Messianic Judaism 2.0: Building Jewish Majority Communities
Messianic Judaism has a problem. The problem is not our lack of faith, lack of love, lack of organization, or lack of education, even though we could certainly use some major growth in all of these important areas. Instead, our problem is our lack of vision and focus. Why and for whom do we exist, what is our purpose as a movement?
Some years ago, when I was just starting out in the Messianic Jewish Movement, I was invited to attend (as a guest observer) a leadership meeting at one of the messianic congregations. At the time I was in the process of starting a Messianic Jewish synagogue in my own area , so I really looked forward to seeing the inner-workings of an established community of Jewish believers.
As I got to know the people in that community I was dismayed to learn that the congregation had only a few Jews in it and most of the leaders, except for the rabbi, were not Jewish either. As common in the Movement, the congregation was lead by a secularly raised Jew who was a former Evangelical minister. The man now called himself a rabbi, though in his own bio there is no mention of any formal Jewish education of any sort, not even a messianic one. This, by the way, is not a criticism, but simply a fact that most people in our movement already know quite well. As I looked around I noticed that most everyone irrespective of identity wore tallits, some wore fringes and participated equally in the short liturgical Torah service, with the rest of the service being solidly Protestant Evangelical/Charismatic in nature (as is also commonplace in the Messianic movement). Many Gentile folks freely used Hebrew names to identify themselves. Many came out of World Wide Church of G-d, the Adventists or Assemblies of G-d. A bulk were Charismatics (one service I attended involved falling and catching of people, Benny Hinn style). I was more than a little disappointed in what I saw and thought to myself at the time – can this really be called a Messianic JEWISH community?
As the leadership meeting got underway, the guest speaker posed a single question to everyone present and asked them to write down their answer without first discussing their opinion with anyone: “What is the vision of this community?” Once everyone had written down their answer, the speaker went around the room requesting each person to read their answer out loud. No changes to the original answers were permitted. I was quite shocked to hear the answers coming from those in attendance. The answer that I hoped to hear, that is “Reaching out to our Jewish community” was dead LAST among the opinions given (I think that only one person – a Jew – answered with anything resembling that), with most answering that charity, learning, reaching out to EVERYONE in their local community as well as Torah observance were the vision behind the existence of that congregation. Most expressed little to no consideration for the Jewish nature of their community or even regard for the Jewish people in general.
It is then that I realized how seriously deficient the status quo has become in the Movement. We forgot about our own Jewish people. Today, nearly 30+ years since the Jesus movement has birthed the modern Messianic Jewish Movement, the Jews are an ever shrinking minority in the communities they established. Most of them are middle-aged and intermarried, and in a few decades these aging communities will have even fewer Jews in them (if it were possible) . Many in our movement care little about how the rest of the Jewish community perceives us, whether it respects us or not, whether it views us a faithful Jews or not. Many have become safely insulated in their cozy messianic “cocoons”. S0me have gone even further and have assumed an outright antagonist posture in regards to what they regards as “Judaism of the rabbis”. That’s a huge mistake and I reject such thinking as a left over baggage of Supersessionism, a theology which holds that Jews have failed as G-d’s people and today are simply just another ethnic group of “unbelievers” to be evangelized and absorbed into the Church. The very first Jewish believers concerned themselves very much with how the Jewish people perceived them (Acts 21:17-26). They understood that their very lives reflected the Messiah they claimed to represent before their own Jewish people.
If nothing changes, if we continue on the current path we will become completely irrelevant to the Jewish world around us. As Jews we must remain connected to our Jewish people or wither on the vine. As followers of Messiah we must continue to be his voice to our own people and not actively promote our mutual alienation from each other. If you don’t agree with me, show me where I can find the descendants of possibly more than a million (by some scholarly estimates) of the original first-century Jewish followers of Messiah.
What is the possible solution to this problem? I propose that Messianic Jews (and Gentiles who are supportive of the Jewish vision) should have as a goal the building of Jewish MAJORITY Messianic Jewish Communities. Solid Jewish dominated communities are one of the keys to both our ongoing continuity as Jews (but especially that of our children!) and our ongoing relevance as Messiah’s ambassadors to the rest of Israel. No, this does not mean that we exclude Gentiles from our midst. Many Gentile Christians who have come along side Messianic Jews have been nothing but supportive and have sacrificed much in their love for our people, and non-Jews have always been a presence in the mainstream Jewish synagogues. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are obligated to go to our Jewish people first and foremost and only then we can truly to be the light to the Gentiles.
How do we begin to establish and grow Jewish Majority Messianic Jewish Communities and become relevant to our Jewish people? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Get the vision. Seek out to establish your community’s relevance as Messiah’s ambassadors to the local Jewish community. I am not taking about engaging in J4J style evangelistic campaigns (although we still must share the message of Messiah when provided with proper opportunities), but actually living as faithful Jews. Remember that as disciples of Yeshua and as Jews we are held to a higher standard and we should strive to live up to it. If we can demonstrate that we as a community are at the forefront of resisting assimilation and if our faithfulness to the people Israel and G-d as Jews will be apparent to all, this can only bring honor and esteem to the Messiah we serve in the eyes of the Jewish community.
- When your community is still small, invite like-minded Jews who truly share in the vision of a Jewish majority congregation. However, it’s a mistake to think that as long as someone is Jewish, they will share in your vision and will do so long-term.
- Again, while in very first initial stages or at a fellowship level, try to limit participation to Jews only or by invitation only. Before a Messianic Jewish community can handle an inevitable influx of non-Jews, it is wise to first build a solid Jewish core. However, there are Gentiles who also get the vision, so keep your eyes open.
- All congregational leadership (especially those in teaching positions) must be Jewish. A Jewish community must have Jewish leaders. It’s that simple.
- Encourage education in mainstream Jewish educational institutions for all rabbinical candidates (in addition to Jewish messianic education).
- Encourage all Jewish members, and especially the leadership, to actively participate in the life of mainstream Jewish community. This could involve regularly attending synagogues, befriending other [non-Messianic] Jews, taking classes at Jewish community centers, participating in various events. Get out from the fringe to the core of Jewish life. Many Messianic Jews, especially those who came into the movement after being in the Evangelicalism, have effectively self-segregated themselves and have been totally disconnected from the Jewish world. This breeds an outsider mentality that views the non-Messianic Jewish people as “them” instead of “us”.
- Establish clear standards of Jewish identity and stick to them consistently. I would suggest using the traditional matrilineal descent as the norm since this is the standard that is most widely accepted (including among Jews in Israel, which today constitute the largest percentage of Jews). At the same time those who have Jewish fathers should not be turned away, but instead encouraged to seek conversion to solidify their status as Jews.
- Promote Torah and Jewish ritual observance among Jews only and do so according to the traditional Jewish Halacha. Do not seek to establish own halacha, one that is separate from the mainstream Jewish community, but instead seek to interpret and apply the existing Jewish standards. Some may object by asking WHICH Jewish halacha/tradition should a Messianic Jew follow. The answer is quite simple and very Jewish: if someone has parents or ancestors who are from a specific Jewish community, that Jew should honor his or her ancestors by incorporating as many traditions of their heritage into their daily lives as possible. A leader should lead the congregation according to his own heritage, but should encourage other Jews to explore and embrace their own. Gentiles in the community should be encouraged to take pride in and explore their own heritages.
- Actively welcome intermarried couples, BUT at the same time discourage intermarriage (with all sensitivity that requires!) since it’s so destructive to the Jewish community over the long term. In other words, do not hesitate to encourage Jews to marry other Jews, even if it’s not politically correct to do so.
- Invite those Gentiles who share in the vision. No only will they be a blessing, but they may also help educate Gentile visitors about the vision of the congregation and they may be able to do so in a more sensitive way.
- Limit giving of aliyahs to Torah to Jews only. There are other ways for non-Jews to participate in the liturgical and Torah service and they should be encouraged to do so, but giving of aliyahs to Jews only has always been the most basic standard in just about all Jewish communities, even the most liberal ones. Aliyahs to Torah are a specifically Jewish obligation and honor representing receiving of Torah by the Jewish people and their need to learn to observe it. Non-Jewish participation in this most cherished of Jewish synagogue rituals is not only against Halacha, it diminishes the specialness this rite has for the Jewish people. It has nothing to do with the worth of Gentiles as individuals and any sort of racism, but simply a question of basic Jewish identity. In my personal experience limiting of aliyah to Jews does a great job of establishing healthy Jewish / Gentile distinctions in a community. It simply works.
- During services and communal prayers limit use of tallits, fringes and tefillins to Jews only. (According to some Jewish authorities non-Jews may wear those things, if they so choose, provided they do so in a manner, time or place where they will not be mistaken for Jews.)
- Do not conduct bar/bat-mizvahs for non-Jews. As with aliyahs to Torah, allowing Gentiles to undergo bar/bat-mizvahs not only diminishes this rite of passage as a special and uniquely Jewish event, but it also sends a wrong message that Gentiles are equally obligated to the same Torah requirements as Jews. It also causes identity confusion for non-Jewish children, consequences of which the Messianic Jewish Movement will have to deal with in the very near future. Performing bar/bat-mizvahs for non-Jews also diminishes the Messianic Jewish community in the eyes of the mainstream Jewish community, because it sends another wrong message that for Messianic Jews the Jewish heritage is nothing special. Remember – only Yeshua should the stumbling block for our people.
- Utilize more of the traditional Jewish liturgy or even use it exclusively. Most Messianic Jewish congregations have retained or incorporated many elements of your run-of the-mill American Evangelical/Pentecostal Charismatic service and have held back on taking on more traditionally Jewish ones in part because they are afraid to alienate their Gentile members (who, being in majority, are often times the financial base and can vote with their feet). The words “It’s too Jewish” should never be so much as whispered within the walls of our communities. If someone is alienated by all the Jewish things that Jews do, perhaps a Jewish community is not for them.
Existing communities can incorporate the above suggestions as well, but it will certainly take them a lot more time and effort to counteract the carelessness of the formative days of Messianic Jewish movement. Because we are talking about people and not some inanimate objects, these things must be done with utmost care, sensitivity, and love. However, the status quo cannot go on forever before we are forced to act or else, become irrelevant and disappear into the dust bin of history.
In my future post I will explore the meaning behind the “One New Man” theology spoken of by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:12-16, and how a true loving unity can be upheld and strengthened between Messianic Jewish and Christian communities while preserving our unique callings.