Jewish Church: A Catholic Approach to Messianic Judaism by Antoine Levy, OP

Reviewed by Richard Harvey

Jewish Church1 is not for the faint-hearted. Not only does it weigh in at 416 pages, but it costs $125 in hardback and $50 on Kindle, a serious financial investment. The time to read it, and the careful study required to understand it, mean that anyone delving into it is making a serious investment of their time, energy, and resources. Is it worth it? Absolutely! This is not only the first full book treatment by a Roman Catholic2 theologian devoted to the challenge of Messianic Judaism but also a profound and rewarding study of Scripture, theology, and the contemporary realities of the Church and Israel.

The author, Antoine Lévy OP3, is a Jew, a Catholic, and a Dominican priest. Now based in Jerusalem, his background studies in philosophy and his experience of Jewish disciples of Jesus inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church make him an ideal interlocutor with the Messianic movement, and particularly the work of Mark Kinzer. While the book is a sustained engagement with Kinzer’s work, it is a lot more than that. It is the attempt by a Jew within the Roman Catholic Church, working within the traditions and paradigms of Catholic thought, to articulate a Jewish expression of Catholicism and a Catholic expression of being Jewish. To do this without compromising on either the authority of Roman Catholic teaching or the identity of Israel and the Jewish people is no small challenge. “Jewish Church,” an ideal that in Lévy’s thinking does not yet exist, is the Holy Grail he seeks, and his quest to find it is what engages the reader throughout this challenging text.

The book is structured in three main sections, Salvation (15–182), Torah (99–182) and Ekklesia (183–376), with dense argumentation and copious footnotes throughout. As Archbishop Rowan Williams said of another of Lévy’s books, it is a “brilliant and formidable monograph.”4 Each section demands careful study and takes the reader into a labyrinth of further questions and subsidiary issues. For the purpose of this review, a brief summary of the argument of the book will be provided, and some further comments and questions from my own perspective as a friend and observer of the two main protagonists in the discussion, in the light of the changing context of Jewish-Christian relations and the role of the Messianic movement.

Lévy challenges Mark Kinzer, as Kinzer himself notes in the foreword of the book (ix–xii), to articulate a more coherent understanding of how Messianic Judaism is part of the whole Church, an understanding that can provide a place for Jews to belong within the Church (by which Lévy generally means the Roman Catholic Church). Lévy engages in a spirited, often combative, interaction with Kinzer, to make his own proposals for how this may be achieved. Like the schools of Hillel and Shammai, Lévy and Kinzer engage in “arguments for the sake of heaven” (Pirkei Avot 5:71). While their arguments are at times detailed, engaged, and adversarial, their friendship and respect for one another is never diminished, and what unites them is far greater than their opposing viewpoints.

While there is no such thing as a “Jewish Church” (xiii), the envisioning and establishment of a “Jewish entity within the Church” is needed, in a way that conforms to Catholic teaching. Lévy’s aim is both to echo and critically respond to Kinzer’s ecclesiological proposals. For those unfamiliar with them, Kinzer summarizes these in his book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism.5 His five ecclesiological principles are his litmus test for assessing the various forms of Hebrew Christianity, Messianic Judaism, and Christian-Jewish relations. Kinzer affirms:

(1) The perpetual validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people; (2) the perpetual validity of the Jewish way of life rooted in the Torah, as the enduring sign and instrument of the covenant; (3) the validity of Jewish religious tradition as the historical embodiment of the Jewish way of life rooted in the Torah; (4) the bilateral constitution of the ekklesia, consisting of distinct but united Jewish and Gentile expressions of Yeshua-faith; (5) the ecumenical imperative of the ekklesia, which entails bringing the redeemed nations of the world into solidarity with the people of Israel in anticipation of Israel’s—and the world’s—final redemption.6

It will become clear that while Lévy substantially agrees with principles 1 and 5, he has some difficulty with 4, and considerable difficulty with principles 2 and 3. This is where the nub of his argument lies throughout the book.

In his introduction, Lévy recognises that the “theological necessity of Messianic Judaism stemming from the very nature of Christ’s revelation” (p. 1) and its existence today as an “institutional fact” (2) present an “ecclesiological problem.” How can it exist when it claims autonomy as a movement “based on the structural distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Yeshua” (3), yet must either exclude non-Jewish members or include them? Lévy correctly identifies the preponderance of non-Jewish members of Messianic congregations globally and recognizes (as does Kinzer) the problem this raises if the Messianic movement claims to be a distinctively Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua.

Lévy recognises the “missing Catholic dimension of Messianic Judaism and the missing Messianic dimension of the Catholic church” (5), berating the existence of Messianic Judaism independent from the wider Church, as its unique existence “suffers from the absence of an ecclesial character,” as does the “non-fully Messianic Catholic.” For Lévy, the Catholic Church needs Messianic Judaism as much as Messianic Judaism needs the Catholic Church, despite and because of the millennia of separation, misunderstanding, and hostility between the Church and Israel. His key question then is, “How should we conceive this wider entity, this Catholic Church in the full theological sense of the term, so that a distinctive Jewish or authentically Messianic presence might constitute an integral dimension of her being?” (6).

To answer this question Lévy lays out his argument with the sections on Salvation, Torah, and Ekklesia. The section on Salvation (15–98) avoids both a two-covenant theory of salvation—that Jewish people are saved through Torah while the nations are saved through Jesus—and a universalist position—that in Christ all are saved regardless of whether they believe. Lévy reconfigures the relationship between the unbelief of Israel leading to the death of the Messiah and the intricate connection between Jesus and his people, whereby the innocence of Yeshua and the collective guilt of Israel cannot be separated. Israel, an “integral part of the fully realized Ekklesia” (86), achieves salvation in anticipation through “the remnant” which is the “Jewish ekklesia within the Ekklesia, an organic entity representing the Jewish bio-ethnic component of the Church” (87). Lévy, as Kinzer notes, carefully avoids a later supersessionist reading of this position, which argues for continuing Jewish responsibility and guilt for the death of Jesus and has led to punitive supersessionism.

Lévy reverses the usual understanding of the “teaching of contempt,” which argued that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was the basis for God’s rejection of Israel, and instead argues that the involvement of the Jewish people in the death of Yeshua was necessary for their collective salvation. In a distinctive and complex relationship, Israel’s rejection of Yeshua is the means by which, in the purposes of Hashem, their salvation is foreseen and enacted. The irony of the Gospel accounts, and key passages such as “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matt 27:25; Lévy 50–52) is read not in a supersessionist way that led to the charge of deicide and was used to justify antisemitism, but rather by seeing the ironic language as reflecting the sacrificial nature of Yeshua’s death in atoning for the sins of Israel and all nations. Lévy builds a radical theory of the atonement that sees the rejection, death, and resurrection of Yeshua as inseparable from the corporate rejection, death, and resurrection of Israel.

Lévy’s argument involves a lengthy commentary on key passages in the Gospels and Pauline letters, and references to the language of sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures, to develop his own understanding of Jewish responsibility for the death of Yeshua that fully incriminates them, in the purposes of God, and fully involves them as both perpetrators and beneficiaries of the atonement. He sees Kinzer as only partially affirming this connection:

With Kinzer, I believe that the witness of Scriptures is unequivocal: the death of Yeshua is what delivers the restoration or salvation of Israel qua Israel. What Kinzer fails to clarify in my opinion is the reason why it is so. How can it be that the restoration of Israel stems from the lethal tension between Yeshua and “the Jews”? And how can it be that, far from being followed by an era of blessedness for Israel, it resulted in almost 2,000 years of exile and persecutions? What I will present now is how Kinzer’s reluctance to reflect on the “Jewish-negative” aspect of the Gospels as part of the mystery of Yeshua’[s] salvation, prevents him from contemplating the specificity of the Jewish path toward this very salvation—and therefore from defining the true foundations of a Jewish ecclesia within the one apostolic Ekklesia.7

It is clear that Lévy has much to work out with Kinzer, and in a series of further discussions they have tried to clarify some misunderstandings of one another’s positions.8 We will reflect below on the degree of differences between them, but we continue to outline Lévy’s argument.

In the second section, on Torah, Lévy engages critically against Kinzer’s points 2 and 3. Lévy argues for the freedom of Yeshua and the first disciples to give a radical new interpretation of Torah that was not bound to the authority or interpretive lens of the incipient rabbinic tradition of their day, but in key areas challenged it, refuted it, or made it optional. For Lévy this means that Jewish followers of Jesus, by which he primarily means Jewish Catholics, are not obligated to maintain “Torah observance” in the way that Kinzer advocates. Lévy does not accept the view of Kinzer, Rudolph, and others that Torah observance, particularly Shabbat, kashrut, and circumcision, was both normative and mandatory for Jewish disciples of Jesus. Lévy does not accept the role of halacha as any more than advisory and illustrative of Torah, and not in any way binding on Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Lévy misunderstands some of Kinzer’s argumentation here, as the further interchanges between them have sought to clarify.9 But he draws attention to the need to align two competing models of authority, those of Christian and Jewish tradition, which all Jewish followers of Jesus have to reconcile, by either harmonizing, synthesizing, or prioritizing one over the other. Lévy discusses three models describing the relationship between rabbinic teachings and the teaching of Yeshua, those considering them as “incompatible,” as “parallel,” and as in “continuity” (124). Most Messianic Jews are “Torah positive” in a way that recognizes the normative role of Torah as interpreted through Jewish tradition, but for Lévy this is not a possibility. While he is also critical of the Catholic magisterial tradition in its understanding of Jews and Judaism, he challenges Kinzer’s approach from within his own Catholic tradition. He argues that “. . . the use and therefore theological weight of Halacha appears to be very different for a Jewish disciple of Jesus and an observant Jew who does not accept the teaching of Jesus” (169). The inner transformation of Torah in the light of Yeshua as the fulfilment of Torah changes the communal forms of both its interpretation and observance. Lévy sees Jewish observance such as circumcision and Paul’s Nazirite vow as “adiaphoron” (133), not to be mandated but optional, and not to be used to divide the Ekklesia.

Lévy’s third and longest section, 183–376, sets his proposal for a Jewish ordinariate within a profound examination and reflection on the nature of the Church, as befits a Catholic theologian who is deeply engaged with ecclesiology. Messianic Jews will gain much from his penetrating analysis, theological vision, and longing for the whole Church to rediscover its Jewish nature and identity. He asks, “Does Christ’s redemptive deed imply the cancellation of the existence of Israel as a nation? . . . Does the gift of the Spirit to all those who, regardless of their ethnic and cultural origins, come to faith in Yeshua imply the dismissal of the Torah’s significance and authority for Jewish believers?” (293).

Lévy sees a possible rapprochement between Messianic Judaism and the Catholic Church through a three-fold “visible communion” (248) which brings together the “doctrine and sacraments” of both communities, in “fraternity and mutual hospitality,” and “shared governance.” Messianic Rabbis and Chief Rabbis will be recognised as exercising a similar function as the offices of priests and bishops within the Catholic Church and their governance responsibility can be recognized and ordered within the governance of the universal Church “that belongs to the Pope together with the Episcopal College” (248). If the Messianic movement can accept the “undeniable” and “fundamental difference between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic tradition,” this “opens the possibility to conceiving a Jewish ekklesia that, while being distinctively Jewish, would be able to foster true communion with her Gentile equivalent. Sacramental identity, fraternal hospitality, and hierarchic integration are all features that derive from a Messianic interpretation of the Jewish tradition. At the same time a canonical status of ordinariate could preserve the distinctiveness of a Jewish ekklesia within the Ekklesia while granting her a large degree of autonomy” (248).

For Lévy this proposal has the merit of ensuring the ongoing continuity of the Jewish people within the Body of Messiah. For Messianic Jews there will be a reluctance to be subsumed in the larger body without a clear recognition of Kinzer’s points 3 and 4 to ensure point 5.

How are we to assess Lévy’s proposals? What Lévy does well is to incisively critique Kinzer, from a sympathetic perspective and with a depth of engagement previously unmatched. But he is not so good at constructing his own response in a programmatic way. In a subject that demands exegetical precision, hermeneutical sophistication, and a theological reading in the light of the contemporary realities of the Catholic Church and the Messianic movement, Lévy sets a standard for depth, detail, and theological rigor. But his own position will not meet with support from many in the Messianic movement, or necessarily from other Jewish Catholics. While his approach to Jewish tradition is less empathetically engaged than Kinzer’s “Postmissionary approach,” the two agree on the need for the Church to rediscover its essential Jewish constitutive and ongoing nature. Lévy, for his part, articulates this from within the Catholic tradition, providing a rationale for his own particular stream of Jewish Catholicism. May the arguments for the sake of heaven continue!

1 Antoine Lévy, OP, Jewish Church: A Catholic Approach to Messianic Judaism (Langham: Lexington, 2021).

2 In this review the terms “Catholic” and “Roman Catholic” are used interchangeably. The lower case “catholic” implies the universality of all streams of the Body of Messiah.

3 Ordo Praedicatorum, (Order of Preachers), founded by Saint Dominic in 1215.

4 Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London, Bloomsbury: Continuum, 2018), 81, on Levy’s doctoral thesis on Maximus the Confessor and Thomas Aquinas (“Le Créé et l’Incréé: Maxime le Confesseur et Thomas d’Aquin [The Created and the Uncreated: Maximos the Confessor and Thomas Aquinas] by Lévy O. P. Antoine, Librairie Philosophique Vrin, 2006).

5 Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

6 Kinzer, Postmissionary, 264.

7 Levy, Jewish Church, 71.

8 Further interchanges are found at M. S. Kinzer, “A Messianic Jewish Approach to Jewish Catholicism: Responding to Antoine Lévy’s Jewish Church,” Pro Ecclesia, 31, no. 3 (2022): 350–388.; Lévy, A., “Toward a Common Jewish House in the Body of Christ: A Response to Mark Kinzer’s Review of Jewish Church,” Pro Ecclesia, 31, no. 3 (2022): 389–413. ; Kinzer, M. S., “Two Necessary Paths to a Common Destination: A Rejoinder to Lévy,” Pro Ecclesia, 31, no. 3 (2022): 414–428.

9 See fn. 8.