Baruch HaShem

A Messianic Synagogue

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The Rise of "Messianic Judaism"

There have always been individual Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and who have become members of Christian churches, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. The common understanding, both Gentile and Jewish, has been that these persons have “converted” from Judaism to Christianity, and have thus abandoned Judaism.{1} Nonetheless, some of these new believers retained a love for things Jewish, and maintained a hidden Jewish identity.{2}

Evangelical missionary efforts targeting the Jewish people intensified in the 19th century, probably stemming from heightened eschatological interest following the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews was founded in 1809.{3} With the rising interest in biblical prophecy, an increasing number of Evangelical preachers taught that Israel would return to the land, and that this would presage the conversion of the Jews and the return of the Lord.{4} Eschatological interest and missionary fervor toward the Jews went hand in hand.

From an early stage, there seems to have been at least a degree of tension between the Evangelical sponsors of evangelistic work among the Jews and the desires of those Jews who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. It was from the ranks of these “Hebrew Christians” that initiatives arose for closer association between them. The Hebrew Christian Alliance was formed in London in 1866, the Hebrew Christian Alliance in 1925. The British initiative had a focus on fellowship and pastoral care, where the HCAA had from the start a more missionary thrust, though it also sought to encourage Jewish believers in Jesus through occasional fellowship and a stronger sense of their identity.{5}

Even the existence of a fellowship among Jewish believers in Jesus provoked some opposition from Evangelicals, many of whom saw in any attempts to preserve distinctively Jewish characteristics “Judaizing” tendencies opposed to the liberty of the Gospel.{6} While the desire to preserve a Jewish identity was clearly present in the formation of the HCAA, there were one or two pioneers with a vision for a corporate Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua in worship and life-style that would be the reviviscence of the pattern of the Jewish Church of the first century.{7} Mark Levy proposed such a vision to the HCAA in 1917, but it was decisively rejected.{8} The terminology of “Messianic Judaism” and “Messianic Jews” was in fact used at this time, both by Levy and by John Zacker, and it was “Messianic Judaism” that was explicitly disowned.{9}

The rise of Messianic Judaism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s represents as much a new direction and a discontinuity with the “Hebrew Christian” movement as it represents a continuity. The change of title, expressed in the re-naming of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America as the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA),{10} expresses exactly the change and the newness. It represented a decision to form “Messianic synagogues” that were not part of historic Protestant denominations, but were free to be Jewish congregations maintaining a Jewish calendar and life-style as they recognized Yeshua as the Messiah. This development was not just a change in evangelistic tactics; it represented a clear change of direction arising from a sense of inner call. Such a change of direction encountered much resistance, both from many Hebrew Christians{11} and from their Evangelical supporters.

The same debate between “Hebrew Christians” and “Messianic Jews” had also been taking place among Jewish believers in Jesus in the Holy Land at least from the 1920’s.{12} In Palestine, the pressures from Church missionary organizations against any assertions of Messianic Jewish independence were even stronger due to the importance of Israel for the Evangelicals, and efforts to form a Messianic Jewish congregation hardly got off the ground prior to 1967. However, the preference for the term “Messianic Jew” was clearer among those with this vision in Palestine from an earlier date than in the USA.

What happened to win over the Jewish believers in Jesus to the Messianic Jewish vision they had earlier been so loath to embrace? The following factors all seem to have played a definite role: (1) the impact of the Six-Day War of 1967; (2) the charismatic movement; (3) the Jesus movement and the student upheavals of 1968. the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War gave a new self-confidence to some Hebrew Christians with a sense of the importance of biblical prophecies concerning Israel. The Jesus movement that was outside the denominations saw many young Jews come to faith in Jesus, and this produced a notable influx of new young believers into the Young Hebrew Christian Alliance. Many future leaders in the Messianic Jewish movement came from this crop of new young believers.

Developments within the Messianic Jewish movement in the USA

As mentioned, the change from Hebrew Christian terminology to that of Messianic Judaism arose from an influx of mostly young new Jewish believers in Jesus and an impulse to form Messianic synagogues. Much of this new thrust was charismatic. The tensions inherent in the movement, especially concerning the degree of Jewish practice to embody, were augmented by the Evangelical-Charismatic tussle.

In practice, a key distinctive of those espousing the vision of Messianic Judaism was the establishment of Messianic congregations or synagogues. The new Messianic congregations springing up in the United States in the 1970’s faced many new challenges that had not faced the Hebrew Christians, who belonged to Gentile denominations and congregations, particularly issues regarding worship and education. The MJAA was not directly meeting these needs, and so some felt a strong desire to establish a body to address these new challenges.{13} As a result, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) was formed in 1979 under the presidency of Daniel C. Juster.{14} The same needs led to the formation in 1986 of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), as an outgrowth of the MJAA.{15}

This initiative led to tensions between the UMJC and the MJAA. The MJAA contained some long-standing witnesses to Jewish distinctiveness, who were not won over by the widespread charismatic tendencies of the new influx, that were more strongly represented in the UMJC. This division of Messianic Jews in the United States into two rival bodies continued until 1994, when there was an official reconciliation between them, with the signing of the UMJC/MJAA Agreement of Reconciliation and Commitment.{16}

Evangelical Missions to the Jews

Ever since the surge of Evangelical missions in the early 19th century, the Jewish people have been a favored target. In many ways, this zeal has intensified since the establishment of the state of Israel and Israel’s victories in the wars of 1967 and 1973. The Messianic Jewish movement that has partly grown out of Evangelical soil shares this evangelistic thrust. But Messianic Judaism properly so called, sees this evangelism within a different framework from the Evangelical mainstream. The crucial difference is that Messianic Judaism sees itself as still part of Israel, even if a rejected part, and thus acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel does not, or should not, involve a rejection of Judaism.{17} By contrast, the classical Evangelical missions to the Jews see Jewish believers as “coming out” of Israel into the Church; there is no ongoing identity with the whole of Israel. Thus, in the view of the Messianic Jews, they form “the saved remnant of Israel”.{18}

The classical Evangelical missions to the Jews, which have always attracted large sums of money for their work, are either non-denominational or part of the evangelistic arm of a mainline denomination. There have been signs in recent years of both seeking to take advantage of the rise of Messianic Judaism.

Prominent among these Evangelical missionary efforts is the work of the Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). in June 1996, the annual conference of the SBC passed a resolution aimed at intensifying “Jewish evangelism”.{19} The SBC missions magazine Commission, in an issue on missionary work in Israel{20} describes any Jew coming to faith in Jesus as a “Messianic Jew” without any indication of the intense debates about being Messianic and Jewish that have characterized the Messianic Jewish movement or any of the carefully chosen terminology differentiating the movement from Gentile Christian patterns.{21} The other major denomination that has recently sought to establish “Messianic congregations” is the Assemblies of God.{22}

The non-denominational organization known as Jews for Jesus, founded by Moishe Rosen in 1973, has often stirred up controversy through their confrontational style in evangelism. Many in the Messianic movement see Jews for Jesus as ultimately “assimilationist” because they do not give a clear witness to the need for an ongoing Jewish life in Jesus.{23} It would seem that Jews for Jesusrepresents a militant form of Hebrew Christian evangelism, and as such it does attract the money of Evangelical donors.

The nature of Messianic Judaism has been further confused by the co-option of the Messianic Jewish label by those in such classical Evangelical missionary work, both in the SBC and in Jews for Jesus. However, it is still clear that the main identity (and significance of what is happening) is to be found within the major bodies such as the MJAA and UMJC in the United States. Here the UMJC currently has 75-plus member congregations, of which only 2 (of the smaller ones) have a denominational affiliation (the Assemblies of God and Baptist).

Evangelicalism and Messianic Judaism

The historical sketch given above indicates both the close bonds between Evangelicalism and the Messianic Jewish movement, and the tensions that the latter provokes in the former. The more Jewish believers in Jesus assert an ongoing Jewish identity, the more uneasy many Evangelicals become. Their fear is that these “Judaizing” tendencies are re-erecting the walls that Jesus’ death broke down. These tensions are more marked, as Messianic Jewish congregations adopt forms of Jewish practice and life-style, for there is an additional fear here that these will become forms of “works righteousness”.

However, the Messianic Jewish movement owes a great deal to Evangelicalism, particularly in its North American expression. It was the evangelistic thrust of Evangelicalism that brought many Jewish people to faith in Jesus. Thus, somewhat like Pentecostalism before it, Messianic Judaism has tended to formulate its theology in Evangelical categories.{24}

There seems to be an inbuilt tension between the Evangelical theology of most of the Messianic Jewish movement and the desire to develop a truly Messianic form of Judaism. This can perhaps best be seen in relation to the concepts of tradition and historical continuity, which are hardly central concepts for Evangelicals, but which are essential to Judaism, as the faith of those who claim Abraham as their father and the transmission of the Torah as essential.

– Peter Hocken
Turvey, U.K.
15 April, 1997

{1} Some churches in fact required a formal repudiation of Jewish identity and of Jewish practice by converts from Judaism. Requirements of this sort seem to date from local church councils of the 4th century.

{2} The Church’s frequent suspicion about the thoroughness of conversion among Jewish people probably owes more to their innate attachment to Jewish identity and practice than to the shakiness of their faith in Jesus the Christ.

{3} The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edn.) states inaccurately that this “was founded as an Anglican society”. It was founded as an interdenominational mission, but narrowed to an Anglican basis in 1815 (see David Feldman “Popery, Rabbinism and Reform: Evangelicals and Jews in Early Victorian England” in Christianity and Judaism Blackwells, Oxford, 1992, 381).

{4} See, for example, A Course of Lectures on the Jews by “Ministers of the Established Church in Glasgow” (Presbyterian Board of Education, Philadelphia, 1840, reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1977).

{5} See Robert I Winder The Calling: the History of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America 1915 – 1980 (Wynnewood, PA: MJAA, 1990), 9-10.

{6} See Winder, op. cit., 14-16.

{7} There was a forerunner of Messianic Judaism in a synagogue in Kishinev, Moldovia in the 19th century, led by rabbi Joseph Rabinowitz. See Gustave A. Krüger Une Eglise Judéo-Chrétienne en Bessarabie (Lausanne, 1885).

{8} See David A. Rausch Messianic Judaism: Its History, Theology and Polity (The Edwin Mellen Press, New York and Toronto, 1982) 35-38, and Winer, op. cit., 20-22.

{9} Winer notes that these debates at the origin of the HCAA were virtually unknown when the modern Messianic Jewish movement developed in the 1970’s. “It is interesting that the works of Zacker, Levy and others had little impact on these events as they were not rediscovered until the 1980’s, well after the present-day Messianic Movement was solidly entrenched.” (Op. cit., 23). Martin Chernoff, a pioneer in the modern movement, believed that he had received the designation “Messianic Judaism” from the Lord (see Y. Chernoff Born a Jew, Die a Jew). Rausch points out that the term “Messianic Judaism” was used in the Evangelical magazine Our Hope, edited by Arno C. Gaebelein, as early as 1895 (“The Messianic Jewish Congregational Movement” The Christian Century99/28 Sept. 15-22, 1982, 926).

{10} The name was changed in 1975, after a motion in 1973 fell just short of the required two-thirds majority (see Winer, op. cit., 51).

{11} “Many of the older Hebrew Christians left the Alliance, unable to adapt to the changes.” (Winder, op. cit., 51).

{12} This story has been studied in detail in recent dissertation: Gershon Nerel “Messianic Jews” in Eretz Israel (1917 – 1967) Trends and Changes in Shaping Self-Identity (Ph.D. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996).

{13} The training of future leaders and the provision of Messianic materials for the education of the children became urgent needs. A booklet on the UMJC has one section (IV) on “Yeshivah and Leadership Development.”

{14} There were 19 charter member congregations in 1979; this number had increased to just under 60 by 1987.

{15} See Winer, op. cit., 64-66. David Stern notes, besides the UMJC and IAMCS, both of which he describes as charismatic, the Fellowship of Messianic Congregations (non-charismatic) and an inter-denominational grouping within the Assemblies of God (David H. Stern Messianic Jewish Manifesto,Clarksville, MD, 1991, 198).

{16} See MJAA News Brief 7/6 (June 1994) 1 and 7/8 (Aug. 1994) 2-3. The General Secretary of the MJAA, Joel Chernoff, wrote: “As many of you might know, for 15 years, there has been a devastating division within the Messianic movement. This division was as firmly entrenched and seemingly hopeless as any division I have seen in the Body of Messiah.” (MJAA News Brief, June 1994, 1).

{17} Thus Daniel C. Juster writes: “The Jewish followers of Yeshua are still part of Israel…” (The Irrevocable Calling 1996, 47).

{18} Juster, op. cit., Ch. VI “The Saved Remnant of Israel in a Transitional Age”, 47-56. This is also the position of David Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, 42-59.

{19} Resolution 10 on Jewish Evangelism does not use the term “Messianic Jew” or mention the establishment of Messianic congregations. A report in USA Today states that the SBC Home Mission Board “has earmarked $100,000 to expand the denomination’s 30 messianic congregations of Jews who believe in Jesus.”

{20} “Revival in Israel?” Commission, Sept. – Oct. 1995, 4-13.

{21} Thus the Messianic Jews in MJAA and UMJC do not describe themselves as “Christians” and avoid inclusion under the heading of “Christianity.”

{22} See note 15.

{23} “Rosen is an enigma with regard to Messianic Judaism, and perhaps his organization engenders both gentile and Jewish confusion over Messianics.” (David A. Rausch, art. cit., 927).

{24} The 1981 UMJC conference voted to adopt the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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