Messianic Judaism is a religious sect whose congregants are comprised of both Jews and Gentiles who believe that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call Yeshua, is both their savior and the resurrected Jewish Messiah. While Messianic Jews practice their faith in a way that they consider to be authentically Torah-observant and culturally Jewish, Jews, Jewish denominations, and most Christians do not consider Messianic Judaism to be a form of Judaism. Messianic Jews are also not considered Jewish under the State of Israel's Law of Return.
By 1993 there were 160,000 Messianic Jews in the U. S. and 350,000 worldwide. By 2003, there were at least 150 Messianic synagogues in the U.S. and over 400 worldwide.
Disputes to the usage of identifiers often given to or by adherents of Messianic Judaism are varied, and even within the movement self-identification with one term or another can contradict each other.
Messianic Judaism describes someone who believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and believes obedience to the scriptures is the proper expression of faith. The term used is Messianic believer or Messianic for short. Messianic Judaism is a relatively new term, coined to help separate the practices of its followers from those of common Christianity as a whole, and in order to more closely align its faith with that of biblical and historical Judaism. However, the term itself appeared as early as 1895.
While Messianics describe Messianic Judaism as being Jewish, virtually all Jewish denominations, Jewish groups, national Jewish organizations, and others reject this classification and regard these groups as Christian. Objections Messianic believers have to being classified as Christians include Christians' general rejection of the biblical festivals and adoption of pagan festivals, such as Christmas.
Many Messianics consider their beliefs to be consistent with those of the first Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth, called Nazarenes (in Hebrew, Netzarim; "נצרים"), who were accepted by both Rome and the Pharisees as a legitimate Jewish sect until around the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 C. E.
The Nazarene believers split from the Gentile Christians (and also from another Jewish sect called the Ebionites) after the Gentile believers adopted pagan practices in the second century. The Christians declared a formal split from the Nazarenes in the Council of Nicea in 325 C. E. The Council demanded a formal split from all Jewish practices and interaction with Jews, on pain of death.
Although there were several "Messianic synagogues"—traditional Synagogues whose rabbis became believers and thus taught about Jesus from their bimah—in the late 1800s, they have little or no connection to the modern movement. The Messianic Judaism of today grew out of the Hebrew-Christian movement of the 1800's. Hebrew-Christian congregations began to emerge in England; the first of these was Beni Abraham, in London, which was founded by forty-one Hebrew-Christians. This led to a more general awareness of a type of Christianity with a Jewish background. In 1866, the Hebrew-Christian Alliance of Great Britain was organized, with branches also in several European countries and the United States. A similar group, The Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA), was organized in the U. S. in 1915. The International Hebrew-Christian Alliance (IHCA) was organized in 1925 (later becoming the International Messianic Jewish Alliance). Additional groups were formed during subsequent decades.
Modern Messianic Judaism was reborn in the 1960s. A major shift in the movement occurred when Martin Chernoff became the President of the HCAA (1971-1975). In June of 1973, a motion was made to change the name of the HCAA to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) and the name was officially changed in June of 1975. The name change was significant as more than just a "semantical expression;" as Rausch states, "It represented an evolution in the thought processes and religious and philosophical outlook toward a more fervent expression of Jewish identity."
When the movement began to become larger, new organizations such as the Messianic Israel Alliance, First Fruits of Zion, and the Coalition of Torah Observant Messianic Congregations arose.
The relationship between Messianics and Jesus is usually clearly defined. Unlike Jews, Messianics believe that Jesus is YHWH in the flesh (John 1:1;14). The belief runs parallel to the Christian doctrine regarding the divine nature of the One (Echad) God. Furthermore, Messianic Jews assert that the Messiah has a dual aspect as revealed in Scripture. Instead of merely a physical Messiah who would save Israel from occupation and restore the Davidic Kingdom, Jesus first rescued the world from spiritual bondage – paving the way for true understanding and application of the Torah. The Messiah will return again; only this time He will indeed rescue the world from physical oppression and establish His unending Kingdom. George Berkley writes that Messianics "worship not just God but Jesus whom they call Yeshua.
Messianic believers hold the TaNaKh to be divinely inspired. The Apostolic Writings are often, but not universally, considered to also be divinely inspired. Scripture editions specific to Messianic communities, such as the Complete Jewish Bible, are available.
Some Messianic believers look to rabbinic commentaries such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, for historical insight into an understanding of biblical texts and halakha. Others do not accept these as authoritative, and may go as far as calling them "dangerous". Messianic commentaries on various books of the Bible are relatively scarce.
As with any religious faith, the exact tenets held vary from congregation to congregation. In general, essential doctrines of Messianic Judaism include views on God (omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, outside creation, infinitely significant and benevolent - viewpoints on Trinity vary), Jesus (often called Yeshua, he is the Jewish Messiah, though views on his divinity vary), written Torah (with a few exceptions Messianics believe Jesus taught and reaffirmed Torah and that it remains fully in force), Israel (the Children of Israel are central to God's plan, replacement theology is opposed), the Bible (Tanakh and Apostolic Writings/B'rit Chadasha usually considered the divinely inspired Scripture, though Messianics are more open to criticism of New Testament canon than is Christianity), eschatology (similar to many evangelical Christian views), and oral law (observance varies, but virtually all deem these traditions subservient to written Torah). Certain additional doctrines, including sin and atonement and faith and works, are more open to differences in interpretation.
The People of God
There exists among Messianics a number of perspectives regarding who exactly makes up God's chosen people. These are covenant membership, halakhic definition, the two-house view, and the one law/grafted in view.
Many Messianics believe that all of the moedim, indeed the entire Torah, intrinsically hint at the Messiah, and thus no study of the End Times is complete without understanding the major Jewish Festivals in the larger prophetic context. To these believers, Passover, First Fruits, and Shavuot were fulfilled in Jesus's first coming, and Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot will be at his second. Many Messianics believe in a literal 7000 year period for the human history of the world, with a Messianic Millennial Sabbath Kingdom before a final judgment.
The ark in Messianic congregation Melech Yisrael.
The issue of Torah observance is a contentious one within Messianic Judaism. Generally, "Torah observant" congregations observe Jewish Law, biblical feasts, and the Sabbath. While most traditional Christians deny that the ritual laws and specific civil laws of the Pentateuch (though still affirming that Torah is the word of God) apply directly to themselves, passages regarding Torah observance in the New Testament are cited by Messianics that Torah was not abolished. Most Messianics believe that observance of the Torah brings about sanctification, not salvation, which was to be produced only by the Messiah.
Worship services are generally held on Friday evenings (Erev Shabbat) or Saturday mornings. Messianic Jews believe the Sabbath is an eternal covenant between the God of Israel and his descendants (Exodus 31:16).
Messianics observe major Jewish holidays, including:
The dietary laws of Judasim are a subject of continued debate among Messianic Jews.
Messianic Community is often overlooked in more liberal Messianic congregations; however, in more traditional congregations, the community and its activities can look more like a kibbutz as their membership grows.
Most Messianic meeting places are called synagogues and groups of believers are often referred to as congregations.
Messianic Orthodox Jews
Within Messianic Judaism, there are a small number of "Orthodox Messianic Jews", who believe that observance of all or almost all Jewish Halakha does not contradict, or is in harmony with, the Bible and teaching of Jesus. Mainstream Messianic Jews might drive on the Sabbath, may not practice Niddah, cover their heads, or keep Rabbinic Kashrut, whereas Orthodox Messianic Jews will not. An Orthodox Messianic synagogue or congregation is rare; Mikveh Yisrael and Ateret Yeshua are two examples. Much more common than those are Messianic congregations that provide very traditional services, such as Beth Israel Sephardic and Beit Avanim Chaiot, but do not require strict halakhic observance from their members; thus their position on Jewish practice can be considered similar to that of the Traditional Judaism movement. There are a few Orthodox Messianic websites like T.O.M.J. Beis, which may go as far as encouraging the covering of one's head at all times, and men always wearing a Tallit katan under their clothing. Orthodox Messianic Jews may be seen by Orthodox Jews as imposters, and may be criticized by mainstream Messianics as placing too much effort into reconciling their faith with Orthodox Judaism. They nevertheless strongly identify the New Testament as scripture and hold its teachings as authoritative.
Jewish objections to Messianic Judaism are numerous and often begin with objections to the term "Messianic Judaism" itself. Many of the major Jewish objections to Jesus are collected in this article at Aish HaTorah's website.
Several anti-missionary organizations, such as Outreach Judaism and Jews for Judaism oppose Messianic Judaism on theological grounds, usually from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. In recent years these organizations have noticeably shifted their focus from opposition to Christianity to opposition to Messianic Judaism.
Denominations and organizations
All major Jewish denominations, as well as national Jewish organizations, reject that Messianic Judaism is a form of Judaism.
According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis:
Concerning Christian-Jewish reconciliation and Christian missions to the Jews, Emil Fackenheim wrote:
According to 1998 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents issued by Canadian B'nai Brith,
The State of Israel
In December 1989, the Supreme Court of Israel set a legal precedent when it denied the right of return to Gary and Shirley Beresford, Messianic Jews from South Africa. In rejecting their petition, Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon cited their belief in Jesus. In the last two thousand years of history the Jewish people have decided that Messianic Jews do not belong to the Jewish nation and have no right to force themselves on it, he wrote, concluding that those who believe in Jesus, are, in fact, Christians.
Jews for Jesus
Since the Christian organization Jews for Jesus is most often the first encounter Jews have with Christians who identify as Jews (believing Jesus as the Messiah), this traditional evangelical Christian missionary organization has been confused with Messianic Judaism as a whole. Some Messianic believers do not view a relationship with Jews for Jesus simply because Jews for Jesus seeks to turn Jews into traditional evangelical Christians who may or may not keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, or keep the Sabbath on Saturday. Furthermore, Messianic believers object to Jews for Jesus on the grounds that the organization seems to encourage Christian converts from Judaism to worship on Sunday, to not keep kosher, and to celebrate "Christian" holidays such as Easter and Christmas - practices clearly forbidden by Torah. Instead, the vast majority of the followers of Messianic Judaism have come into the Messianic Movement in order to worship God more as the Torah dictates (and as they believe Jesus taught), and to not in fact worship God as traditional evangelical Christianity has dictated - this motivation then serves as the clear distinction between Messianic Jews and those of such traditional evangelical Christian organizations such as Jews for Jesus. In the simplest terms, Messianic Jews follow Torah, whereas it is argued that Jews for Jesus does not.
Most Jews believe that Messianic Judaism is not a form of Judaism, and that the name of the movement itself is deceptive. However, a number of Jewish scholars have made some contribution to the literature or scholarly perspectives of Messianic Judaism, who were not themselves Messianic.
Reform Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok has stated that Messianic Judaism (along with some other alternative movements) is a legitimate form of Judaism. He has written a popular book about the movement, Voices of Messianic Judaism.
Reconstructionist Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro has stated her belief that Messianic Judaism is a form of Judaism, while simultaneously a form of Christianity. Most of the books she has written are about the movement, and the most prominent is Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi's Journey through Religious Change in America.
World Karaite leader Nehemia Gordon has written the popular book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus, which has a corresponding website (HebrewYeshua.com). Gordon, as a Karaite, does not consider the New Testament or any canon other than the Tanakh to be authoritative, but he makes his position clear that Jesus was quintessentially Jewish and was a devout Torah teacher. However, Gordon believes that Jesus was not a Pharisee and was in opposition to the Pharisees, agreeing with some Messianics, and disagreeing with others.
The Jerusalem Synoptic School (website http://jerusalemperspective.com/ ) is a study group founded in 1987 and centered in Israel. It is comprised of primarily Jewish scholars that research and publish about various historical aspects of first century Judaism, proper understanding of the Bible, and the environment and culture in which Jesus would have taught.
The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby wrote extensively about Jesus and his early Jewish followers, his most notable books being Jesus the Pharisee and Paul the Hellenist. Some of his conclusions were that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish Pharisee and that his early followers were part of an entirely Jewish phenomenon. But he also concludes that Saul of Tarsus was an antinomian apostate entirely responsible for the birth of Gentile Christianity, and that the New Testament we know today (especially the book of Acts) has been corrupted by the Church. His work is very controversial to Messianics