Many years ago, one of my favorite philosophy professors made this point: before we have the right to criticize another perspective, we should understand the perspective of the other. The acid test of this dictum is that we can repeat the perspective in our own words in such a way that the other will confirm that we have truly understood his perspective.
On this basis, I found the article by Gabriela M. Reason sometimes to be amazingly perceptive concerning the issues facing the movement. This included her analysis of historical roots. I have much agreement with the article and therefore will not respond to those areas of agreement. The conclusion concerning the implications of a distancing from Evangelicalism and whether this will attract more Jews to the Messianic Jewish movement was also perceptive. The changes that may be made in further reflection by the more revivalist Messianic Jews were interesting possibilities. However, I will respond only to some parts of the article where I found myself disagreeing with descriptions. Again, the reader should note my agreement with much of the analysis.
A Brief Summary
The author contrasts two Messianic Judaisms; that of the Messianic Jewish Alliance and the other of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. The argument was put forth that in the UMJC, Messianic Judaism is defined more within the Jewish community and a theology of Yeshua and his role is worked out as a centrally important addition within Judaism. We could say that in this view, Judaism is normative. According to the author, the MJAA/IAMCS (International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues) defines itself within Evangelicalism (Evangelical Christianity?) but adds Jewish expression to this basically Evangelical orientation. Hence the basic thrust of the MJAA/IAMCS is Evangelical with Jewishness and the UMJC is basically Jewish in thrust with the addition of Yeshua.
I will not speak at length to the MJAA/IAMCS evaluation. However, in method, I see no broad survey of leaders in the MJAA/IAMCS to establish this contention. However, I am quite sure that leaders of the MJAA/IAMCS would not agree that their view has been represented to their satisfaction. Of course, a sociological analysis would sometimes say that what a movement thinks it is, is not really what it is as is revealed through a greater depth of analysis. However, I note that in my view the difference between the UMJC and the MJAA on the issue of Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism is a matter of tendencies and not a matter of a clear difference between the organizations. The UMJC as a whole does project a greater respect for Rabbinic Judaism. The MJAA projects less respect for Rabbinic Judaism. However, many members of the UMJC are skeptical about Rabbinic Judaism and many members of the MJAA have high regard for Rabbinic Judaism. If one attends the Shabbat morning service of the national MJAA conference, he will find a Rabbinic-based Torah service and Sabbath liturgy. So my general sense is that the distinction between the UMJC and the MJAA is overdrawn. In addition, the MJAA leaders, in my estimation, would not accept that they represent any less a Judaism than the UMJC. They would rather characterize their view and practice as primarily a biblical Judaism (I suppose meaning a New Covenant context of application). There are members of the UMJC that would also so characterize themselves. There are significant numbers in both organizations that do not want their basic self definition to be Rabbinic Judaism. There are also significant numbers in both organizations who would agree that some rabbinic practices are important to them. For example, all do weddings under the Chupah with the traditional liturgy. Most do Bar Mitzvahs, most do Passover Seders with much material from the traditional Haggadah.
My guess here is that the author is mostly reflecting the views of the small sample of leaders quoted in the article. Their views of both the UMJC and the MJAA are accepted as accurate. However, many would say that those with regard to the UMJC reflect only one stream of understanding in the UMJC, and this is not really where the majority would see themselves. Only an accurate survey could determine the orientation of the UMJC. I will refer to the survey done by the Past President’s Commission in this regard. At any rate suffice it to say that this essay is flawed in method. Rather, I think the proper title should be the perspective on the UMJC and the MJAA according to a small sample of leaders who mostly represent a particular stream in the UMJC.
I am responding to the author on the basis of wide travel in the Messianic Jewish movement and intensive dialogue with many leaders. I doubt that any other person has visited more congregations in our movement in the last 20 years. This includes many UMJC congregations but also some significant IAMCS (International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues). In addition, over the last year I chaired a past presidents’ commission to survey the UMJC on the recent experience of conflicts of view point in the UMJC. The article at issue was done before our survey results and did not take them into account. My response will take this survey into account.
The Evangelical Versus Jewish Point Of Self Identification
The article makes much of the difference between a primary Evangelical orientation (and we include charismatics as part of Evangelicalism) and a primary Jewish orientation. I would ask if this is a false dichotomy. Our survey of the UMJC leaders and my personal knowledge of MJAA leaders would lead me to believe that
the accord with Evangelical theology is quite deep. However, this is not because they desire to be Evangelical but because they believe that the New Covenant canon requires them to affirm these areas of agreement. As the New Covenant Scriptures were written by Jews, many would hold that these views to be ultimately Jewish. To this assertion, we must return in a later section. It may well be true that many affirmations by many Messianic Jewish leaders are not really the meaning of the texts of the New Covenant Scriptures, but that they think this is their meaning because of interpretive influences from Evangelicals. However, whether or not this is true remains to be proven by a study of the texts. Most in the Messianic Jewish Movement worldwide at this point think that the affirmations they make are the objective meanings of the texts.
Let’s note some points of Evangelical and Messianic Jewish accord. All accept the authority of the New Covenant Scriptures. In the summer of 2004, the UMJC received a statement from the Executive and Past Presidents commission which was affirmed overwhelmingly by the delegates. Basically, the UMJC stated that every text of Scripture teaches what is true. What that text teaches has to be determined by author intent, original audience understanding and more. However, when we determine what any text in Scripture means we are bound to submit to this meaning as true. This is really quite parallel to the majority Evangelical doctrine on the authority of Scripture. The Evangelical Theological Society speaks of this same view as inerrancy in the autographs, or the original writings before text transmission corruptions. The UMJC did not use the word inerrancy because it is so subject to misuse and misunderstanding. However, such a strong affirmation of the authority and trustworthiness of the texts of the Bible are not characteristic of most of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism would affirm the absolute authority of every line of text. However, the hermeneutic process in Orthodox Judaism is often more midrashic. That the text in context, with such a high regard for such historical context, in the particular way that is found in Messianic Judaism, has its roots in Evangelical authority and hermeneutics as it has developed since the Reformation. Yes, there are some Orthodox who now pursue Scripture to a greater degree like this. The idea of the Peshat was in some ways anticipatory of this orientation. However, Peshat does not mean exactly the same thing, for context in Peshat is broader than the meaning of text interpretation in Evangelicalism. Many Messianic Jews would simply argue that their approach to Scripture is the best progressive conclusion from taking the Bible seriously as fully and objectively authoritative. The rationale is Biblical, but it places Messianic Jews in agreement with Evangelicals.
While some Messianic Jewish leaders would like to distance themselves from Evangelicalism, too many doctrines are held in common for this to be credible. The author indicates as much by noting the doctrinal agreement on these points by the MJAA and UMJC. For example, let’s note these teachings that are agreed upon in Messianic Judaism. Yeshua is the Messiah. He rose from the dead. He is fully deity and in his deity pre-existed the creation. He is given honor like unto the Father (John 5). He is called the Alpha and Omega. He died for our sins and provides our atonement. When we embrace the offer of salvation in Yeshua (Kingdom of God) an inner transformation takes place that is called the new birth. Are these affirmations important in the Messianic Judaism of the UMJC? The commission surveys proved that these affirmations were overwhelmingly important to the great majority of members in the UMJC. In addition, strong statements on the Messiah’s person, including his full humanity and deity, were approved by the delegates this summer. Also, a strong statement on salvation being procured only by his death and resurrection was also affirmed.
The UMJC also affirms its spiritual unity with all true followers of Yeshua in the Christian world in the UMJC statement Defining Messianic Judaism. Where in the whole Christian world would one find this combination of affirmations, and also just those things that are not affirmed (apostolic succession, the place of Mary, prayer to the saints, the efficacy of sacraments)? One finds such affirmations as well as the lack of other affirmations only within the broad world phenomenon known as Evangelicalism. This is even more apparent to me in the intensive dialogues which I have with Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christian leaders. I am not arguing here that we should be so within the confession of Evangelicals, but that we are. The very doctrinal statement of the UMJC bears this out. So to separate the UMJC and the MJAA into those who are more Jewish verses Evangelical seems to be a wrong contrast. Some would say that we are more Jewish because some in the UMJC do not believe in the automatic condemnation of those who have not explicitly rejected Yeshua. However, this is also very common in Evangelicalism today.
So in what sense are we Judaism? Well, in the broadest sense, to quote Samuel Sandmel, Christianity is a Judaism. However, I think Messianic Jews mean much more than Sandmel’s statement. Rather they would argue that in a first century perspective, the New Covenant Scriptures are Jewish and that affirmations and practices that arise out of the New Covenant Scriptures are Jewish. However, this is in itself not sufficient and does not take us much beyond Sandmel’s statement. For that would make Christianity Messianic Judaism since Christianity seeks to practice New Covenant truth.
What Makes Messianic Judaism A Judaism?
So what is it that really makes Messianic Judaism Jewish? I would point to several affirmations that are common to Messianic Jews.
First is that Messianic Jews believe that God has a special covenant with the Jewish nation, and that we Messianic Jews are a part of that covenant. “The gift and call of God (to Israel, the Jews) is irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). Therefore, we are called to live and identify as Jews. For many Messianic Jews, the rationale and detail for this is very rudimentary. Some argue that they are biblical Jews and not Rabbinic Jews. Such a statement brings us into many difficulties. However, it is a common statement, though less common in the UMJC than some years ago. Biblical Judaism is a Judaism that centered in the sacrificial system of the Temple. With no Temple, sacrifice and functioning priesthood, how can we say we are biblical Jews? Well, we can take a step in the right direction by saying that we are biblical Jews in the sense of the New Covenant which promises our continued preservation and which writes the Torah on our hearts. The UMJC doctrinal statement explicitly affirms the continued call to Torah life in the New Covenant as part of Jewish identity and calling. In such an interpretation, the Torah has to be applied in an age where there is no Temple or sacrifice, but Yeshua is our sacrifice. This only gives us a start. Why? Because most Messianic Jews practice traditions that are not explicitly in the Bible. Most of these traditions are Rabbinic; therefore, the issue of Rabbinic practice is impossible to avoid.
Let us explore this more in depth. The rhetoric of some Messianic Jews is anti-Rabbinic. I do believe this is more common in the MJAA, but this propensity is found in significant numbers in both organizations. Yet, even among those who speak in such a polemical fashion, there is an appropriation of rabbinic practice. The Chanukah Menorah is lit for eight days with blessings and in the fashion prescribed by traditional Judaism. A Sukkah is built and stars are visible through the roof as prescribed by Rabbinic Judaism. A wedding service has two cups of wine, one for betrothal and one after the Seven Benedictions. The service includes all the normal elements of a Jewish wedding. A Ketubah is signed. The Messianic Jewish Passover Haggadahs include four cups of wine, the four questions, charoset, and much more. At a funeral, Kaddish is always said. Where does all of this come from? It is Rabbinic Judaism. So the rhetoric does not match practice. Rabbinic Judaism is part of Messianic Jewish identity in a significant way even if some would say it is not the foundation of this identity.
So can we find practical out-workings that fit this anti-rabbinic rhetoric? Yes, we can. Usually those with an anti-rabbinic rhetoric mean that they do not feel bound to submit to the authority of Orthodox halakhah. Therefore, they do not keep two sets of dishes. They do not avoid driving on Shabbat. They may even eat cheeseburgers. In addition, leaders who speak in such terms usually do not include much in the way of classical Jewish liturgical content in their weekly Shabbat Service, though I have noticed significantly more liturgy in Holy Day services.
In many other ways, those who sound anti-Rabbinic affirm Jewish points of identification that transcend Judaism per se. There is a strong reaction to anti-Semitism and sensitivity to it. Patriotic feelings and beliefs concerning Israel are most common. In addition, Jewish history is a point of identification, especially with regard to the tragic persecutions and the heroic commitment to survive as a people.
Those who speak in more pro-rabbinic terms believe that honoring the heritage of our parents and ancestors is important. This includes those who believe that the Rabbis should be given a weight of authority in the sense of respect and following their halakhah where it is not contrary to Scripture. They would not see this authority as automatically binding, but would see it as weighty. Such Messianic Jews would be concerned to appreciate and appropriate more of the liturgy. Some do have milk and meat dishes. Some few even participate in daily minyans. We should note that some such Messianic Jews are in the MJAA/IAMCS. A larger number of such are in the UMJC.
However, I would not see the UMJC as primarily composed of very traditional pro-rabbinic Jews. Our survey’s would indicate that the UMJC is made up of mostly moderates on the Rabbinic Judaism issue, those who reject both the anti-rabbinic rhetoric and the idea of such reverence for Rabbinic Judaism that we seek to follow as much of the halakhah as we can. Rather, appropriation is according to a sense of the goodness of the practice and its fit to the sense of wisdom in modern life in the New Covenant. I have often taught that a healthy approach to ones culture and especially Judaism is by being very Biblically rooted. Thereby, we can honor our parents and receive and embrace what is good in our heritage and forgive and repent of what is not good.
A Better Way To Raise The Issues
The article did seem to me to favor a Jewish orientation over against over against an Evangelical one. At least this was true of some of the leaders represented as if maturity was connected to transcending Evangelical roots. Again, this is a false dichotomy. We can not simply choose a perspective that we prefer when we are committed to Biblical authority.
Unless we return to the biblical text as the beginning for definition and orientation we will not solve the kind of issues raised in the article I critique. I recognize that all approach the text within a theological framework. However, it is important to seek to transcend our subjective frameworks through studies on the original cultural historical context of the texts of the Bible. This means that interpretation is not relativistic. We cannot equally affirm all readings of texts.
The Messianic Jewish Movement is a movement committed to the idea of an objective biblical revelation. This revelation can be pursued using all the tools of exegesis and cultural historical studies to gain a more accurate meaning of the texts. On this basis, the New Covenant Scriptures are normative in their teaching content. Messianic Jews also believe that since the whole Bible is God’s revelation, no interpretation of the New Covenant Scriptures can be accepted that is contradictory to the Hebrew Bible. In this regard, that which the New Covenant requires of us in belief and practice is not optional.
Now here is the rub. Much of the requirement for belief and practice in the New Covenant is foreign to today’s Jewish communities. In addition, much of what the New Covenant requires is not foreign to Evangelical communities. The list above is just a beginning of such requirements for belief and practice. In my view, the New Covenant. requires us to believe that Yeshua died, rose from the dead, and is coming again. It requires us to seek to be filled with the Spirit. It also requires us to practice supernatural spiritual gifts of the Spirit and to seek prophetic gifts for building up the congregation. All of this is foreign to the Jewish community, religious and secular. Yes, we might find some parallel in some early Chasidic communities, but the foreignness prevails. However, it is important to recognize that some of what is seen as New Covenant Scripture thrust is wrongly understood – because what is written for Gentile communities is wrongly applied to Jewish communities. So interpretation is not always easy. However, it while it is important to express these New Covenant truths and practices in as Jewish a way as possible in language and style, the basic thrust will in many ways align us with Evangelicals.
(josquote)Because of the unique New Covenant stance of Messianic Jews, we can not buy into this false dichotomy.(/josquote)
The paper at issue raises major issues which are important to Messianic Jewish identity and cultural life. There is much that is If being more biblical makes us in some regards like Evangelicals, so be it very perceptive and helpful. There is a mirror in this article for self-reflection. However, some issues are raised in a way due to the interviews and research method that are unhelpful. This is a way that opposes Evangelicalism and Judaism. Because of the unique New Covenant stance of Messianic Jews, we can not buy into this false dichotomy. We cannot say that we are either more Jewish or more Evangelical in orientation. Yes, some Evangelical dimensions are culturally unhelpful and not based in Scripture. These we must transcend. However the solution is not to be less Evangelical, but to be more biblical.
The methodology of the paper is built on an unscientific and small sample of leaders. The UMJC commission surveys show that this article does not accurately represent UMJC members.
The issue of authentic Jewish culture and expression raised by the paper is better solved not by opposing Jewish and Evangelical, but by pursuing a Messianic Judaism that is committed to New Covenant faith realities and expression while pursing and practicing all that his good in Judaism and Jewish cultures.
Daniel Juster (B.A. Wheaton College; M.Div., McCormick Seminary; Th.D., New Covenant International Seminary) is Director of Tikkun International Ministries. Dr. Juster is a past President of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, served the UMJC as its first General Secretary, and is an instructor with the UMJC Yeshiva.