“PMJ is dangerous,” we have been warned by a variety of people, including Michael Brown. For those who have not followed the discussion or who are unaware, PMJ stands for Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism. It is the title of a book, a book by Mark Kinzer, Rabbi at Congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Don’t let the name fool you, PMJ is not really about denying the value of our witness of Yeshua to our Jewish people.
When I was first exposed to some of the ideas now advocated by PMJ and the UMJC congregations who share in these ideas, I was against them. In fact, I wrote an article in Kesher years ago vigorously attacking the idea of binary ecclesiology. Binary ecclesiology is the idea that God intended, from the beginning, that Jews and Gentiles following Yeshua would form separate movements within the one body of Messiah. One size does not fit all, though there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.
Well, I had a chance this weekend to experience PMJ up close and personal. I attended the Northeast Regional UMJC conference. Most if not all of the congregational leaders present share in this emerging paradigm explained in some detail in Rabbi Kinzer’s book. What should I expect to find at this conference?
As a former evangelical Christian, I remain very conservative. I can still out-evangelical many of my evangelical friends. I would possibly expect a weekend experience of PMJ to be an experience in sterile liberalism or Yeshua-less Orthodoxy. From the warnings of Michael Brown, I might expect to see people slipping down the slippery slope of faith towards Orthodox Judaism minus Yeshua the Messiah.
Paul warned Timothy candidly about the danger of people misusing the law and forgetting the good news of Yeshua: “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim 1:6-7). Instead the focus of the congregations was to be on Yeshua and the good news of forgiveness of sin.
Let me describe some of the passionate ideals of evangelicalism, the religious milieu in which people like Michael Brown broadly belong. Evangelicals believe the Bible is true, without error, and powerful in affecting life-change. Evangelicals believe that the light of Yeshua must be spread in the darkness, shining hope and light all around. Evangelicals believe that Yeshua is returning to redeem the world and consummate God’s plan to make all things good.
According to Michael Brown, PMJ follows the rabbis which of necessity means walking away from Yeshua. PMJ embraces Orthodox Judaism and the end result of this will be a denial of the deity of Messiah and the Triune Nature of God. PMJ, according to Dr. Brown, is not about witness, but sees no need for Jews to know Messiah Yeshua. PMJ is out of touch with just how “lost” the Jewish people are and is not motivated to bring Yeshua to Israel.
Let me share with you, unequivocally, that my weekend experience at the UMJC NE Regional Conference was a spiritual experience from beginning to end. I did not find sterile liberalism. I did not find an embrace of Yeshua-less Judaism. I did not find a lack of passion for witness to Yeshua within the Jewish people. I am convinced more now than I was before that people like Dr. Brown need to pick up Dr. Kinzer’s book and re-read it. Dr. Brown has missed the point entirely.
We arrived Friday afternoon and we celebrated Shabbat together. We enjoyed a Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night. I guess some people would be dismayed to find that we used the traditional liturgy for our service. Some are convinced that the Jewish Siddur is devoid of the Spirit. It is actually mostly scripture and I know from my evangelical experience that praying the words of scripture is a well-regarded practice. The Kabbalat Shabbat, as well as the Shacharit Shabbat service the next morning, was all about passionate belief that God is still at work in Israel. I know plenty of evangelicals who share that belief and passion.
The Shabbat sermon, by Rabbi Jason Sobel, was about practicing Messianic Judaism in the Spirit with Yeshua at the center. One of the talking points was, “If all we have to offer our Jewish people is the Artscroll Siddur, they will get that somewhere else.” Rabbi Jason called us to a spirited Messianic Judaism, analogous to the passion and fervor the Lubavitch have for their deceased rebbe. If we Messianic Jews had such passion to spread the name of Yeshua, our movement would be growing rapidly. We should have both the keva and the kavana, the form of Judaism and the spirit-intention of a deeply held Yeshua-faith.
So far the weekend was not nearly as uninspiring and lifeless as I would have expected if I believed Dr. Brown’s paper. It just got worse, or better depending on how you look at it.
I was invited to join a Minkhah (afternoon) prayer service. Many of the conference attendees actually follow the traditional practice of praying the prayers of the Siddur three times a day, literally following rabbinic tradition. I suppose this should worry me, since it might lead to a slide away from Yeshua and into Orthodox Judaism. So I joined the Minkhah where I tried to keep up with my knowledge of the prayers being less that that of many others. If you have not prayed them again and again numerous times you cannot possibly pray them as quickly as those more experienced.
What dangerous legalism did I see in that rabbinic prayer service? None. I saw people deeply in love with Yeshua. I saw people adding kavana to the keva, spirit to the form. At times, one young woman would raise her hands in a form similar to charismatic worship, and look heavenward reciting spontaneous prayers of love. People would clap and sing the prayers rhythmically in what I would have to call, as a former evangelical, a powerful combination of a prayer meeting and musical worship.
Well, perhaps there was spirit, but was there sound doctrine? I’m sorry to disappoint you, if you were against PMJ, but the doctrine is very sound. I say this as a young theologian not unknowledgeable about theological traditions. During the Aleinu prayer, where there is a focus on the end of this age, when all the world knows the one God and bows before him, we added Yeshua to the liturgy every time. The prayer leaders all were in the habit of adding verses from Philippians 2 about the deity of Yeshua and every knee in heaven and earth bowing before him. Far from moving people away from Yeshua-devotion, these people are as passionate as a Lubavitcher venerating their deceased rebbe.
There were other surprises at the conference, or at least they would be surprises to people like Dr. Brown. There are many in the Jewish missions movement and in old-school Messianic Judaism who are concerned about this new paradigm of Messianic Judaism. When you do not know the people you criticize, when you do not fellowship with them, it is easy to parody their beliefs. It is easier to misunderstand than to understand. Casting stones is a human pastime. Understanding and knowing and loving is divine.
I could mention a few other surprises. The conference ended with a Communion service. Sure, we used the liturgy of the Amidah to inform our Communion service, but we proclaimed the Lord’s death awaiting his return. There was wonderful teaching on Ephesians as a call for community and unity in Yeshua. I sat with the twenties as everyone shared their story of coming to faith in Yeshua. This conference was greatly about Yeshua and faith.
The whole weekend was so inspiring that this evangelical of evangelicals was deeply moved. I think that people have been so exposed to old-school Messianic Judaism and this new paradigm is so different, we might need a new name. The title Messianic Judaism is used for so many kinds of expressions now and only a small group within Messianic Judaism is truly embracing Judaism, it may just be time for a new name. My thought? How about Yeshua Judaism?