Hannukah is right around the corner this week, and some Christians may be under the impression that this is an occasion that believers in Jesus shouldn’t celebrate. Thanks to the growth of Messianic Judaism in recent years, we can see that there is nothing wrong with Christ followers celebrating either Christmas or Hannukah if they feel so inclined. For many Christians, though, Messianic Judaism is still shrouded in mystery and there is confusion as to why they do what they do.
One of the best guidebooks to understanding Messianic Judaism is Shoshanah Feher’s Passing Over Easter: Constructing the Boundaries of Messianic Judaism (AltaMira Press, 1998). According to Feher, as of 1997, the estimated number of Jews worldwide who believe in Jesus as Messiah was between 150,000 and 300,000.According to Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Abingdon Press, 2005), the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America dates back to 1915 and, as of 10 years ago, had 100,000 members in America.
Feher clarifies that she uses the term “denomination” somewhat loosely in describing Messianic Judaism. There is a great deal of variety from synagogue to synagogue, and so it’s hard to make statements about the movement that are true of all synagogues.
Speaking in very general terms, there are five key areas of concern that evangelicals have regarding Messianic Judaism: A. de-emphasis on doctrine B. approach to celebrating the Lord’s Supper C. belief in Jewish superiority D. aversion to traditional Christian customs and symbols and E. works-righteousness. Let’s look at these in order.
A. De-emphasis on doctrine
Messianic Jews are in a unique position, simultaneously identifying as evangelical and as Jewish. Feher’s research revealed that most congregations are split about 50/50 between ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. Interestingly, although her account of Messianic Judaism is very in depth, one thing she doesn’t do is provide a “statement of faith” or a systematic overview of what Messianic Jews believe. Far from being an oversight on Feher’s part, this appears to be more a result of the fact that, for Messianic Jews, doctrine, while not unimportant, is not as important as a shared way of life (following the Jewish dietary laws, celebrating the traditional Jewish feasts, etc.).
“Because the range of congregants’ religious backgrounds is quite varied, the common denominator is maintained and many theological issues take a backseat to maintaining an emphasis on the Jewishness of the faith. For example, opinions about the devil or about heaven and hell vary from individual to individual, and no attempt is ever made to address them.”
This de-emphasis on what evangelical Christians would regard as essential matters of faith is problematic. It is certainly not in keeping with what the apostles of Jesus, themselves Messianic Jews, practiced. They repeatedly stressed in their epistles the necessity of correct doctrine in order to safeguard the church from false teaching.
B. The Lord’s Supper
Another problem area is the Messianic Jewish approach to Holy Communion. In the congregation Feher was involved in, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated only once a year—at Passover. As the rabbi was explaining to visitors the significance of the celebration, he said that for any traditional Jews who wanted to partake in the meal, for them it could simply mean the traditional Passover meal, thanking God for redemption from Egypt. For Believers, it could be thanking God for redemption from Egypt and redemption Yeshua.
One has to wonder whether St. Paul, the great Messianic Jew of the first century, would have been comfortable with such an arrangement. To the believers in Corinth, he urged them to examine themselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper, stating that to eat the bread and drink from the cup without “discerning” the body and blood of Christ was to eat and drink judgment upon themselves. While it’s admirable for Messianic Jews to be inclusive enough to celebrate Passover with traditional Jews, inviting individuals who disbelieve in Jesus as Messiah to partake of the Lord’s Supper violates Paul’s instruction.
C. Jewish superiority
Messianic Jews regard all believers in Jesus as being part of God’s family, but they perceive Jews as occupying a special place. Feher said, “Messianic Believers themselves create a hierarchy in which Messianic Jews are higher than Messianic Gentiles.”
This is another concern of evangelicals. Might not this emphasis on Judaizing the Christian faith slur over what St. Paul taught about Jewish/Gentile relations in his epistles? In the book of Ephesians, Paul is emphatic that Jesus, through his death on the cross, has united Jews and Gentiles into one Body, eliminating the barrier that had previously alienated them from each other.
In the Body of Christ, there is no hierarchy—all believers, of whatever ethnicity, are equal. Paul wrote to the Galatian church that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul says, “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free: and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”
D. Aversion to traditional Christian customs and symbols
While Messianic Jews would like to be accepted by both Jews and Christians, they keep the contemporary church at arm’s length by, in Feher’s words, “invalidating the anglicized church.” Feher explains that Christian symbols such organs, choir robes, and even the cross itself are “taboo” among Messianics. Feher relates how one Messianic congregation which was meeting in a Christian church, since the space was available on Saturday mornings, took efforts to drape blue cloth over all of the church’s crosses, depictions of Jesus, and anything “overtly Christian symbols that might offend.” Unfortunately, by taking such measures to not offend Jews, some Christians may understandably take offense.
Some Christians no doubt take offense at how some Messianic Believers reject traditional Christian observances such as Easter, Christmas, and Sunday. Though these Christian holidays have been sanctioned by the church since the early days of the ecumenical councils, Messianic Jews generally do not acknowledge the decisions of the early church councils as binding. Perhaps the Messianic aversion to church tradition stems from the post-apostolic church’s lack of Jewish influence. The early church’s understanding of Scripture would no doubt have been richer if there had been a greater Jewish influence within the church, but it is nevertheless dangerous to be so reactionary as to dismiss ancient church tradition which has proven to be such a helpful interpretive guide.
Hannukah and Christmas are not mutually exclusive. For some Messianics, the rejection of Christian observances is a result of coming to see the “pagan” roots of Easter and Christmas. Christians generally are aware of the pagan roots of these holidays, but believe nevertheless that the days may be salvaged and appropriately celebrated by Christians. Messianic Jews sometimes take a harder stance though. As Feher said, “Messianic Believers view paganism as a corrupting foreign element within Christianity, not as its predecessor.”
Feher quoted one Messianic rabbi as saying:
“You want to celebrate Easter? Fine! Where’s your Easter in the Bible? These are all cultural shadows. Our western culture threw out Biblical shadows, threw out Shabbat and replaced it with what? The shadow of Sunday. But don’t get mad at me because I used Biblical shadows, the shadows spoken by God.”
One certainly detects a hint of triumphalism or smugness in the rabbi’s comment.
In following the Jewish laws, such as keeping Kosher, Messianic Jews emphasize that they are choosing this way of life, not in hopes of meriting God’s favor, but simply as a means of connecting with their Jewish heritage. Nevertheless, one of the biggest misgivings evangelical Christians have about Messianic Judaism is its perspective on works. Feher quoted a congregant named Shelly who’d had a Baptist background before becoming Messianic. She “found the [Baptist] hymns distasteful because they were centered around what Jesus ‘did for me,’ not what ‘we can do for him, how we can worship him and praise him and thank him’.”
Evangelicals believe, though, that the emphasis has to primarily be on what Jesus has done for us, rather than on what we do for him. Anything we do for Jesus has to be understood as flowing out of and being a result of what he has done for us. It is infinitely more important to focus on what Jesus has done for us than on what we ever could do.
In conclusion, lest readers walk away thinking that Jackson Presbyterian Examiner is casting Messianic Jews as heretics, please let it be understood that this examiner believes that these five areas of concern are not insurmountable if both Messianic Jews and evangelical Christians are willing to learn from each other. Messianic Jews have much to teach the broader body of Christ, particularly about the specialness of Christianity’s Jewish heritage. When the Christian faith is ripped out of its Jewish context, the church is the worse for it. Christianity can’t be fully appreciated, or even properly understood, apart from understanding the Jewish roots of the apostles and first century followers of Messiah. At the same time, as this article has outlined, this examiner believes there are areas in which Messianic Jews could benefit by listening to the voice of the broader Body of Christ.
Both Christians and Messianic Jews agree that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Part of loving your neighbor means being willing to learn from your neighbor. May God enable Messianic Believers and the broader Body of Christ to talk to, not at, each other and listen respectfully to each other. In so doing, everyone will benefit from the dialogue.