What is a Messianic Jew? Apart from a source of frustration and rage for many in the Jewish community across the globe, what are the distinctive and reasonable boundaries? What is the definition?
It has occurred to me that in this venue I speak about Christians, Muslims and Jews pretty regularly. But in the media and around a world lost in sheilaism those terms are not as straightforward as they might be. So I’m taking a moment to define the terms as I use them.
When I refer to Muslims, I mean those of the mainstream Twelvers and their principal opposition. That means Sufi, Shii, and Suni. For the primarily doctrinal perspective on the Tanakh and New Covenant that I take–it’s unlikely I’ll need to drill down to individual denominations within these movements. This is because their main distinctives will hinge on interpretations of the Qur’an, something that is irrelevant in this venue.
When I refer to Jews I mean the historical Juadism extant in the 1st to 4th centuries. In terms of present day movements I write in dialogue with the Karaim and others who follow the Biblical standard rather than the Rabbinical standard for heredity and who follow the traditions that arise from the minor Farsi prophet Anan, who taught that Torah was the only true Halakha. Also I’m in dialogue with those that are both Halakicly (present day Halakha) Ivriti and adhere to one of the devout rabbinical traditions known corporately as Sephardim, Orthodox, Yeshuvim, or Roman. Occasionally I will refer to Conservative or Reform but generally by contrast to the movements and sects mentioned above.
When I refer to Christian I refer to those who have rejected all other faiths and traditions in favor of the God of the Tanakh & the interpretations and prophecies of the New Testament and as such restrict their rule of faith and practice to interpretation of the Torah, Neviim, Khetuvim, the Four Apostolic Gospels, the Canonical Epistles , and the Revelation of John. Among them, those who believe that Yehashua Hansari transliterated to Jesus was begotten on a Virgin named Mari by the direct action of the Ruach HaKodesh and the entirety of the Shekhina (Sephirot) resided bodily in him. Further, among them, those who have faith in the sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, and ascension of Jesus to the role of High Priest in Heaven.
So what is a Messianic Jew?
In the Jewish community the answer has always been: Christians who used to be Jews and Judaizing Christians. but that is too simplistic. The history of the faiths has been too fraught and complicated for that sort of glib response. Violence on both sides of that equation being only the most obvious adversity. In Spain my family pretended to Catholicism to avoid death. The Mary with her back to the room and the floral Mezuzah were the only indications.
The term Messianic Jew generally leads to persecution by family and community. Under Sharia law it is a death sentence. I have had personal contact with Jews4Jesus who have been chased and beaten on the streets of New York for handing out tracts to fellow Jews. But you may wonder: Why bother with such frustration and hurt when they could simply declare themselves Christians and have a community that embraces them without the judgment and violence.
The answer is that the New Covenant is vague about these factors. It was incumbent on Jesus to live as an observant, orthodox Farsi-Jew, though he was from a Syrian family and raised in Egypt. And he repeatedly refers to the New Covenant as a completion not a replacement of the Covenant with Abraham and the Mosaic Torah.
Every Day, Jesus said his Sh’ma, donned his Talith and kept Kashrut. And he preached a message of renewal of earnest faith within Judaism, a rejection of Tamudic restrictions that went beyond the written Torah, and a disestablishment of Halakhot and practices that contradicted the Torah as written. But his disciples proselytized beyond the Jewish community. They reached out to Romans and Hellenes, to heretics like the Essenes and Samaritans, to Ethiopians and even Punjabi. They, finally, opened the door and declared that the Goyim, the foreigners and nations, could be followers of Jesus’ Way, and Jews by adoption.
But the heart of the Church, the Church of Peter in Jerusalem, later moved to Antioch, was a church of Messianic Jews. The church celebrated Passover, in the old way, without the medieval elements. They wore Taliths and beards. They lived kosher and halakhic. The point is that the written Torah’s Halakhot was never rescinded for the Christian. But the much of the Torah Halalhah and Kashrut is a public declaration of heredity. It can’t apply to adopted gentiles, because they aren’t, generally, descended of Abraham in the line of Jacob-Israel.
The injunction Paul gave against Judaizing is a warning not to give up the grace and mercy of Jesus’ sacrifice, by trusting the ceremonies and offerings to save. But Peter and James never released Jewish Christians under their ministry from the Kashrut. To be a messianic Jew, you have to be a Torah Jew, you have to be a Jew by birth, and you have to accept Jesus as he presented himself in the Gospels. You have to be Christian but first a Jew. Because Jesus came firstly to the the Jews and secondarily the Nations.
The question of gentiles joining Messianic congregations is delicate only because of vaguery. The New Testament declares that Christian Gentiles are adopted into Israel. But how do you apply that. The Torah has standards for conversion to Judaism, but Peter agreed with Paul that they need only be *Gare (ger toshav).
The question is further complicated by the generations of traditional Jews who were converted by a standard that contradicts Torah. In general then, I say it’s a matter of conscience for the Traditional Jew who follows Jesus as Mosshiach and High Priest in Heaven. If they want to live as Gare and a Christian, then blessed be the name. If they want to live as a Christ Following and Observant Jew, Barukh Hashem Adonai, haMellakh haOlam, amen.
But for the gentile it is tricky. The best choice for all concerned is to live as an orthodox Christian, carefully avoiding the heresies that have sprung up like weeds–generally any ecumenical, post Nestorian, doctrine since the 4th General Episcopal Council of the early church. If conscience dictates they become observant Jews, then the road is very difficult. A Rabbi cannot wave a magic wand and make you or your children Jewish. The standard is in the Torah and it takes generations before your decedents are in fact Halakhic Jews.
An interesting point. The Passover predates the establishment of Torah and was declared a perpetual festival for eternity. Secondly, Jesus celebrated Hannukkah. It seems fitting to me that Christians celebrate these as well.
* Gare is a short form for ger toshav meaning halakhicly pure resident aliens according to Torah. Peter, in dialog with James and Saul “Paul” L’Tarsi agreed that gentiles who converted must be able to live and work among observant Jews without causing ceremonial contamination. It was agreed that God had not required they become ger tzedek in transition toward conversion to Judaism (Judaizing).