A Guide for Jews: Finding a Messianic Synagogue

Much has been said on this blog and elsewhere about the confusing landscape of Messianic Judaism in its many forms. A wide variety of groups use the title Messianic Judaism. Some are quite weird, even disturbing. The majority are somewhere between clueless and decent. A few actually get it, that Messianic means promoting Yeshua-faith and Judaism means, well, Judaism. And we know Judaism is the Judaism of scripture and tradition, the Bible and the rabbis. No other definition will do.

So, with that in mind, I offer a guide to Jews who are seeking a Jewish home where Yeshua can be their Rebbe and where Jewish identity is respected. The following are my opinions. Feel free to write in and disagree.

1. If you do not live in a city with a decent Jewish population and you are a Jew, what were you thinking? If you live in a small town with no traditional synagogues and you see an advertisement for a Messianic Jewish congregation, beware! You simply have to live in a Jewish place. So pack your bags and forget about that little congregation in Booger Holler, Georgia. It just won’t work out.

2. If the “rabbi” of the congregation does not know Hebrew, try not to let the door hit you on the tukhes as you leave. A friend of mine recently attended such a congregation where the rabbi called the Holy Spirit the “roo-akh ka-kakesh.” Ouch, get outta there!

3. Does the congregation use the Siddur in a meaningful way? If you are from a religious background, you may desire a service like the schul you attended as a child. That mostly does not exist in Messianic Judaism. But hopefully you will find a place that understands the core prayers of the Siddur and incorporates them in worship, practice, and theology. Much more could and should be said about this. But as long as the service is somewhere north of the level of tradition in a Reform synagogue, you should be okay.

4. Does the rabbi know Judaism? What are the rabbi’s credentials? Is his education from a reputable organization? Ask about it. Check out the educational institution in question. If it seems like an unaccredited diploma mill, it probably is. Aside from credentials, does the rabbi know the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe and a rebbetzin? I know someone who was ejected from a congregation and forever banned when he made the leader look bad by asking just that question!

5. Watch out the for the top three Messianic Judaism look-alikes:

a. The Two-House or Ephraimite congregation. These Gentiles think that they are the lost tribes of Israel. Their evidence? They are drawn to Jewish things, thus they must be Israel! Don’t let their memory stick in your mind after you bolt for safety.

b. The Yah-Shuah people, also called the Sacred Name movement. They insist on calling HaShem by his name and they have some odd ideas about how to pronounce his name. Worse yet, even in the case of Yeshua, whose name is well-documented in the sources, they insist on calling him Yah-Shuah instead. If you know anything about Hebrew names, you know they are using a suffix as a prefix. These people can be scary.

c. The Hebrew Roots congregation. Of all the look-alikes, these folks are the least harmful. They are of the opinion that all of Yeshua’s followers (i.e., all the Christians) should adopt a Torah and rabbinic lifestyle. Their knowledge of Judaism is generally quite extensive and their practice is quite authentic. My feeling is that eventually these folks will convert and become Messianic Jews, but in the meantime they suffer from identity confusion and a negative opinion towards ordinary Christians and churches. I wouldn’t advise staying if you are Jewish. Even some Messianic congregations belonging to reputable organizations suffer from the Hebrew Roots confusion.

6. Watch out for Charismatic mayhem. In case you, as a Jew, have not yet been exposed to Charismatic Christianity, you should know that this is a broad term. Under this heading you will find everything from a mild overemphasis on miracles to absolute mania. I was just at a congregation where the leader declared the entire property a sick-free zone. This is a typical Charismatic move. There is such a hunger for miracles, the people profess faith in them while completely ignoring reality. You may hear people speaking in nonsense, repetitive syllables who believe they are praying in another language. You may see people fall backward on the floor as if fainting is spiritual. You may find leaders who call themselves apostles or prophets (beware!). So, as a Jew, you may wonder, what does Charismatic Christianity have to do with Messianic Judaism. I wish I could say nothing, but the truth is that many Messianic leaders came from such a background. I would not say you should have nothing to do with such a congregation. If it does very well on points 1-4, consider staying anyway. But look out for a leader who says he is a prophet or apostle.

7. I wish that qualifications 1-6 were not even necessary to mention. But having established whether the place is actually Jewish or not, then you get down to things you really should be looking for:

a. Are they able to teach you the Torah and tradition of Judaism? Will you learn something?

b. Are the people a loving community or a loose collection of factions tolerating one another just to hold a congregation together?

c. After you’ve been there a while, do people invite you over for Shabbat dinner or similar events? Do you feel included?

d. How in love with Yeshua are these people? Are they afraid to mention Yeshua too much? Do they seem to take Yeshua’s teachings about love, justice, serving the poor, and being disciples of the Master seriously?

This guide is far from perfect. But I hope it will help some of you. I know so many Jewish people who have been turned off in the past by so-called Messianic congregations. I know so many Jews who are in churches, where Yeshua is proclaimed, but where their Jewish identity is rotting on the vine. A Baptist or Episcopal church is not a place where you can raise your children Jewish. You need to find a solution. I write also for those Jews who are open to Yeshua but wouldn’t have a clue where to find a Jewish expression of his message. Finally, I write for a few who have abandoned Messianic congregations for the traditional synagogues. The outlook in Messianic Judaism is getting better. You just might find that a congregation exists in your area that fits these guidelines.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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13 Responses to A Guide for Jews: Finding a Messianic Synagogue

  1. Well, as a Messianic rabbi who teaches that all Believers should keep Torah (although I don’t suggest that the rabbinic traditions are all good by any stretch), thank you very much for your derision.

    I am sure the first Pilgrims, who were Torah observant and came here to the Americas to escape people persecuting them for being Torah observant, thank you too.

  2. Adam… this was a guide for Jewish believers looking for the right place to worship and fellowship, not for those who want to minimize the Jewishness of the Messianic Judaism and appropriate Israelite identity and HaShem’s promises to Israel for themselves.

    Shalom,

    Gene

  3. MJH says:

    Adam said,
    “I am sure the first Pilgrims, who were Torah observant and came here to the Americas to escape people persecuting them for being Torah observant”

    This is a common myth in the MJ circles that has no bases in historical fact. As much as I would like it to be true, I have searched the original sources and have found not even a mention as of yet.

    MJH

  4. Gene, don’t assu. It makes an ass out of you. I am of Jewish descent on both sides of my family. My father was the president of a Conservative synagogue back in the 50s. After arriving in Fresno, my family was active in the local Reform temple LONG before my folks accepted Messiah.

    I don’t “want to minimize the Jewishness of the Messianic Judaism and appropriate Israelite identity and HaShem’s promises to Israel for myself.” I just see the Scriptures telling us that Israelite identity is for all of those who choose it by accepting Messiah. Romans 11 tells us they are grafted (or re-grafted, if Jews) into Israel.

    I see this attitude you have as being very, very bigoted. “WE are Israel! WE are special to God! NO ONE ELSE can be a part of that!” It is God’s special desire that ALL MANKIND join in that, Gene! It is for that reason Messiah came, taught, died, and rose again!

  5. Adam… calm down and take a deep breath…

    You said: “I just see the Scriptures telling us that Israelite identity is for all of those who choose it by accepting Messiah.”

    I will let our Jewish readers to judge your words above.

    Spoken like a true replacement theologian…(the Reform kind?) Fortunately, the scriptures do not support your strange beliefs. It’s not HaShem’s desire to blur Israel into an indistinct mess you’re attempting to create by Judaizing (in the bad sense of that word, since you are making every attempt to remove the “Ju”) the Gentiles.

    Make G-d have mercy on you, my friend.

    Gene

  6. yochanan says:

    adam,

    if torah observance was obligatory for those gentiles who came to trust in Yeshua, why did Yaakov and the other leaders of the early Messianic community send out the letter listing of the five commands for gentiles to follow in Acts 15? If full Torah observance for gentiles was assumed why didn’t the letter say “You gentiles who have believed now have to observe all the commands of the Torah”?

    torah observance was given to the Jewish people as a distinct sign of their place as G-d’s chosen, when people say that Torah observance is obligatory for gentile Yeshua believers it blurs, if not negates the important place of the Jewish people and is s form of superseccionism, like it or not.

  7. Yochanan… I already went over this with Adam here in this blog… many times. I spent more time on this with him and others in his camp than I could afford to spare…

    It’s useless to convince him otherwise at this point. No amount of scripture pointing will do. He thinks that Jews in MJ are arrogant and proud, and that we want to keep the Gentiles down and excluded from Israel.

    And then there’s twisting of history with his “I am sure the first Pilgrims, who were Torah observant and came here to the Americas to escape people persecuting them for being Torah observant”.

    Torah-observant Pilgrims? Care to show proof of that, Adam? Granted, the Pilgrims may have fancied themselves Israelites (or New Israel OF G-d), but that’s warped thinking is no different than most of your standard replacement folk (not to mention numerous cults). But Torah observant to boot? Oy vey!

    However, it’s good for the readers of this blog to see this and learn.

    Shalom,

    Gene

  8. Then what do you believe Romans 11 means, Gene?

  9. Gene, I don’t teach Replacement Theology. That’s the Church’s spiel. I teach JOINING Theology. They JOIN Israel, they don’t REPLACE it. You have no answer for this because it’s straight from Scripture, so you put out this “Replacement Theology” red herring.

    I also don’t think the original insult from Derek was called for. Derek, I have a great deal of respect for you and felt you should know better to say something like that even when we disagree. It was hurtful; I doubt you intended it that way, but please consider it from my perspective. Because you disagree with the perspective, you suggest those who hold it are “wannabes” and need to “convert” in order to become “respectable.” In many ways, that is exactly the look-down-their-noses-at-the-goyim attitude of Jews (both traditional and Messianic) who think (or seem to) that to be fully part of God’s Redeemed People, they have to undergo ritual conversion. Even if you don’t think so, it’s still a pretty rude attitude to take. Laying aside the issue of what the actual commandment is, since there is (obviously) room for debate… is there something BAD about teaching non-Jewish Believers about Torah, why and how it’s good to keep it? I didn’t say demanding it of them, I didn’t say suggesting it’s necessary to get or maintain salvation, none of that. Is there anything in there worth your derisive words? Isn’t civilized debate enough? I am sorry for firing back in kind, but it hurt when someone I respect as much as I do starting firing verbal barbs in my direction.

    Yochanan, Acts 15 is about non-Jews coming into the faith. The Circumcision Faction was trying to claim that all Gentiles had to undergo training and ritual conversion (the last step of which was circumcision and that came to symbolize the whole process) BEFORE accepting Messiah. The ruling of the Nazarene Sanhedrin in Acts 15 is that this is not a pre-condition for salvation; indeed, ritual conversion was a man-made rite designed so the person would enter Israel through works. It is the epitome of the works-based theology.

    In response, to go along with the Yeshua theology of being grafted into Israel through FAITH, the Nazarene Sanhedrin made basic requirements for entry into FELLOWSHIP (not salvation/grafting-in), and suggested that the new Believers go to the synagogues and learn Torah each Sabbath (Acts 15:21). They are expected to GROW in observance. Afterall, a child is given 13 years before they are to be personally held accountable for Torah. It is not right to expect new Believers to jump right in and do it all at once, while first undergoing a unnecessary ritual that seeks to do through works what their very faith did for them.

    This issue is the basis of my book “Beyond Salvation: Why Believers in Jesus Should Keep the Torah.” You can check it out at http://beyondsalvation.info .

  10. Adam:

    I changed the wording of point 5 and also 5c to be less insulting. I know you would still not agree with what I say, but I hope I have taken the insulting bite out of it.

    Derek

    P.S. Now, two-housers and sacred name people, don’t bother to write in and ask me to make a change.

  11. Adam…

    You said: “Gene, I don’t teach Replacement Theology. That’s the Church’s spiel. I teach JOINING Theology. They JOIN Israel, they don’t REPLACE it.”

    and then you added:

    “n many ways, that is exactly the look-down-their-noses-at-the-goyim attitude of Jews (both traditional and Messianic) who think (or seem to) that to be fully part of God’s Redeemed People, they have to undergo ritual conversion.”

    How can you proclaim that you seek for the gentiles to join Israel while on the same breath you label the Jewish people “both traditional and Messianic” as basically arrogant, prideful, supremacist, and intolerant of Gentiles? What kind of message does it send to our Gentile brothers and sisters? I do not look down on them! But do not appreciate (rather I pity) those, BOTH Jew and Gentiles who seek to erode and replace the Jewish people, their identity and calling.

    And another thing, I myself do not advocate ritual conversion for Gentiles believers (nor do I know many M. Jews who do), as I don’t believe that one is either useful or required by G-d for the Gentiles to join the people of G-d (and joining people of G-d doesn’t mean that Gentiles must or even can become “Israelites”).

    You said: “…is there something BAD about teaching non-Jewish Believers about Torah, why and how it’s good to keep it?”

    No, it’s not wrong to do that. But it’s wrong to teach Gentiles that that G-d expects them to live as Jews as commanded by G-d through Moshe, because it is not what the apostles taught is G-d’s will for the Gentiles.

    Shalom,

    Gene

  12. This is amazing. Okay, what is your definition of “live as Jews as commanded by God through Moshe”? Especially since neither the term nor the concept of “Jew” (except POSSIBLY as describing a member of the Tribe of Judah) DIDN’T EXIST AS THE TIME!

  13. Adam…

    You said: “This is amazing. Okay, what is your definition of “live as Jews as commanded by God through Moshe”? Especially since neither the term nor the concept of “Jew” (except POSSIBLY as describing a member of the Tribe of Judah) DIDN’T EXIST AS THE TIME!”

    OK… let’s take this apart… you’re saying that the concept of a Jew didn’t existing at this time. Hmmm… listen mate, let’s not re-invent history again as you did with the “Pilgrims being Torah-observant”.

    First of all, it doesn’t matter when it a “Jew” or a “Hebrew”. It’s all word games. It’s like Arabs saying that they are not anti-semitic, because their are also semites – nothing but word games.

    When I was growing up in Russia, I was designated as and thought of myself as a “Hebrew” or “evrei” (in Russian). I came to US – I was now called a “Jew”. So, today in America, the word Jew is synonymous with the word “Hebrew”.

    When Reb. Shaul said “That I am a Jew from Tarsus” in Acts 21:39, was he lying? He wasn’t from Judea or from the tribe of Judah! The man was from the tribe of Benjamin! (Philippians 3:5) and from Tarsus! Yet, he still called himself a “Jew” and in another place, he called himself a Hebrew.

    We know Yeshua as the “Kind of the Jews” – does that mean that he’s not the King of Israel but only of that one tribe?

    The Law of Moses was given to Israel and only to Israel. Yeshua’s desciples never say that Gentiles are to follow the Law of Moses (the Sabbath, the ceremonial laws, the kashrut, the tzit-tzit, the circumcision…etc). All these are a sign between Israel and G-d.

    You keep bringing up Rom 11, as if it says that Gentiles are now Israel and Israelites, spiritual or otherwise – which it doesn’t, of course – nowhere in the scriptures it says that. Neither are Gentiles EVER admonished to follow the laws specific to Israel. Of course, in your universe, the Gentiles are Israelites… so, anything goes.

    You think you’re doing Gentile believers a favor, but you’re basically saying to them, that their own national identity is not good or pure enough for HaShem. But HaShem loves all nations and all nations will walk before him in eternity with their own identities, as it says in Revelation 21:24:

    “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.”

    God will preserve the nations, because he loves them. It will not be a one big nation called “Israel”.

    Shalom,

    Gene
    bethavinu.org/forums/

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