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.]
Messianic Judaism if defined as "the religion of Jewish people who believe in Jesus (Yeshua) as the promised Messiah” is both a Jewish form of Christianity and a Christian form of Judaism. Messianic Jews view themselves as heirs and continuers of Jesus' early followers. They take pride in their Jewish roots, use Jewish symbols, celebrate Jewish holidays, and conduct prayers on Shabbat (see below Appendix B for a fuller description).
Although Jewish groups across the denominational spectrum often view Messianic Judaism as a disingenuous form of Christianity, your question about acceptance was raised in a sympathetic way some 15 years ago by two rabbis who are also academic scholars. Reform Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, argued for a “pluralistic model” whereby Messianic Judaism could be seen “as one among many expressions of the Jewish faith”. Cohn-Sherbok contended that Messianic Judaism is no more inauthentic than other forms of contemporary Jewish life. Similarly, Reconstructionist Rabbi Carol Harris Shapiro undertook an ethnographic study in 1990-1991 at Messianic congregation Beth Yeshua in Philadelphia, and visited congregations in Maryland, Florida and Israel. Her conclusion was that it is difficult to find a logical reason to single out Messianic Judaism for rejection given the Jewish community's tacit acceptance of secular humanistic Jews and Jewish Buddhists.
Half a year later, Messianic Judaism was debated in The Jerusalem Report (Jan. 31, 2000, pg. 56). Messianist Rabbi David Chernoff contended that belief in Jesus is justified biblically:
… Ancient Jewish prophets spoke of one who would come from Bethlehem and whose origins are eternal (Micah 5:1). They spoke of a messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of his people. (Isaiah 53:6). Another startling prophecy stated that the messiah must come before the destruction of the (Second) Temple (Daniel 9:24-27)… we believe that we have found the long-promised messiah of Israel and that our faith is Biblical Judaism.
Rabbi David Rosen, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, attacked Chernoff’s claim as deceitfully obscuring Christian doctrine:
… Instead of marketing the intentionally duplicitous slogan of "Jews for Jesus," those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is divine and that belief in him is essential for personal salvation should come clean and present themselves as Christians. While I am committed to Jewish-Christian understanding, I am certainly opposed to Jews who have become Christians claiming that they are simply part of the Jewish religious spectrum, for this is nothing short of deceit.
Chernoff proceeded to defend the inclusion of Jesus in his belief system:
… Messianic Jews are born Jews and will die Jews. We have our own synagogues, observe the Shabbat, celebrate the Jewish festivals, keep many of the traditions of our people and raise our children to be Jewish. We are ardent Zionists…. We also believe that there will be a "spiritual restoration" of Israel and believe that Messianic Judaism is a reflection of that awakening (Ezekiel 36:24-25). Yeshua did not come as the conquering messiah (Mashiah ben David) but as the suffering messiah (Mashiah ben Yosef)…. We believe that he is coming again to reign over the entire earth from Jerusalem.
Rosen admitted that technically Chernoff is defined halachically as Jewish, but argued that these Christian beliefs contradict Judaism:
The Talmud states (Sanhedrin 44a) that an Israelite, though he may sin, remains an Israelite. Accordingly, it is true that from a halakhic standpoint, one who is born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew, whatever faith or ideology he may profess. The issue here, however, is not the halakhic status of a Jew who has accepted Christian beliefs but whether those beliefs may be considered to be Jewish. The answer to this question is an unequivocal "no." … the doctrines of the Incarnation, Jesus' atonement for the sins of man, the Trinity and so forth are recognized throughout the world as Christian beliefs. So while you may choose not to call yourself Christian, it is still devious to present your beliefs as legitimately Jewish.
These discussions took place in 1999-2000. Now in 2014 it seems that attitudes are changing with a growing rate of interfaith marriages. The recent 2013 Pew survey found that 32% of American Jews have a Christmas tree. But more strikingly, it discovered that 58% of the Jews who became married from 2005 until 2013 had selected non Jewish life partners. That means that more than half of all Jews are intermarrying. Some conduct high profile interfaith ceremonies such as the $3 million wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky performed jointly by Reverend William Shillady, a Methodist minister, and Rabbi James Ponet, a Yale University Jewish chaplain ordained at Hebrew Union College. Recently (April 2014) Chelsea announced that she is expecting a baby. According to the Reform policy of "patrilineality", their baby would be considered Jewish unless they overtly practice Christianity.
While the Pew report identified the adult Jewish population in the USA as 5.3 million, it also categorized an additional 1.2 million Americans as having “Jewish affinity,” i.e. identify themselves as Jewish despite not being Jewish by religion or not having a Jewish family background. Messianic Jews were relegated to this category of “Jewish affinity”.
What is fascinating is that a third (34%) of the Pew respondents would accept Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah as Jews. Russ Resnik, director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, interprets this to mean that the general Jewish community “is receiving and friendly” although the gatekeepers are more “vigilant”.
Findings like these point to the emergence of a hazy category between Judaism and Christianity, a blurring of boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. Sara Bunin Benor, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who acted as an adviser to the Pew study concluded: “More people than in the past believe that you can be both Jewish and Christian.” Similarly, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, predicts that within the next dozen years, there will be a recognized religious category between Judaism and Christianity of people who feel Jewish but accept Christian doctrines regarding Jesus’ status as the Messiah and the concept of the holy trinity. So it would seem that with current trends of Christian influences, the opposition to Jewish Messianics will begin to soften in parts of Judaism.
Question: Will more Rabbis who pride themselves on being all-inclusive open doors to thousands of self-identified Jews who are observing forms of Christianity? Will the next Pew Report allow Messianic Jews to be categorized as Jews? If so, will this create acrimonious debate within Judaism? (See my response to a similar question at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/493). The question although provocative raises intriguing issues in defining theology, identity and the future of Judaism.
Appendix A: Christianity and Judaism as Mutually Exclusive
Christianity and Judaism are considered to be distinct religions, often competing, and usually mutually exclusive. Over centuries missionaries tried to convert Jews. Disputations were initiated to prove the superiority of Christianity. Forced debates were a feature of medieval Jewish life, often with dire consequences. For example, in Christian Spain in the Middle Ages, Jews were challenged to confess the inferiority of Judaism in Barcelona 1263, Burgos and Avila in 1375 and in Tortosa 1413-1414, When tens of thousands of Jews converted to Christianity in 1391 and 1414, most did so out of fear. As a result, the conversos (New Christians or Marranos) were suspected of living double lives, a charge that led to the Inquisition and eventually to the expulsion in 1492. The paradigm that developed over the centuries is that the two religions were competing allegiances that could not be combined.
Therefore it is not surprising that the Jewish community is adamantly opposed to the idea that one can convert to Christianity and still remain a Jew. Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in The Real Messiah, http://bit.ly/W2wlZz, published in 1976 by “Jews For Judaism” as a response to the missionary activities of “Jews for Jesus”, writes on page 11:
A Jew who accepts Christianity is no longer a Jew and can no longer be counted as part of a Jewish Congregation. Conversion to another faith is an act of religious treason. It is one of the worst possible sins that a Jew can commit. Along with murder and incest, it is one of the three cardinal sins which may not be violated even under pain of death. A Jew must give his life rather than embrace Christianity.
Similarly, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles declared: “it is dishonest, deliberately or inadvertently, to say that one can live in a Jewish faith community and accept another scripture or accept a different God.” Wolpe explained recently: “A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years….The sudden rise of ‘Messianic Jews’ owes more to a clever way of misleading untutored Jews than to making theological sense”.
So also, the Reform movement stated emphatically:
For us in the Jewish community anyone who claims that Jesus is their savior is no longer a Jew and is an apostate... Such individuals should not be accorded membership in the congregation or treated in any way which makes them appear as if they were affiliated with the Jewish community....
This response is not surprising because historically, "Jewish" and "Christian" denoted alien communities, often at battle. Today also, Christian doctrinal belief is perceived as a missionary threat more than other religions because the polemics announce that Biblical scripture points to Jesus as the Messiah thereby promoting “truth claims” that strike at the core of Jewish faith. Messianic Jews are challenging the authoritative interpretations of the Bible while JUBUS are not. Thus, a Messianic Jews’ belief that the Torah leads to Jesus is at loggerheads with traditional Jewish theology. From a Jewish perspective, a Jew who converted was an apostate and his family would sit shiva in mourning over the lost Jew. Thus it is not too surprising when Messianic Judaism is accused of hiding a missionary agenda. Organizations like “Jews For Judaism” (http://www.jewsforjudaism.ca/home) accuse “Jews for Jesus” as deceitfully attracting Jews to Christianity. “Jews for Judaism East” founded in 1983 has as its goal “To educate on deceptive missionary tactics targeting Jews for conversion”. They warn of the dangers implicit in the few hundred Messianic congregations in the USA (http://j4jeast.org/messianic-jewish-congregations). Similarly, http://outreachjudaism.org/ founded by Rabbi Tovia Singer is “to respond directly and effectively to unyielding Christian missionaries who specifically target Jews for conversion”.
Thus, it is easy to see why Jewish leaders feel that Christian doctrinal belief is inimical to Judaism and is a missionary threat more than other religions. “Jews for Jesus” proclaimed: “We exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide”. True, that Jewish Messianists are very different than Evangelical Jews for Jesus, but they are similar in advancing a polemical statement that Biblical scripture points to Jesus as the Messiah and they thus promote “truth claims” that would seem to be inimical to the very core of Jewish faith.
Appendix B: “Messianic Judaism”
Beginning in the late 1960s counterculture revolution and the “Jews for Jesus” movement, thousands of American Jews converted to Christianity. Today it is estimated that there are 150,000 Jewish believers in Jesus worldwide of which more than 100,000 are in the USA, 25,000 in Europe and 10,000 in Israel. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) is a Messianic Jewish organization which connects and supports Messianic Jewish congregations, mostly in the United States and it has about 70 or 80 congregations and some 20,000 members. Their commitment to Yeshua as the Messiah embraces “the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant”. About 150 congregations are listed in IAMCS (International Alliance of Messianic Congregations & Synagogues), most in the United States. Within IAMCS is the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA).
Appendix C: Previous Responses on JVO About Messianic Judaism
In a previous JVO question about Messianic Jews, http://bit.ly/1t7Qls5, the three respondents were unanimous in not accepting “Messianic Jews” as Jews. Reform Rabbi John Sherwood stated unequivocally that “Messianic Jews” are either intellectually deluded or just as dishonest as Jews for Jesus. Orthodox Rabbi Alan Yuter concluded that “If these Messianic Jews pray to Jesus as a god, they are idolaters who do not count in the minyan”. Conservative Rabbi David Bockman critiqued Messianic Jews for believing that Jesus was the messiah despite clear “evidence of failure”, but argued that “they become a danger” only when they recruit Jews for their movement and “siphon resources (financial and otherwise)” from mainstream Judaism.
In a JVO question on accepting Jesus as Messiah, http://bit.ly/U5HfMz, Reform Rabbi Joshua Strom defines a person who accepts Jesus as a personal savior and messiah as having deserted Judaism to become a Christian. Conservative Rabbi Ute Steyer requires the renegade who accepted Jesus to “renounce his/her apostasy in front of three witnesses and to immerse in a ritual bath”. Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Leonard Oppenheimer thinks that “it is often the fault of the Jewish community that has not provided as welcoming and loving an environment in its synagogues as can be found in so called Messianic Temples”. He implores “any Jewish person considering adoption of the Christian faith to first study the material available at www.jewsforjudaism.org or at www.outreachjudaism.org.
In a related question, http://bit.ly/1sDE62A, on selling a tallit to a Messianic, all three denominational representatives are against this. Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky rules that a religion centered upon the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is not Judaism and therefore selling tzitzit to a Messianic Jew is aiding apostasy and deceptive behavior (false advertising) because “we ought not do anything that helps them persuade others that one can be a good Jew and a Christian at one and the same time”. Conservative Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen does not allow sale of such a tallit if the Messianic might trick an observer into thinking that this is an authentic form of Judaism. Orthodox Rabbi Ben Hecht is against affixing tzitzit to a Messinic’s prayer shawl so as to not to “desecrate Torah values” and not to be involved in the manipulation of Torah into another religious system.
Most recently on JVO http://bit.ly/1oeHIW6, Rabbi Joseph Blair reiterated that Messianic Jews “are simply not Jewish, are not accepted as Jews and never will be”:
They are Christians who worship Jesus. The two faiths are completely incompatible; one cannot hold both and be faithful to either. Anyone claiming otherwise is either completely deluded themself, or attempting to deceive others.
 Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2009. Harvey is a Messianic Jew and serves as academic dean at All Nations Christian College, in Ware, Hertfordshire, England. See his website - www.mmjt.eu
 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Messianic Judaism: A Critical Anthology, London, 2000. Idem, (ed.), Voices of Messianic Judaism: Confronting Critical Issues Facing a Maturing Movement, Baltimore, 2001.
 Carol Harris-Shapiro, Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi's Journey through Religious Change in America, Beacon Press, Boston, 1999. Shapiro received rabbinical ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1988 and a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University in 1992. She is currently an assistant Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Gratz College.
 The Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews was conducted by phone among 3,475 Jews in America from Feb. 20-June 13, 2013. See http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
 Ron Kampeas, “Has the time come to accept Messianic Jews?” The Times of Israel, November 20, 2013, http://bit.ly/TrZdIC
 See http://bit.ly/TEXX5o - Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Boundaries Blur Between Jews and Christians in Shocking Ways - Christmas Trees Common — Even Belief in Jesus as 'Messiah'”, The Jewish Daily Forward, October 11, 2013.
 Contemporary American Reform Responsa, #68, http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/10-Reform/section-15.html. Compare The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) position not to accept Messianic Jewish congregations although “individual members of Messianic Jewish congregations may consider themselves Jews”. See CCAR Responsa # 150, “Marriage with a Messianic Jew,” vol. XCI, 1981, pp. 67-69.
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, David J. Rudolph, Joel Willitts, Zondervan, 2013, pg. 31. Compare Russ Resnick’s statement in Kampeas, Has the time come.
Your question is a good and fair one and deserves to be answered respectfully.
To begin with— there is no such thing as losing one’s right to be called a Jew. A Jew is a person who is born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism. There is no mechanism in Jewish law for stripping a person of their preexisting Jewish identity— even a person who is placed under a ban of excommunication is still a Jew, albeit one who has been excluded from the community. You are and will always be Jewish.
That said, Messianic Judaism has been defined by the entire body of Jewish community— with strikiningly unusual unanimity— as being outside of the bounds of normative Jewish theology. While Jesus may be respected as a wise and thoughtful teacher, it is incompatible with Judaism to believe that God incarnated in the person of Jesus, since this is the precise definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Claiming to practice Judaism while believing that God incarnated in the person of Jesus is akin to claiming to be a vegetarian while continuing to eat meat, or claiming to be celibate while continuing to have sex. To Jewish ears, it is simply a contradiction in terms.
Bottom line: No one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot believe. You absolutely have the right to continue to practice Jewish rituals and identify with your Jewish heritage and to maintain your belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Such beliefs do not make you a bad person, nor do they invalidate your inherited Jewish identity.
However, and this is a big however, the collective Jewish community (like any community) does retain the right to define its own boundaries and borders. It is not fair to demand equal recognition for a belief system that has been deemed incompatible with Judaism’s core identity. This is particularly the case when the belief system you espouse already has a name, and that is Christianity.
The reasons Messianics are not Jews and will not be accepted have been stated multiple times. [For a summary listing of what others have said on JVO, see Rabbi Ophir's detailed answer to this question.]
It seems to me that you are actually not asking why Judaism doesn't accept your faith and include you, but instead claiming it is 'not fair' that you can't have what you want, when others (JuBus, for example) are accepted.
I would respond by pointing out that you are trying to compare those (such as yourself) who have a completely foreign theology and faith with those (the others you mention) who have not rejected or severed their ties to Judaism or Jewish belief.
The Chabadniks you mention have not claimed that the Rebbe was G-d (Heaven forfend!), or if any of them have, I (and I hope the entire Jewish world) would reject them as Jews, just as I do Messianics.
Atheists claim there is no G-d, but they do not worship another.
JuBus hold the Buddha as a teacher who was enlightened, perhaps even perfected, but not as G-d.
Your analogy is flawed, and inapplicable.
No one is challenging your faith. Rabbi Greenwald puts it well. You can believe what you wish, and live as you wish. We do, however, reject that you can be a Jew if you hold that faith, and object to you trying to claim a place in our community.
I would say that to call yourself a Jew is at best misleading, and more often simply deceptive and false. As an ethical choice, it would seem to me that if you hold your Christian beliefs sincerely, you would want to be open and upfront about them, and not be engaged in trying to mislead others about who/what you are and what you believe.
You have made your choice of belief. Live by it, and please stop trying to claim something you rejected and walked away from as still yours.
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