Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Big Fat Mess - The Controversy of Messianic Judaism

When, after years of denial, I finally admitted to myself that I adored Jesus, I wasn't very comfortable with that fact. I'm still uncomfortable with it. In fact, I cringed when I wrote the first sentence of this post, and I've cringed each time I've read it since. I was committing the ultimate sin. Jews have been persecuted, quite literally, for thousands of years. And the most enduring and brutal persecutions have been perpetrated by Christians in the name of Jesus.

I started searching the Internet for others like me, other Jews who wanted to follow Jesus. I wanted to know: How did they deal with the guilt? Were they able to maintain their Jewish identity? Did they feel bad about their path? Did they try to convert their families, or did they keep their religion private? And maybe, just maybe, was there some sort of Jewish ritual that could cure me of my Christianity?

I came across an organization named Jews for Jesus. On the main website, I saw a lot of conservative views which contradicted my own. The last thing I wanted was to be part of a group that (I felt) oppressed women, followed a doctrine of eternal damnation, was against gay marriage, and all that jazz. So I kept searching.

I soon learned about a religious phenomenon called Messianic Judaism. Messianic Judaism is a religious movement in which participants follow Halachah (the religious legal system of Judaism), but also believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. This is extremely controversial, and no mainstream denomination of Judaism seems to accept Messianism as a valid form of Judaism. I myself feel very ambivalent about this movement, and I'll explain why.

On the one hand, Messianic Judaism seems to make perfect sense. Messianism doesn't seem to contradict Orthodox Judaism, at least not technically. My impression from the sample of Messianic websites I've reviewed is that the majority of Messianics follow an Orthodox interpretation of Halachah. That means eating Kosher, not driving or watching TV on Shabbat, following laws of Niddah or family purity (concerning menstruation), and all of the other trappings of Orthodox life. The only difference is that while most Orthodox Jews believe the Messiah has not yet come, Messianics believe the messiah has already come and will return in the future. Of course, many Lubavitch Chassidim, or Chabadniks (a sect of Orthodox Judaism) believe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a rabbi deceased for over a decade, is the Messiah and will come back to set the world straight. So if Chabad is accepted as an authentic (and very active) Jewish denomination, how far off center is the Messianic Jewish viewpoint?

Considering Messianism in this way has been extremely disturbing to me because it makes so much sense. It seems to solve a problem thousands of years old. How do you satisfy both Jews and Christians in religious practice? All of a sudden, people are following Jewish Law while incorporating Christian theology by believing Jesus is the Messiah. One of the things that scares me is the idea that all of our suffering has been for nothing. All of our stringent observances, ostracism by and separation from Gentiles, right down to Kashrut law stating that wine touched by non-Jews was no longer fit to consume, are rendered useless. This brings forth another question. The aforementioned stringencies suggest a boundary of protection. What, exactly, have we Jews been protecting for so long?

What is Judaism, really? A collection of actions, along with the belief (shared with most other religions) in a loving God who will somehow make things better and bring the rest of the world around to your way of thinking. I have been desperately trying to find a connection to Judaism for years. Along my spiritual journey, I've found Jewish feminist rituals incorporating Neo-Paganism(Penina V Adelman's "Miriam's Well"). I've read up on Jewish Reconstructionism, learned about Jewish Multiculturalism, and even started to explore Non-Rabbinic Jewish beliefs (Karaites, for example, are a group of non-Rabbinic Jews who believe descent is Patrilineal rather than Matrilineal and have no problem eating a cheeseburger). So what's one more leap? If there are so many ways to practice Judaism, what difference does it make if we include Jesus as a prophet and potential Messiah?

I found views opposing Messianic Judaism on various Jewish websites such as Jews for Judaism, Inclusivist Judaism and Aish HaTorah All of them denounced Messianic Judaism as a deceptive, non-Jewish form of evangelical Christianity. Sites that were Ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other were united on this one issue: it's heretical to believe a person can be God. Which I suppose is a valid point, but the tone of these websites seemed desperate. Their arguments felt hollow. I felt this hollowness, this desperate clinging to minute theological stringency. I have experienced it myself.

Progressive Jewish groups that welcome LGBT members and perform Interfaith marriages started talking about the precise, halachically sanctioned beliefs a Jew is or is not permitted to have. Orthodox sites focused on the promises the Messiah will fulfill, and pointed out the fact that Jesus didn't fulfill them. Arguing over the minute details of Halachic interpretation is something Jews are legendary for, but this felt like people were grasping at straws. They all seemed to be saying, "You can believe lots and lots of different things, as long as you don't believe this one particular thing."

Why not? What is so wrong with this one particular belief? Why is it worse than all the others? Does refusal to accept Messianism as a legitimate Jewish viewpoint stem from valid theological conflict, or is it something else? Maybe it's a small voice inside that says, "We have been hurt too much by those who act in the name of Jesus. We've been raped, murdered, tortured, hunted, robbed, forcibly converted, and had our children stolen to name a few, for almost two thousand years by those who have acted in the name of Jesus. We have resisted and survived to this day, steadfast in maintaining our faith as well as our refusal to follow Christians' ways. It can't end here. It can't all be for nothing. You can't just start lighting candles on Friday night and saying Kaddish before you celebrate Easter and tell me it's a valid form of Judaism".

And yet, there it was. Two thousand years of differences, of resistance to religious colonization, reduced to, "Chassidei Yeshua" (a Hebrew title, roughly translated as Pious one [of?] Jesus).

And what if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but is not divine? That complicates the problem further. If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, but is not God himself, then any lingering theological issues are resolved.

Being abused, murdered, stolen from, raped and harassed by Christians for almost two millenia is a damn good reason to dislike Christianity and Messianism. But is it a good theological reason to refuse to acknowledge Messianic Judaism as a Jewish denomination? No.

And so there it is, Messianic Judaism, a way for Christians to introduce Jesus into Judaism, all perfectly laid out with no logical way of rejecting it. Simple, effective, thrilling and yet terrifying at the same time. Another string unravelling my own sense of Jewish identity, as well as that of countless others who do not believe the Torah is a holy book. Who may not believe the Torah is even a moral book, and who see no way of being "authentically" Jewish while staying true to themselves. Who have little reason to in an age where assimilation is easy and knowledge is readily available...

...On the other hand, things might not be that simple. One Messianic I spoke with said that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but God as well. The Jewish Messiah is not considered to be God. When I asked this Messianic he could reconcile the two beliefs, he said that Jesus had sacrificed his own internal self in order to be a vessel for God. In doing so, Jesus actually became God. Jesus the person was gone, and he was simply a vessel of God in every way. That was a new perspective, but then I asked my Messianic acquaintance if he believed in a virgin birth, wise men, and all that stuff. That would be more similar to Christian theology than Jewish. He told me he did believe in the virgin birth. How would a person reconcile this to Judaism?

At this point, I have to wonder - is arguing this point more nitpicking done to avoid recognizing a valid stream of Judaism? Or is belief that a human being can be divine (and that others cannot) a foundational difference between Judaism and Christianity?

Messianic Judaism claims that you can live a Jewish life while believing the doctrine of the New Testament. In one sense, this is true; specific rituals, prayers and customs are an integral part of Judaism. Continuing to practice them means continuing a Jewish lifestyle. But in another sense, it might not be true. The belief that one person is God, that those who do not believe are damned to suffer eternally, that consuming blood (which is not kosher) is part of holy communion, and that lifelong virginity and lack of marriage or procreation are the highest form of holiness, seem to contradict several Jewish values.

And what, exactly, is the point of Messianic Judaism? Why was it started? Was it started as an honest, spiritually motivated desire to serve God in the best way possible? Or was it, as many believe, an Evangelistic tactic of using a Jewish "costume" to confuse Jews into converting? Was it started as a way to "wean" Jews off of Judaism as they transitioned to Christianity, sort of like vegans use tofu dogs to substitute the yummy ballpark hotdogs they used to love? Could it even be some sick attempt of non-Jews to "out-Jew" Jews, a la "wigger"? Can we look at Messianic Judaism as a form of cultural appropriation, similar to some dude with long hair who steals Indian artifacts from historical sites and claims that Native spirits are talking to him and want him to write a book about secret crop circles/crystal healing/UFOs/shamanic drumming?

Was Messianic Judaism started, and is it maintained, by fervent believers who feel following Torah and believing in the New Testament doctrine are both of the utmost importance? Or was it started and upheld by those who will try anything to get what they want, which is to convert Jews to Christianity? And more importantly, does it even matter? Do the origins invalidate the evolution of Messianism?

Do Jews for Judaism (as a people, not the organization) have a valid reason to reject Messianism, or are we grasping at theological straws to maintain our crumbling religious and ethnic identity, an identity so overwhelmed by the competitor of modern knowledge and humanism that the only thing we have left to define us as being Jewish is being non-Christian?

And what of the violent history of Jewish oppression at the hands of Christianity? Why, exactly, have Christians been so obsessed with converting Jews throughout history? What are the extent of the crimes the Church committed in this name? Should knowing the full extent stop us from exploring Christianity? Can religion be solely a matter of theological belief regardless of what its practitioners do? Or are the horrors of Christian oppression of Jews so horrific that knowing the history can actually stop a Jew from practicing or believing in Christianity; is there such as thing as a rejection that has nothing to do with logic or theology, but is somehow just as crucial?

I recently purchased "The Mystery of the Kaddish; The Powerful STory of Judaism's Most Moving and Meaningful Prayer", by Leon H. Charney and Saul Mayzlish. I've been able to read about some of the historical oppression that has helped to shape the Kaddish prayer. Of course, the small amount I read was filled with tales of religious humiliation, murder, theft, etc... I read briefly about the horrors of the first Crusade, and the massacre of Jews in Israel/Palestine in the 11th century.

As I learn more about both Judaism and Christianity, I'm starting to encounter my own internalized anti-semitism. I'm starting to notice aspects of the New Testament that are anti-semitic. I'm starting to become aware of internalized anti-semitic assumptions that I didn't even know I had.

Just when I thought I was through with what I felt was a whiny, complaining, racist, hypocritical, and outdated community, just when I thought that my identity as a Black woman was what mattered most, I'm learning about how my Jewish identity may be important for me too. It might not just be something to desperately hold on to because I feel it makes me special, or important, or defines me in relation to society as a whole. Rather than a shallow identity based on external approval, it might be something important on a level I'm not consciously aware of yet. And as I learn more about Jewish oppression by Christians, how will this affect me as a Christian? Will it matter? I don't know.

I must admit that I feel offended by websites that announce themselves as Jewish and go on about Jewish holidays while discreetly mentioning "Chassidei Yeshua". Most non-Orthodox Jews today have little religious education. One must have a decent base of Jewish literacy and theology to notice the one glaringly obvious thing these websites are doing all they can not to admit. They are Christian.

Once again, I ask, "Can there be such a thing as a Jewish Christian"? Yes. Just think of Edith Stein, a.k.a. St. Theresa Benedicta, a Catholic nun who was murdered by the Nazis for being Jewish. But if that's the case, what's wrong with using the term "Jewish Christian"? What's wrong with admitting, upfront, that a website or group follows Christian doctrine? Why can't one put on a website, "We love Torah, bagels, playing Dreidel, and Chassidei Yeshua, also known by the Western name, Jesus". Is it because most Jews would take one look at the name and immediately discredit anything the site or group advocates? Maybe. But it's an individual's choice to make. Not something to be hidden, and I think that most Messianics who are honest with themselves will admit that.

So there you have it. Two perspectives, arguing back and forth in my brain. There is so much more to write on a topic like this (the controversy surrounding Edith Stein's beatification as a Christian martyr when she was murdered for being Jewish, for example). I could go on and on, but at some point I have to go to bed. I'd like to hear your opinion on Messianism. Have you been affected by it, inspired, offended, outraged? Let me know!


  1. Mamzer,

    Excellent and very thought-out post. It definitely takes chutzpah to write on such a topic. As a Messianic rabbi I completely agree with many of your observations. However, I did want to respond to a couple points:

    1) I would like to first address your comment that "Messianics follow an Orthodox interpretation of Halachah." That is actually not true. There are indeed Messianic Jews who live Orthodox lifestyles, but Messianic Judaism is also a spectrum. In regard to observance and application of Halachah, most Messianic Jews would fallow more of a Conservative/Reform approach. Theologically, however, Messianic Jews are more conservative, and share with Orthodox Judaism belief in the inspiration of Scripture, belief in G-d, and G-d's active involvement in the world around us.

    2) There are a couple theological points that are incorrect. Not to get too technical or theological, but these are important points worth clarifying. It is likely your Messianic friends you talked with were not well-versed in practical theology.

    In your post you noted that a friend shared with you that Jesus "became God." Actually, Jesus, or to use his Hebrew name, Yeshua, did not become G-d, He is G-d incarnate - meaning G-d in a physical form. Not so different from other times in the Tanakh when G-d takes on physical forms. This is a comnplex topic in theology because at the same time it acknowledges your comment that "G-d is not a man."

    As such, if it helps, using Jewish mystical language, I am not claiming Yeshua is Ein Sof (the full mysterious and unknowable aspect of the Divine). However, we do see at times within Torah when HaShem does take on a physical form. You could say an emanation of HaShem (the fancy theological term is called a Theophany).

    Although the context is entirely different, let me give you an example from a Jewish source.

    According to the Tanya (a primary text of Chassidism), The Torah and "the Holy One, blessed be He, are one and the same."

    In the language of the Tanya (Ch. 4), because HaShem is both the Knower and the Knowledge, the Torah itself is a sort of incarnation of HaShem.

    So just as the Torah is a corporeal substance of the Divine, so is the "Living Torah (see John 1:1)," ... Mashiach.

    So although we would say that Yeshua is Divine, we would not necessarily equate him with the fullness of the Divine Presence (i.e Ein Sof). But He is G-d incarnate.

    Additionally, there are Jewish streams of thought that are not incompatible with a concept of a virgin birth.

    3) The last point I would like to address is your question regarding: Why was Messianic Judaism started?

    As you are already well aware, Yeshua was Jewish, all his disciples were Jewish, and for the first couple hundred years after Yeshua there was no separate movement apart from Judaism. What later came to be known as Christianity (a separate Gentile movement apart from Judaism)took a several hundred years to develop. However, over the last 2,000 years there have always been pockets of Jews who continued to live Jewish lives while also being followers of Yeshua. At times there were even whole synagogues and communities, as well as rabbis that believed in Yeshua.

    The modern phenomenon of Messianic Judaism was birthed in the last century as a response to a great influx of Jews who became believers in Jesus, but recognized the importance of remaining Jews (which is theological as well as cultural). It was indeed a response of "fervent believers who fe[lt] following Torah and believing in the New Testament doctrine are both of the utmost importance."

    Great post and looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  2. Part of my video on antimissionary logic addresses the double standard employed by liberal Judaism. Just how is it that these denominations which allow you to believe virtually anything prohibit belief in Jesus?

  3. Wow thank you guys so much for taking time to leave me a note!!! A real thrill. Btw, Rabbi Joshua, I sometimes pop in at Yinon!!!

  4. Mamzer,

    Wow ... thanks for occasionally dropping by!

    Good luck on your journey and please don't hesitate to let me know if I can ever be of help.

  5. I'd like to echo Rabbi Joshua (a friend and colleague of mine) and let you know that there is a mature Messianic Judaism you should know about. You see it at the Yinon blog and the places he links. You'll find it represented by a school called MJTI (see mjti dot org). The label "Messianic Judaism" is used by many groups that are either not Jewish or that use a few Jewish symbols but denounce the tradition of the rabbis.

    I hope to see more of your thoughts and nice to make your acquaintance.

    Derek Leman
    Messianic Jewish Musings blog

  6. Hello,

    I came to your blog through a link on Judah Gabriel's blog (Kineti L'Tziyon). I've enjoyed reading several of your posts. I wasn't raised Jewish, although I do have some Jewish ancestors in my family tree. For many years now, I have been interested in Judaism and the many aspects of Jewish life. I find your perspective intriguing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the worldwide web!

  7. oh my goodness!!! I'm very close to committing the sin of idolatry and bowing down to Judah Gabriel for actually linking to me on his blog.

    Thank you guys so much for taking a look!!!

  8. MamzerHakodesh, I am deeply sorry and apologize if the racism of some Jews has lead you to contemplate Christianity. I am a fellow Jew, and I hope you reconsider your path. Let me be very clear- to all Jews, belief in any being other than God is idolatry. To believe that God can come to earth in human form is to believe in a diminshed version of God, and is total heresy as far as Judaism is concerned. One is free to believe whatever one wants, but belief that God incarnated God's self in human form is not a Jewish belief. It is not a Reform Jewish belief, it is not a Karaite Jewish belief, it is not a Conservative Jewish belief, it is not an Orthodox Jewish belief, it is not a Samaritan Israelite belief, it is not even a Karaim belief. God purposely limits God's self, because to come to earth in human form/ or to ever be incarnated in human flesh is a diminishment of God's essence as Creator and Ruler of the Universe. God can do anything except limit God's self. I actually pity Christians, who in fact are either 1) seriously confused about God or 2) do not really believe that God is the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, since if they believed the God is the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, they would never believe that God would diminsh God's self by incarnating in a human form.
    One more quick point. I do not believe that even if you choose to espouse this heretical belief in a man-God, I do not belive you will ever suffer punishment in the afterlife. As long as you are a decent human being, you will certainly be rewarded for your righteousness.
    However, Judaism, unlike Christianity, is for the living. Those Jews who willingly adopt Christianity or willing decide to believe that Jesus (or that Menachem Shneerson the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe) is God incarnate, will realize by the end of their lives that they have wasted their lives spiritually.
    All the best,

  9. OOps, I meant to say that if not incarnating God's self in human form is seen by Christians as a limitation, than in that sense yes, God is limiting God's self. All streams of Judaism I listed above believe that God is Creator and Ruler of the Universe, and is therefore it is not God's nature to incarnate God's self into ANY form. In that sense, yes, we say that God is "limited" to being the Unlimited Creator and Ruler of the Universe, and therefore will never incarnate God's self into any form. As it says in Isaiah " 'My ways are not thy ways', saith the Eternal".

  10. Whoa...trippy. I would say that we are all connected, and are all God, and therefore we are all manifest. And because in a sense all of God's manifestations are complete, and we are all connected, we are all completely God.

    And yet in another sense, we aren't. We are all incomplete manifestations of God. That is also evident. That is one of the great pardoxes of the universe. God is unlimited, which creates a limitation. If God is unlimited, then God is incapable of BEING limited.

  11. I agree with you that we are all connected. However, I absolutely reject the belief that we are all God, and so also does Judaism reject this belief. God is the Creator and we are the created. We are mortal, God is immortal. If you read Maimonides, he writes that not only is God on an immeasurably higher level than human beings, God is utterly unlike human beings. The rabbi at my synagogue says just imagine a Being that can play chess in 4 dimensions ie. including time and knows everything in advance and knows everything a human being will ever do, and yet allows them to exercise their free will. This is just a feeble human attempt to "describe" God. I think that some Jews "freak out" at this concept of the Creator, so they either become 1) cultural Jews 2) Christians 3) very ultra-observant Jews.

    The main difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism makes a clear, eternal distinction/ differentiation between the Creator and the created. Christianity blurs/ obliterates the distinction between the Creator and the created, by theorizing the existence of a God who becomes incarnated as a human being. This is an unabridgeable difference. That is why I am a Jew- because I believe in the Creator of the Universe, not a man-God. If you want to become a Christian, that's fine. But don't say that your belief in Jesus is a Jewish belief, since it is not. I believe with perfect faith that you shall Not be punished in the hereafter for your Christian beliefs. If we are good decent human beings, I believe that God will reward us in the hereafter, regardless of our beliefs. If we behave badly, then God will punish us in the hereafter, regardless of our beliefs. I believe that if a member of the Chinese Communist party, even if they are atheist, if they behave decently and kindly to others, shall certainly inherit eternity with the Creator. Judaism is for the living, unlike Christianity. However, if someone who has been brought up to believe in the omniscient, all merciful, Creator of the Universe, a unity unlike any other unity, then gives it up to believe in a man-God, or a woman-God or many gods, they have wasted their spiritual life on earth, and yes, I still believe that if they have been good to others, they will still inherit eternal life with God, but their spiritual life on earth will have been wasted, and in my opinion, that is the greatest waste of all.
    I sincerely hope you will reconsider Judaism. I beg forgiveness if racism on the part of some Jews has caused you to wish to abandon Judaism.
    Happy Purim and Regards,

  12. Well, Dave,

    I wish lots of posters would leave their e-mails so we could communicate more. Oh well.

    Anyhow, first, thanks for taking time to read and post.

    Second, I guess we just disagree on that. I think God is everyone and no one at the same time. I have heard a bit of Maimonides' view of "negative theology", or that anything we can conceive of is therefore not God. I think that is true, and yet I also think that every manifestation is God.

    For me, there are paradoxes about reality and God that I don't understand, and yet that doesn't change the fact that they are true. I think nothing can be anything BUT God - really, how could there be anything else? What else is there? If there is something other than God, then God is not God because in some way, I think, you can only create yourself (this doesn't work completely for you and I or other creatures and plants, but it would for God - a paradox). There is another paradox. The inability to create imperfection - because how could God create anything other than what God is, which is perfection, is itself a limitation, or 'imperfection' if you will.

    You say that Christianity blurs the lines between divine and non-divine. I think in a sense the opposite is true. If you look at traditional Jewish ideas, they include the concepts of manifest holiness and Godliness; this includes the idea of Israel as the "Holy Land", especially the Beit Hamigdash and Holy of Holies - these are examples of Godliness manifest.

    In traditional Christianity, by contrast, there is a very strong emphasis on consistent mortification of the flesh. I find this in both religions, but Christianity is legendary for the idea that the flesh is sin, and the spirit is good. This, in my opinion, is incorrect. Flesh IS spirit. If I understand what I've read about quantum physics, it is possible to go closer and closer into smaller and smaller levels of cells, molecules, atoms, neutrons and so on, until energy and matter stop being distinct from one another.

    So we have all these pardoxes, and yet we know when the spirit moves us. We feel it. It's there - the still small voice.

    I have tried Judaism - believe me, I've tried. I've observed, studied, questioned, attempted, prayed, etc. If God wanted me to follow a traditional Jewish path, I'd be doing it.