Messianic Jewish Outreach: Reaching Out Or Reaching In?

Messianic Judaism[1] has always been committed to outreach, and it is outreach that is often defined as the primary purpose for the existence of Messianic Jewish congregations and ministries. This heavy emphasis on outreach to fellow Jews, and pooling resources that further this cause, has long been a core value of Jewish believers. Since its inception, the Messianic movement has been committed to continual growth, particularly with the emphasis that this growth will come from Jewish people coming en masse to faith in Yeshua.

In recent years Messianic Judaism has become a large and influential movement internationally. The number of congregations and resources seem to be almost doubling every year. Although much attention is often given to the growth of Messianic Judaism since its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, there is also a failure to recognize that the Messianic Movement has not been as successful as it claims in reaching out to the larger Jewish community. Although Messianic congregations are springing up around the world, very few of these congregations have sizable Jewish numbers and tend to be quite small. Those Jews who are members tend to have come to faith in the church and only later joined Messianic congregations. This is often after spending many years within the Christian world, becoming acculturated to its ideas, beliefs and behaviors.

Jewish people who have come to faith in Yeshua within a Messianic Jewish context are far from being the norm. As of late, Messianic Judaism has been far more successful in reaching out to Jews in the church than it has to fellow Jews outside the church. Being honest about this fact behooves us to wonder why Messianic Judaism has had such little impact on the larger Jewish community. If Messianic Jewish outreach is to be effective at embracing and reaching out to other Jews, then we must dispel notions of supremacy and "Otherness" and create an environment of enfranchisement and mutual blessing.

History As An Obstacle

Messianic Judaism's emergence out of Jewish evangelical missionary movements of the 1800s has heavily influenced and permeated its identity. As a result, Jewish believers have often come to devalue Judaism and Jewish practices and view "non-saved" Jews as the "Other."2 Jewish believers in Yeshua came to see other Yeshua believers (i.e., Christians and Christianity) as "us" and non-Yeshua believers (i.e., the larger Jewish community) as "them." By doing so, a relational wall has been built up between our two communities.

Mark Kinzer, in his proposal of a "postmissionary Messianic Judaism," recognizes this as one of the primary causes of disconnect between Messianic Judaism and the larger Jewish world:

Many Messianic Jews find their primary home in the Christian church... [and] they feel away from home when among Jewish people who do not accept Yeshua. Therefore, their outer mission is to bring Jews to faith in Yeshua...whereas postmissionary Messianic Jews seek to represent the Jewish people to the church, Messianic Jews with a missionary focus make their primary concern representing the church's concerns to the Jewish community (emphasis added).3

 

Messianic Judaism has until fairly recently done very little to critically examine its evangelical roots. Changing the name from Hebrew-Christianity to Messianic Judaism in the mid-1970s was a significant move in recognizing a new paradigm in solidarity with Jewish identity. However, this change did not intrinsically challenge its primary religious affiliation. It was not so much a move to try to identify more closely with the religious tradition of their ancestors, but rather an attempt to establish a new movement within the evangelical Christian world.4 As such, Messianic Judaism's primary concern has been to bring the message of the church to the Jewish people. It has been focused on reaching out of its community in an attempt to bring in/bring over other Jews. Instead, we must be seeking "to bear witness to Yeshua within the people of Israel."5To reach into our communities, rather than reach out from outside of them.

Murray Silberling rightly notes this distinction and points out the dichotomy in the language we employ:

Even the term "OUTreach" implies that those being reached are OUTside. The result is that we are imposing an alien cultural mode onto our Jewish people. We are not just asking for faith conformity, but cultural conformity. No matter how much we contextualize the message, the "leap of faith" we ask for demands giving up being the ‘other' to become one of "us." Instead of "outreach," why can't we connect with our Jewish community and try "inreach?" What do I mean by this? If we truly act and think like we are a Judaism, there will be no significant cultural change for our people. Our Jewish life-cycles, lifestyles, and culture will result in our Jewish people "reaching-in." This is a new model-a model that allows for a seamless transition in a community context.6

 

Trying to contextualize our faith with a Jewish veneer without truly finding meaning and value within Judaism and the Jewish experience will only continue to lead us down a road with a dead end. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once pointed out, "Judaism is a way of thinking, not only a way of living."

As Messianic Judaism continues to become a more credible Jewish witness within the larger Jewish community, we must strive to see our fellow Jews as "us" and not "them." We must continue to build a community which is a credible Judaism, and powerfully Messianic. For when we do so we will see great strides in effectively engaging our people.

The Obstacle of Power and Supremacy

Our community is in an interesting position, for we often see ourselves as being both the victim, as well as the spiritually dominant group. We see ourselves as God's remnant within our elect community because we are the possessors of the salvific message and power of Yeshua. As such, "we" have something that "they" need. We see ourselves as spiritually obligated to be the harbingers of the spiritual restoration of all Israel. However, we also feel continually victimized by the larger Jewish community because it fails to recognize us and grant us legitimacy. As a result, we as Messianic Jews often find ourselves being treated with contempt, disgust and even physically threatened.7

From this perspective the Messianic movement is no different than anti-missionary groups. For anti-missionary groups see themselves in exactly the same way. They are trying to save the Jewish people from what they perceive as spiritual and ultimately physical annihilation. To educate those who "are lost in darkness." We both aggressively champion our cause and invest countless resources into seeing our vision come to fruition. Kay Silbering Smith contends:

Both Jewish-Christian missions and Jewish anti-missionary organizations operate within these models. Both fail to acknowledge that their efforts at "saving" the Other are not efforts for enfranchising them or giving them a social voice. Rather, they are efforts in doing away with them collectively in the hope of incorporating (swallowing) them in their own group. Both the missionary and the anti-missionary adopt a posture of acquisition and marketing...note the common adoption of such terms as "receiving" or "accepting" in missionary literature.8

 

Previous outreach methodologies by believers have put themselves in the position of dominance. Assuming that those who are "lost" will be saved by whatever means necessary and that once those lost souls "see the light," they will accept us and our message of the saving power of Yeshua.

Both Messianic Jews and anti-missionaries present themselves to the Other as the dominant group with the message we intrinsically believe they need to hear. In reverse, we present ourselves within our own communities as the victim. Kay Silberling further acknowledges:

Missionary and anti-missionary groups posture themselves as the dominant group in relation to the Other, but in their posture toward their own respective donors, they present themselves as the weaker, threatened group, thus legitimating their posture of social violence toward the Other. Both have adopted the politics of power in their efforts at "saving" one another.9

 

Messianic Judaism desperately needs to find a way to break out of this cycle of victim and spiritual dominance. Through involvement within the larger Jewish community and pursuing recognizably Jewish lives,10 we must begin to see ourselves as part of the larger Jewish community. We must find value in Jewishness. Recognizing the need to see fellow Jews as "us" further compels us to seek a way to enfranchise rather than disenfranchise the "Other." For in this day of great plurality within the Jewish world, our effectiveness will come through our own education and in the recognition of our fellow Jews, whether or not they are accepting of us.

Communication And Dialogue Involves "Getting Out There"

One key to breaking down barriers is getting involved in the Jewish community: to become members of Jewish campus organizations, Jewish community centers and organizations. Opportunities include enrolling our kids in Jewish schools and visiting different synagogues in our areas. It is important to live a Jewish life because it is who we are and who God has called us to be.

For many years now I have been an active member of the Jewish community. I have been a member of several communities, worked in Jewish areas, been involved in Jewish organizations and currently work for a Jewish school and the world's largest Jewish college campus organization. Being a Yeshua-believing Jew has done little to hinder my ability. Often it is my involvement that grants me greater credibility. For when one becomes Us, it is much harder to see them as Other.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach personally did more than any other Jew in modern times in regard to keruv (Jewish outreach). Reb Shlomo is personally credited with bringing tens of thousands of Jews back to Judaism and spirituality. What was his secret? Getting involved! He went to places where Jews were. If that meant to Jewish day schools... he went. If that meant to prisons...Shlomo packed his guitar. If it meant to Buddhist ashrams and temples...Reb Shlomo went singing the most Jewish of songs. And it worked!!! Shlomo was just who he was. Reb Shlomo, along with his colleague, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (who later founded the Jewish Renewal Movement) were the creators and the initiates of outreach on college campuses, "Chabad Houses," and engaged people in the specialness of being Jewish. Reb Shlomo truly understood the of "leaving the world more Jewish than you found it."

As Messianic Jews, we should be the specialists in Jewish keruv . For we follow a Messiah who knows how to embrace and empower those on the fringes of society. Yeshua reached out to those Jews who were hurting, lost and unable to find spiritual fulfillment in their Jewish experience. Yeshua turned this around. Yeshua got involved!!! He reached into the depths of society to where the community really was.

Messianic congregations should be at the forefront of the emerging synagogue movement. We should be paving the way in creating an emerging Judaism that speaks to a whole new generation of Jewish people. David Levine acknowledges:

Though many Jews are satisfied in their Jewishness, very few are satisfied in their spirituality...there is a profound Jewish hunger for God...[and] this hunger for God is often so tragically ignored in the traditional religious institutions of the Jewish community that Judaism has in too many ways been reduced from the radical claims of its origins.11

 

Young people have become disenfranchised with organized religion and the established Jewish community. Like Yeshua, we need to be involved in reaching out and embracing our fellow Jews. Being who we are, yet allowing them to be who they are as well; to value their current position and find meaning even in their understanding- especially when it is a different position than our own.

We must see our fellow Jews in the light of Yeshua and their potential to contribute a different voice to the continuing conversation. For when people are valued, they become open. We do this by reaching into each other and creating safe, spiritual and creative congregations that truly address the needs of people today. We must be a Messianic Judaism that is able to powerfully impart meaning into people's lives. We must be a Jewish renewal movement that is focused on Yeshua. For when we do that, everything else will fall into place. As David Levine encourages, "We must give ourselves to the restoration of the Jewish people, to the recovery of lost Jewish identities, and to the restoration of the place of Yeshua as the Messiah of the Jewish people."12

Messianic Jewish Obligation As A "Light TO The Nations"

As a Messianic Jewish community we also have an obligation to be a "light to the nations." Until fairly recently, the attention of Messianic Judaism has been on reaching out to fellow Jewish people, while neglecting our mission to the rest of the world. Often this is because we assume that this is primarily the responsibility of the Christian church. However, Yeshua and the New Testament writings make it clear that the salvific message of faith must be taken to the rest of the world. Yeshua's final instructions to his followers were the direction to "go and make people from all nations into disciples, immersing them into the reality of the Father, the Son, and the Ruach HaKodesh, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20)." Rhena Klayman, in a past Kesher article, points out:

God's decision to elect Israel was made out of a love for the other nations that He had created; for, it is His desire that all nations be blessed. Thus, the significance of Israel's election does not imply any favoritism, but rather a greater responsibility which he has placed upon her. The calling upon Israel is the approach that God has chosen to reach the world.13

 

Israel's election and our role in being a "light to the nations" obligates us to also reevaluate our relationship with the other nations of the world. As we mature in our communal identity as Jews, we must also reach out to peoples of all backgrounds, cultures and geographical locations. For by doing so, we will greater partner with God in bringing redemption into the world.

If we as a Messianic Jewish community, focused on Yeshua, are to be an effective witness to our larger Jewish community and the nations, then we must effectively embrace and find value in our covenant identity as Jews. We must be an integral part of our larger Jewish community and thereby become a witness to all peoples. We must dispel notions of supremacy and "Otherness" and create an environment of enfranchisement and mutual blessing.

Notes:
  1. Originally presented at the Young Messianic Jewish Scholars Conference in New York City, June 2006.
  2. Murray and Kay Silberling, "Re: Messianic." Internet Correspondence, Aug. 11, 1999.
  3. Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 15.
  4. See further: Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 233; and Kinzer, 290-293.
  5. Kinzer, 301.
  6. Murray Silberling, "Outreach or Inreach: A Community Paradigm." Aug. 1999, 1.
  7. This is especially true for the Messianic Jewish community in Israel. Recent threats and vandalism to property have become common in some areas. See further recent articles in The Messianic Times, Rebekah Kolber. "‘Christalnacht' in Beer Sheva." Feb./Mar. 2006: 1.; Rebekah Kolber. "Arad Suspects Let Go." Dec. 2005:1.
  8. Kay Silberling. "Messianic Keruv: Gathering In, Reaching Out." In Voices Of Messianic Judaism, edited by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. (Baltimore: Lederer Books, 2001), 180-181.
  9. Ibid., 181.
  10. In today's diverse Jewish world this can mean many different things. There is no one way to be Jewish.
  11. David Levine, In That Day (Lake Mary: Creation House, 1998), 131.
  12. Ibid., 104.
  13. Rhena Klayman, "Messianic Jewish Youth to the Nations: A Forum for Practical Outreach." Kesher 11 (Summer 2000): 143.

Joshua Brumbach has lived and ministered internationally and is currently serving as a rabbinical intern at Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, Calif. He is an adjunct staff member of the Messianic Times completing a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Biblical Studies at UCLA.

 
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