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Messianic Judaism

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Messianic Judaism is the name of a religious movement, comprising a number of streams, each with its own views and emphases, whose members may identify themselves as Jewish or as Gentile. They are predominantly evangelical Christian in their beliefs, in particular in their endorsement of Yeshua (believed by many to be the Hebrew name for Jesus), as the Messiah promised in the Tanakh (known to Christians as the Old Testament). Many streams do not consider themselves "Christians," preferring to call themselves Messianic, Torah-Observant, or simply believers.

While it is believed that a majority of Messianic Jews are ethnically Jewish (and as such would be considered Jews even by Orthodox Jewish standards), nevertheless Messianic Judaism is not seen as a legitimate form of Judaism by any recognized Jewish organization or leaders, apart from a small number of dissenting voices among the Reform and Reconstructionist schools. Perhaps the best known of the Messianic groups, although certainly not the largest, is the controversial Jews for Jesus organization, officially founded by the Baptist minister Martin "Moishe" Rosen in 1973. Its stated aims are to educate Evangelicals concerning the Jewish origins of their Christian faith, and to convert Jews to a belief in Yeshua, as the Messiah promised in the Jewish scriptures.

The use of the term "Messianic" is not new. Diverse religious groups have messianic beliefs which are not compatible with what has come to be commonly referred to as Messianic Judaism. Most notably, Rabbinic Judaism, including all the modern Jewish denominations, have a variety of beliefs about a future messianic era. Some Jewish groups whose beliefs stress the messianic aspects are known in the literature as "messianic Jews", but that is not the topic of this article. For messianic beliefs within traditional Judaism, see the entries on Jewish eschatology and Jewish Messiah.

Not all Jewish converts to Christianity consider themselves "Messianic Jews". Many Protestant and Catholic churches have Jewish converts among their members, some of whom still proudly consider themselves ethnically and culturally Jewish, but the Messianic movement generally regards as "Messianic Jews" only those who are affiliated to organizations and/or congregations that claim to be specifically part of the Messianic movement. Those affiliated to Catholic or Protestant congregations are more often called Jewish Christians, Hebrew Christians, or Christian Jews.

Table of contents
1 Organization and Beliefs
2 Religious Practices
3 Critics of the Messianic Movement
4 Parallels to Baal Teshuva
5 External Links

Organization and Beliefs

The organized Messianic Movement consists of approximately 200 congregations in the United States, with approximately one hundred thousand members. Global membership is more difficult to quantify; Messianic groups claim considerable growth in the past five to ten years in Russia, the Ukraine, and even in Mexico, but accurate statistics are difficult to come by. Estimates of the number of ethnic Jews who recognize Yeshua as the Messiah generally put the global figure at around a million, but only a minority of these are affiliated to any organized Messianic organization. The Messianic Movement comprises many streams, each with its own views and emphases, but in general all consider it important to express their belief in Yeshua in a way consistent with their Jewish culture. The Messianic Movement as a whole can be seen as a continuum, with some Messianic organizations drawing more heavily from Jewish tradition, and others from Christian sources, in varying degrees.

The "Torah"-Pole

Some within the Messianic movement make a determined effort to cling not only to Jewishness but also to Judaism, with the addition of Yeshua, whom they see as the ultimate completion of Judaism. Messianic believers of this school often consider Gentile Christianity to be an irrelevance; except on the question of who Yeshua is, they regard themselves as having much more in common with Judaism than with Christianity. They strictly observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws of the Tanakh (Kashrut). Many of them ignore, and even oppose, celebration of such Christian festivals, having been originated in Gnosticism and Paganism as Christmas and Easter. Conversely, many Christians justify their nonobservance of such biblical feasts as Pesach (Passover), on the grounds that according to their theology, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish festivals. However, Yeshuah specifically said in Mathew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets/Neviim (two of the three parts in which the Tanach is divided); I have not come to abolish, but to complete/(Gr. "plerosoo," because I am telling you that neither Heavens nor earth will pass, until a yut (a Hebrew letter) nor the crown (the upper part of that letter) of a yut will pass away from the Torah until all of this will be accomplished." And in the next verses he calls "very small ones indeed" those who think that the Torah will be abolished "or whoever teaches that."

While Messianic Jews often call themselves Notzrim, some groups, mostly small, have attempted to redefine the concept of the Trinity in a way that would not be acceptable to most Christians. Nazarene Judaism (distinct from Notzrim movements) is one of the more radical manifestations of this branch of the Messianic movement. There is a subset of the Messianic Movement, known as the Netzarim and based mostly in Israel, There are also the Talmidi Jews who accept Jesus as a human prophet, not as messiah or God. The major Messianic organizations reject those holding this position, but are in turn criticised by these minority movements for pulling Jews away from Torah.

A minority subset of the Messianic movement, known as Messianic Renewed Judaism, considers that no such person as "Jesus" ever existed; that name, they say, is a deliberate corruption of "the Rabbi Yeshuah." Julio Dam, the leader of Messianic Renewed Judaism, claims that in sixty-nine places the New Testament has been deliberately mistranslated to obscure the Jewishness of Yeshuah and make him the head of a new religion, Christianity, which he never intended to found.

The Evangelical Pole

Other Messianic believers are much more comfortable with the Evangelical Christian tradition, although they express it with a Jewish flavour. Jews for Jesus is one such group. Their theology, as reflected in their statements of faith, is solidly within the ambit of Evangelical Christianity. They believe in the inerrancy of the New Testament, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the Trinity. Apart from Jewish terminology and cultural practices, believers of this school have a much closer affinity to Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity than to any recognized branch of Judaism. They regard observance of the Sabbath and the Jewish dietary laws as entirely optional, although many of them do in fact try to observe them as an expression of their Jewish identity. This stream of Messianic Judaism has much in common with the beliefs of Hebrew Christians, although they regard themselves part of the organized Messianic Movement, whereas Hebrew Christians, for the most part, do not.

The Mainstream Messianic Movement

Within the Messianic movement, both of the positions described above are widely regarded as extremes, but they demarcate the two poles of a continuum. Most Messianic believers see themselves as lying somewhere between the two extremes. The two largest Messianic organizations, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of North America (MJAA) and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), accept from both Jewish and Christian sources anything they see as scritpurally verifiable. The writings of theologian Dan Juster, one of the founders of the UMJC, have helped shape the direction of the mainstream Messianic Movement: solidly Evangelical/Pentecostal in doctrine, with an uncompromising belief in the Trinity, but drawing heavily on Jewish sources to interpret the New Testament as well as the Tanakh (Old Testament).

Messianic Jews share with most Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians a belief that Yeshua will someday return to the earth and establish his kingdom here. Much more widespread among Messianics than other Evangelicals, however, is the belief that the return of Yeshua is dependent on his acceptance by the Jewish people. Many Messianics (though not all) interpret Matthew 23:39 ("I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'") to mean that the Jewish people, or at least a very significant number of them, must believe in Yeshua as the Messiah before he can come back.

A growing interest among some streams of Messianic Judaism is evangelism among Gentiles, as well as Jews, in order to fulfill what they believe was God's original purpose for the Jewish people, to be God's model people and reveal the knowledge of the true God to the whole world. This also reflects an increasing attraction on the part of Gentiles to the Messianic movement. Some are attracted because they are in a relationship with a Jew and feel the movement is a compromise between Judaism and Christianity, but many are devout Christians who feel that the movement is a way to better appreciate the Hebrew roots of Christianity while still maintaining their faith.

Religious Practices

The following practices are common among Messianic Jews. They reflect an effort to express their faith in Jesus in a way that reflects their Jewish identity, and to feel at home in worshiping Jesus.

Critics of the Messianic Movement

All mainstream Jewish denominations and organizations hold that Messianic Jews are not practicing Judaism, but Protestant Christianity. Messianic Judaism is condemned as heretical and non-Jewish by Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism.

There are a few dissenting voices. A few within Humanistic Judaism, a small group of atheist and agnostic Jews, hold that messianic Judaism is a viable approach to Judaism, and believe such groups should be considered forms of Judaism. Examples of humanistic Jews who hold this view include Sherwin Wine and Judith Seid. One can also find a small number of religiously liberal Jews who are accepting of messianic Judaism: Reconstructionist Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro wrote in her book Messianic Judaism that it could be considered an authentic branch of Judaism. Reform Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, author of Voices of Messianic Judaism: Confronting Critical Issues Facing a Maturing Movement, also regards it as a valid form of Judaism. However, their work has failed to win any acceptance among their denominations, or among the wider Jewish community, and has sparked an ongoing controversy as to whether the authors themselves have gone too far.

The relationship between the Messianic Movement and organized Christianity has been patchy, too. Many Evangelical and Pentecostal groups have welcomed the movement, but many more liberal Christians have been more critical. Some Christians, mostly liberal, feel that Messianic groups are guilty of false advertising. In 1977, for example, the Board of Governors of the Long Island Council of Churches (New York) accused Jews for Jesus of "engaging in subterfuge and dishonesty," and of "mixing religious symbols in ways that distort their essential meaning." The Jews for Jesus organization filed a lawsuit, which was ultimately rejected, against the 600-member council in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. (The New York Times, July 2, 1977). Another organization critical of the Messianic Movement is the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. In 1997 this group, comprising liberal Christian, as well as Jewish and Moslem leaders, put out a strongly worded statement, condemning the proselytization efforts of the Messianic Movement. Most Evangelicals reject the criticism and defend evangelism among Jews.

Some Evangelicals, however, have criticized the Messianic Movement on entirely different grounds. Some consider the movement to be "too Jewish" for holding on to parts of the Old Testament that many Christians believe are not applicable today. But this criticism is not widespread in Evangelical circles.

Parallels to Baal Teshuva

These efforts to convert Jews to Christianity, and the receptiveness of some Jews to it in the past few decades, are a parallel phenomenon, although in an obviously different context, to the Baal teshuva movement that has witnessed a vigorous outreach effort by Jewish Orthodox institutions to reach out to Jews alienated from, or ignorant about, the Jewish faith.

Orthodox Jews are conscious of the fact that they are competing with the Messianic movement for the same audience. Specific organizations, such as Jews for Judaism and Outreach Judaism are devoted to keeping Jews out of any Christian movements, and particularly Messianic congregations. The widespread fascination with Hinduism and Buddhism, and a willingness to join these movements, by previously secular young Israelis and American Jews, is seen as part of the same phenomenon. What all share in common here is the fact that a "market" exists for all these efforts, which in turn is indicative of a strong receptiveness to religious and spiritual notions, and a willingness to "buy into" an alternate religious experience and a radical new way of life, leaving many secular Jews mystified by the success of religion-based outreach and recruitment.

External Links

Articles

Messianic Websites

Anti-Messianic Websites

Some Essays About Messianics by Non-Messianics

See also