Last month, the Jewish Independent received an email from a reader concerned about a new group for Messianic Jews being organized via meetup.com.
While the organizer did not respond to requests for an interview, the Independent followed up on the issue of Messianic Jews with, among others, Daniel Nessim, whose father, Elie, is the leader of Kehillath Tsion, a now 30-year-old Messianic centre in East Vancouver. His father, who is 84, has been handing over more of the leadership responsibilities to Nessim, who recently returned from 10 years in the United Kingdom.
“Our community consists of about 100 people, and around 80 show up every Shabbat for services,” he told the Independent in a phone interview. “Our congregation consists of both Jews and gentile Christians who are seeking to connect with Yeshua’s [Jesus’] Jewish roots.”
Members of the community observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, wear tefillin and tzitizit, and observe Jewish holidays in their way. The younger Nessim seeks to make his congregation “a more welcoming place for Jews.” Asked about the Jewish community’s general aversion to evangelizing, he replied, “God created us as Jews and intended us to remain as Jews. If I’m correct that Jesus is the messiah sent by God, He would want us to acknowledge that, but not to leave our Jewishness or our communities or synagogues. I’m happy even if a Jewish person doesn’t believe in messiah as I do, but becomes a better Jew in their own community.”
Most Jews do not see Messianic Judaism as a reasonable Jewish option, however. Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, explained that different Jewish communities have differing levels of comfort about welcoming Messianics as Jews in their synagogues. “There are also theological issues,” she said. “Someone who affirms Jesus as a teacher or a messianic figure might not be beyond the pale as a Jew, even though other Jews might disagree with them. If they affirm Jesus as divine, or God incarnate, however, then, for most Jews, they have crossed a line into unacceptable beliefs for a Jew.”
Most Orthodox Jews view Messianic Jews as retaining their Jewishness, but as apostates who have lost their right to synagogue membership or participation in other aspects of Jewish community and ritual practice. The Conservative Rabbinical Council has ruled that Messianic Jews are still Jews, but should be considered “apostate Jews” and denied synagogue membership, participation in Jewish ritual and burial in a Jewish cemetery. The Reform movement also considers Messianic Jews as apostates, not to be excluded from “services, classes or any other activity of the community, for we always hold the hope that they will return to Judaism and disassociate themselves from Christianity. But they should be seen as outsiders who have placed themselves outside the Jewish community…. Such individuals should not be accorded membership in the congregation or treated in any way which makes them appear as if they were affiliated with the Jewish community, for that poses a clear danger to the Jewish community and also to its relationships with the general community.”
Several Jewish organizations work to combat the evangelization of Jews, notably Jews for Judaism. Based in Toronto, its stated mission is to respond “to Christian missionaries, cults, eastern religions and many other challenges to Jewish continuity, and connecting Jews to the spiritual depth, wisdom, beauty and truth of Judaism.”
While a 2013 PEW study showed 34% of American Jews as accepting of Jews who believe in Jesus as the messiah – a large percentage but half that of those accepting of Jewish atheists – the struggle against Messianic Jews has sometimes become violent. In Israel, for example, according to the Messianic organization Anachnu Israel, Orthodox Jews have threatened and even assaulted Messianic Jews and their families. And, in Toronto, there have been incidents where Messianic Jews have faced protests, jeers and insults, thefts, vandalism, as well as bomb and death threats.
Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a British Reform rabbi and Jewish theologian, recently wrote a book-length treatment of Messianic Judaism and its place in the Jewish community, called Messianic Judaism: A Critical Anthology. In it, Cohn-Sherbok explains that Messianic Jews are bewildered by their exclusion from much of the Jewish community: “If Conservative Jews deny the belief in Torah MiSinai [the divinely revealed nature of both written and oral law…], Reform Jews reject the authority of the law, Reconstructionist Jews adopt a non-theistic interpretation of the faith and humanistic Jews cease to use the word ‘God’ in their liturgy, why should Messianic Jews alone be universally vilified?”
Cohn-Sherbok argues for the inclusion of Messianic Judaism within the pluralistic Judaism of today, writing that the continued rejection of Messianics “makes little sense”: “Messianic Jews are regarded as having committed the ultimate ethnic and religious betrayal. Yet, we have seen, Messianic Jews do not see their acceptance of Yeshua as a form of treachery. They enthusiastically embrace Jewish identity, which they inculcate in their children at home and in synagogues. They remain loyal to the Jewish people, even though they are universally rejected and condemned. They are vociferous supporters of the state of Israel. By their very way of life, they continually challenge the claim that accepting Yeshua as messiah is equivalent to abandoning Jewishness.” Cohn-Sherbok claims that, “in many respects, Messianic Jews are more theistically oriented and more Torah-observant even than their counterparts within the Conservative and Reform movements.”
New York-based Jewish Renewal Rabbi David Evan Markus welcomes Jews who have joined other religions to worship and learn with his community. Asked about Messianic Jews, he said, “I haven’t had to deal with that question yet. I think that if they came to the synagogue to learn about Judaism, to worship Jewishly, they would be welcomed, just as all authentic and respectful seekers are welcome. It’s a core mission of [our] spiritual community, and our roles as Renewal rabbis, to encourage spiritual engagement from a place of authenticity and integrity for all. The essential factor would be that they be committed to not proselytizing in the community. They would have to come in good faith to learn and worship with us as a Jewish community.”
There is a range of views in the Messianic community about proselytization. Nessim said he would be “very pleased” if the Jewish community accepted Messianic Jews into community life on the condition of refraining from active, organized proselytization within the Jewish community. “I think it would be ideal to aim for an agreement like that, as the fruit of respectful dialogue,” he said.
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.