Competing Trends In Messianic Judaism : A Response
In the Spring, 2004, issue of Kesher, Ms. Gabriela Reason tackles a series of complex and controversial issues facing the modern Messianic Jewish movement. Her thesis focuses on the tensions inherent in the movement between the pulls of Evangelical Christianity and Judaism. On the one hand, as she purports, Messianic Judaism was birthed from the modern Evangelical movement, and yet on other, the Messianic movement is increasingly identifying with and seeking to cooperate with the larger Jewish world. She throws down the gauntlet to the Messianic Jewish community to understand these tensions and make choices. Her analysis of the issues is excellent. However, her model to showcase these differences is seriously flawed.
Ms. Reason examines the inherent tensions of the Messianic movement through the lenses of the two major American Messianic Jewish organizations, the UMJC and the MJAA. She argues that “the MJAA is aligned more with the evangelical Christian community, and the UMJC with the Jewish community.” (Reason, 72) Yet, she makes clear in her article that her primary source information from the MJAA originates with interviews of members and leaders from Beth Yeshua Congregation in Philadelphia and from the UMJC with interviews from Mark Kinzer and Tony Eaton, both Rabbis with the UMJC. She then extrapolates that information, supplemented by written materials from both organizations, to make a series of conclusions about the values and direction of both organizations. Notwithstanding the dubious premise of making conclusions about the MJAA from information gleaned from one congregation, albeit an important one, the conclusions reached about the UMJC come from sources who represent simply one stream of thought in the organization. The UMJC presents itself as a broad based organization that encourages diversity of thought underneath the Messianic Jewish umbrella. The very fact of publishing Ms. Reason’s article in Kesher’s prior edition coupled with the responses in this edition is a case in point. Yet, she consistently refers to and quotes papers and positions taken by members of Hashivenu, an organization related to and whose members are generally affiliated with the UMJC. However, Hashivenu members comprise a small minority of UMJC congregational leaders. Utilizing Ms. Reason’s methodology, it would have been equally appropriate to have solely interviewed members of Tikkun, another organization related to and whose members are generally affiliated with the UMJC. And yet the values and positions taken by Tikkun congregational leaders would likely be significantly different than Hashivenu members. This is not to denigrate or diminish the value of the two UMJC leaders she did interview. Their comments are well thought out and articulated, but to suggest they are representative of the UMJC as a whole is a serious mistake.
A section of Ms. Reason’s thesis is contrasting the UMJC and MJAA positions on a variety of Christian and Jewish topics. Again, while the differences she cites are significant and consequential, the conclusions she reaches about UMJC positions are often one-sided, and frankly, inaccurate. For example, she seeks to show the MJAA’s closer relations to the Evangelical world by its involvement with Promise Keepers and its association with the 1990’s phenomenon known as the “Toronto Blessing.” Yet, UMJC leaders were present and participated in the very same Promise Keepers’ event in which a leading MJAA leader was mentioned as playing a prominent role. In fact, a former UMJC President was on the Promise Keepers’ Board of Directors. In addition, there were many UMJC congregations who flirted with the “Toronto Blessing.” Now, it is true that the UMJC sometimes agonizes over its association with certain Evangelical groups. And it may be true that the MJAA feels more comfortable in direct affiliation. However, a stark contrast of the two organizations in these respects is unwarranted. Rather than talking about blacks and whites, the differences are in shades of gray.
Ms. Reason also points to the establishment of Hashivenu as an example of the UMJC’s primary affiliation with the Jewish world as opposed to the evangelical Christian world. It is true Hashivenu’s goals are to return to the norms and life practices of traditional Judaism, all the while pointing to Yeshua as the Messiah. And there is no question Hashivenu positions are articulated within the UMJC delegate structure, as part and parcel of the vitality of the UMJC representative process. However, Hashivenu does not speak for the UMJC. It is simply one voice. The two UMJC spokespeople for her article happen to be Hashivenu participants. And this is where her methodology and arguments are flawed. The UMJC continues to reflect the full spectrum of Messianic Jewish expression. There are congregations which practice charismatic worship; there are ones that do not. There are congregations which are almost fully liturgical; there are ones with limited or even minimal liturgy. There are congregations which are transforming traditional Jewish practices and styles into something more modern. There is actually a great deal of experimentation throughout the UMJC congregational structure, and the beauty of the UMJC is the opportunity to listen to, learn from and experiment with new things at our regional and national conferences.
The most suspect part of Ms. Reason’s work is her contrasting UMJC and MJAA ritual practices. It is as if Ms. Reason examined a few practices from a couple of congregations and then attempted to filter them through her own assumptions about the UMJC and MJAA. First, she examines Beth Yeshua’s circumcision ceremony and notes how the Rabbi and the mohel add to the traditional ceremony by introducing connections to Yeshua. She then contrasts their ceremony with comments by Kinzer and Eaton who prefer utilizing purely traditional non-Messianic ceremonies. This contrast supposedly reveals the primary affiliations of the UMJC v. MJAA. According to Reason, the UMJC’s affiliation and theology are more typically Jewish and the MJAA’s, evangelical Christian. However, the very next section in the Reason article contrasts MJAA and UMJC practices with regards to water immersion. While she again seeks to mold the organizations’ practices through her own lens, she construes the ceremony practiced in UMJC Rabbi Tony Eaton’s congregation as the following: “Believers are immersed into the experiences of Messiah, including his life, death and resurrection, but since Yeshua is reliving the experience of Israel, immersion also becomes ‘our experiencing again the life of Israel.'” (Reason, 50). Admittedly, the Eaton practice is a resourceful one and the connection to Israel and the Jewish people, innovative. However, immersing anyone into a connection with Yeshua the Messiah is a significant departure from traditional Jewish immersion ceremonies and is not unlike Beth Yeshua’s circumcision practice where extensions are made to Yeshua. Frankly, what makes Messianic Judaism, Messianic, is the extension to and addition of Yeshua in both faith and practice. Because Messianic Jewish practices are fluid, one congregation may adapt more of the rituals to reflect the Messianic faith, while others to a lesser extent. But all the congregations do so to some degree, whether they are affiliated with the UMJC or the MJAA.
Probably the most important issue raised by the Reason article is the relationship between Messianic Jewish congregations and Jews who do not embrace Yeshua as Messiah. After quoting Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro, a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Philadelphia who wrote a book about Messianic Judaism after a lengthy study of Beth Yeshua Congregation, Ms. Reason states, “Harris-Shapiro thus sees Messianic Judaism as identifying itself with evangelicalism over Judaism; the distinction between ‘saved versus unsaved’ is more central than ‘Jew versus non-Jew.” (Reason 65) Reason continues by again making distinctions between the two organizations and how they relate to the traditional Jew. She quotes Debbie Finkelstein, wife of one of Beth Yeshua’s Rabbis, as indicating non-Messianic Jews are missing something. Thus, the dichotomy for MJAA people is “saved v. unsaved.” Whereas, the UMJC allegedly takes a more accepting view of the non-Messianic Jewish world. Again, Ms. Reason’s analysis is skewed by her limited pool of interviewees. Notwithstanding, every UMJC congregational leader I am aware of believes Yeshua is the means of salvation for everyone, Jew or not. Hence, whether the distinction is “saved versus unsaved” or “Messianic versus non-Messianic,” the distinction between a Jew who believes in Yeshua and one who does not is a central tenet of the entire Messianic Jewish world. The differences may simply lie in emphasis.
But that does not negate the tensions inherent in the Messianic Jewish world between the two institutions to which the Messianic Jewish community relates, i.e., the Church and the Jewish world. And despite the incredible advances in Jewish/Christian dialogue since the Holocaust, the two communities are quite distinct. Most Messianic Jewish congregations claim a relationship to the Jewish community while primarily affiliating with Church organizations and Christian activities. Hence, the claims to Jewish identity and community ring a bit hollow. Ms. Reason’s article highlights the very important issue of primary affiliation for Messianic Jewish congregations, i.e., Evangelical Christianity or Judaism. She raises a variety of challenges which must be confronted. However, her methodology in highlighting the inherent tensions within the Messianic Jewish movement by contrasting the UMJC with the MJAA is faulty.
Jamie Cowen has been the leader of Tikvat Israel Messianic Congregation in Richmond, Virginia since 1990. He is the President of Russian Immigration Services, a Richmond-based organization which provides legal and social services to Russian Immigrants in the U.S. Mr. Cowen earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Pennsylvania State University, a Juris Doctor degree from Catholic University and a Master of Theology degree with a major in Jewish Studies from Messiah Biblical Institute and Graduate School of Theology. He currently sits on the Executive Committee of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations where he serves as the Vice-President.