What is Our Message?
I have been occupied for some time past with a work which is of immeasurable greatness. I cannot tell today whether I shall bring it to a close. It has the appearance of a gigantic dream. —from Theodor Herzl’s first entry in his diary, Shavuot 1895, a year before writing his treatise on Zionism
Messianic Judaism is a movement with a message.
The Messianic Jewish movement was born of God’s Spirit, a miraculous birth. Because of the radical life-change most of us Jewish baby boomers experienced when we understood Yeshua to be the Jewish Messiah, our message is intimately connected with how we understand ourselves. Our identity and our message are intertwined. The clarity and content of our message depends on the clarity and content of our identity.
This paper makes three main points:
- One, we need a message that speaks to the community of Israel, not just to Jewish individuals.
- Two, we are our message; as our identity as Yeshua-followers is more clearly integrated into our Jewish souls, our message will be more authentic and have more authority.
- Three, our message must not only integrate with the Jewish past and present, but also communicate a compelling vision, even a gigantic dream, of the crucial calling of the people of Israel in the ongoing story of humanity.
We, the Messianic Jewish community, need to speak, and live, a message that is both relevant and challenging, not only to certain individuals who happen to be Jewish, but to the Jewish community as a whole. This means that our message must address issues of Jewish community and Jewish history that are often overlooked—or at best only vaguely considered.
A Message for the Jewish Community
I originally presented this paper, without the recent updates referring to Mark Kinzer’s 2018 book Jerusalem Crucified, Jerusalem Risen, at the Borough Park Symposium (BPS) in 2007. I addressed both biblical and cultural reasons to develop a Jewish community gospel—a gospel for the Jewish nation. I also outlined a number of principles for doing this, which are listed at the end of this article. Years later, in Jerusalem Crucified, Kinzer provided a clear scholarly, biblical framework for this very thing.1 He provides scriptural evidence for a message of good news (besorah) based on the prophets of Israel and the writings of Luke. This message incorporates historical, Jewish, and prophetic understandings and is in continuity with Jewish self-understanding and Jewish eschatology of the last two thousand years.
Indeed, Jerusalem Crucified details what I was asking for in 2007, namely, how Yeshua is the “Fulfiller” (not the one-time fulfillment) of these Jewish hopes, though I did not frame it like that at the time. But this terminology captures the deep spiritual conflict I’ve borne since 1971 when I began to believe that Yeshua is our Jewish Messiah. And I have always known that the cognitive dissonance, and outright repugnance, created by this Christian understanding of Jesus as the one-time fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, was not, and is not, merely a personal reaction. To the Jewish community, the word fulfillment in this context is an insurmountable wall. It connotes: All Jewish communal hopes and dreams are fulfilled in, that is, subsumed by, Christianity. This is very bad news for the Jewish community. And it contradicts the whole message of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast, if Yeshua is the Fulfiller of God’s promises to Israel found throughout the Torah and Prophets, we have a message that is, at least potentially, good news for the Jewish community.
As Mark Kinzer was finishing Jerusalem Crucified, Jerusalem Risen in late 2017 he said to me on the phone, “Rachel, this is the book you’ve been waiting for!” Again, in November 2018, just after the book was published, Mark reiterated the same point to me with a bit more elaboration and excitement. I suspected all along that he had in mind my 2007 BPS paper, yet I never actually asked him. Kinzer confirmed this suspicion in 2021 in an email, after I had read (and carefully studied) Jerusalem Crucified. Kinzer’s work lays a solid exegetical foundation for what I was calling for in 2007. It is now our job to find ways to put this into practice in the many settings in which we live.
Biblical Reasons for a Reorientation of the Gospel Message
First, the original biblical message is one that addresses the Jewish people. Restoring this biblical message will restore the essential good news to the Good News. What is the good news? “Extra, extra, read all about it!” The headline news is that God has visited us (the Jewish people) as the first installment in the restoration of all things! (see, for example, Luke 1:68-75). The enduring hope of Israel—enduring in its modern form even to this day—the hope of justice and peace on earth, is near! “The kingdom of God (the restored kingdom of David) is near!” That is the news—and news of renewal, peace and justice is always good news!
Within this headline story is related good news that many have mistaken for the main story. That is the news that in the boundless mercy of God, he has provided for us (the people of Israel) an even better atonement for sin than the method previously provided. In fact, he will transform us on the inside with the creative power of his own spirit: “I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees” (Ezek 36:27).
Without the context of the restoration of the Kingdom of David, of God’s government come to earth, of the lion lying down with the lamb, of nations turning their swords into plowshares, the individualistic gospel of easy forgiveness and going to heaven floats aimlessly in a sea of religious currents.2 Without the biblical context of the restoration of God’s creation with Israel at the center (see Rom 8:19–23), the doctrines of personal forgiveness and justification have come to mean salvation from this world, instead of participation in the salvation of this world. And salvation from this world (to heaven) evolved in early Christian thought to represent the radical antithesis to the “carnal practices of the Jews.”
Kinzer elaborates on the same theme in Jerusalem Crucified, also seeing its clearest elucidation in the writings of Luke. He goes further than I did in 2007 by providing the vital exegetical connection between the gospel of forgiveness and the gospel of the kingdom. In fact, Jerusalem Crucified speaks to all these points, and this paper explores additional reasons for fostering a uniquely Jewish form of the good news.
Cultural Reasons for a Reorientation of the Gospel Message
Getting the message right in biblical terms is important, but it only gives us a place to begin. Our message is not a mathematical theorem or philosophy that finds its perfection in abstract form. Our message is only successful if it communicates to those for whom it is intended.
If someone asked you, “What message do you want to leave your children?” how would you answer? Perhaps you would find a scripture like, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your ways” (Prov 3:5–7). This gives an excellent life principle that can be put to use in any situation. But no matter what message any of us would leave, the words will only be as good as our relationship with that child.
There is a social reality that I believe to be God-given. I call it the “Arm in Arm Principle.” Jews stand (metaphorically) linked arm in arm. The Jewish community forms a nearly impenetrable circle, as individual Jews stand together with arms linked. Jewish individuals have an innate resistance to breaking the communal circle. The last thing we Jews will give up, after we have given up any shred of religious practice or affiliation, is our Jewish identity, our sense of being connected to the historic and present people of Israel.3
So far, largely because of sociological and historical factors beyond our control, in order for Jewish people to come to Yeshua, we have had to pull them out of the circle, even while we tell them, and generally believe, they are still part of the circle. At this time, even belonging to a Messianic Jewish synagogue is outside of the circle.
Jewish individuals will never receive the message of Yeshua the Messiah in any significant numbers until that message speaks to the Jewish community as a whole—addresses the issues of Jewish community, and Jewish identity—the question of the ongoing and eternal significance of the Jewish people.
The Jewish view of redemption begins with the assumption that the renewal of all things begins with God and Israel, not with God and the individual Jew. . . . I suggest that our Besorah needs to emphasize that the Messiah is essential to individual Jews precisely because he is the Messiah/Redeemer of all Israel. . . . While the place of personal response to the gospel should not be ignored, it is a significant loss to reduce Yeshua to the savior of individuals while barely mentioning that Yeshua is central to the accomplishment of redemption for Israel, all humanity, and the cosmic order.4
Integrating Our Identity
When I came to believe in Yeshua in 1971, the message we heard, and then preached ourselves, was “You can be Jewish and believe in Jesus,” or “You don’t have to give up your Jewishness to believe in Jesus.” This of course was based on the facts that Yeshua spoke only to Jews, that all of his first century followers were Jews, and that the “gospel” message was straight out of the Jewish scriptures and tradition. It was offered first to Jews, who then spread it to the rest of the Mediterranean world. We relished pointing out the irony, when seen in the light of history, of the apostles’ deliberations over whether gentiles could believe in Yeshua without becoming Jews.
Why, then, did the gospel message, even as the Messianic Jewish Movement preached it—the basic message of Yeshua’s atonement for the forgiveness of one’s sins and the promise of eternal life—never seem in any way Jewish to me? Why, no matter how we tweaked and Yiddishized it, did it seem like a Christian message made kosher-style—the spiritual equivalent of turkey ham? Not really kosher and not very appetizing. How could I share this message with my friends and family when it caused so much unrest in my own heart?
For decades I labored in a profound struggle to understand my identity as a Jew who believes in Yeshua, and to find articulation for the message I wanted to share with my beloved family and community. Even as an active rebbitzin, teacher, and leader in the Messianic movement, inside I felt terribly lost. I had an “anti-testimony.” “I was found and then I became lost.” Yes, I was still Jewish and always would be, but what did that mean?5
I knew in my heart that Yeshua was indeed the Jewish Messiah—why could I not find rest in him? For most of my adult life a cloud of melancholy, of hopelessness over ever integrating my heart with my mind, my spirit with my soul, hovered over me.
Though my crisis of identity is probably more painful and persistent than that of others, I am far from unique. The identity conflicts of Messianic Jews have been documented by several researchers including Natalia Yangarber-Hicks and Carol Harris-Shapiro.6
Yangarber-Hicks demonstrates, through written surveys filled out by Messianic Jews, that a significant number of Jewish believers in Yeshua feel uncomfortable and unsure about their identity in relation to the larger Jewish and Christian cultures. She also notes, “the importance of being grounded in one’s ethnic identity and its positive impact on emotional well-being has been emphasized by a number of social scientists.”7
Harris-Shapiro sees similar identity conflicts among the Messianic Jews she interviewed. She summarizes: “Thus the Jewish self is a site of ambivalence and continual ‘working out’ of one’s Jewish identity. . . . [T]his love-hate relationship with Jewishness does seem to appear and reappear as a pattern of discourse. The struggle to affirm Jewishness and yet separate from Jewishness ranges over the whole life experience of the Messianic Jew.”8
These identity issues are not primarily the result of personal or organizational weakness in our movement. They are the result of the fact that our beliefs about the world and about ourselves are in direct conflict with the schema the rest of the world, including our own family and community, accepts as reality.
As important and necessary as Jerusalem Crucified is in laying out a cohesive Messianic Jewish message, it is still only a theological foundation, and not the building itself. We now have the task to understand ourselves, and to live, in such a way that a Jewish schema that includes Yeshua becomes possible through a living community, and ultimately offers to both our Jewish people as a whole, and to all who believe, a greater and truer vision and hope for the future.
Schema, Narrative and Our Message
Why do we have to ask the question, What is our Message?
It is because we have found the gospel message that we hear and have heard from the churches, one that we ourselves have presented, albeit with changes in language, does not speak to us and our people.
An answer, to be meaningful, must meet a real question. Just as “a curse without cause does not alight,” an answer without a question does not find a home.
The most serious obstacle which modern men encounter in entering a discussion about revelation does not arise from their doubts as to whether the accounts of the prophets about their experiences are authentic. The most critical vindication of these accounts, even if it were possible, would be of little relevance. The most serious problem is the absence of the problem. An answer, to be meaningful, presupposes the awareness of a question, but the climate in which we live today is not congenial to the continued growth of questions which have taken centuries to cultivate. The Bible is an answer to the supreme question: what does God demand of us? Yet the question has gone out of the world. . . . [T]he Bible . . . is a sublime answer, but we do not know the question any more. Unless we recover the question, there is no hope of understanding the Bible.9
We preach that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, but none but a small group in Brooklyn is asking who the messiah is. We preach that Yeshua has atoned for our sins. But very few Jews are thinking about how to find atonement for sins. Doesn’t going to shul on Yom Kippur take care of that?
Another way to look at the problem of an answer without a question is the idea of schema. A schema is “an organizational or conceptual pattern in the mind” (Encarta World English Dictionary, 1999). In order to incorporate new facts or ideas into our thinking, these have to fit into existing mental structures.10 A schema is like a diagram or a map of one’s world. It is through our various schemata that we make sense of the greater world. If an incoming fact or concept does not fit our schema we will normally do one of three things: we will ignore it, forget or reject it, or we will alter it to fit our existing schema.
The traditional gospel message is some form of the following:
Everyone has sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sin must be punished and Jesus/Yeshua took the punishment for us on the cross/tree. Confess that you have sinned, believe that Jesus/Yeshua took your punishment, repent and ask God to be in charge of your life. Be baptized/immersed and receive the Holy Spirit/Ruach HaKodesh, and you will be assured of going to heaven.
Everything in the above gospel message is derived from Jewish scriptures. It is not, in the main, wrong—so what’s wrong with it?
First, though the concepts are derived from Jewish sources, its conceptual and verbal structure is not. It does not fit either a modern or traditional Jewish schema. It exists totally apart from our mental framework as Jews.
Intellectually, it does not answer our deepest questions. It refers to a schema, a mental architecture, that is not our own, that we don’t understand, relate to, or accept as true.
Emotionally, it doesn’t hit the “pocket.” It doesn’t deal with questions of concern for most Jewish people.
Culturally it feels alien, and, in some circumstances, hostile.
Textually, it lacks the central focus of the “gospel” preached by Yeshua and his disciples: the coming kingdom.
It has not been historically effective. Plain and simple, it has not produced much in the way of results among our people.11
What is missing?
Any hint of how this salvation, this forgiveness, this eternal life, has anything to do with being Jewish; that is, how does it inform and affect the purpose of the Jewish people as a whole, and our personal lives as Jews? It is entirely mute on the subject.
The Messianic Jewish subjects of Harris-Shapiro’s study are reportedly not able to resolve the conflict they experience between these two schemata. They cannot mesh the Jewish and the Messianic (or Christian) into one framework of understanding. Generally they feel obligated to end up on the Christian side when it comes to theology and questions of eternity, while maintaining an emotional connection to their Jewish heritage.12
Personally, I could not, at any time, incorporate the inherited Christian schema. In fact, I also would not. Something deep inside me knew it was wrong. It rattled around in my mind and soul, like a loose part, causing pain and irritation that presented itself as a chronic state of mild depression. How could something that clearly sprouted from Jewish soil have become so alien to the Jewish soul?
Personal Insights into a Messianic Jewish Message
One of my first clear insights into a resolution to this identity crisis came several years ago while I was driving alone to Nashville, Tennessee. This drive became an unusual time of worship and communion with God. I wanted to save some of my thoughts so I stopped off at a Circuit City and purchased a hand-held mini-cassette recorder. Just about an hour or two north of Nashville I recorded the following thoughts, transcribed here verbatim:
I just saw a license plate that said “forgiven.” And it made me think about the fact that that’s the gospel message that most people think about—to talk about being forgiven, to express to other people that Jesus died on the cross that they might be forgiven. And I was thinking about the fact that what drew me, and what touched me, as I was becoming a believer back in 1971 was not that message at all, which even now, as essential as it is, does not hit me in my center.
But the message that drew me was the message that I heard Derek Prince preach, which was, in essence, looking back on it, the message of the restoration of the kingdom. Prince taught that the coming back to the Land, that the resurrection of the land of Israel, the creation of the state of Israel, was indeed God’s hand—that it was God’s hand. This is what drew me: The fact that God was still actively involved in the lives of his people! That God was still actively involved with our people, with Israel. And that my longings as a Jew, everything that I have grown up with, to long for, as a Jew were not simply religious traditions, were not simply something to keep us alive, to keep us together as a people, but were from the hand of God.
This is what drew me to the Lord.
And this is the gospel of the kingdom. I don’t understand it fully. But I believe that is what we need to preach. Our gospel, our good news, for Jewish people is not necessarily, firstly, the message of forgiveness, but it is the message of the Messiah, which is the message of the Resurrection, the Restoration, of the Kingdom of David.
And to the ever-popular Jewish question: “If we have God why do we need Jesus?” Maybe this is part of the answer. That we need him because he is the herald who is to usher in the kingdom of God. He is our prince. He is the Lord of Hosts who will enter the gates (Psa 24). He is our prince, our king, who will bring in, and sit on, the throne of David. And without him the purposes of God will not be fulfilled in this world, and the purposes of God for Israel and our purpose as a people will not be fulfilled—that without the messiah we have no prince, we have no king, we don’t have anyone to usher in the kingdom that God has planned, and that was part of his plan for us from the beginning.
The King of Glory—he is the mysterious King of Glory (Psa 24). He brings the Glory of God. He is the Glory of God and he causes us—the people of Israel, the Jewish people —to dwell in the glory of God.
Now, there was an answer to a real question!
All my life I had heard in synagogue “Lift up your heads O ye gates that the King of Glory may come in.” The question always followed, “Who is this King of Glory?” I kept looking around hoping someone would answer, but nobody ever did.
The traditional gospel message does not stand on neutral ground. It exists as part of a wider context that is commonly known to be Christian (non-Jewish). It does not speak to the Jewish mind, heart or culture, neither does it fully represent the message Yeshua brought. Let’s look at a related idea: the essential nature of narrative.
The “Gospel” Is Part of a Story
“Gospel” merely means “good news.” It is a translation of the biblical Hebrew term besorah. The biblical concept of besorah, however, is quite different from how Christian theology, in its most influential and popular forms, understands the gospel. Therefore, besorah cannot be thought of as a Hebrew translation of gospel. Merely translating the Greek gospel into Hebrew will not communicate a meaningful message to our people. The requisite biblical and eschatological context must accompany the word besorah. Kinzer defines the besorah in detail in Jerusalem Crucified. Assuming the context and understanding found mainly in the latter half of Isaiah, this paper will, heretofore, use the term besorah instead of gospel when referring to the biblical good news.
The besorah is not a novel message from God dropped into the earth in the first century, along with a mystical “Son of God.” It is part of a larger story. In fact, the message that Yeshua brought—in his person and on his lips—is not a new story (as many tell it) but, rather, the turning point of an ongoing story. A turning point is an awakening or an event that moves a story either in a different direction, or gives the protagonist a new view on the current situation, while continuing, often in a clearer way, to drive the story toward the goal the author has set at the beginning.
The Power of Narrative
All human beings relate to a good story because it touches something essential about being human.
Narratives form the fundamental way we make sense of our lives. Human experiences do not necessarily flow together in a way that makes sense. Yet, we human beings have an innate need to understand our lives as meaningful and connected to something greater than ourselves. Traditional narratives pull together our historical, cultural experiences, and collected wisdom, into a story that connects us to the past, forms our foundational identities, and teaches us how to navigate into the future.13
We each live within a story, in fact, a set of stories. We are the protagonist of our own story, we play a particular role within the story of our family, and we act within the story of our culture(s). Within each of these stories there are subplots in which we may play different roles. We may also understand ourselves as a player in the larger story of our contemporary world. Beyond that, we live and act in God’s complete story of the history of all humanity.
How we understand ourselves within these stories shapes our identity and shapes how we see ourselves in relation to others. How we tell a particular story—what we decide to keep in and what we decide to leave out, as well as how we order the selected events—is crucial to the meaning that the story conveys.
The Jewish people is unique, in that parts of our story, the beginning, as well as prophetic utterances about our future, are recorded in a sacred book. The book we, and many others, consider to be the Word of God contains mostly the story of God in relation to the people of Israel. We Jews have told our own story for generations. There are many variations, of course, but there are some events that are consistently part of the story, and some that are consistently left out of the story. Christians tell their story as well, and, like the Jews, have variants, yet the essential framework of the story remains the same. The two stories are said to arise from the same text, yet they are very different.
How we Messianic Jews understand and frame our narrative will determine whether we will land within the context of the ongoing Jewish story or the Christian story. And this context will determine who will hear, understand and receive our message.
The Flow of History
Picture, if you will, a large organic timeline of space and time merged into one broad sweep of the journey of history. Imagine yourself, along with other Messianic Jews you know, standing around on our portion of the timeline. Only it is not a line, it is a river perhaps, in a sweeping aerial shot that spans over 5000 years of Jewish history and the geography of the entire world. Along this river-timeline, our people are milling about throughout history: in Jerusalem in every era, in Babylonia, in Rome and the cities of the Mediterranean, in towns up the Rhine river and into northern Europe, in the Spain of Yehuda HaLevi and Maimonides, in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, in ships bound for America, in gas chambers and hiding in forests, in synagogues in Brooklyn, fighting in the Sinai and on the Golan, and even living in mansions in Hollywood.
We Messianic Jews stand at one particular place, with the expanse before us, yet out of focus. We stand among our people who have also been brought to this place by this cascading river. We, with the others, look back over who we have been and where we have come from. We wonder where we are going and how we will get there.
How do we tell our Messianic Jewish story? What are the needs formed out of the river of our history, and our thinking about our history? How do we understand our common heritage, particularly the centuries of exile and suffering, and even this strange modern invention of secular godliness? How is our post-biblical history part of the plan of God? What are the cries of the hearts of the Jewish people around you? What is God’s heart crying for them?
Where is Yeshua as we look back over the river of Jewish lives that brought us to this place?14
We have a message, but how does that message tell the story of the past and write the story of the future? We have rightly proclaimed the Jewishness of the new covenant and of the collection of literature erroneously, but conventionally, known as the New Testament. But the trajectory of that story, the way it has been told for centuries, has caused it to diverge by a vast distance from the Jewish story, a story that continued in another direction. My personal identity, as well as that of other Jews, is derived from my understanding of myself as an ongoing part of the Jewish story. A meaningful message must share DNA with that story.
How do we retell the story of Yeshua, of the new covenant, of our own history, with a trajectory that runs straight through Jewish history of the last 2000 years and finds us smack in the middle of the Jewish community today?
Two Stories We Must Overcome
The bad news is we are not starting with a blank page. Before our story can be believable we have to confront two stories that stand as formidable barriers, in contradiction to the story we want to tell. These two stories are The Story of Exile and the Story of Expulsion: Christian Theology.
Strangely, the two stories look curiously alike—like looking at the same phenomenon from two sides of Alice’s looking-glass. In the Story of Exile, God sent us from the land of promise, the land of our inheritance, causing us, for age upon age, to wander, homeless, over the face of the earth, seemingly abandoned by the One who called us in the first place.
How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psa 13:2–3 NIV)
The second story is like the first, but from the hand of man, rather than the hand of God. It is the Story of Expulsion. The expulsion of the Jews from the narrative of The Story of Christian Theology was played out many times over in history by the physical expulsion of the Jews from just about every country in Christendom. Most of those who expelled the Jews believed they were doing God’s will because of their flawed theology.15
The Story of Exile
Exile is a physical state and a spiritual state. Though we as a people have begun to return from exile physically, we have not yet returned, as a people, spiritually. In a way, Jewish self-understanding has never fully recovered from the destruction of the second temple and the subsequent genocide/expulsion of the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea. Though your average Jewish person today does not walk around in mourning over the destruction of the Temple, it remains the “background radiation” of all religious thinking that came after. Inasmuch as Judaism is shaped by the Talmud, it is largely shaped by the dilemma of the Exile.16 We are the chosen people who spent the last 2000 years wondering when God would remember.
Echoing many Jewish humorists, Michael Wex calls this “the fundamental absurdity of Jewish existence.”
We are God’s chosen people; it says so over and over in the Bible, His favorites. And how does He show it? Just look at Jewish history: persecution and pariahhood are both tributaries of the one big river of goles—exile—the fundamental fact of Jewish life for the last couple of thousand years. 17
Centuries of exile have produced, according to Wex, the culture that produced the Yiddish language, which is characterized by the kvetch. He explains, “If we stop kvetching, how will we know that life isn’t supposed to be like this? If we don’t keep kvetching we’ll forget who we really are. . . . Kvetching lets us know that we’re in exile, that the Jew and hence the ‘Jewish,’ is out of place everywhere, all the time.”18
Though the new Israelis banished Yiddish as the language of exile, they imported Yiddish inflection and attitude directly into Israeli Hebrew. “Disappointment—awareness of the difference between things as they are and things as they’re supposed to be—is the basis of kvetching.”19
Edward Feld, in exploring the faith consequences of the Holocaust, says:
We are past waiting for intervention from outside, for a glorious endtime that will transform existence. Our disappointment will no longer bear such a leap of faith. If the God we wanted so much did not appear when our need was so desperate, what use would that God be to us now?20
With the humiliations and tragedies of exile, comes the sense of abandonment, a diminished hope in the power of God to act on our behalf. For many the Holocaust killed this hope entirely.
No divine intervention will come from the outside to make history right again, just as there was no resounding miracle to save millions of innocent people from death. . . . Traditional theologies that find an ultimate meaning displayed by history make no sense in light of the gas chambers and the rod of Dr. Mengele choosing who shall live and who shall die. The Messiah was buried at Auschwitz.21
What we say about God, we must be able to say, and believe, in the shadow of Auschwitz. We must be able to bear witness to God’s goodness in the midst of our brokenness, in this very dark world, among those who cry out, “Why?”
To overcome The Story of Exile, a story of endless disappointment resulting in lost hope, our message needs to sprout from the ground of the kind of faith Wiesel describes. This kind of faith does not come automatically with a simple prayer or a good teaching. It is fought for in the dark places of the spirit. Have we truly asked ourselves “Where was God at Auschwitz?” We must face our deepest doubts and fears and find God there. We must wrestle until the dawn breaks, and then not let him go until he blesses us with life we can share. We wrestle to find faith in the dark places of lost hope, not merely for ourselves, but for our people. Our message depends on it.
Feld asks, “Do we not need a theological matrix to begin to understand and to articulate our own history? Do we not need to recover a sense of the holy?” 22
The Story of Expulsion: Christian Theology
A widespread Christian schema, or interpretive framework, through which the whole Bible is understood, is in five parts:
Crucifixion: forgiveness of one’s sins
Resurrection: victory over death, i.e. ticket to heaven
The problem is, about 80% of the Bible is missing. The foundational Christian story and the Christian gospel have long abandoned the entire Jewish and historical context of the good news of forgiveness of sins.
Not one major creed of the Church even identifies “Christ” in any way as a Jew, much less the King of the Jews. Not as Messiah, not as the son of David, not as the Lion of Judah. Instead of restoring the kingdom of David, the “Christ” of the creeds declares that the kingdom will never again exist. 23
But, fortunately, Judaism and the Jewish people, have retained the part of the good news that the Christian world forsook. Namely, in the end of times (b’acharit haYamim) God will send the Son of David to restore the Jewish people and Jerusalem and, through this, to restore the Earth.
As we see above, the common Christian canonical narrative has no place for the Jewish people, their history, or their relationship with the God of Israel. If the mind of God is to be understood as moving seamlessly from the Fall to the Crucifixion, why, then, the peculiar—and very lengthy—biblical story of the people of Israel, one filled with all manner of intimate pathos from the heart of Almighty God? Why does God call himself the God of Israel?
We cannot overcome The Expulsion Story of Christian Theology by ourselves. Thankfully there is a strong movement today among Christians that seeks to overcome this grievous error in Christian theology. For our part, we need to clearly distinguish ourselves from Christianity and Christian theology, while acknowledging its contributions and embracing those who truly embrace Yeshua.
The Mystery of his Hiddenness: Telling a Yeshua-Narrative for the Jewish Community
We as a movement agree that God has not abandoned, has not forsaken Israel. But where was God over the last 2000 years? Where was Yeshua? Our message, our story, is not complete without coming to terms with this difficult question. Without it, our narrative has lost its audience for lack of continuity.
In our Messianic Jewish story, we must find the Messiah the central (though often hidden and mysterious) figure in the long continuous story of the intimate and intense relationship of the God of Israel with the people whom he chose to bear his name, the people of Israel. Unraveling the mystery of his hiddenness, both in the biblical account and in our subsequent history, to reveal his true identity, like that of Joseph to his brothers, is one task before us.
In an extraordinary little book, Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope, Joel Marcus explores his “intuition of an identification between Christ’s suffering and that of the martyrs of the Holocaust.”24 Jewish artist Marc Chagall intuited something similar, as seen in his many (some say about one hundred) paintings of the crucified Jesus, wearing a tallit, t’fillin or other Jewish symbols, while the setting all around him shows scenes from the Holocaust and other events of Jewish martyrdom.
In Julia Blum’s beautiful telling of the Akedah story she sees,
the father-son relationship, gradually displayed more and more fully . . . a path down which the father leads his son, a path on which the son starts out as just a son but . . . in walking down it, the son becomes the lamb, with none other than the father himself leading him to be sacrificed. . . . In this is the mystery and secret of the Father’s plan, the Father’s love, and the Father’s election: the Mystery of Sonship. 25
Blum is referring here, not to Yeshua, but to Israel. Blum asserts that the ram in the thicket, not Isaac, represents Yeshua. Isaac, with Israel in his loins, represents the people of Israel. Isaac/Israel remains bound on the altar even as this story ends. Blum paints a tender picture of how Israel’s chosenness can be seen in the nation’s historical suffering.
“Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Hos 11:1). Matthew applies this verse to Yeshua, though it refers to Israel in the original text. There is a mysterious parallel and identification between the sonship of Israel and the sonship of Messiah that runs throughout scripture. It begins to make sense of our national suffering. It helps us identify with the Messiah. It speaks both of our chosenness and of our need to rely solely on God. This is a deep and sensitive question to explore.
Beginning to Communicate a Compelling Vision
As a trained artist, I understand that a painted object will only appear real to a viewer’s eye if it is in harmony with the foreground, middleground and background, in shape, size, tonal value, lighting, and color. Likewise, our message, no matter how “true,” needs to be part of a harmonious and unified picture. The foreground, middleground and background of our picture is the Jewish context, which will give our message reality and beauty.
Overall, our message must have authentic Jewish Context.
It must have Continuity with Jewish culture.
It must affirm and confirm God’s special Covenant with Israel.
It must have meaning for the Jewish Community.
It must communicate a clear vision of the Calling of the nation of Israel.
It must have Currency.
It must reflect Compassion.
It must Challenge our people, Amaze and Astound them; giving our people a vision for their own prophetic destiny, as revealed in our own Jewish prophets.
Finally, it must take Commitment and Courage on our part to see it through.
There is not space to look at each of these principles in detail, but following are some examples of how to flesh them out.
In the biblical text, the people of God is the people of Israel; God has set up no other people, no other kingdom, and no other “Israel” than the one he called into being from the time of Abraham or David. Yeshua broke down the wall of partition (that God had previously erected) so that God could bring in the “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen,” but the pen is Israel’s.26
Our message must have continuity with the Jewish past (both biblical and post-biblical), real consequence for the Jewish present, and connection to the Jewish future.
I will put my dwelling place among you and I will not reject you, I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. (Lev 26:11–12)
God’s desire and intent from the beginning was that he would dwell with mankind, and that his human creation would dwell in his presence. This is clearly seen from Genesis 2 through Revelation. These words from Leviticus are echoed throughout Torah and again in Revelation: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them” (Rev 21:3 NASB).
When God sent the first humans out from his presence because of their sin, his intent did not change. He set out to bring all of humanity back to relationship with himself by calling out a “peculiar nation” in which he would dwell, first in a limited and conditional way, and finally in all of his Glory.
God’s indwelling presence is not a “New Testament concept.” God’s indwelling presence rested on the mishkan (tabernacle) in the wilderness and in the Temple in Jerusalem, the place that the Lord chose for his divine presence to pitch its tent in the world. The nation of Israel was, in essence, the incarnation of the Spirit of God, the body in which God dwelled. In this manner, the more concentrated and compact incarnation of the spirit of God in the Memra, the Messiah, exists in continuity with God’s habitation in Israel. 27
Orthodox Jewish scholar Michael Wyschogrod sees this connection.
The covenant [between God and Israel] depicts a drawing together of God and Israel. In some sense . . . it can also be said to involve a certain indwelling of God in the people of Israel whose status as a holy people may be said to derive from this indwelling. Understood in this sense, the divinity of Jesus is not radically different—though perhaps more concentrated—than the holiness of the Jewish people.28
Though we know that Messiah, being deity, is worthy of our worship, whereas Israel is not, the continuity of God’s indwelling presence reveals much about God’s character and his purpose for Israel and all of mankind.
Our message must foundationally affirm and confirm God’s special covenant with the Jewish people in a way that is both faithful to the scriptures and makes sense to today’s Jews.
First, we need to affirm that God has not rescinded any of the special covenants he has made with the Jewish people, particularly the Sinai covenant. Yeshua himself said, “I have not come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17).
For much of Christian theology “fulfill” became a synonym for “abolish.” If it is “fulfilled,” it is finished and so it can be discarded. We have to actively counteract this pervasive view about Torah. Mark Kinzer is very helpful in looking at difficult passages regarding Jews and Torah. 29
Second, it needs to be made clear that the new covenant is made with the House of Israel and the House of Judah (Jer 31:31ff.). Jeremiah does not mention a new covenant made with the church, nor with individuals.
Third, God has chosen to cut an eternal covenant with the Jewish people, not based on merit, but based purely on his love. Jeremiah 32:40 says, V’karati lahem brit olam, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” The faithfulness is all on God’s side.
Our message must be directed to, and relevant to, the whole Jewish community as a community, while it is also a message to individuals within that community. One way to do this is to understand the communal nature of Yeshua’s atonement.
Leviticus 16 gives the ordinances for Yom Kippur. It is clear that this once-a-year offering is meant to be an atonement for the whole house of Israel as a community. It is to be a lasting ordinance “for the priests and all the people of the community” (v. 33).
This Yom Kippur offering is the model for the Messiah offering up himself, “once for all” (Rom 6:10; Heb 9:12). In a sense, the comforting message evangelicals are fond of is not true: “If you were the only person in the world, Jesus would have died for you.” Perhaps he would have; but that is not the way his atonement is presented in the scriptures. He dies for a nation, for the nation of Israel. Yes, individuals, Jew or gentile, need to turn from their own way and turn to God to receive the benefit of that national atonement, but the atonement is made for the nation of Israel.
The communal nature of the atonement gives the Jewish people as a nation the ability to live up to its calling as a people to be a light to the nations. The Jewish community already knows its calling. Many call it Tikkun Olam, and many Jews, secular to Orthodox, see this as the heart of Judaism. We need to affirm this calling, while challenging our people to work for Tikkun Olam in partnership with the One who destroyed the power of death. History has shown that we cannot overcome the vast evil in the world solely by our natural gifts, good ideas and generosity.
Our message must have currency—we must be able to trade our ideas in today’s marketplace. Both usages of currency (“of our time” and referring to money) come from the noun, current. Both come from the idea of being “in the current” or “in circulation.” If sharing our message is like trying to spend outdated, or foreign, coins, we will only be received with blank stares. Nothing will be bought or exchanged.
“Many people . . . insist on a single self-consistent verbal scheme into which they try to force all experience. In doing this they create a purely verbal world in which they can live a pretty autonomous existence . . .” This of course is what makes a cult—a group of people who thus isolate themselves from the evolving mainstream. By staying within their own closed verbal world they forfeit the opportunity to lead others.30
Within the unending din of information coming at us today, there is no shortage of messages from and for a Jewish audience. How do we fit into this picture? What do the answers provided by these groups say about what today’s Jewish people are seeking? Can we enter into intelligent compassionate discourse about these subjects?
To further complicate the picture, we live in a postmodern, not a biblical, world. The subject of postmodernism is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is interesting to note that the concept of story and narrative finds a natural home here. Postmodernism is fueled by ideas like:
- emotional health
- pragmatism (whatever works)
- novelty (new is better than true)
- feeling/experiencing is believing
- the journey is better than the destination.
Using these values we can challenge people with story, which is often highly regarded in postmodern thinking. Inside, we all want to make a difference. Stories can fire up our God-given longing to be brave and meet adversity head-on for a higher purpose.
Our Challenge: Amaze and Astound
Our message must make sense to our people, but it must also amaze and astound them. We need to communicate an exciting vision of our purpose as a people. In Acts 2:5 and 12, the “God-fearing Jews” were “amazed and perplexed, [and] they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ ” In Acts 4:13 the people were “astonished” when they saw the courage of Kefa and Yochanan. In Acts 8:13, Simon the (former) sorcerer was “astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” In Acts 9:21, “all those who heard him were amazed” at the preaching of Saul of Tarsus.
Yeshua “went through Galilee teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). He was preaching the kingdom, and he was demonstrating the kingdom. Large crowds of Jews began to follow him wherever he went.
Healing and miracles were quite clearly part of the message. Yeshua gave his Jewish disciples this charge: “As you go, preach this message: The kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matt 10: 7-8).
The message had two parts: the announcement of the kingdom, and the demonstration of the kingdom. God’s realm, his kingdom, overcomes the sickness and death of this world. That is the good news, and it is amazing and astounding news. It is God dwelling with us. It is the Spirit of God dwelling in Israel, in Jewish flesh, breaking out of the boundaries of the Mishkan and the Temple, and, eventually, even out of Jerusalem—beyond the courts of the gentiles. It is our calling as Jews to bring this restoration to the nations.
Yeshua amazed the people, not only by his miracles, but by his teaching. “They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). He taught the people about the kingdom without concern as to whether they were officially “believers.” He discipled them “where they were at.” We see Yeshua teaching about the kingdom, living the kingdom, demonstrating the kingdom, and he is amazing the people.
How do we, the Messianic Jewish community, amaze the rest of our Jewish community? I can think of no better start than to turn to God and ask. It will probably take some soul-searching on our part, as well as discipline and sacrifice. It is impossible by merely human efforts. Yet, our human effort is also required. I believe as we work in humility on developing the besorah for the Jewish community—in our words; in the way our congregations function and communicate; in how we enter into relationship with the church, the Jewish community and the general communities around us—something will change. We will also need to continue our practice of spiritual disciplines like fasting and intercessory prayer.
Mark Kinzer helps us understand how Yeshua brought the power inherent, but veiled off, in the Torah into the midst of the Jewish people. In the Sinai covenant the holiness of the altar was protected by many safeguards because it was constantly threatened by the defilement of this world. Conversely, the people were threatened by the holiness in their midst—one false move and judgment followed. But God had always intended to dwell in Israel, among the people. Because Yeshua was not a stone altar, but God in Jewish human flesh, he did not need to carefully guard his holiness against defilement by his people. Instead, Yeshua brought a prophetic outgoing holiness right to the people.31
That is the kingdom of God coming near. God’s presence, which dwells in its fullness in the kingdom of God, was always with Israel in a limited sense—dwelling in the pillar of fire and in the Mishkan, speaking through the prophets—but it was fenced off, both from impurity and from the gentile nations. It had to be kept separate.
Yeshua broke through these boundaries to bring the holiness of God, the kingdom of God, to Israel in a way that was beyond expectations. It was prophetic because it revealed the truth of God’s ways to the people. It was outgoing and invasive because it actively invaded the realm of evil. It was not defiled by the unclean, but rather cleansed the defiled. In the same prophetic way, we are to speak and demonstrate our message in the Jewish community, so that the community of Israel can fulfill its work to bring the message and power of the kingdom of God to the world.32
“The kingdom of heaven is near” doesn’t mean, “you’ll die soon and heaven is near (if you believe).” It means the presence of God is near; the holiness of God has come to this earth in an invasive way to scatter the forces of darkness. And while you are preaching it (says Yeshua), do it too. Scatter the forces of darkness, demonstrate the power of God, bring the kingdom of heaven near. This is the heritage of the sons of Jacob. This is Tikkun Olam with power.
Commitment and Courage
If we are not demonstrating the kingdom now in a way that astounds, amazes, and challenges our people, we need to pray and seek God until this happens. Our message is incomplete without it.
Above and beyond the rightness of our message, is the utmost importance of our commitment to prayer—not just as individuals, but as klal Yisrael b’Yeshua, the People of Israel standing in Yeshua. We are called, together, to endure in faith and endure in prayer, which is the place we reveal what we really care about. “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay” (Hab 2:3). This is God’s work. It is all predicated on God’s promise and on his character alone. Our message is only as effective as the Spirit of God makes it, and that through the prayer of our community.
Difficult times are here. It seems evident that it will soon get worse. We need to persevere in prayer and faithfulness, and prepare to be people of hope in hopeless times. We need to be tough, compassionate leaders who can stand with courage and faith in times of war, disease, and extreme hardship. We need to stand in stern and serious unity before God for the redemption of Israel.
We are our message. Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah, “If you will it, it is not a dream.” —Theodor Herzl
Rachel Rubin Wolf has written and taught on a variety of subjects for the Messianic Jewish community since the early 1980’s. Her central teaching passion has been to educate and sensitize others to the realities of the Jewish community, including its unique history and the beliefs and attitudes formed out it. Within this context, she seeks to understand Yeshua and the apostolic writings in light of the experience of the Jewish community. She is married to Michael Wolf, rabbi of Beth Messiah Synagogue in Cincinnati. They have three wonderful adult children.
1 Mark S. Kinzer, Jerusalem Crucified, Jerusalem Risen: The Resurrected Messiah, the Jewish People, and the Land of Promise (Eugene: Cascade, 2018).
2 “Yeshua did not need to come into this world to reign in heaven. He was already reigning in heaven…Yeshua was born as the son of David so that he can rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem.” Daniel Gruber, The Separation of Church & Faith, Vol. 1, Copernicus and the Jews (Elijah Publishing, 2005), 216. See also all of chapters 16 and 21. A similar critique of current presentations of the gospel is reflected in Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), and Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).
3 “[Mordechai] Kaplan used to teach that there are three possible ways of identifying with a religious community: by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Kaplan himself insisted that the primary form of Jewish identification is belonging—that intuitive sense of kinship that binds a Jew to every other Jew in history and in the contemporary world. Whatever Jews believe, and however they behave as Jews, serves to shape and concretize that underlying sense of being bound to a people with a shared history and destiny. When that connection disappears, Judaism too will disappear.” Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), xvii.
4 Carl Kinbar, “Communal Aspects of the Besorah,” Hashivenu Forum (2004), 15 and 28 (emphasis original), http://hashivenu.org/forum-papers/?tax%5Bwpdmcategory%5D=2004.
5 “What did that mean?” Though I did not list them all here, I had in mind questions like:
• What is the eternal and decisive purpose for the people of Israel?
• Why is this eternal and decisive purpose not addressed in the gospel message at the foundation of our movement?
• How do we understand Jewish history of the last 2000 years?
• Are we forced to concede that all of our Jewish ancestors are in hell because they did not consciously believe in Jesus?
• Is God still faithful to the Jewish people and guiding Jewish history, or has he abandoned them? If he is faithful, how does this affect our view of Judaism and Jewish history?
• How does God himself, and Yeshua, relate to our people over our rich and tragic history?
6 Natalia Yangarber-Hicks, “Messianic Believers: Reflections on Identity of a Largely Misunderstood Group,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 33 (2005): 127–140; Carol Harris-Shapiro, Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey through Religious Change in America (Boston: Beacon, 1999).
7 Yangarber-Hicks, 140, fn. 14.
8 Harris-Shapiro, 61.
9 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Noonday, 1976; first published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1955), 168–69.
10 “A view of mind predicated on an information-processing model is critically at odds with sociocultural perspectives that assert that the genesis of thought, language, and, therefore, development lies in social and cultural activity.” Mary B. McVee et al., “Schema Theory Revisited,” Review of Educational Research, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Winter 2005): 541. This article reviews schema theory in relation to learning and literacy in children, but there are many applicable findings. The authors feel that learning is dependent on sociocultural factors.
11 McKnight and Bates critique such presentations of the gospel and provide more fully developed and biblically rooted alternatives, which need further development to fully reflect the role of Israel and the Jewish people.
12 Harris-Shapiro, 86.
13 See Tom Steffen and William Bjoraker. The Return of Oral Hermeneutics: As Good Today as It Was for the Hebrew Bible and First-Century Christianity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2020), and “Oral Hermeneutics: A Conversation with Bill Bjoraker,” Kesher, Issue 38, (Winter/Spring 2021): 3–14.
14 Kinzer, in Jerusalem Crucified, also speaks in general terms to this question, particularly in Chapter 7, “The Integrative Power of the Prophetic Evangelion.”
15 It is important to recognize that though, historically, the majority of Christian theologies have been anti-Judaic, there is, in our time, a large and growing, very vibrant, movement of Christians who are eager to understand the place of the Jewish people in God’s plan. Most of these are faithful and generous supporters of Israel, and see their support of Israel as their spiritual duty. This move of God’s spirit parallels the move of God among the Jewish people of the last generation. We gratefully welcome the heartfelt support and prayers of these Christians. We are delighted to consider them part of the family.
16 Edward Feld, The Spirit of Renewal: Finding Faith After the Holocaust (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994). This idea that Rabbinic Judaism is shaped by the dilemma of exile is explored in chapters 1 through 9.
17 Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 6.
18 Wex, 6.
19 Wex, 7.
20 Feld, 138.
21 Feld, 139.
22 Feld, xvi.
23 Gruber, 221.
24 “Might one not suggest that there is an analogy, a likeness, a mysterious identification between the redemptive suffering of Jesus and the sufferings of other innocent victims, including Holocaust victims? After all, Paul himself says in Colossians (1:24) that he makes up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings. And even some Jewish writers and artists have expressed a similar sort of intuition of an identification between Christ’s sufferings and that of the martyrs of the Holocaust. One thinks, for example, of the crucifixion scenes painted by Marc Chagall in the late thirties and early forties—scenes in which the crucified one is always an identifiably Jewish figure, and the background is usually a burning Jewish settlement or shtetl of Eastern Europe.” Joel Marcus, Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 28–29.
25 Julia Blum, If You Be the Son of God Come Down From the Cross (Chichester, U.K.: New Wine, 2006), 29–31.
26 “The Biblical ekklesia [usually translated ‘church’] is the kahal [community] of Israel.” Gruber, 62.
27 Mark S. Kinzer, “Beginning with the End: The Place of Eschatology in the Messianic Jewish Canonical Narrative,” in Mark S. Kinzer, Israel’s Messiah and the People of God, ed. Jennifer M. Rosner (Eugene: Cascade, 2011), 103–04.
28 Michael Wyschogrod, “Christology: The Immovable Object,” Religion and Intellectual Life 3 (1986), 79, cited in R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 9.
29 Mark S. Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), particularly chapters 2 and 3. See also Kinzer, Jerusalem Crucified, chapters 3 and 4.
30 Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 32, emphasis added. Greenleaf is quoting and commenting on the words of physicist and philosopher Percy Bridgman.
31 Kinzer, “Beginning with the End,” 104.
32 Kinzer, “Beginning with the End,” 91–125.