Messianic Judaism: Reframing The Choice: Not Competing – Defining

I want to begin my response to Gabriela Reason’s article titled, “Competing Trends in Messianic Judaism: The Debate Over Evangelicalism,” with a “thank you” for her arduous work in gath­ering research. Every effort to gather data, whether sociological, historical, or theological, stimulates the Messianic community and advances us in defining our purpose and mission more clearly. I also realize this article was taken from her graduate level thesis and, therefore, had obvious limitations in its methodology and gathering of data. In framing the debate, Reason primarily selected one con­gregation from each organization as the models and then used a broad brush to paint a picture of these two organizations, the MJAA and the UMJC.

However, when attempting to extrapolate from this data, in order to make conclusions, it is imperative that the data be placed in its proper context. When categorizing the Messianic movement through the lens of basically two synagogue models-Beth Yeshua and Simchat Yisrael-you need to make sure it is understood that these congregations are living communities of faith and in a process of development, rather than finished products. I was a radar man in the Navy during the Vietnam conflict, and as such, I had to do a lot of plotting of courses of ships and artillery shells. I found that the more times that I charted the positions, the more accurate my cal­culations of the movements would be. Likewise, it is important to realize that you are viewing these models through a snapshot in time. Each congregation must be placed within its own historical context and chosen path, as well as in the larger frame. If you can­not see these congregations within their own process of growth, then how can you effectively interpolate where they are going?

Despite carrying out some very good work, Reason ultimately fails to persuade. She has framed the debate with false premises and therefore her data leads to an invalid conclusion. Let me explain. I see the debate not as a choice as to whether to move toward one model or the other. Those models are still in flux and are subject to great change over the next few decades. Rather, the debate is about whether the leaders within the Messianic movement will be open to discussion, reflection, self-criticism, and the challenge that comes with change and clarity of definition.

As a movement, we are historically in a state of transition from being a Jewish expression of the Evangelical church to being a Jewishly defined communal entity. Over the last ten years, many individuals and sub groups, such as Hashivenu and Tikkun Ministries, have been instrumental in this transition. We have really just begun to clarify our identity, mission, and core values. We, as a movement, are significantly involved in creating categories and language that facilitate a seamless identity with our Jewish world from the standpoint of our foundational Messianic commit­ments. While this does not automatically disengage us from our Evangelical roots, it does cause us to look differently, express ourselves differently, and, in some ways, think differently than we did in the past. This is the evolution and maturation of our move­ment as a Jewish remnant.

I believe Reason committed a disservice by framing her ques­tion in the extremes and presenting it with a presupposition that there is only movement one way or the other. In other words, she has created an “either-or” choice-that there are “competing trends” that are mutually exclusive. I do not think that many of us in the IAMCS think in those terms. Let me give an example. I did a little poll myself for this article-admittedly an unscientific one. I asked the leaders of IAMCS congregations to send me a list of the liturgical elements within their services. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a great many of them included a significant amount of liturgy in their Shabbat services.

Having been involved with the IAMCS for eighteen years, I have watched the growth and change of many of the congregations deal­ing with this issue of our moving away from Evangelical roots to a more authentic Judaism, albeit one grounded in Yeshua. What this tells me is that in the IAMCS, which Ms. Reason implies is an organization that looks primarily to Evangelicalism for its vision, is doing just the opposite. Instead, it is vibrantly engaging traditional Jewish liturgical elements in its search to develop its theology and its discourse. This is not to say that Evangelical influence is not strong. However, Ms. Reason, in the broad-brush strokes painted in her essay, has missed this vital element of theological and liturgical development among IAMCS congregations, all members of the MJAA.

Most of us have changed quite a bit in the last ten years. To be sure, this process of transformation is not exclusive to either of the subject organizations. Ms. Reason, however, has chosen two models that may possibly represent the greater extremes of the movement and thus, by framing the debate as a choice between either extreme, has overlooked the vast majority of congregations that lie some­where in the middle section of this spectrum.

I have been a congregational leader within the Messianic movement for 23 years, a member of both organizations, and in leadership of the MJAA for 18 years. In those years, I have observed much growth and maturity in most segments of our movement. But that does not mean that every congregation has participated in that development to the same degree or in the same ways. I believe that many of our congregational leaders have attempted to move forward with open minds and hearts willing to be challenged and changed.

I know when I personally started my first Messianic congrega­tion I did not know exactly where it would take us. I only sensed that the journey would take us in a direction further from the Evangelical model in which I had worked as a pastor and mission­ary for a decade. I knew I had a lot to learn and that the process would be a lifetime-goal. In the end, I had a vision of a model of a Judaism that was part and parcel of the Jewish world. Yet, I also knew that we had to re-envision a Judaism that encompassed the faith and the teaching of Yeshua that we had come to know and experience. I knew, as I embarked on my own service in this move­ment, that I was not just contextualizing the gospel-that Jewish people were not just another missions group. Rather, I understood that we needed to be about creating a Judaism that would be informed by our Rabbinic world yet would build an authority that was Scripturally based (both Hebrew Bible and Brit Chadashah) and communally expressed. It was not long until I found there were an abundance of men and women who were being stirred toward the same path. We are definitely moving away from a missions-based branch that looks to Evangelical Christianity for its self-defi-nition, goals, and theology and toward a more mature, credible, authentic Messianic Judaism. What an adventure! I give you this bit of personal testimony so you understand how inaccurate it is to try to extrapolate from a single snapshot. If you took a picture of me in this movement in 1982, 1992, 2000, or today, you would have deduced very different models.

There certainly are those who are reluctant to move ahead quickly or to budge at all-those who wish to retain a fundamental self-identity as Evangelical Christians with a Jewish-based mission. I believe that those who are unwilling to move from this position have become more strident and fearful of any challenges to their long-held positions. There is a “digging in the heels” to forestall any movement away from those familiar norms. However, even among these groups, I do not sense that they are moving more toward the church but rather are holding fast to that which they believe are the “normative positions” of the past. It must be stressed, however, that this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to either organization but can be found in both the MJAA and the UMJC. Sadly, it may be that there is more reluctance for change within the overall MJAA than the UMJC; however, I believe that is due to other conditions preva­lent within these organizations, which I will deal with more below.

There is a debate within the movement. However, the debate is not between the UMJC and the MJAA. The debate, rather, is between those who stand firmly within the Evangelical, fundamentalist camp of both organizations, and those who do not. Several UMJC congregations already have reached a point of leaving the UMJC and others have voiced discomfort with some of the courses of action taking place. Ironically, Ms. Reason has framed the issue in “black or white” terms-a defining of categories, which equate more with fundamentalism than with the perspective for which she argues.

Fundamentalists speak in terms of “torah vs. Spirit, saved vs. unsaved, Messianic vs. Rabbinic,” etc. For the most part, funda­mentalists tend not to favor changes from standard traditional positions but instead are inclined to be more apprehensive of ques­tioning long-held mainstream beliefs and experience discomfort with education.

As I referred to earlier, conditions exist in the infrastructures of these two organizations that both advance and hinder change. As Ms. Reason states, the MJAA was birthed from the Hebrew-Christian Alliance and has found those ties difficult to break. However, the Hebrew-Christian Alliance is now the International Messianic Jewish Alliance, an organization to which both the MJAA and the UMJC belong. The MJAA and the UMJC, in fact, have much in com­mon and possess many similarities as umbrella organizations. Both organizations have similar statements of faith, shared history, and overall mission. Nevertheless, the MJAA is an organizational alliance made up of individual Jews, rather than a union of congre­gations like the UMJC. The MJAA does have the IAMCS as its con­gregational entity, but it is a sub-committee of the larger organiza­tion, controlled by the Executive Committee, and so does not have the capacity to effectively influence the larger organization as much as the UMJC. Therefore, any subgroup must convincingly influence, through education, discussion, and challenge, as many of the orga-nization’s constituents as possible. We can see why the MJAA, as an organization structured by a long-term Executive leadership com­mittee, is less susceptible to challenge and change from subgroups within the organization. Some might view this as good and some as bad. For instance, if the leadership of the MJAA desires to maintain a more fundamentalist posture and is reluctant to move toward discussion, investigation and self-definition, it would be very easy to do so within their present structure. The UMJC would obviously be more easily affected by the convictions of the leaders of a subgroup and thus more amenable to change and development beyond the wishes of a central Executive committee. Therefore, we see the infrastructures of the respective organizations can lend themselves to either assist or hinder change from within. In an organization like the MJAA, the constituents tend not to have like the MJAA, the constituents tend not to have as great an opportunity, encouragement, or environment that enhances discussion, self-reflection, and exploration toward developing credible, authentic Messianic Jewish congregations. By the same token, it provides a structure that offers a great deal of freedom for individual congregations to develop in these ways. While I have stated some concerns with significant flaws in Ms. Reason’s article, I know it is important to continue being challenged toward growth and maturity. Our movement must continue in its perseverance to be thoughtful and self-critical. I do hope all of our leaders do not dismiss this as the same, old, “us versus them” assault, but rather, that we, as Messianic organizations, use this to challenge ourselves further.

{josquote} …by framing the debate as a choice between either extreme, [Ms. Reason] has overlooked the vast majority of congregations that lie somewhere in the middle section of this spectrum.{/josquote}

Our movement has many wonderful leaders that are on this road toward maturation, and we must support them and walk side-by-side with them. Defining our­selves in black and white terms of “either-or” cannot help; it can only cause more fear and extremism.

There are still many significant issues for our movement to face-issues of how we develop within the Jewish world, informed by Rabbinic Judaism but not looking to the Rabbinic world for our authority, informed by Christianity but not looking to Christianity for our vision and purpose. How should we deal with gentiles and conversion? How do we relate to an Evangelical church that has a different calling yet is covenanted to us? How do we deal with the full inclusion of women in our congregational leadership? These are all important issues that I hope we will be working out together as our movement develops. Hinei Ma Tov U’Ma Naim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. “How good and pleasant it is for communities to dwell together.”


Murray Silberling, affectionately known as “the Dancing Rabbi,” has been involved in congregational ministry for 32 years and serves as the Southwest Regional Director for the International Alliance of Messianic Jewish Congregations and Synagogues. Rabbi Silberling leads Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue, in Woodland Hills, California and serves with his wife, Dr. Kay Silberling, chairperson of the Biblical Studies department and professor of New Testament at Azusa Pacific University.