How Jewish Should the Messianic Movement Be?

This title was not meant to be provocative, but instead to ask a genuine question that at times is common among the Messianic Jewish community. I believe that this question is founded in the complicated position that many Jewish followers of Yeshua find themselves in. They are trying to figure out whether they are grounded in the Jewish world or are members of a global community of Yeshua-followers, the majority of whom are not Jewish.

I believe the question posits within itself a number of problems that we need to delve into. And hopefully we will find various opportunities to move forward and make what, in my opinion, would be progress toward the full redemption and tikkun olam (fixing of the world) in which we are to play a part.

Part of the question that needs to be addressed, first of all, is whom the term Messianic refers to: a group of Jews, or non-Jews? Is the term a reference to all followers of the Messiah, Jew and non-Jew combined, or is it primarily a term referring to Jewish followers of the Messiah?

If we refer to Jewish followers of the Messiah, do we include Jews of all streams with an expectation of the Messiah, or only those who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah?

When we say Jewish, do we mean those who practice Judaism or some other definition? And how does that relate to being Israeli? Even at the time of the founding of the State of Israel, there was a debate as to the nature of this Jewish State: was it to be a national or religious state? The founders made a compromise in the Declaration of Independence, referring to Tzur Yisrael— the Rock of Israel. This rock is seen both as the bedrock upon which Israel is built and the rock that traveled through the desert with the sons of Israel and provided the needed sustenance. It is fascinating to note that Shaul/Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 about this rock and identifies it as the Messiah. So in the declaration of the State of Israel, we find that both the secular and the religious point back to the Messianic calling of the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

One person, in response to the question at hand, said, “How wet should water be, or how human should a person be?”

Rabbi Mark Kinzer writes about the definition of Messianic Jews in The Nature of Messianic Judaism.

If we are trying to build a Messianic community, I believe that we have no choice but to labor to assure that it will indeed be a Jewish community. We cannot build such communities apart from the wider Jewish community. We need to aim to build together with the rest of our people. The restoration of the Jewish people that we read of in Ezekiel 36 and 37 should be our goal. This requires working toward not just the building of Messianic community, but toward the overall unification of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, following the commandments in fidelity to HASHEM and learning the ways of Messiah.

Many Messianic Jews fear the term Judaism, as they think of stereotypical images of Hasidic or Lithuanian Jews dressed in 18th-century Eastern European clothing. They believe that this is the lone flavor of Judaism and find many reasons to distance themselves from it. These same Messianic Jews ignore the development of additional streams within Judaism—Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist—each of which carries a responsibility for the rest of the Jewish people. I find these misunderstandings to be most unfortunate on two counts. First, I believe we should not fear Judaism or our people, as this leads to us distancing ourselves from fellow Jews regardless of their lifestyle and level of observance. We should be prepared to be stretched as we learn to walk in greater Torah observance and see others also walking forward, while not coming to the same conclusions at this time. And second, I believe that as we find our place as a Messianic Jewish community within Judaism, we need to humbly learn about the variety of opinions and interpretations that have existed among our people in times of old and in these modern times. Mark Kinzer says about Judaism:

Judaism is not a religious artifact from biblical times but a dynamic way of life embodied in and transmitted by a living community. The abstract affirmation of Judaism has no meaning unless it is expressed as a practical affirmation of the actual religious tradition of the Jewish people. If one denies the legitimacy of historical Judaism, one in effect asserts that the divine purpose for the Jewish people found in the New Testament has been definitively thwarted.

Another very deep writer, Rosemary Ruether, states clearly:

Judaism was never a religion of “legalism,” but a religion of revealed commandments which seeks thereby to concretize God’s presence in everyday life. For Judaism, there can be no such antithesis of law and grace, letter and spirit, for the Torah is itself God’s gift and mediates the presence of the Spirit.

Is our Jewishness ethnic or religious? Is “religious” a curse word? It seems that in ancient times as much as today, there was conflict between those who leaned toward a more nationalistic identity and those who sought a more religious identity. It is taught that the students of Rabbi Akiva were divided between those who favored the Festival of Passover (when we remember the forming of the nation through the Exodus from Egypt) and those who favored the Festival of Shavuot (seen as the spiritual event in which the sons of Israel receive and take upon themselves the Torah). The truth is that we are commanded to celebrate both and to make the connection real through the counting of the Omer. In modern times, the discussion continues between those who send their young ones to the military to build up the nation state and those who send their young ones to yeshiva to study Torah.

What does Jewish space look like for this Messianic community? The Messianic community carries with it a deeply rooted identity as a people that has continued to exist despite a very long exile. This people has always, despite its wanderings in the nations, been drawn back to a certain piece of real estate that HASHEM promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants. So this Jewish space has a gravitational center.

Some may be asking just how important the commandments can be, and what relevance they have for us in the modern world. We are warned in the Torah about a term called “avonot avoteichem”, the sins of the fathers will afflict us if we do not repent from those sins. Some will say that those commands only applied while we were in the land, or possibly that in a Messianic context they only applied before the Messiah came and now we have been freed from them.

I believe this is an important thing for us to contemplate. We as a people, and sometimes as followers of Yeshua, have rejected the Torah and continued in that rejection of our fathers. This is something that has the potential to continue to cause generational damage in our lives. As Jewish followers of Yeshua, we speak of aiming to walk in holiness and faithfulness to HASHEM, and I believe a central outworking of this is fidelity to his Torah. We need to take action and not follow the ways of our fathers in the area of sin. So this Jewish space has both commandments and a heritage we have received from our fathers.

I would encourage us all to pray and to seek his face as to the areas in which we need to be cleansed of the past. I believe it is clear here that if we are casual toward the past, this is a continuation of the casualness of our fathers. We need to take action in order to walk in faithfulness.

Editor’s Note: This entry is an excerpt from an article published in Mishkan Journal, issue 74, 2015, by Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies. Click here to purchase a subscription to Mishkan in order to read the rest of the article and several others.

1. Mark Kinzer, The Nature of Messianic Judaism: Judaism as Genus, Messianic as Species (West Hartford: Hashivenu Archives, 2000).

2. Mark Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 215.

3. Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 241.