Christianized and Messianic Jews: Real Problems and Prospects from the Point of View of Religious Sciences

Dear friends, it is a great honor for me to present here at this consultation. I have to say from the outset that I take a position which will likely be different from the majority of those present. Being Jewish by ethnic origin, I do not belong to any religion—neither Christianity, nor Judaism. At the same time for many years I have worked actively in the field of Jewish-Christian relations, writing numerous articles and presenting numerous papers. For almost fifteen years I have represented Russia in the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ); also I am an editor of the Russian page of ICCJ site. So I am deeply engaged in the problems of Jewish-Christian relationship which have a special importance for me in many aspects.

We all gathered here in order to discuss the theological aspects of the Jews who in one way or another have embraced the Christian Jesus or the Jewish Yeshua. I do not need to explain that the problem of the Jewish-Christian relationship and interaction is very complicated and demands a most serious approach. From my point of view it does not fit into the usual schemes of traditional Christian missiology, and the modern approaches of the Catholic church and leading protestant denominations confirm this fact.

I believe that one of the reasons for the complexity of this issue is a very old practice of non-differentiation of the notions of “a Jew” as an adherent of the Jewish religion and “a Jew” or “Hebrew” as a person belonging to a certain ethnic group. Such non-differentiation goes back to antiquity and Middle Ages, when ethnic and religious aspects of Jewishness could not be divided. The definition of “a Jew” implies a contradiction, caused by double belonging—one could become a Jew as born from a Jewish mother but also after having made a conversion to Judaism (giur). Indeed, when a person has been converted to Judaism, in no way has he changed genetically, and whatever religion he would choose, such a person preserves his national identity as an ethnic Russian, Ethiopian, Chinese etc. But in a paradoxical way, after his conversion, he is claimed by Jewish religious tradition as having become an ethnic Jew, as if he had changed his genetic code (even to the point of saying he has acquired a Jewish “soul”!).

This internal contradiction of mixed ethnic and religious aspects of the notion of Jewish identity is fixed in European languages already on the verbal level, when one uses the word denoting Jewish person—Jude, Jew, Juif, Yid. Thus when a Jew has been converted to another religion (Christianity in particular) the semantic and linguistic problems with his self-identification arise. When calling a person “a Jew” we suppose that this person has some attitude to Judaism (or at least does not go to the church). Such phrases as “a Christian Jew” or “Jewish Christian” would seem to the majority of outside observers as some kind of oxymoron, as something impossible. Of course one could speak about “Hebrew Christian” in that specifically ethnic sense which we have in mind when speaking about about French Christians or Italian Christians, but such approach would hardly cause an interest in this auditorium because, for all of you, it is precisely your Jewish religious heritage that is of special importance in this discussion, if I am right in making this distinction. It is a subtext of this meeting. Probably all of you wish to remain Jews, not just Hebrews.

But certainly the problem is not restricted to linguistic questions. It may be that you have noted the title of my paper: “Christianized and Messianic Jews: Real Problems and Prospects from the Point of View of Religious Sciences.” I believe that there exist two main approaches toward these two groups of Jews from the point of view of religious sciences. As you are perfectly aware, Messianic Jews insist on differentiating themselves from Christianized Jews in some very essential theological and practical ways.

Let us begin just from the first group, namely “Messianic Jews,” with whom at least no linguistic problems arise: the self-definition “Messianic Jews” succeeds in identifying them as “Jews” in a complete sense of this word. In practice, however, the situation in which Messianic Jews find themselves is very uneasy, and undoubtedly you know this well.

First, I should like to clarify what I mean about this uneasy situation. Generally speaking, any religious group has its own right to existence under United Nations law. This axiom is true, of course, for Messianic Jews: in the end they are not obliged to discuss anything with anyone and may fulfill calmly their religious duties. But again, by the fact that we called this consultation in Helsinki, perhaps we are acknowledging that there are some problems. And possibly the most serious one is the importance for Messianic Jews to be identified in the framework of some wider community and not just to be satisfied with the common citizen’s right for confessing his religious beliefs. And it is quite natural that they identify with two religions: Judaism and Christianity.

Let us now focus our attention on the relationship of Messianic Jews with Judaism and Christianity. The Messianic Jewish community includes many different groups which differ from each other in their beliefs and practices. Not wishing to plunge deeply into their differences, we’ll try to define all of them in one general phrase. Who are Messianic Jews, in the end? These are Jews who recognize Yeshua as Moshiach, Yeshua as he is depicted in the New Testament, but who do not identify themselves with the Christian religion. As a result they find themselves sitting “between two arm-chairs,” as we Russians say. The Church does not accept them. It may be an irritating fact for many, but I find this attitude of the Church to be quite justified. If you are identifying yourself with any group you must accept the main statements and rulings of this group.

But I do not know of even one Christian confession which would readily meet the beliefs and practice of Messianic Jews, as they reject at least partly Christian dogmas (holy tradition, icons, saints) and suggest instead their own dogmatics and practice, which are rejected by the Church. In some sense this uneasy situation could be resolved by the reestablishing of the conception of the apostle Paul, that Hebrews in Christ may continue to do their mitzvot, when non-Hebrews are free from observing the prescriptions of Jewish religion. And then the Church could involve both these groups, as it could be argued was the case in the first century. Late Father Alexander Men, the famous Russian priest and preacher, who was killed 20 years ago, believed that in such a way a special Jewish Church of St. Jacob (in the name of Jesus’ brother who was a leader of Jerusalem community along with St. Peter) could be established. But all the same the above-mentioned theological reservations are quite strong and may prove to be decisive.

As regards the different denominations within contemporary Judaism, they also do not accept Messianic Jews. Could such attitude be called justified? First, from the point of view of halacha, no Jewish person can lose his or her Jewish identity, if even he embraces some another religion. But this argument is a trivial one, so it would be reasonable to turn attention to the more substantial aspects of the problem.

The Messianic Jewish Problem: Theological Perspective

From the theological point of view, I believe that accepting Jesus as Moshiach by Messianic Jews is quite justified, even if Orthodox Jewry rejects such an idea vehemently. The main argument of Orthodox Jewry goes back to the classic statement of the anti-Christian polemics: Yeshua does not meet the requirements to fulfill the notion of Moshiach.
He was crucified as a robber; he did not build the kingdom of God on earth; he did not reestablish Jerusalem and the Third Temple; etc.

Not plunging too deeply into this question I would just mention that the figure of Moshiach in Judaism is ambivalent. In the famous passage from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah (“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not”), several Jewish commentators recognized a Moshiach. In the Book of Daniel we see the image of the humiliated Son of Man, who also has clear messianic features. In the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin we can find a conception of two Messiahs, one of whom, Moshiach ben Yosef is a suffering messiah. Other talmudic passages on messianic suffering have an expiatory character.

Even the circumstances of the life of Jesus or his resurrection are not impossible for Jewish tradition. For example, I am writing an article on “The Jewish Background of the Idea of Immaculate Conception,” in which I attempt to show that in Tanach and especially in Midrashim we find motifs of miraculous birth close to the idea of immaculate conception. From rabbinic literature we find many evidences of miracles and healings performed by the Sages and by Galilean hachamim such as Honi ha-Meagel. And as for resurrection of Jesus, I should like to refer to the book Bruder Jesu by widely-known German Jewish author Ben-Horin, who says that there is nothing impossible in the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, according to the rabbinic conceptions, there will in the future be a resurrection of the dead, and we find the facts of the resurrection in Tanach. So why should we not believe that Jesus (whom Ben-Horin esteems very highly) could have risen from dead?

Regarding the whole complex of the beliefs of Messianic Jews, who generally share the Christian conceptions of the Trinity, incarnation, etc., Jewish religious heritage also gives rich material for reflection. In Tanach and rabbinical literature we meet with many examples of heavenly incarnations in the frame of shittuf, which was unacceptable for Judaism in the Middle Ages but was permitted for Christianity (and not considered as idolatry). I could mention an appearance of the Lord as an angel, as a cloudy pillar, as Shekhina, as a burning bush in Torah. Many authors believe that already in Torah we have some clear examples of what Greeks later call hupostasion, a face of God. Even in Judaism of the modern era we can discover the idea of the direct descent of God to the earth. In Buber’s Hasidic Tales, one comes across a very curious phrase by Rabbi Pinchas from Kotzk. He heard for a long time about sufferings of poor people, and at last he became very sad, held up his head and said : “Let us bring God to descend into the world and then all the poor will be consoled.”

But in spite of the fact of undisputed existence of all these ideas in the world of historical Judaism, one must recognize that nowadays they are not shared by any religious movement within Judaism and, in fact, are traditionally unacceptable for Judaism. This is one of the most serious obstacles on the way of recognizing a Messianic Judaism as part of Judaism.

The Messianic Jewish Problem: Historical Perspective

From the historical point of view we have a good number of examples when a person was recognized by some or even many Jewish people as having messianic qualities. This is despite the fact that these figures did not meet the classic requirements for the image of Moshiach which had been formed in the period of late Middle Ages. We might remember Bar-Kochba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt (who was recognized as Moshiach by the greatest Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiba). There are well-known messianic figures such as David Reuveni, Chaim Vital, and the so-called “false messiahs” Shabetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank.

But the most amazing case is from our time: the fact of recognition of the late Rebbe Schneerson as a messiah by some of the Lubavitcher Hasidic community. More of that, Lubavitcher Hasidim not only attribute to Rebbe Schneerson numerous supernatural abilities but also call him sometimes bareinu, our Creator, in fact ascribing to him divine qualities. Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok from London turned his attention to this fact and posed a question: if this group of Hasidim is being criticized but not excluded from Judaism, why then cannot Messianic Jews be recognized as part of Judaism, especially when they do not go beyond the pale of halacha, but in fact reproduce the beliefs of the ancient Jerusalem community headed by Peter and Jacob?

Cohn-Sherbok even believes that recognition of Messianic Jews as one of the Jewish confessions will give Judaism a completeness. Cohn-Sherbok operates with the symbol of seven-branched lamp stand (menorah) and identifies six contemporary Jewish trends (these are the Orthodox synagogue, the Reform Synagogue, the Conservative Synagogue, the Hasidic movement, Reconstructionist Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism) with its six branches. The seventh branch is vacant and Cohn-Sherbok suggests that Messianic Judaism should fill it.

Some achievements of Jewish academic scholars could also be helpful in the matter of recognition of Messianic Judaism. I’ll remind us that Jewish scholars specializing in New Testament period almost unanimously view Jesus’ teaching and early Christianity in general as essential part of the Judaism of the first century. Not a few Jewish historians, from Klausner and Salvador, estimated Jesus very highly and sometimes even called him a great Jewish prophet. The same attitude is being demonstrated nowadays by Jewish scholars from the very authoritative faculty of Comparative Religions of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Yet, contrary to all the above-mentioned arguments, the Jewish world is not ready yet to accept Messianic Jews for the following reasons:

Theology: the doctrines of the divinity of Yeshua and of the Trinity.

Canon: the problem of choosing the sacred texts. For Messianic Jews, the New Testament along with Torah and Tanach constitute the Holy Scripture, but not the Rabbinic writings. And vice versa, for all Jewish denominations. The New Testament is not only rejected as a holy Scripture but very often as the most scandalous and forbidden book. This issue seems to me very decisive, because of the specificity of the functioning of the Jewish religious institutions themselves, as their main beliefs are founded on literary sources and sacred interpretations.

History: even the Jews (I would call them Hebrews) who have no relation to religion at all are very negative toward Messianic Jews. This is not only because the latter are often confused with Jews for Jesus, a well-known missionary Protestant organization, but for more complicated reasons. One of them is a centuries-old fear and distrust of Christians. The name of Jesus, even if it can be spelled as Yeshua, calls up irrational fear and protest. And I believe that this problem can not be resolved in the nearest future.

Proselytism: it is a major concern for more advanced Jewish thinkers (such as those who participate in the activities of the International Council of Christians and Jews) to prevent any involvement of Messianic Jews in Jewish-Christian dialogues. This attitude is embedded in the established ideology of ICCJ. Jews have long suspected Christians, even the most open-minded among them, of a covert desire to convert them. And in a hope to establish trusting relationship between Christians and Jews, the Council made the only possible decision, to exclude those who engage in proselytizing Jews to Christianity. This position has long been fixed in Council’s documents and failure to heed this prohibition can result in exclusion from the Council. The same prohibition was fixed in the historical document “The Ten Berlin Theses,” which I was privileged to translate into Russian. One of the points of this document unequivocably declares the position of the ICCJ: “to oppose organized efforts at the conversion of Jews.” And Messianic Jews, who are suspected of being simply converted Jews, became victims of such an approach. I can give you a very spectacular example, a friend who is a professor of Hebrew University. He wrote an article in English on Messianic Jews and asked me to forward this article to the editor of the English page of ICCJ. The editor answered: “I read the article with interest, but am not sure that it is appropriate for the ICCJ website. Though it is an analysis of a particular phenomenon, I’m deeply uneasy about the whole issue of conversion. There’s no need for me to tell you that we’re about dialogue, not conversion!”

Identity: though we might suppose that Messianic Judaism would have, by now, been defended by thinkers in the more liberal Reform and Humanistic Judaisms, which are themselves not less distant from Orthodoxy than Messianic Judaism, the relationship is not getting closer. This is in spite of such examples as that of the above-mentioned Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Instead of warming to Messianic Judaism, many Reform Jews take a very negative stance. This seems to result from a need within Reform Judaism to defend their own self-identification. And that is a very uneasy task, because Reform Jews long ago moved away from many of the mitzvot of Torah. And in their criticism of Messianic Jews they find their own final defensive boundary.

All of these issues, unfortunately, leave little hope for the recognition of Messianic Judaism as part of Judaism. But this fact in no way prevents Messianic Jews from seeing themselves as part of Judaism.

Additional Problems

Yet another problem for the acceptance of Messianic Jews comes from the Jews converted to Christianity (or Christianized Jews). They claim that, having converted to a Christian identity, they have preserved completely their Jewish religious identity as well as their ethnic identity as Jews. In order to describe their position they suggest implementing a model, which has been remarkably formulated by the late Father Alexander Men, in which Christianity is the highest peak of the religious development of humanity; in particular, the historical religion of Israel reached in Christianity the complete and perfect form. The result of this thinking is that one may consider himself as a Christian and a Jew simultaneously, moreover as a perfect Jew. Is such a position justified?

I would say yes, but the matter depends greatly on our point of view: what is a Jew and what is a Christian? Last summer I engaged in a serious sociological project on the situation of Jews and their future in Russia. Experts are suggesting at least six criteria for identification of a person as Jewish. Everybody of course can decide for himself what makes one a Hebrew or a religious Jew and be satisfied with that. In fact we come across numerous self-definitions of identity in the world. My very good friend, for example, is a female Reform rabbi who believes that any Hebrew who reads Torah as a sacred book
at least once a day, can be called a religious Jew. Of course such definitions make it easy to combine a Jewish and a Christian identity: it would be enough just to read daily Torah and New Testament. But I do not need to say that such approach is very arbitrary and subjective.

If one is to follow the traditional line of Jewish teaching, that only that person who strictly observes the Law, the mitzvot, can be called a Jew, then all such models go to pieces. And one has not even to apply to Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, etc. Already in Torah we have commandments concerning tzitzit, peot, Yom Tovs, etc. And let us tell the truth: do we know many Jews who have converted to Christianity and yet continue to observe mitzvot? The answer will be no, because their notion of Christian identity causes them to cease observing their part of the covenant with God as Torah demands.

So, in fact, when Christianized Jews put forth the conception that the covenant of our fathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov with God is eternal and in fact in Christianity has reached its perfect form, their practice shows the opposite. In other words, the anti-Judaic Christian conception of the obsolete Old Covenant replaced by the New is being confirmed by the behavior of Christianized Jews themselves! The only remaining bridge connecting baptized Jews with the religion of Israel is very personal and subjective self-identification and perhaps interest in Israel’s religion. But this is far too narrow for external identification of such a person with Jewry.

A further problem is with symbolism. The multiplicity of beliefs fixed in Christian creeds and symbols of faith does not considerably correspond to the beliefs of any Jewish denomination. This may be the chief difficulty in combining Christianity and Judaism.

Finally, there is the obvious problem of historic Christian anti-Semitism. You know well that early Christian theology was much built on the basis of rejection of Rabbinical Judaism when both sister religions pretended to be the true heir of the biblical Israel. As a result, the patristic literature which is formative for the Christian ideology and claimed to be holy, is pervaded by the strong spirit of anti-Judaism, which sometimes is transformed into anti-Semitism.

And we have almost no opposing positive examples. A friend of mine read through all of Mihne’s Patrology in order to discover any positive words about Rabbinical Judaism but found nothing. In this we encounter a very sensitive situation. The Jews who embrace Christianity will have to accept also this Christian holy Tradition until the Church will pronounce a new teaching. Protestants who rejected the ancient tradition as a holy one, and Catholics, who officially repented of that part of holy Tradition which they consider to be anti-Jewish, are in an easier position. But what will the Jews do who have embraced Orthodox Christianity? For Orthodox Christianity the holy Tradition plays the most important role, very often even more important than Scripture itself. As a result, the paradoxical situation emerges when Orthodox Christians who are proud and care about their Jewishness have to follow anti-Jewish teachings! Of course in this case we could refer to the fact that no official anti-Jewish consensus patrum exists, and one may choose from the holy Tradition anything that he wishes, or may choose nothing. But in general, I will repeat, the holy Tradition is profoundly anti-Jewish.

Of course one could then suggest a personal and subjective identification of himself as an Orthodox Christian, not connected with this part of holy Tradition. For example, one well-known Moscow Orthodox Christian theologian seemingly identifies himself with Byzantine hesychasts, not caring at all about holy Traditions and Ecumenical Councils. Well, this is his right, but it contributes nothing to the resolving of the problem. And as a result the liberal wing of the Russian Orthodox Church, represented by a few clerics who openly reject anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, take a clearly marginal position inside the Church. They are marginalized not only in their rejection of anti-Judaism, but in every way, because their ideology in fact is opposite to the teaching of the Church.

In other words, it is very difficult, if not an impossible task, to preserve the double Jewish-Christian identification. The only way to maintain both identities, as I have mentioned above, is to personally and subjectively insist on this double identity. <

Yuri Tabak is a resident of Moscow, a freelance scholar, lecturer, and translator. His academic studies are primarily concerned with Jewish-Christian dialogue, Judaica, the early history of Jewish-Christian relations, and ancient and modern Christian anti-Semitism. As a scholar with the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, he is involved in monitoring anti-Semitic and chauvinistic publications in printed and electronic mass-media. He is a member of the Union of Russian Journalists. He leads weekly seminars D’var Torah and “Judaism in the Cinema” in the Moscow Jewish Cultural Centre.