Defining Messianic Judaism
Addendum 1: What Do We Mean By “Jewish“?
The UMJC Theology Committee defines Messianic Judaism as a Jewish congregational movement for Messiah:
Messianic Judaism is a movement of Jewish congregations and congre-gation-like groupings committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.
Since the adjective “Jewish” appears twice in this basic statement, and is clearly at the heart of our self-definition, we must define what we mean by the term. Such a definition may not reach theological finality, but should be functionally clear and useful for the larger Messianic Jewish self-definition.
It may be helpful to begin by setting aside two modern distortions of the term Jewish.
1. Jewish As A Religious Category
Obviously, Jewishness has tremendous religious implications, but it is a modernist error to see being Jewish as primarily a matter of religious identification. There is much confusion in Messianic Jewish circles over this question. Sometimes non-Jewish adherents begin to call themselves Jews because they worship in a Jewish context. Instead, we would say that Judaism in all its range and diversity is the religion of the Jewish people, but that adherence to the teachings and practices of Judaism does not make one Jewish. And one who is Jewish and neglects the teachings and practices of Judaism nevertheless remains Jewish. Judaism overlaps with Jewishness but is not synonymous with it.
2. Jewish As A Racial Category
This is another modernist distortion, one with far more bitter fruit than the first. Scripture speaks of nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues (e.g. Rev. 7:9), that is, corporate sub-groupings of humanity, but not of race in the modern biological sense. It does not use the term “blood” as often heard in contemporary discussions: “Jewish blood runs in my veins.” “He is a full-blooded Jew.” Indeed, such terminology could not be used because Scripture sees all humanity as one (or one blood; Acts 17:26 in some manuscripts) and manifest in many peoples (ethnoi in Greek; goyim in Hebrew). We see in the contemporary Jewish world a great diversity of “races.”
Jewishness, therefore, is best understood as membership in a people. This definition would seem to underlie Paul’s language in Philippians 3:4-5: “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews…”
Michael Wyschogrod terms this “membership in a people” a “family identity.”
Judaism is not a set of beliefs, however broadly that term be interpreted. A full definition of Judaism does, of course, involve a whole complex of ideas, beliefs, values, and obligations posed by Judaism… . But however crucial these are, they are, in a sense, superstructure rather than foundation. The foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whatever else is added to this must be seen as growing out of and related to the basic identity of the Jewish people as the seed of Abraham elected by God through descent from Abraham. This is the crux of the mystery of Israel’s election… . By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence (The Body of Faith, pp. 56-57, 67).
Such an understanding is particularly helpful in developing a practical definition of Messianic Judaism, because Jewish thinking has already developed the boundaries of membership in the Jewish people. We can build our own definition and practice upon these existing boundaries, as informed by our reading of Scripture.
The primary meaning of Jewishness, then, is Jewish birth. Traditionally, one born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Messianic Judaism has functionally decided to agree with the Reform Jewish ruling that descent from either parent who is Jewish makes one Jewish, if one maintains some connection with Jewish community and practice. This usage, although not officially sanctioned, seems to be almost universal among us, and is in accord with models provided in Scripture. It reveals two other aspects of Jewishness:
First, Jewishness is communal. A strictly religious definition is faulty because it tends to view identity in primarily individual terms. In this understanding, an individual Gentile could become Jewish because he has decided to follow Jewish ways. Thus we see self-designated “Messianic Jewish” congregations with no Jewish members and no real connection with their local Jewish community. Instead, they comprise a group of individuals who have decided to pursue a form of Judaism that they derive from Scripture and a smattering of Jewish sources in isolation from the living Jewish community.
Jewishness, however, must always mean connection with the larger Jewish community and its life. One cannot be part of the Jewish people and at the same time completely disregard Jewish communal boundaries and self-definitions. The statement brings out this point well:
Jewish life is life in a concrete, historical community. Thus, Messianic Jewish groupings must be fully part of the Jewish people, sharing its history and its covenantal responsibility as a people chosen by God.
We may be able to stretch the boundaries and self-definitions on the basis of our distinct reading of Scripture (just as Reform, for example, stretches them in its engagement with the modern world), but we cannot disregard them.
Second, Jewishness has continuity. A Jew is someone born of at least one Jewish parent, heir to a continuous thread of Jewish identity over generations, even if that thread has become slender in recent decades. Since Jewish identity is not racial, the discovery of Jewish ancestry does not render one Jewish, unless there has been some sort of continued identification.
One who discovers a Jewish ancestry and feels drawn to identify with the Jewish people should be encouraged to learn and grow in awareness and practice. The time may come when we have within Messianic Judaism a ritual of return to Jewishness. But without some form of ritual and communal recognition, such an individual should simply describe himself as having Jewish ancestry and a love for the Jewish people, not as being Jewish himself.
This raises the question of conversion to Judaism. Scripture clearly provides a model for those outside of the Jewish people to become part of the people, and sets a precedent for a ritual of conversion through circumcision. Whether or not we develop such a ritual within our own circles, we must recognize its validity in the larger Jewish world. If we seek to be part of the Jewish people, we must accept the broad norms of conversion prevalent within the Jewish community. Thus, like all forms of Judaism, we see a convert, whether from a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox context, as a Jew, and their offspring normally as Jews.
This broad norm for the meaning of Jewishness covers most cases in the real world. There will always be exceptions, and here again we need to behave like a form of Judaism. Individuals with claims or questions concerning Jewish identity need to be directed to the communal leadership of our congregations. The question of Jewish identity is not the sort of question one can resolve by oneself. Nor in more difficult instances is it one that an individual leader can resolve. Here we need to provide communal rabbinic leadership to guide the members of the Messianic Jewish family.
Addendum 2: A Model For Gentile Participation In Messianic Judaism
If we envision Messianic Judaism as a Jewish movement for Yeshua, and even as a form of Judaism, then how do we understand the presence of many committed and contributing Gentiles in our midst? I propose that Ahavat Yisrael-love for Israel-provides the best model for full Gentile participation in Messianic Judaism.
Michael Wyschogrod writes,
Hashem’s infinite, eternal, and absolute love for Israel … is the central theme of the Bible. Nothing else ultimately matters. Everything must be seen in its light. Only because it is true is everything else true (Body of Faith, p. 118).
In contrast, one might claim that Messiah, not God’s love for Israel, is “the central theme of the Bible.” In one sense, however, both claims are wrong. Both Ahavat Yisrael (Hashem’s infinite love for Israel) and the promise of Messiah must be understood within the larger biblical story beginning at Creation. God’s purpose of redemption is revealed as soon as he calls out to Adam who is hiding in the garden, Eyeka-where are you? It moves forward with the election of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and reaches a pinnacle with the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah. The understanding of redemption expands under the prophets of Israel, and reaches a higher pinnacle with the coming of Messiah. The final redemption, the consummation of God’s original purpose in creation, awaits Messiah’s return. Within this larger context, the two themes-Ahavat Yisrael and the coming of Messiah-are entirely compatible.
Messiah is the perfect Israelite, the Israel within Israel (Isaiah 49:6-7) in whom Israel responds fully to the love of God. The I-Thou relationship between God and Israel is completed in God-Messiah, so that in Messiah anyone may partake of God’s “infinite, eternal, and absolute love for Israel.” Israel is the priestly nation; Messiah is the High Priest, mediating the love of God for Israel to those of the nations who identify with Israel through him, the true Israelite. Hence, Hashem’s love for Israel remains central within the larger story of the Bible.
But Ahavat Yisrael speaks not only of God’s love for Israel, but also of our love for Israel, for the living Jewish people around us. Believers from among the Gentiles may share in this aspect of Ahavat Yisrael as well, and this share is the key to fruitful Gentile participation in Messianic Judaism. Ahavat Yisrael, more than any other model, describes the calling of Gentiles within Messianic Judaism.
Let us consider briefly three common alternative models for Gentile involvement. If properly understood and applied, each of these can provide beneficial direction, but each is liable to much distortion and is inappropriate as a primary motivation.
1. Jewish Evangelism
Messianic Judaism must bear testimony to Yeshua as Messiah within the larger Jewish world, and will normally seek to influence other Jews toward faith in Messiah. Indeed, the future of our movement depends upon attracting new Jewish adherents. Still, our congregations cannot be mere platforms for evangelism, but must be genuine Jewish communal expressions for Messiah within the larger Jewish community. If Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, then there must be a way that his followers can bear witness with integrity to the Jewish people, despite centuries of abuse and misunderstanding. Gentiles who desire to promote the good news of Messiah to the Jewish people must be lovers of Israel, sensitive to the pain of Israel’s millennia-long interaction with Christianity. Indeed, only Ahavat Yisrael, not evangelistic zeal, will find a way to proclaim Yeshua as Messiah that does not rend Jewish souls and Jewish families. Viewing the Messianic Jewish congregation as a mission station distorts our divine calling to build Jewish communities for Messiah, but Gentile members moved by love for the Jewish people can have a vital role in building such communities.
2. Unity of Jews And Gentiles In Messiah
Defining Messianic Judaism states that Jewish-Gentile unity in Messiah is best expressed corporately, as Messianic Jewish congregations build deep relationships with Gentile churches. Jewish and Gentile congregations within the larger Body of Messiah, in their ongoing distinction and mutual blessing anticipate the shalom of the world to come. To attempt to anticipate this shalom within a local Jewish-Gentile congregation will diminish the “ongoing distinction” between Jew and Gentile that is necessary for “mutual blessing.” Gentiles are certainly welcome within Messianic Jewish congregations, and often essential to the task of building these congregations, but the congregations remain Jewish, not expressions of “one new man” that is neither Jew nor Greek. Much of their life is based, not strictly on Scripture or on universal precepts for all believers, but on Jewish teaching and tradition. Gentiles moved by Ahavat Yisrael will participate in the Messianic Jewish congregation on these terms.
3. Return To Torah
It is not the mission of Messianic Judaism to call Gentiles to Torah and Jewish roots. Indeed, promotion of Jewish roots (depending on what one means by that phrase) could diminish the unique place of Israel in God’s plan. Torah remains a living and relevant document for all believers, Jewish and Gentile, but many of its specifics are intended for Israel alone. Messianic Jews are to draw upon the rich tradition of Torah, not necessarily because this tradition is mandated for all believers, but because we are Jews. Gentiles may be moved to participate in this tradition out of love for Israel and the God of Israel, but they must be careful to affirm the unique relationship of Israel to Torah.
Scripture portrays Israel as a people called to remain distinct- “a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9, JPS). Much of the Torah is given to express and preserve Israel’s distinct destiny. A Jewish roots movement that is not careful to respect the distinction between Jews and Gentiles can obstruct God’s purposes for both. And it can miss the focal point of the New Covenant-the redemptive presence of Messiah in this age through his Spirit.
In last year’s forum, Jerry Feldman posed the question, “What is the calling of a Gentile in a Messianic congregation?” He answered with what amounts to a description of Ahavat Yisrael:
I am not asking for non-Jews to become Jewish. Rather, consider our Jewish children growing up with a Jewish identity in the purposes of God as the remnant of Israel. Anything that would diminish the faithfulness of God, of which saved Israel is the emblem, has serious consequences. Plainly, Gentiles should not be, do, or expect anything that diminishes our responsibility as Jews. Comments sometimes imply that “we are too Jewish,” or that “we should worship more in the Spirit” (rooted in a Gentile expectation cultivated more by the local church than by Jewish Biblical sources)…. Ruth never had these comments and demands when she said, “Your God shall be my God; your people shall be my people.”
This sacrificial love for Israel is rooted in God’s own love for Israel, as described in the blessing that precedes the morning Shema:
With an abundant love You have loved us, Hashem, our God; with exceedingly great pity have You pitied us…. You have chosen us from among every people and tongue. And you have brought us close to Your great Name forever in truth, to offer praiseful thanks to You, and proclaim Your Oneness with love. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who chooses His people Israel with love (from the Artscroll Siddur).
Ahavat Yisrael as primary motivation does not diminish Gentile participation in Messianic Judaism, but elevates it, for it is participation in God’s own love for his people. This love draws us all-Jews and Gentiles alike-into the servanthood embodied by Messiah himself. Gentiles in Messianic Judaism are not here for themselves, but for Messiah’s own people, who have been wounded in his name by other Gentiles. And Jews in Messianic Judaism are not here for themselves either, but must accept the rejection and misunderstanding that Messiah endures in the midst of his own people. Together, Jews and Gentiles in Messianic Judaism have the rare privilege of embodying the sacrificial life of the Messiah we proclaim.
Russell L. Resnik is General Secretary of the UMJC.