Those who try to learn from the internet about Messianic Judaism and a Jewish perspective on faith in Yeshua are only slightly more likely to find good information as those seeking fine coffee at an interstate truck stop. The internet gives pretty much anyone a voice, including many who are willing to speak authoritatively about matters of Jewish faith in Yeshua without being part of the hard work of engagement with the Jewish community. For many, the mere fact that they own and read a Bible is license and empowerment to speak about delicate matters of identity, history, and practice.
Needless to say, the authentic voices of Messianic Judaism should be the many leaders and communities busy applying the Bible and history to actual communities of Jewish people and actively engaging Jewish thought.
It amazes and appalls me that people feel empowered to interpret and apply the quintessential book of Judaism–the Torah–with little regard for what the Jewish people have historically said about it.
Case in point is a recent blog post by an Anglican Christian who believes that all Christians should keep the Torah. Nate Long feels that Torah is the provenance now of Christendom and that “Rabbinic Judaism” took the Torah in wrong directions. Surfers of Messianic Judaism online (the broadly labeled phenomenon on the internet which runs a gamut of actual belief systems) can certainly find worse voices than Nate Long, but maybe it is particularly intelligent but misguided voices that concern me most.
In a recent post, Long decides to address our community directly. He writes “An Open Letter to Jewish Believers in Jesus” (see his post here). Nate Long, the Anglican, has advice for the community of Jewish people navigating the path of Jewish life and Jesus-faith. His major points include:
–Messianic Judaism, says long, is a “cultural expression” of Jesus-faith (and apparently nothing more).
–Christians have been “grafted in” to Israel, says Long, by which he virtually means there is no difference between Jews and Christians in Christ.
–Contemporary use of the term Judaism, Long asserts, refers to those who departed from Jesus and began a variant religion to what might be called “Biblical Judaism” (note: Long doesn’t use this term, but the idea is clearly in the background).
–Using the term Judaism, as in Messianic Judaism, declares Long, is a misnomer!
–When the believers at Antioch (in the book of Acts) began to be called Christians, says Long, this was the beginning of a new identity and called for Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus to separate from the synagogues and keep Torah the Christian way.
–Jewish believers in Jesus today should identify with Christianity and not Judaism, says Long (while, ironically, he also undermines Christianity in its historical expressions by calling for Christians to be under the yoke of Torah).
–Finally, and most frightfully, Long calls upon Jewish followers of Jesus not to pretend they are returning to Judaism, since Judaism, according to Long, is bankrupt. Rather, says Long, Jewish followers of Messiah should be separate from Judaism and acknowledge membership in the Body of Messiah (apparently this concept of “Body of Messiah” for Long is not identifiable with any actual community such as the Church, but is a nebulous ideal group of believers with no historical or physical identity).
Well, consider this a response to Nate Long’s unsolicited advice to Jewish followers of Jesus:
Is Messianic Judaism Simply a Cultural Expression of Christianity?
I have nothing against cultural expressions of Christianity. In fact, all expressions of Christianity are culturally bound. The old wives’ tale that some American brand of Christian expression is “Christian” culture can only be believed by people who have never flown in an airplane across large bodies of water. There is nothing about 19th century hymns, soft rock modern religious music, Southern Gospel, or any other form of Christian cultural expression that is neutral or simply “Christian.”
While I admire diverse cultural expressions of Christianity, such as the Latino church where everyone hugs you twenty times or the Korean church where people gather daily at 5 a.m. to pray for an hour, I must say Messianic Judaism is not a cultural expression of Christianity.
Messianic Judaism, in all its diverse cultural forms (there is no monolithic Jewish culture either), is supposed to be the continuation of Israelite covenant faithfulness to Hashem renewed in Yeshua. Let me unpack that briefly for those who don’t understand my language here. We, in Messianic Judaism, believe that the descendants of Israel remain under the teaching and covenant of Genesis through Deuteronomy as initiated by Hashem (God, literally “the Name”). We believe that faith in Yeshua (Jesus) flows naturally from Torah living and that historical notions that Torah and Jesus are somehow opposed are all mistaken.
Jewish life is more than a culture (really a set of diverse cultures). It is the continuation of God’s covenant with a specific people. Latino and Korean Christianity are cultural expressions of something bigger than culture too: God’s relationship with the nations.
Are Christians Grafted Into Israel and Thus Bound to Torah?
I have a horticultural expert in my synagogue. His common sense wisdom is something that many interpreters of the phrase “grafted in” desperately need. My friend says to me, “A branch grafted onto a tree never changes its nature.”
That is, a wild olive grafted onto a cultivated variety of olive tree, will never become a cultivated olive branch. Readers of the New Testament will certainly recognize the analogy from Romans 11, “If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches.”
The language of non-Jews being “grafted in” is regularly misused. Few remember Paul’s admonition, “Remember, it is the root that supports you.” Few believe that the existence and nature of Israel supports the Church. Among the One Law and Hebraic Roots groups few take seriously that wild branches do not become natural branches.
The distinction between Israel and the nations (Jews and Gentiles) is no more erased by verses like Galatians 3:28 than the distinction between male and female. And as for the relation of non-Jews to Torah, Acts 15 makes it clear that Gentile obligation is not the same as Jewish obligation. (Note: the common misinterpretation of Acts 15:21 by Hebraic Roots and One Law groups can be easily demonstrated to be a false attempt to overthrow the meaning of the rest of the chapter by use of false assumptions.)
Is Judaism a False Step-Child of “Biblical Judaism”?
Long seems to have hit on a simple and profound formula. Biblical Judaism plus Jesus faith equals Christianity. Biblical Judaism plus the rabbis equals Judaism, the false religion of those opposed to Jesus.
It should be apparent from the Hebrew Bible that this formula is absurdly wrong-headed. Yet some people will only listen to the New Testament, or only to Paul. Thus I present to you the revolutionary formula of Romans 11:2, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”
For the truly stubborn, those who wish to define Israel in Romans 11 as something other than Jewish people (some says only Jewish believers in Jesus are meant or that the whole thing is a cipher for Christians in general), I further present the appallingly clear sayings of Paul in Romans 11:28-29, “As regards the Gospel, they are the enemies of God . . . [nonetheless] the gifts and calling of God [i.e., naming the Jewish people as his Chosen People] are irrevocable.”
Consider the absurdity of Nate Long’s position that Judaism is false. It means that while God continues to regard the Jewish people as his covenant people he nonetheless has not been working within Israel for the last two millennia. Instead, God has spent all his time on the Church, leaving his Chosen People in the darkness.
Equally consider a more promising idea: neither Judaism nor Christianity, in any of their various forms, represents a total claim on God’s truth and love. If Judaism is false, then answer this: which expression of Christianity is true? Which historical community of Christians has lived the lifestyle taught us by Jesus? And which synagogue is devoid of the beauty of God’s teaching?
Though I cannot fully develop the idea here, there numerous signs of God’s continued work within Judaism and even of Yeshua’s hidden presence within Judaism (see Mark Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism for more).
Is Judaism, as in Messianic Judaism, a Term to Be Avoided by Yeshua-Followers?
When we use the term Judaism we mean to say that we are continuing God’s covenant from Sinai, through the history of the kings and prophets, into the time of Yeshua, and also the tradition for the past 2,000 years since Yeshua in which God has very definitely been at work within Israel. Thus is the natural outgrowth of the idea that God has never ceased his covenant with Israel or ceased to develop communal life within Israel.
Some prefer to ignore the last 2,000 years of Judaism, assume God has not been involved ever since the Jewish community largely rejected Yeshua (note: so did the Gentile world), and promote the myth of Biblical Judaism. Biblical Judaism means following Torah, allegedly, separate from the developments of rabbinic tradition.
The idea of Biblical Judaism is laughable. Practitioners of Biblical Judaism fast on Yom Kippur, light candles on Shabbat and Hanukkah, and observe holidays on the Jewish calendar. These are all elements of the allegedly false rabbinic tradition.
You can’t keep Torah in a vacuum. Let me say that again: you can’t keep Torah in a vacuum. Torah means more than the text of the Biblical page. There are a thousand examples of ambiguity in the Torah, ambiguity clearly intended by God as places for the community to fill in the gaps. Ignoring the tradition is akin the wicked generations of Judges who “did what was right in their own eyes.”
Should Jewish Yeshua-Followers Identify With Christianity to the Exclusion of Judaism?
Messianic Jews are a community of Jewish followers of Yeshua rooted in Judaism and related to Christianity.
Being rooted in Judaism is a matter of covenantal obligation and communal identity. Being related to Christianity is a matter of joyous reconciliation in Yeshua between Israel and the nations, Jew and Gentile.
When the outside community in Antioch began calling the Yeshua-followers (Jew and Gentile) Christians, this did not in any way indicate that Jewish followers should depart from the synagogue. In its origin “Christian” simply means “follower of Messiah.” It does not mean, as Long perhaps imagines, “one who has departed from Judaism to join a new community called Christendom.”
Are Messianic Jews Often Returnees to Judaism?
An oft-noted pattern in Messianic Judaism is the path of the indifferent Jew who comes to faith in Yeshua and begins to return to Judaism.
In some cases, the indifferent Jew is rather secular, with some experience in Jewish life, but little connection to God and faith. Learning to sing the Hebrew text of the Torah for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a chore to be endured so one can have a party with a D.J. and all of one’s friends. Hebrew School is a laborious chore to be left behind at the soonest possible opportunity.
Then comes Yeshua and faith in God. Suddenly that Hebrew text is God’s word and not a stepping stone to girls, dancing, and D.J.’s. Suddenly that prayer book is a way to converse with God who is no longer remote or mythical.
In other cases, the indifferent Jew is indifferent because of Christianity and its frequent disregard for Jewish life, covenantal obligation, and identity. A Jewish person comes to Jesus, is handed a ham sandwich by the well-meaning but ignorant church community, and comes to think of their Jewishness as a cultural choice to be abandoned for the alleged culture of Christianity.
Then comes a crisis, such as a death in the family or a feeling of guilt at a relative’s Bar Mitzvah, and Jewish Christian seeks out a Messianic Jewish synagogue. Or, if not a crisis, some relationship draws the Christianized Jew into a community of Jews who follow Yeshua. And over time a clarity of purpose slowly (or quickly) grows in the life of the Christianized Jew. The Judaism of their family and friends is no longer the foreign “other” but the welcome homeland of faith and practice. The taboos of populist evangelical Christianity, such as its disdain for liturgical prayer, begin to fade.
These Jews are returning to something Nate Long does not wish to call Judaism. Why does Nate Long not wish to call it Judaism? He imagines that he is following a non-Jewish path of Torah observance. Torah, he thinks, is for Christians. Jews, he thinks, have made a mess of Torah. Christianity, he vainly imagines, has found the way. (Please note: thoughtful Christians, and I hope Nate Long is among them, realize that Christendom is human, fallible, and far from achieving the ideals of Yeshua).
I and many others in Messianic Judaism reject Nate Long’s open letter. We do not see Judaism as the bankrupt branch of those who rejected Jesus. We see Judaism as a continuation of God’s covenant people and way of life. We do not believe that God ignores and withdraws from people and cultures which do not yet follow Yeshua. We believe God works among all peoples and cultures, first and foremost with his Chosen People, Israel.
We rejoice in our rootedness in Judaism as well as our relationship with Christianity.