All in the Name of Messianic Judaism, Part 1

In late 1987, I discovered Jesus. Prior to this I had been agnostic or even atheist. About a week later, I found out Jesus was Jewish. I jumped in with both feet in learning about the Jewish aspect of Jesus and faith.

I remember the things that first excited me. First, it was wild to think that this whole Christian business had Jewish roots. It was scandalous, almost, mind-blowing. I felt, as a newcomer to the Christian scene, that it was like something the church had been missing and which needed to come to the light.

Second, I found the small amount of liturgy, tradition, and connectedness to the ancient past in Messianic Judaism to be far more interesting than the vanilla, traditionless worship at the mega-Baptist church I was attending. Now, granted the Messianic Jewish place I first attended had problems and wasn’t very steeped in Jewish tradition, but even a little bit went a long way. I was hooked.

Third, I like spirituality with roots in the “Old Testament.” Though I am a lover of the Pauline epistles, it was tiring at the Baptist church hearing only the same Pauline texts over and over again. And the hymns and choruses were tiring in that they repeated the same one or two themes over and over again (the experience of being saved seemed to be the one note the church sang about). But the words of the Psalms and prophets in the music of Lamb and Israel’s Hope was exciting, deep, poetically satisfying. The music of early Messianic Judaism moved me and it still does.

Fourth, I liked learning about the nation of Israel, Jewish history, the idea of God’s involvement with a people. I would go on later to enjoy church history for much the same reason. I needed to see that God was about more than contemporary American religion. But at church, we didn’t talk about history. Everything was practical and application-oriented. We’d hear about ten ways to a better marriage (I was single!), but never about Augustine or Calvin or Wesley. But at the Messianic synagogue we learned about the formation of the nation of Israel, about the tragedies of medieval Jewish history, the Holocaust, and so forth.

Fifth, I liked the emphasis in Messianic Judaism on rituals and observances in the week and the year. At the church I had learned the idea of daily Bible reading and prayer, which were very helpful. But it seemed something more was needed. The rhythm and regularity of Jewish observances made faith seem alive.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, I like the idea that holiness still exists. What I mean is this: in Judaism there are still holy things, while in the Christian stream I was involved with any suggestion that an object or season was holy was regarded as primitive, a throwback to pre-Christian “legalism.” But when the Ark was opened at the Messianic synagogue we stood. When the Torah was paraded, we faced it and did not let our backs be turned to it. We hallowed it with prayers before and after reading.

Jewish roots, Israel, spirituality from the Psalms and prophets of Israel, Jewish history, ritual, and holiness: these things made Messianic Judaism much richer than evangelical contemporary experience for me. And I had a sense of excitement, expectation, and transcendence in those days.

Dangerous and Unhealthy Fringe Beliefs and Practices
I don’t know if way back in 1988 I was innocent or if some of the weirder practices and beliefs loosely associated with Messianic Judaism did not exist. I suspect the internet is to blame for some of the mishugas (craziness) that passes in the name of “Messianic” and “Jewish roots” and “Hebraic” teaching today.

No one in the late 1980’s was talking about the sacred name idea. This is a fringe sect today, located mostly on the internet because its teaching is so not-compelling that it does not energize large groups in any one location. It is one of those movements that can give Messianic Judaism a bad name. How would you like it, fellow Messianic Jews and Gentiles, if a friend in another town decided to check out your faith and visited a local group where they call Jesus “Yahshuah”?

Sacred Name groups are cultic. They say “Jesus” is a pagan word. They use lame proofs such as “the last three letters in Jesus are derived from Zeus.” They don’t know Hebrew. Yah is a suffix in Hebrew names and never a prefix. “Yahshuah” is not a Hebrew name. It is ignorance masquerading as insider knowledge. They will say that Christians are all lost, pagan, deceived by Satan into worshipping Zeus and so on and so forth. Only the Sacred Name people have it right. This is a form of gnosticism.

No one in the late 1980’s was calling Christianity pagan. The Messianic synagogue I attended had tons of church visitors every week and a good relationship with pastors and churches. Christian leaders came to Messianic conferences. Now, mind you, there was an unhealthy attitude toward Judaism in this Messianic synagogue (“Judaism is devoid of God without Yeshua”), but the attitude toward the Church was one of mutual respect with some differences of opinion.

No one in the late 1980’s was obsessed with finding ways that non-Jews could claim Jewish identity. Now, mind you, there was a naive and unhealthy fixation on Jewish identity in some ways. People often looked for a Jewish ancestor (many Americans can find a Jewish ancestor if they dig deeply enough) which then could be turned into a claim of being Jewish. But people did not say, as is too often said now, “as a believer in Yeshua I am now part of the people of Israel.” For the most part, there were Jews and Gentiles and people were confident in their identity.

I did not hear ideas like “Two-House” and “Ephraimite” back then. I don’t want to denounce “Two-House” and “Ephraimite” beliefs too harshly as I have some friends who are persuaded by these beliefs. The basic idea (please someone correct me if this is wrong) is that many Christians (if not all) are crypto-Israelites, members of the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel (I say so-called because none of the tribes were really lost, as per Chronicles). Therefore, in the Two-House movement, non-Jews drawn to Jewish life claim their identity as Israelites and believe God is bringing back Israelite identity to those who had lost it and also that God is rejoining the Israelites and Jews per various prophecies in Ezekiel and elsewhere.

No one way back then subscribed to the various Christianity-is-pagan movements. I did not hear of Messianic Jews who rejected the writings of Paul or Messianics who denied that God is three-in-one or that Messiah is divine. While there was discomfort with some Christian practices at Christmas and Easter, no one was saying that Christians are lost because of a few syncretistic practices.

Summary and Coming Next…
Messianic Judaism was far from perfect, and at that time Judaism was under-appreciated, but relations with Christianity were good. Fringe groups and sects were rare. The focus was on the people of Israel (in the land and in the nations), Messiah, musical worship based on the Hebrew Bible, history, messianic expectation, and viewing the Bible holistically.

Today, a person encountering Messianic Judaism on the internet or at a local group has a better than average chance of encountering something weird, cultic, and fringe.

So, in the next installment, I want to talk about various kinds of Messianic Jewish and pseudo-Messianic Jewish groups and ideas. I could use your help in adding to the list or expressing your opinion about the various streams and kinds of MJ and MJ-related groups.

Let me start with a list, not a final one, of the various groups and streams (with some overlap), and I hope some of you will add to the list over the weekend (definitions wait until early next week). I start with my own stream (Hashivenu), work my way down through streams I feel are closest to mine, into those which are more Christian, and at the end streams which deviate into fringe cults. Note that all of these groups will at times use the label “Messianic”:

Hashivenu Messianic Judaism

Tikkun Messianic Judaism

Restorationist Messianic Judaism

Pentecostal Messianic Judaism

Self-Defined Observant Messianic Judaism

Hebrew Christianity

Israeli Christianity

Zionist Christianity

The Two-House Movement

The One-Law Movement

The Sacred-Name Movement

Anti-Pauline Pseudo-Messianic Judaism

Please help me modify or add to this list with your suggestions.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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20 Responses to All in the Name of Messianic Judaism, Part 1

  1. rgbg says:

    Shalom,

    Please add Orthodox & Conservative Messianic Judaism

    For Conservative the main points are:
    1. Follow Conservative Judaism norms
    2. Follow Shulkhan Aruch with modifications as allowed by Conservative Halacha
    3. Rabbinic Kosher, Mikvah, Etc.

    Blessings RGBG

  2. I got some clarification from two friends who would call themselves Two-House, but I think they need a new label. I am going to add a category called COMMONWEALTH OR MULTI-ETHNIC MESSIANIC JUDAISM. I will explain it tomorrow. They see themselves as Two-House but they do not get into the mythology of people being lost tribesman by physical descent. At least one of them believes that rabbinic tradition is vital to Torah observance.

    Derek

  3. RGBG:

    I suppose I could add that category. The reason I resist is that some in the Hashivenu branch already fit that description (but I guess overlap already exists in my categories).

    Also, could you email me with some examples of Orthodox Messianic synagogues (not little havurot, but actual synagogues)? My email is derek4messiah@gmail.com

    • I found the following to be true about the majority of those who claim they are Messianic Orthodox Jews:

      1. In majority of cases they are NOT Jewish (but may claim a dubious connection to some distant ancestor they supposedly found).
      2. They are not actually following the mainstream Orthodox halacha (they would turn on the lights, drive, do not take of ALL prescribed days off from work during holy days, etc.). But the word “Orthodox” connotes more authenticity and strictness – they like that.
      3. They readily set up their own conversion beis dins – in essence Gentiles converting other Gentiles into Jews.

      I found the same to be also true for the majority of those who claim “Conservative Judaism” as their identification. It’s pick and choose Orthodox and pick and choose Conservative – sans actual Jews.

    • Ovadia says:

      I think the population of “Orthodox Messianic Jews” is overstated– but they do exist. However, by the nature of their convictions, they have a natural proclivity to form little havurot rather than synagogues; if they live socially integrated into Orthodox Jewish communities (whether because that’s how they grew up, or because that’s the only way they feel they can live up to their own halachic standards), then they can’t exactly be away from shul every Shabbat without arousing suspicion.

      The only “Orthodox Messsianic” synagogues I’ve heard of match Gene’s description almost exactly.

  4. rgbg says:

    Will try to do there is a group in Israel that follow that brach and I believe Terry in Lawrenceville also

  5. Jeruz says:

    I would like to add to the idea of Gentiles coming into the Messianic Movement… by the droves.

    Much of the identity crisis came when so many gentiles were being drawn to keep Torah… They were/are in love with it, and as of right now many more gentiles are still being drawn to it… But “Messianic Judaism” at the time, did not have an answer for them, other than, the Torah is not for Gentiles… I think this is what spurred the identity movements, Gentiles wanted an answer to why they were so in Love with God’s Torah… They knew in there hearts that truly this book of abounding wisdom was for all people who wanted to take hold of it… yet they went into obvious, possible fringe ideas or concepts to satisfy this desire or possibly they are right…

    I think it is also interesting to note that the identity movement ideas more or less were stolen/taken from sources of Judaism such as: Yair Davidiy, Rabbi Avraham Feld(britam.org), the Talmud, the Mishnah(Rabbi Eliezer), etc, etc…

    Like you said, Messianic Judaism is far from perfect, not just was… Some have come to offer conversion through circumcision, as you participated in, many do not agree with this approach as a true form of conversion… So there is still much for the MJ movement to answer and clarify, and since it has become much larger than it was, and there are already many opposing established factions, it will be interesting to see where it all goes…

    • I think that Messianic Judaism must re-enforce the truth that Messianic Judaism is NOT the perfect alternative for the Gentiles who are fed up with “church” and that indigenous Gentile Yeshua-faith expressions as already found in Christianity are perfectly legitimate in G-d’s eyes. Neither Messianic Judaism nor Christianity has a corner on G-d’s approval. Proper relationship of Jews and Gentiles towards Torah and Jewish traditions must be formulated and taught.

  6. I would venture to suggest that ANY “Messianic Judaism” where Jews do not constitute the majority of core leadership and where Jews are not the primary source of decision making and outreach is more aptly placed under the “pseudo-Messianic Judaism” category.

  7. rgbg says:

    Shalom,

    Many groups have different approaches. We have chosen to align ourselves with Conservative Jewish thought and practice; thus issues on conversion are governed by those principles.

    Within the Group levels of practice vary but the direction does not. Just as in any Synagogue people have differing levels of practice. It is the leadership that sets direction and the example of practice.

    For example we teach and have mikvah for those wanting to immerse monthly, not all do but a core does. Same with kosher, Rabbinic Conservative is goal, yet only leadership follows.

    How we relate to Gentiles is also an issue. We teach one flock with Gentiles grafted into Isra’el, not as Jews but G-dfearers. The whole “how do Gentiles fit in” is sticky and MJ has not got a consistent answer.

    • Ovadia says:

      Conservative Judaism is a far cry from being a monolithic movement. The only official “Conservative Jewish norms” are matrilineal descent and conversion through milah (as applicable), milah, and beit din. For most other issues of controversy there are multiple options with the local rabbi serving as decisor for his/her community.

      Do you believe that the Torah was written centuries after Moses lived, if he lived at all? Can/do women count to a minyan, make aliyah, teach, wear tallitot and tefillin, and lead all prayers? Can LGBT individuals live openly in your communities? If the answer to any of these guestions is “no” you fall in what would be considered the far Conservadox fringe of Conservative Judaism.

      What I’m saying with all this is…
      What constitutes “Conservative Jewish thought and practice” for you?
      Eating swordfish?

  8. judeoxian says:

    I think it should be noted that the sacred-name “movement” is not a purely Messianic Jewish (or Gentile Messianic) movement. This way of thinking goes back several decades, and can be found in fringe Christian denominations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, parts of Seventh Day Adventist Church, various non-denominational Pentecostal/charismatic groups, and in the former Worldwide Church of God.

    • judeoxian says:

      Also, it exists in some forms of Rastafarianism

    • Ovadia says:

      Also, the Two-House Movement is not an exclusively Gentile Messianic phenomenon, the Worldwide Church of God promoted a type of Ephraimite theology (although more in the line of British Israelism)– although some former WWCOG-ers disaffected after that church reformed itself in the 1990’s eventually found their way into the Messianic world. Two-House ideas exist in the Rastafari movement as well.

  9. judeoxian says:

    “anti-Pauline pseudo-messianic Judaism”

    Another word for this is pseudo-ebionites. Usually are anti-Christian, anti-Trinitarian, and seem to be against salvation by faith. The cross and the resurrection have no substantive role in their theology. So…really not Messianic in any sense of the word.

    • Ovadia says:

      People like this talk about following the “religion of Yeshua” instead of “the religion ABOUT Yeshua”. And in so doing conveniently ignore anything Yeshua said about himself, choosing instead to pick and choose easy statements from the Synoptic Gospels.

      This neo-Ebionitism could be considered the end result of the re-appropriation of Yeshua by Jewish scholarship and “historical Jesus” scholarship in general: He’s a nice guy and a nice Jew, but a nice dead Jew, a misunderstood Honi the Circle Drawer-type. Something I’ve noticed is that a lot of these types are fond of the radical fringe of New Testament scholarship-Borg, Crossan, etc.- while never applying similar scrutiny to the Tanakh.

  10. moshebenyosef says:

    I will do my best to explain the fundamentals of Orthodox Messianic Judaism as I am a orthodox messianic jew. I attend the synagogue Shorshay HaMashiach (Roots of the Messiah) in Evergreen Co. I do understand the confusion of what a messianic orthodox Jew is due to the FACT that most messianics have created their own halacha. albeit rare, orthodox Messianic Jews are Shomer! Some Examples are refraining from the 39 malochot (prohibited works on Shabbat) such as no turning lights on or off, no driving etc. Also our Tzitzit are kosher. Not stuff you can buy at the yarn barn. We read from the siddur (Artscroll Sefard). We Keep all of the feasts. We Lay Tefillin.

    If we want to unite all believers it is time for us to get back to Torah! Many Messianic condemn Orthodox practice because they believe it is “Rabbinic” and not scriptural. I see their issue with this. I will try to say this firmly yet lovingly. All of the things we do are in the Torah!!! I everyone would stop reading the Torah with greek eyes then they would see that it is all there! If anyone has any questions feel free to respond. More than ever we need to be on the same page. All these different, strange ideas are killing us and jewish community at large.

    PS. Christianity is a Jewish Sect!

  11. moshebenyosef:

    Most of my readers are very famiiiar with Orthodox Judaism, but thank you for taking the time to explain. Yarn Barn? Too funny. I don’t know anyone who wears tzit-tzit not purchased from a kosher store. You must have seen some hilarious pseudo-Messianic Judaism out there to even make that comment.

    The thing is, the stuff you described is all very basic. In fact, I wondered as I read it if you are Baal Teshuvah. You sound enamored with surface details. Did you think we’d be surprised that you “read from the Siddur”?

    What do you think we pray from?

    Anyway, maybe you’re new to all this. I’d encourage you to become involved in the UMJC if you can (if you are the rabbi). You ought to meet and find out about the segment of Messianic Judaism that is actually Jewish in practice (how it pains me to have to say that). We may not all be Orthodox in style, but many of us in the UMJC would be traditional, on par with your level of observance, in most ways.

    Derek Leman

  12. moshebenyosef says:

    …they just don’t know it.

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