Ruth Rosen of San Francisco shows Jeremy Bevins a detail in a flier that explains Messianic Jews’ beliefs on the 16th Street Mall last week. The Jews for Jesus group is in Denver for two weeks as part of a 66-city tour.
In their brief but controversial history, self-proclaimed Messianic Jews have fashioned a faith that says one can retain a Jewish identity while accepting Jesus as Messiah, thus becoming a “completed Jew.”
That’s heretical to mainstream Jewish leaders who view it as a deceptive Christian attempt to usurp the traditional Jewish view of the Messiah and decimate a persecuted tribe already under threat from assimilation and intermarriage.
Although few in number – estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 – U.S. Messianic Jews are growing harder to ignore.
The missionary group Jews for Jesus starts a two-week campaign in Denver today, part of a 66-city tour. Its strategies include handing out tracts on college campuses and cold-calling households with Jewish-sounding last names.
Former University of Colorado football coach and Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney this week will unveil Road to Jerusalem, a bridge- building effort between evangelical Christianity and Messianic Judaism.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) this year refused to cut off funding to a new congregation outside Philadelphia that includes Messianic Jews. It’s unusual for a mainline Protestant church to embrace Messianic Jews, whose modern origins are in conservative Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
“There’s a certain frantic effort right now within (the Messianic Jewish) community to redouble their efforts,” said Neil Dobro, director of Colorado Jews for Jewish Identity, which is countering Jews for Jesus with a Sept. 7 speech by noted “countermissionary” Rabbi Tovia Singer.
Several explanations are given for greater interest in Messianic Judaism: evangelical churches’ renewed push to evangelize Jews, a rush of interest from Christians exploring the Jewish roots of their faith and – most controversially – the belief among a subset of evangelicals that Israel’s well-being and Jews’ acceptance of Jesus will factor into Jesus’ second coming. Messianic Jewish groups also say Jews have been more receptive in recent years.
Robin Wilk – who grew up in Judaism’s Conservative tradition, accepted Jesus in 1981 and works full time as a Jews for Jesus missionary – said she isn’t forcing her beliefs on anyone. Her San Francisco-based group was founded in the 1970s by Moishe (formerly Martin) Rosen, a Denver native of Jewish descent who became a Baptist.
“A Jewish person can be an atheist, agnostic or Buddhist,” Wilk said. “Why is it the moment a Jew believes in Jesus, they’re no longer Jewish? How does that take their Jewishness away? I was born a Jew and will die a Jew. Believing in Jesus is a decision every person makes.”
Jewish leaders, however, criticize “deceptive tactics” targeting vulnerable people such as Russian Jews whose religious heritage was stripped bare by Communism and college students questioning everything.
A “Messianic Soul-Winner’s Card” from a Maryland group, for instance, encourages use of the term “Bible believer” instead of “Christian” and suggests inviting people to “a meeting of Bible believers,” and not church.
“If they would do a campaign that said, ‘Jesus is the answer; convert to Christianity today,’ that’s fine; this is America,” said Scott Hillman, director of Baltimore-based Jews for Judaism. “Sorry, Christianity and Judaism separated 2,000 years ago.”
Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, said that once baptized, a person of Jewish descent loses his or her Jewish identity. Getting baptized, he said, differs from being a nominal Jew.
He said the debate needs to happen in context.
“You can’t go back 2,000 years and act as if nothing has happened between Jews and Christians,” Rudin said. “Every group has a memory bank. Scratch an African-American, and slavery is there. Scratch a Jew not very deeply, and missionaries are there.”
Operating on a much quieter scale than Jews for Jesus are some 1,000 U.S. Messianic congregations, including more than a dozen in Denver. One is a former church led by a former Roman Catholic. Another is mostly Spanish- speaking and housed in a former thrift store.
Chaim Urbach, 53, is the leader of Congregation Yeshuat Tsion, a decade-old Messianic congregation. Fifty to 70 people hold weekly Shabbat services and celebrate Jewish holidays while embracing a theology similar to evangelical Christianity: the inerrancy of the Bible and Jesus as deity and Messiah.
At Congregation Yeshuat Tsion, “Gentiles” outnumber people with Jewish ancestry. An influx of Christians, in fact, is responsible for much growth in the Messianic movement, which has led to tension.
Some Messianic organizations insist congregational leaders be of Jewish descent. Others are moving toward more Torah-observant practice – requiring circumcision and Sabbath observance, for example.
How do Urbach’s members respond to the inevitable question, Are you Christian or Jew?
“When pressed, people would probably say, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but by that term here is what I mean,”‘ said Urbach, who is of Jewish descent and holds a degree from Denver Seminary, a Baptist school. “The term ‘Christian’ is essentially meaningless to most people who came out of Jewish background. Jewish people see Christianity essentially as something one is born with. We certainly do not. We feel a commitment to Jesus happens when an individual makes that choice.”
In general, Messianic Jews believe Hebrew scriptures foretell a personal Messiah and that Jesus fits the bill. They see references to Jesus in Isaiah, Chapter 53, which refers to someone who “took up our infirmities and sorrows” and was “pierced by our transgressions.” Like many Christians, they believe in Jesus’ deity, the virgin birth and the infallibility of the Bible. They point out that Jesus and his early followers were Jewish. Some Messianic Jews attend Messianic congregations; others attend church. Many combine Jewish and Christian traditions and find a Christian message in traditionally Jewish observances such as Passover.
WHAT TRADITIONAL JEWISH LEADERS SAY
Divided on many issues, U.S. Jewish traditions are united in discrediting Messianic Judaism. Jews believe the Messiah has not come. Most Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish rabbis interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to either the prophet Isaiah or the people of Israel – not a Messiah. They note the same passage makes note of “offspring” (which Messianic Jews take to mean spiritual offspring). Jews reject the deity of the Messiah. The notion of a personal Messiah did not arise in rabbinic Judaism until post-biblical times. Furthermore, they contend Jesus falls short of Messiah criteria in Jewish tradition. Among them: The Messiah was to be a descendant of King David, end evil, gather all the exiled Jewish people into Israel and usher in world peace. Jesus did not. Messianic Jews argue he will fulfill all those criteria – when he returns.
– Based on interviews with Michael Walker, a Messianic Jew and pastor of Denver’s Church in the City, and Rabbi Howard Hirsch, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Colorado Springs.