The beautiful spectrum of Messianic Jews

Walls of Jerusalem, Jaffa gate (photo: Tuvia Pollack)

God didn’t create us to be robots. We are all unique and we all have our uniqueness. This is the main problem with organized religion. Religious leaders often try to make everyone do and think and feel the same. In some cases even speak the same language.

I don’t think God wants that. I think he wants us to be as diverse as he created us. But he probably also knew that we humans would tend to try to force everyone to do it “the right way.” I think this could be one of the many reasons why God chose a specific people, the Jews, with a specific purpose. They would worship him in their specific language in their specific way. But it would be in Hebrew, the same language they used daily.

When salvation became accessible to everyone through Jesus, it was important to the apostles that the Hebrew and the cultural Jewish aspects of the faith in the God of Israel wouldn’t be forced on the gentiles. The gentiles would worship in their local language, usually Greek or Latin, and they would even adopt some local cultural aspects into their faith. When the whole thing sparked on Pentecost it happened with a wide array of languages spoken.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and it seems to have stagnated. Instead of spreading the same faith to different cultures and different languages, the original local languages became stuck. They now became the “holy language” of that church. Armenian in the Armenian church, Coptic in the Coptic church, Geez in the Ethiopian church, Syriac in the Assyrian church, Greek in the Byzantine church and Latin in the Roman Catholic church.

As the Catholic church took over the western Roman empire, they also inherited the imperial ambitions and the idea of spreading their language and culture. This was not entirely unique to them, we had Syriac churches in India too, but it seems to have been stronger with the Catholics. When the Orthodox church spread northwards to areas that spoke Slavic languages, the Bible was translated to Old Church Slavonic and to Russian. The Russian Orthodox church formed. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented. No such thing happened in Western Europe. The church spoke Latin, end of story. Translations to local spoken languages was prohibited.

The reformation finally went back to the original idea of the apostles. Speak the language of the locals. Let them read the Bible for themselves in their own language. Let them incorporate local traditions and customs into the cultural aspects of their faith. We can see how the protestant and evangelical churches today are making an effort, some less and some more successful, to reach people where they are in the culture they are. In most cases worship is done in the local language.

Of course it was never perfect, and historically it hasn’t always worked out. There are many cases where the protestant churches went hand in hand with imperial ambitions to spread western culture. But diversity has always been the ideal.

Why is it then, that Messianic Jews are often judged when they want to incorporate their own language – Hebrew – and their own culture and customs from Judaism into their faith? Especially if we take into account that this was the original language of God’s people. Most cultural aspects and holidays within Judaism are directly from God, or at least they rely on the Bible in one way or another. It seems like we have gone full circle – but the end of the circle no longer recognizes the start of it. I have heard of Protestants who accuse the Messianic Jews of “building a separating wall between Jews and Gentiles” when they insist on performing Jewish customs.

In reality, it’s the opposite. The separating wall is finally down. Jews are no longer required to give up their Jewish identity when they join the Christian faith. Less than 100 years ago they were forced to. My grandfather initially thought that he was “no longer a Jew” when he came to faith in the 1920s. (He was proved wrong, but that’s a different story). Now, Jews can stay Jews when they come to faith. The barrier is finally down. John Fischer wrote in his book “The Olive Tree Connection” in 1973 that “For 1900 years Jews have been told, both by Jews and Christians, that if you follow Yeshua … you must become, in effect, a gentile. … [but now] the wall has been broken down rather than built up.”

There are Messianic Jews who prefer to call themselves Christians when they speak English (me among them), and who see “Messianic” as a Hebrew translation of Christian. Messiah means Christ. I am a Messiah follower or a Christ follower. Call me one of them, whatever. Some Messianic Jews even adopt gentile Christian cultural customs like Christmas celebration (not me). There are on the other hand other Messianic Jews who would never call themselves Christians in any language, because they feel that the term implies that they are not Jews. They will often distance themselves from all Christian cultural aspects, while embracing many, or almost all, Rabbinical customs. I have been there, or at least very close to it.

But there is no way to put these people in different categories. Because these two types that I just described are the two ends of a spectrum. Most Messianic Jews find themselves somewhere in the middle.

And I think that it’s beautiful. It’s the way it should be. God created us different and diverse, and that should be celebrated, not frowned upon.

I have heard both Orthodox Jews and Catholics who criticize the Protestants and the Messianic Jews for this very thing. You have no human authority. Each one does what is right in their own eyes. And they are right. We don’t have a pope or a patriarch. We have pastors and elders, who can guide us, but we still judge their messages against the scriptures. The Word of God is our only authority. And that’s the way it should be.

God did not create us to all be the same and do the same things. He created us to be different, and we glorify him by expressing our uniqueness. Whether this includes Christian customs or Jewish customs, customs with Biblical or pagan origins, it doesn’t matter. He tore down the separating wall.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither save nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28