Messianic Judaism Is Not Christianity by Stan Telchin
(Chosen Books ©2004 A Division Of Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mi)

You can't tell a book by its cover, perhaps, but what about its title? Stan Telchin has written the latest in a series of oddly entitled books critical of Messianic Judaism. Last year saw the publication of Judaism is Not Jewish: A Friendly Critique of the Messianic Movement, by Baruch Maoz,1 and How Jewish is Christianity?: Two Views on the Messianic Movement, edited by the late Louis Goldberg, of blessed memory.2

Each of these titles skews the debate in which the books seek to engage.

The titles of the Telchin and Goldberg books seem to equate "Christianity" with true biblical faith. The Goldberg title implies that it is unacceptable for "the Messianic movement" to be Jewish unless Christianity is really Jewish, thereby sidestepping a major issue. Can there be a biblical, communal expression of faith in Messiah within the Jewish community and its traditions? Does the term Christianity (which does not even appear in Scripture) necessarily include all faith communities that affirm Yeshua as Messiah? Despite the skewed title, however, one should note that this book contains both criticism and defense of the Messianic Jewish movement including helpful pro-Messianic Jewish contributions by the late Dr. Goldberg and Dr. John Fischer.

The Maoz title-Judaism is not Jewish-makes the same sort of assertion. Jewish is biblical; Judaism is not. Messianic Jews are OK; Messianic Judaism is not. It is acceptable to assert a Jewish identity, as long as this identity remains broadly cultural and does not lead one "back" into practicing a form of Judaism. In other words, Maoz writes, "Jewish Christians" have a right "to adhere to their national identity through their national traditions...the same right to do what the Hottentots, the Inuit and the Magyars may do-no more and no less." 3

Telchin takes a similar tack. His title-Messianic Judaism is not Christianity-is intended as a radical criticism of Messianic Judaism, because Telchin unquestioningly equates Christianity with true biblical faith. Indeed, he considers the charge implied in his title to be so grave that he casts it as something "a friend" has suggested, which he must be persuaded to adopt.4 The full title is apparently meant to soften this blow, for it is, Some Messianic Jews Say, Messianic Judaism is not Christianity (emphasis mine). As Telchin realizes, many Messianic Jews would say that Messianic Judaism is not Christianity, but a communal expression of faith in Yeshua within the parameters of Jewish community and tradition. Since the term Christianity does not even appear in Scripture, why is this view so troubling to Telchin?

The issue with all three books, of course, is one of ecclesiology. Can there be a valid expression of faith in Yeshua within the house of Israel, or must such faith be expressed only within the church universal? Does faith in Yeshua obliterate a visible, existential con­nection with the Jewish community and its religious tradition?

Telchin accurately distinguishes between Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism. He acknowledges some sort of continuing Jewish identity for believers in Yeshua, but denies any religious content to it.

Are we Jewish believers to be prohibited from culturally identifying ourselves as Jews? Are we supposed to forget our Jewish heritage and culture?...

Of course not!

Let me make this next point crystal clear: I am not opposed to any ethnic group of people articulating its social, moral and cultural heritage...

But Scripture clearly establishes the fact that God does not want those ethnic and cultural differences to divide us. He wants us to be unit­ed. No matter what our culture or heritage, we are to be one new man in Messiah Jesus.5 

In a similar vein, in How Jewish is Christianity? William Varner claims that Paul speaks of "‘Judaism' as something that was part of his past life, not something that was part of his present life.6 But he goes on to say, "This does not mean that Paul thought he had ceased to be a Jew." 7

The question of course, is what one might mean by Jewishness totally apart from Judaism. Messianic Judaism would claim that Jewish religious culture and practice are inevitably part of Jewish identity, even in today's largely secular environment. True, Paul did not "cease to be a Jew." Why? Precisely because he continued to fol­low a visibly Jewish way of life, so that he could declare before the Sanhedrin, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day." And, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!" 8

Of course, one might object that Paul did not conform to the post­biblical Judaism that developed after the fall of the temple, but the point remains that he did not separate Jewish identity into religious and cultural or national components. When Paul said, "I am a Jew," he intended it in the same way as his non-Messianic Jewish brethren.

Nonetheless, this identity question does raise a valid criticism. Those who advocate the sort of Messianic Judaism that Telchin opposes may be right to identify with the Jewish people as our peo­ple, and Jewish religious culture as our culture. But they also need to affirm an identity "in Messiah" that may overshadow Jewish com­munal identity. Those of us who do not accept the premise that these two identities are inherently at odds must acknowledge that they often are at odds in experience. Still, we must seek to maintain both, as I wrote in the last issue of Kesher,9

Rav Shaul makes two statements that we must maintain as well, despite the undeniable tension between them. He says both, "I am a Jew, a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews"(and this many times), and "I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Messiah Yeshua my Lord." We do not dichotomize our faith in Messiah and our Jewishness; rather we hold the incomparable legacy of Messiah within the setting of Jewish life and tradition. If we believe that God's calling and promises for Israel remain in effect, and if we seek to restore this truth to the Body of Messiah, then Israel remains our community, despite the failure of Jewish communal leadership to recognize Yeshua as Messiah.

This paragraph portrays Messianic Judaism as an expression of faith in Yeshua that inevitably arises out of a non-supersessionist reading of Scripture. In contrast, Telchin writes, "I do not believe that God's Word supports Messianic Judaism. I agree with William Varner, who states, ‘I do not believe that Messianic Judaism and Messianic synagogues have a biblical, theological, historical or pragmatic justification.'" 10 Despite this professed concern for God's Word, it is not until chapter 7 that Telchin actually begins to quote biblical texts in his argument against Messianic Judaism. (Most of the earlier argumentation is anecdotal.) Tellingly, that chapter is entitled "One New Man," which Telchin interprets to mean, "in His sight there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles." 11 He quotes passages from 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians to prove his point, but neglects passages in Paul's writings that would seem to support a difference of calling between Jews and Gentiles.12 More seriously, he fails to respond to the extensive discussion in the Tenach, the Gospels, and Acts of the continuing "difference between Jews and Gentiles."

In this chapter, Telchin refers to his doctrinal confusion during his brief sojourn in the Messianic Jewish movement. Why was he confused?

Because we were being encouraged to follow the teachings of men rather than the Word of God. Why was that? Because our leaders did not stress or demand our full submission to God's Word. Instead they seemed to be try­ing to gain the acceptance of the rabbis and of the Jewish establishment.13

It is characteristic of the book that Telchin does not provide ref­erences, quotations, or any direct evidence for this grave assertion. Telchin never once quotes a Messianic Jewish leader about being "accepted" by the Jewish community, even though he repeatedly raises this issue of acceptance, or trying "to prove that we're Jewish." (Indeed, a quick glance at his footnotes reveals that he hardly inter­acts with Messianic Jewish sources at all through the entire book.) Nor does he give a documented-rather than anecdotal-example of the "teachings of men" to which he refers here. Surely, the "leaders" of whom he speaks based their teaching on Scripture in some way or another. Why does Telchin fail to engage the actual content with which he disagrees?

Another reference in the "One New Man" section underscores the subjective and idiosyncratic nature of this book:

Have you noticed that as long as we are reading or speaking from God's Word, a sense of peace fills our spirits? But when we give undue emphasis to ethnicity...or calling...or personal heritage...or form of worship, the heat rises within us and we lose our peace.14

Well, no, I hadn't really noticed that. But I have noticed that God's Word deals extensively with ethnicity, calling, personal her­itage, and form of worship. Telchin's reductionist reading views the Pauline letters as foundational in a way that negates the rest of Scripture and its teaching on a wide range of concerns.

Nonetheless, Telchin does raise a fair criticism in this chapter: "Where the original emphasis of the movement was to share the Gospel with Jewish people, the present purpose appears to be the protection of their now enshrined-and institutionalized-doc-trine and rituals."15 Once again, Telchin fails to document his claim, but Messianic congregations are clearly not as effective in sharing the Gospel with Jewish people as we would hope. Telchin cites a 1986-1991 survey that indicates, "Only four percent of believing Jews were evangelized by Messianic congregations." 16 A survey cur­rently in process within the UMJC would support that conclusion, even though it may not use such terminology. Indeed, our success in outreach seems to be almost as modest as that of Jewish missions. Telchin cites a survey done by Jews for Jesus in the 90's,17 which indicates that most Messianic Jews claim that they were first moved to consider the Gospel by "Christian friends, Jesus Christ/Holy Spirit, a believing relative, or a life crisis." Only one percent indicated that Jews for Jesus first attracted them to consid­er the Gospel, and no other Jewish missions are mentioned. (Telchin serves as a missionary with Jews for Jesus, and the Foreword to the book is written by Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen, but Telchin claims that his views are not necessarily repre­sentative of Jews for Jesus.)

The finding that "four percent of believing Jews were evangelized by Messianic congregations" only represents a slight improvement over the Jewish missions approach. Of course, the terminology is vague. Most people, Jewish and Gentile, encounter Messiah through the influence of friends, family, and acquaintances, which the Jews for Jesus survey confirms. There is no way of knowing how many of these existing relationships are already involved in Messianic congregations.

More germane to the discussion, however, is that Messianic Jewish congregations claim to be more than vehicles for outreach, but rather to be centers of Jewish life rooted in Messiah. They claim to contribute to Jewish continuity as well as to Jewish reconciliation with God through Messiah. So, our modest success as vehicles of outreach may be countered by greater success in other aspects of community life. Unlike a Jewish mission, which defines its success in terms of the number of Jewish people attracted to Messiah, con­gregations have a broader self-concept. Many of our Jewish members have an initial encounter with the Gospel through the influence of a Gentile friend or associate, but end up in Messianic congregations, where they receive teaching, encouragement, and help in raising their families as Jews.

Toward the end of his book, Telchin writes, "As we reflect on how few Jewish people Messianic Judaism has attracted and how many Jewish people it has antagonized and offended, we can see that it has not accomplished one of the major purposes it has declared for its existence." Of course, the same statement could well be said of Jewish missions, including the one for which Telchin expresses great admiration and complete commitment.18

Messianic Jewish leaders do need to address our limited success in reaching other Jews for Messiah. Perhaps even more troubling is our difficulty in attracting and retaining Jewish believers in Messiah who are outside the Messianic Jewish community. Jews continue to respond to Yeshua as Lord and Messiah in significant numbers, yet only a minority are involved in Messianic Jewish congregations. We need to consider whether the sort of unclear vision of which Telchin accuses us may be a factor in this. In a recent Kesher article, "Competing Trends in Messianic Judaism," Gabriela Reason raises the same sort of concern in different terms: "How much can one disasso­ciate from evangelicalism without losing the basis for evangelism?"19

We see our congregations as far more than vehicles for out­reach, yet outreach needs to be part of our congregational life. Furthermore, even if others do the "evangelizing," we have always seen ourselves as ideal places of growth and service for Jewish believers. If this is not happening in adequate numbers, we need to consider the perspective of those outside the movement, even when they are critical. Telchin's criticism, however, is difficult to accept because so much of it is fueled by an unreflecting replacement the­ology. He writes, for example,

God has been keeping the Jewish people as a separate people down through the centuries. Why? Because our coming to repentance and faith in the last days will give us, as a people, the unique task of carrying to completion the worldwide eschatological task of proclaiming to the nations the final witness to the Gospel." 20

Telchin's understanding of Israel's election is strictly instru­mental. God chose the Jewish people to accomplish a task. Israel failed in this task, but the Messiah arose from within Israel to accomplish it. Telchin, as a dispensationalist, sees Israel as set aside because of its failure, replaced by the church, but preserved to accomplish the task of worldwide witness in some future day.

{josquote}God's eternal love for Israel inspires many Jewish believers in Messiah to identify fully with present-day Israel and to share in Israel's destiny. Rather than assess this vision biblically, Telchin dismisses it as a need for acceptance by the Jewish community.{/josquote} Moses and the prophets, in contrast, do not portray Israel's election as instrumental, but as relational. In his chapter on Israel in Paul Among the Post-Liberals, Evangelical theologian Douglas Harink masterfully demonstrates this biblical truth. He examines the Torah and Isaiah 40-55 to declare, "In each of these sections of biblical text the emphasis on God's election of Israel for God's sake and for Israel's own sake is overwhelming." 21 "Israel is more than a functionary within a wider scheme; Israel is the very particular object of God's selective love." 22 This reality is the background for Paul's argument in Romans 9-11 that God has not abandoned his people, but has by his own initiative called a remnant, represent­ed by Paul himself, as the guarantee of salvation for the whole people. Israel is not preserved to accomplish some end-time task, but is preserved because of the love and sovereign choice of the Lord himself.

God's eternal love for Israel inspires many Jewish believers in Messiah to identify fully with present-day Israel and to share in Israel's destiny. Rather than assess this vision biblically, Telchin dis­misses it as a need for acceptance by the Jewish community. Instead of recognizing the potential for Jewish believers in Yeshua to par­ticipate in God's love for Israel and Israel's prophetic calling, Telchin asks, "[B]y lifting up rabbinic form and synagogue life and the emphasis on pleasing the Jewish community, hasn't Messianic Judaism become a different religion, and aren't those who embrace it worshiping a false god?" 23

Strangely, not long after leveling such a charge, Telchin invites Messianic Jews to dia­logue, in the words of a statement he helped for­mulate in May 2003 as part of the International Jewish Evangelical Fellowship:

We call upon informed adherents to Messianic Judaism to dialogue with us: We love and respect you. We humbly differ with you on important issues. We are eager to hear and be heard, so that you and we might together better serve God and Messiah's cause.24

But Telchin has not simply raised questions about our community; he has concluded that we are in grave error. And he has done so without engaging our literature at all, as a quick glance at his footnotes will reveal. What sort of dia­logue can arise in this climate? Like the book as a whole, this offer is difficult to take seriously.

Can you tell a book by its title? Some Messianic Jews Say: Messianic Judaism is Not Christianity. Indeed, some Messianic Jews do say this, but Telchin's book gives little evidence that he understands why they say this, or what the theological and practical implications of such a statement might be. Telchin's subtitle is, "A loving call to unity." It may indeed be an act of love to criticize anoth­er, "As iron sharpens iron..." 25 But it is difficult to see love, or the likelihood of helpful influence, in a criticism so devoid of interaction with the other's viewpoint.

Notes: 

  1. (Ross-shire, UK: Mentor, 2003). An excellent review by Dr. Mark Kinzer is available at the UMJC website, http://www.umjc.org/net1/faq/judaism/responsetomaoz.aspx.
  2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
  3. Maoz, p. 145
  4. Stan Telchin. Some Messianic Jews Say, Messianic Judaism is Not Christianity: A Loving Call to Unity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2004), p. 9.
  5. Ibid. p. 99.
  6. Goldberg, (p. 36, emphasis original)
  7. Ibid.
  8. Acts 23:1, 6, NKJV. The original Greek for "council" in these verses is sunedrion. Paul's "good conscience" is not just subjective, but implies adherence to the widely recognized demands of Jewish life. "Paul argues that his conduct has been blameless" (Hilary Le Cornu with Joseph Shulam, A Commentary on The Jewish Roots of Acts [Jerusalem, Academon, 2003], p. 1236. Emphasis mine.)
  9. Defining Messianic Judaism Commentary (Kesher, Issue 17, Spring 2004) pp. 85-86.
  10. Telchin, p. 25.
  11. Ibid., p. 29.
  12. For example, Romans 3:1-4, 9:1-5, 11:1-29; 1 Corinthians 7:17-20; Ephesians 2:17-22.
  13. Telchin., p. 93.
  14. Ibid., p. 96.
  15. Ibid., pp. 99-100.
  16. Ibid., p. 66.
  17. Ibid., p. 104.
  18. Ibid., p. 15.
  19. Kesher, Issue 17, Spring 2004, p. 75.
  20. Telchin, pp. 157-158.
  21. Douglas Harink. Paul Among the Post-Liberals (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003) p. 162.
  22. Ibid., p. 164.
  23. Telchin., p. 148.
  24. Ibid., p. 157.
  25. Proverbs 27:17.

 

Russell L. Resnik is Executive Director of the UMJC.

 
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