarity in the Jewish world) and that is in the rejection of Jews for Jesus or Messianic Jews from the umbrella of pluralism.
Now it is important to make something clear at the outset. If an individual is born Jewish, he or she is Jewish regardless of their theological or communal choices. The Talmud and rabbinic literature is clear that even a Jewish convert to Christianity remains Jewish - as Judaism is not just a religion but rather an ethnicity. Furthermore, a Jewish individual who has accepted Jesus will still be personally welcome in a pluralistic Jewish institution - it is their “flavor” of Judaism that will be rejected and not normalized. Almost no Jewish institution will allow a Messianic service alongside the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or even secular one.
Let that sink in. The vast majority of Jewish institutions would much sooner allow a humanistic (or atheist) service than a Messianic one. Why is this so?
In an article I wrote a little over a year ago I attempted to tackle the question of pinpointing the greatest common intellectual denominator between the various Jewish denominations. Questions of theology, applicability of Jewish law, politics, Israel, and ethics are all sources of intense disagreement between the various denominations so the prospects for finding a common denominator seems difficult if not impossible.
After crossing off a multiplicity of choices, I offered up the idea that it is within our Jewish intellectual heritage where a single strand runs throughout all Jewish denominations. When it comes to Jewish literature, leaders and people across denominations read, know, discuss, and cherish the stories, morals, and ideas throughout. We have conversations discussing the many implications, whether philosophical, epistemological, or historical of these works. What’s more is that at some level we all agree that there is some fundamental truth to be gleaned from the pages of Jewish literature. While the nature and extent of this truth may differ, truth is truth nonetheless.
In that article I concluded that
“The trans-denominational attachment to the Bible and Jewish literature represents something greater than just a couple of stories or even a book that can unite us….In some sense, we can view Judaism as one massive book club, where we have all been reading the same books for thousands of years. The thing that can unite the various denominations is our infatuation and connection with these stories. In this light, it is actually beneficial that there are so many different denominations and communities within the umbrella of Judaism.”
I would like to propose that Jews for Jesus are not shunned from the mainstream Jewish community because they have iconoclastic theological beliefs. I have met Chabad Rabbis who swear on that fact that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah, Reform Jews who view yoga as the most ideal form of Jewish worship, and atheist Jews who laugh at anything theological whatsoever. All of these views which are accepted into the pluralistic community, in addition to many, many others, point to the fact that theological beliefs alone do not warrant a disinvitation from the pluralistic Jewish table.
Rather it is for the reason of a lack of shared intellectual history that I would never normalize Jews for Jesus within the Jewish community. The vast majority of historical information and literature about Jesus comes from either the New Testament or early Church Fathers - books outside of the Jewish canon. Jews for Jesus are not simply Jews who think that Jesus is the messiah. They are individuals who are attempting to appropriate the label of “Jewish” while applying it to something that is fundamentally non-Jewish, for if one was only using the corpus of the Jewish literary tradition (as opposed to also the Christian one), the conclusion that Jesus is the messiah and/or God would simply be impossible. In other words, the conclusion that Jesus is the messiah and/or God necessitates the use of another literary tradition.
That said this conversation does open up an array of questions regarding the definition of a legitimate Jewish movement. Like most real-life cases, the boundaries of this definition are ill-defined, although there are clear outer and inner cases that can be pinpointed as I have tried to argue above. It seems to me that if an individual or group of Jews want to create a new movement, and they do so with connection to the Jewish literary tradition, they should be welcomed into the Jewish community regardless of any non-standard forms of practice or theological and ethical views.
Now, of course, while I personally identify as post-denominational I do not believe that all denominations within Judaism are created equal (perhaps this is a topic for a future article). But, assuming they would fit my criteria above, I would advocate for them to be welcomed into the pluralistic Jewish community. And it is for these same reasons that I would never, never defend the normalization of Messianic Jewry within Judaism.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Both my parents are Jewish. I live as a Jew, embrace Jewish values and culture, and believe in Jesus as the Messiah. I identify as a Messianic Jew My question: Most rabbis dispute the validity of my faith and assert that I have lost my right to be called a Jew. I am troubled and perplexed by this prejudice. Why is there an empathetic understanding towards Messianic Chabadniks or Jewish Buddhists (JUBUs) but not towards Messianic Jews? Why am I ostracized while secular, atheist and non-believing Jews are accepted? [Administrator's note: A very similar question was posted and answered at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=139. Messianics are not Jews by the definition of any branch of Judaism.]
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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