WHAT'S IN A NAME
Hebrew Christian, Jewish Christian, Jew for Jesus, Messianic Jew, Fulfilled Jew. The name may have changed over the course of time, but all of the names reflect the same phenomenon: one who asserts that s/he is straddling the theological fence between Judaism and Christianity, but in truth is firmly on the Christian side.
Over the centuries, Jews who converted to Christianity left behind their Jewish heritage. Some returned to the community to attempt to convert other Jews to their form of Christianity, but the Christianity they offered was devoid of Jewish content, of Jewish imagery, and of Jewish connections. Beginning, however, a few decades ago, a new phenomenon emerged: Jews who meta-physically wanted to have their cake and to eat it, too. They adopted Christianity but brought along Jewish trappings, perhaps to make the abandonment of their natal religion more palatable. Hence they conduct their services on Shabbat instead of Sunday, they hold sederim, albeit with a few significant changes (i.e., the three Matzot symbolize the Trinity); they wear kippot and tallitot; they pray and chant in Hebrew and more. These converts to Christianity (and that is what they are) pose both an enigma and a serious challenge to the Jewish community. Though they may argue that they are reviving the pattern of the early Jewish Christians, a great theological divide separates them from their so-called theological ancestors and most importantly from those of us still firmly in the Jewish community.
What are we to make of these people? They often appear to be more observant of Jewish ritual than many other Jews, including members of our own congregation. Shouldn't we welcome them? There is a rabbinic declaration to the effect that a Jew remains a Jew though he sins. (Sanhedrin 44a) Although this is true, nevertheless, we must affirm as did the Israeli Supreme Court in the well-known Brother Daniel case that to adopt Christianity is to have crossed the line out of the Jewish community.
What follows are highlights of the points in contention; demonstrating how Messianic Jews have indeed crossed the line out of the Jewish community.
MISTAKEN JEWISH NOTIONS OF THE MESSIAH
MESSIANISM. Don't we Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah? Yes, we do. At our seder we make arrangements for Elijah, the fore-runner of the Messiah. Similarly, in Havdalah we sing about Eliyahu HaNavi coming to us as a foreshadowing of the messianic era. Several prayers refer to the Messiah. For example, in the weekday Amidah we find the following passage: "Bring to flower the shoot of your servant David. Hasten the advent of Messianic redemption.".
Historically, of course, Jews have labeled various men as the Mashiach (the Hebrew term). In the second century, many Jews believed that Simeon Bar Kosiba, better known by his messianic name Bar Kokhba, to have been the awaited redeemer. Similarly, countless Jews believed that the 17th century pretender Shabbtai Tsvi was the Mashiach. Some of the great rabbis of these and other ages were beguiled and seduced by the prospect of having the messiah in their midst. Ultimately, they, and those who believed in these men and the many other claimants were wrong. Though the messianic era did not dawn, that did not make these messianic believers any less Jewish.
How is it different then with people who believe in Y'shua (their designation for Jesus)? Why should the assertion that Jesus was the messiah place a Jew outside of the community, any more than other mistaken messianic beliefs?
First is the assertion that Jesus remains the messiah, though dead for over 19 centuries. Judaism has held that the Mashiach will come and usher in a new era; not that he will proclaim his arrival, die and wait centuries to finish his task. To continue to assert that Jesus was the Mashiach goes against the belief that the Mashiach will transform the world when he does come, not merely hint at a future transformation at some undefined time to come. One should note that a substantial part of Christian Bible scholarship recognizes that the claims for Jesus' return were of a very temporal nature. For example, Luke 9:27 declares that the kingdom of God will arrive while some of those whom Jesus is addressing are still alive. This is one example that underlying the Christian Bible is a sense of imminent messianism, not one deferred for two millennia. For this reason alone, one must look askance at the claims of current Messianic Jews that Jesus is the Mashiach. We would admit that the claim by some in Lubavitch that the late Rebbe was the Mashiach and continues to be active in that role, though deceased since Tammuz 5754/June, 1994, undermines this argumentation. Therefore, it is no wonder that many in the Jewish community including many within Lubavitch itself are sorely disturbed by these beliefs. This false belief, however, has not impelled its believers to abandon their fidelity to Jewish praxis.
Secondly, it is acting upon those beliefs. When some Jews continued to believe that despite his conversion to Islam that Shabbtai Tsvi was the Mashiach, the rabbis of that era made an effort to suppress them. The religious leadership was adamant because the believers asserted that with Shabbtai Tsvi a new era had begun. For his followers things previously forbidden were not permitted, in particular forbidden sexual acts.
Christianity has made the bolder assertion, that Jesus ushered in a new era, one in which Halakhah, Jewish law, is no longer of significance. What matters is but faith and belief in Jesus, as Romans 10:11 asserts: "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." Belief in Jesus as the divine messiah and son of God is all that is necessary. Messianic Jews accept this belief but recognize that some Jewish observances are permissible if it makes the "product" more palatable. Judaism rejects the claim that a new covenant was created with Jesus and asserts instead that the chain of Tradition reaching back to Moshe continues to make valid claims on our lives, and serve as more than mere window dressing.
The use of Hebrew. "Y'shua makes me more Jewish" is one of their assertions. We would argue that giving Jesus a Hebrew name does not make their beliefs any more Jewish than before. More problematic in terms of appeal, but none the less still "unkosher" as an approach in Judaism. Similarly, reciting prayers in Hebrew doesn't ensure membership in the Jewish community. If Israeli Christians recite their prayers in Hebrew, that does not make them Jewish.
The use of Jewish objects and ceremonies. They may pray with tallit and kippah, they may designate their religious leaders as "rabbis", they may light Hanukah candles, etc.; none of that vouchsafes their acceptability. They have taken the externals of Judaism and altered them. Their prayers include mention of Jesus and/or of the Holy Spirit. Ceremonies are given Christological spins. As previously noted, the three matzot of the Seder have come to symbolize the Trinity and the Seder itself is seen as a recollection of the Last Supper.
The use of Biblical citations by Messianic Jews as prooftexts. This practice goes back to the Christian Bible which used texts from the Tanakh in a midrashic fashion, wrenching verses and fragments of sentences out of context and applying them to the mission of Jesus. For our purposes here it is enough to know that Biblical verses are frequently misused as proof texts by midrashically minded authors.
MISUSE, MISINTERPRET AND
Example #1. We begin with the classic, "A virgin shall conceive" cited in Matthew 1:23. In our text from Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word translated as virgin is "Almah", which means young woman not virgin. There is a perfectly good Hebrew word for virgin: "Betulah". It is conceivable that behind that Greek text there was an alternative textual tradition which in fact had "Betulah", but that foray into textual analysis takes us astray and is not even the essence of the argument. We would hasten to note that the child born is given the name Jesus not Emanuel as per Isaiah. Beyond the issue of language is the issue of the message. Isaiah offered his prophecy as one of hope to King Ahaz in the late eighth century B.C.E. What kind of hope would have been implicit in a message whose fulfillment would be 700 years in the making? "How could Ahaz receive consolation from prophecy, the fulfillment of which he was not to live to see?" (Isaac of Troki, Faith Strengthened, p.231) By and large, if one reviews the words of the prophets, the visions are not for some far distant time, but for the proximate future.
Example #2. A few verses earlier in the same gospel, Matthew 1:14 and 15, we find a description of the "flight into Egypt", where Jesus and his family remained until the time of Herod's death "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying 'out of Egypt have I called my son.'" The quotation from the prophet Hosea is clearly a distortion of the original text. The full verse in Hosea 11:1 proclaims: "When Israel was young I did love it; and out of Egypt I called my son." It is obvious that for the prophet Hosea the son is none other than the people of Israel mentioned in the first half of the verse.
Example #3. In speaking of Jesus' resurrection, Luke 24:46 cites as prooftext Hosea 6:2 "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead." The first issue is that of chronology: Sunday, the day of the resurrection, was only the second day. (In Matthew 12:40, Jonah 1:17 is cited as proof of Jesus's forthcoming three day and night burial before resurrection. Clearly, this citation is even more problematic in terms of matching elapsed time with predicted time and even less relevant to Jesus' mission as it speaks of being "in the belly of the fish", not of death.) Secondly, it is clear that the reference point of Hosea is not to the revival of the messiah (Christ is simply the Greek word for messiah capitalized), but rather to the revival of the people of Israel as is clear from the previous verse (Hosea 6:1): "Come, let us return to God, Although he tore us apart he will heal us. Although he smashed us, he will bandage us."
Example #4. Isaiah 53, often referred to as the chapter about the suffering servant, has been applied to Jesus, beginning with the Christian Bible Epistles and the Gospels. (So, for example, I Peter 2: 24-25 and Matthew 8:17.) Modern scholarship is sharply divided as to the identity of the servant but we would cite John L. McKenzie who wrote in his Anchor Bible: Second Isaiah commentary: "The Servant is not the same figure as the Messiah, but a parallel figure which as it stands, cannot be reconciled with the messianic king. A higher synthesis of the two figures, such as Christians believe was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, was not within the vision of the prophets of the Jewish Bible. Each figure, it seems, reflects the period of Israelite history in which it arose..." (pp. il-l)
Note. Unless you are very familiar with Biblical texts, do not attempt to debate. We have offered but a few of the many Biblical citations found in Christian Scripture (New Testament) literature and used by those who wish to mislead Jews unfamiliar with the entire corpus of Biblical literature. There are many more!
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN JUDAISM AND MESSIANIC JEWS
- Adoption of Christian Testament as part of their scriptural tradition. Messianic Jews may still refer to the Tanakh by that name or by Hebrew Scripture, but that does not disguise the fact they have grafted onto their canon the Christian Scripture (New Testament). Whether they read it in Hebrew or in English is irrelevant. The Christian Scripture (New Testament) has never been part of the Jewish Biblical tradition.
- The adoption of the Christian concept of original sin. In brief form the concept is that we are all sinful from birth because of the sin of the first couple and only the sacrificial cleansing blood of Jesus can remove this stain. This is contrary to Jewish belief which asserts that we are born with free will and each of is the author of our own life. Adam and Eve sinned and they were punished by exile from Eden. The taint of their sin has not been transmitted through the genes.
- The Pascal (Passover) sacrifice was not a sin offering. The association in the Gospel of John of Jesus with the pascal sacrifice is faulty. For example, John 19:36 cites "Not a bone of him shall be broken". This is a reference to the protocol for the pascal lamb found in Exodus 12:46. (The idea of Jesus as pascal sacrifice appears also in the Pauline epistle, I Corinthians 5:7.) One should also know that the other three Gospels place the crucifixion a day later, on the first day of Passover, posing a problem for Christian Biblical exegesis in terms of reconciling the divergent traditions.
- Jesus/Y'shua as part of the Trinity. When we proclaim the opening words of the Sh'ma, we assert God's unity as the heart of our faith. No theological fudging of three-in-one will allow for the transformation of the One God into three distinct personalities of God. It is true that we speak of different characteristics of God: God as compassionate; God as just. Furthermore it is true that the mystics speak of various forms of Godhead. No part of the Jewish tradition ever allowed for a trisecting of God, and that is what Christianity has done and what Messianic Jews accept.
One is reluctant to preclude from membership anybody, especially those who seem to be more spiritual, perhaps more observant. However, because a line has clearly been crossed, as we have demonstrated above, there is no place for so-called Messianic Jews or Hebrew-Christians within our congregations and within the Jewish community.
Trude Weiss Rosmarin, Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (Publisher: Jonathan David)
Isaac of Troki, Faith Strengthened (A verse by verse examination of many of the texts used and misused in the Christian-Jewish debate.) (Ktav)
Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Ktav)
David Berger, "The Jewish Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages", in Jeremy Cohen, ed., Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict, pp.484-513 (New York University Press)
Andrew Greeley and Jacob Neusner, The Bible and Us (especially the chapters by Neusner on Jesus, Paul, Mary and Christianity) (Warner Books)
Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity (Ktav)
We refer you to the excellent materials prepared by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, Countering Hebrew Christianity: A Guide for the Jewish Community; Countering Hebrew Christianity: A Curriculum for Young Adults; Countering Hebrew Christianity: A Curriculum for High School Students for the information and a strategic program plan to develop in your community. By educating our members, by teaching our Hebrew high school and USY participants, we proactively protect them and the integrity of Judaism.
Editor's Note: We thank Rabbi Jonathan Waxman of Congregation B'nai Sholom of West End, New Jersey for preparing this educational statement of Messianic Jews to assist rabbinic colleagues andl
eaders of our congregations. We have had any number of situations within synagogues.