You have it wrong: Messianic Jews ≠ Jews for Jesus

I was reminded today of a continued misconception in the Jewish world: the mistaken belief that all Messianic Jews are Jews for Jesus. An interaction on an Orthodox Jewish blog made it clear this misconception still exists in the religious Jewish world. More on that in a minute.

 Stereotype of Messianics and Jews for Jesus

This misconception presents a problem for the Messianic Judaism movement, and I’d like to suggest how we can fix that.

It is a certain misconception: Anyone involved in the Messianic movement knows this is about as accurate as saying all Jews are Chabadniks; or all Christians are Jesuits.

In reality, Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jews are not at all the same thing. In a nutshell, Jews for Jesus are advocating Jewish conversion and assimilation to Christianity, while Messianic Jews are advocating a new sect of Judaism built around Jesus, Torah observant lifestyles, and preservation of Jewish identity.

  • Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization whose goal is to convert Jews to Christianity, with the end result of Jews assimilating into the Christian gentile church. This organization does not generally believe the Torah is applicable any longer. Most Jews for Jesus converts are not observant, and hold the usual Christian beliefs about Israel, the Torah, and Jesus: Israel has been replaced by the Christian Church, the Torah is no longer applicable, and that Jesus came to start a new religion. They see themselves as outsider missionaries and evangelists sent to get people saved by accepting Jesus into their hearts.
  • Messianic Jews – that is, the people of Messianic Judaism, believe the Torah remains relevant and applicable. Instead of gentile Christian churches that often result in assimilation, Messianic Jews have their own congregations, modeled loosely after conservative Judaism's services and halakha. They believe Jews remain God's chosen people. They see themselves within Israel, rather than as outsiders. And they believe Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah who came not to start a new religion but to fulfill the role of Messiah, which included bringing salvation to the nations and ultimately delivering Israel, bringing final peace.

I'm painting with a broad brush, and there's always exceptions, but this is an accurate generalization. If you doubt any of this, please consult the Last Words of Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, in which he makes it clear Jews for Jesus is a repudiation of Judaism and a Christian missionary organization with the end goal of getting Jews converted and into the Christian church.

The beliefs of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jews produce two vastly different worldviews, sharing perhaps only the Messianic claims of Jesus. The adherents to each live different lives, eat different foods, worship differently and with different congregations, and pass on different values to their children. As Messianic Jewish rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman wrote, Messianic Judaism and Christianity are two different religions with the same Messiah.

Perhaps these differences can best be illustrated by the words of their own leadership:

Moishe Rosen of Jews for Jesus:

I hope I can count on you to show love and respect for the Jewish people, but Jewishness never saved anybody.  Judaism never saved anybody...we stand on the edge of a breakthrough in Jewish evangelism.  Just a little more. Just another push. Just another soul - and we will have reached critical mass where we begin generating that energy that the whole world might know the Lord.

Contrast this with Stuart Dauermann, a leader within the Messianic Judaism movement, a founder of Hashivenu:

...it seems to me that the Jewish community has a right to expect that whoever the Messiah is, one of the things he is sure to do is to make Jews into better Jews in some kind of synch with communal Torah standards that have prevailed for thousands of years!  When you ask Jews what it would look like if they were better Jews, wouldn’t about ninety-nine percent of them say, "If I was a better Jew I would be more observant, like my grandfather who was a better Jew that I am"?

In order to welcome Messiah home, we Jews who believe in Yeshua should be living Jewish lives. In fact, the Bible reminds us that one of Messiah’s goals is to renovate our community, so that we return to the blue print given to our people by the God of Sinai: “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes,” that is, his chukkim and mishpatim, the nuts and bolts of halachic living (Ezekiel 37:24).”

Do you spot the difference? A man is animated by "just one more Jewish soul" compared with a man who is animated by "Messiah returns us to Torah" – can you postulate how different their beliefs, their goals, indeed their very lives must then be? So too their myriads of adherents.

The reality on the ground is Messianic Jews are not Jews for Jesus.

Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization aimed at converting Jewish people into the Christian church.

Messianic Jews are Jewish people who follow Jesus and generally observe Torah and see their identities within Israel, rather than as foreign missionaries from the outside.

One community aligns with Protestant Christianity, another aligns itself with Torah observant Judaism.

Here’s why it matters

I revive this old topic today because this misconception was again displayed to me through an interaction on an Orthodox Jewish blog.

In Things I Wish Orthodox Jews Would Stop Believing, DovBear, the left-wing Orthodox Jewish author asks for suggestions about what you wish the Orthodox Jews would stop believing.

The comments are amusing if not enlightening.

Some asked OJs to reject doctrines like salvation through suffering. Secular Jews asked OJs to reject a literal interpretation of the Exodus. Still other asked for a loosing of religious stringencies, a rejection of Young Earth creationism, a renewed focus on good works over religious minutia, and more.

I chimed in with something that was bound to stir the waters. What was the one thing I’d wish the Orthodox Jewish community to stop believing?

I wish orthodox Jews would quit believing that Jews who follow Jesus are no longer Jewish.

-Me

This received interesting responses. One man responded,

OJs don't believe that. OJs believe that if you are born Jewish or convert orthodoxly, you are Jewish until the day you die.  No, OJs believe that Jews who follow Jesus are Jewish heretics.

And another said,

orthodox jews believe that once a jew, always a jew.  no matter what you believe, or convert to, or anything.  so you are misinformed here.

Others chimed in defending me:

what Judah Gabriel Himango means is that, OJs should stop thinking those who believe in Jesus are heretics, but rather they are more authentically Jewish. (he is a Jew for Jesus)

And was retorted with:

I wish Jews for Jesus would quit believing that Jews who follow Jesus aren't X-tian.

The conversation veered off as soon as "Jews for Jesus" came into the picture.

The last comment -- that Jews for Jesus need to see themselves as Christians -- implies a falsehood, that Jews who follow Jesus don't see themselves as Christians.

Truth is, folks, Jews for Jesus (J4J), the Christian missionary organization, most certainly see themselves as Christian! In the words of J4J founder Moishe Rosen, "Judaism never saved anybody"; they absolutely see themselves as Christians and Definitely-Not-Judaism.

But even Messianic Jews would say they are Christians in the absolute sense of the word: followers of Christ. Just not in the traditional sense of attending gentile Christian churches on Sunday, disregard of the Torah, replacing Israel with the Church, etc.

Two observations from these interactions:

First, it's again clear that the Jewish world generally mistakes all Messianics as Jews for Jesus. In a sentence, Jews for Jesus is still the face of the Messianic movement, for better or worse.

I'd like that to change, not because of any personal feelings against Jews for Jesus, but because they simply do not represent most of us. The goals of Jews for Jesus do not align with Messianic Judaism congregations today, nor do they align with the many gentile-dominated Hebrew Roots congregations sprinkled across the world, including the congregation I help run.

Secondly, Jews believe we're being deceptive if we call ourselves anything other than Christians. I know that we mean well; we are trying to articulate our Torah-faithful lifestyle when we call ourselves "Messianic", but the Jewish world doesn't believe it. They think we're just being deceptive; we’re just Christians pretending to be something else.

And in many of the cases, they’re right! For all our talk about Torah, how many actually live that? Our lives usually reflect something different. It's rare in the Messianic world to find people who are serious about Torah, impacting even the small areas of their lives. I think many of us, even me, spend those hours on shabbat with the Lord, in worship and prayer, but live otherwise messed up lives. I’m ashamed by that. But living right is hard. Following Torah and living that life and leading your family in that is hard, especially outside of Israel.

Heck, it’s hard to just eat kosher – even a graceful, forgiving, relaxed-stringencies kosher – let alone live the weighty matters of the Torah in this secular, sexualized, modern age that sees us as holdovers from the dark ages of humanity, unenlightened idiots who refuse to accept modern science and medicine and instead cling to silly sky god myths. I digress.

Point is, living right is hard in this time, difficult in this culture. So when we talk all this Torah talk, religious Jews don’t take us seriously. They think we’re just Christians pretending.

What to do about all this?

I think it’s bad that Jews look at us as deceivers. I think it unnecessarily hurts our message about Yeshua.

How do we fix this?

The best action is how we live. Look, we can spill a river of ink talking about Torah. But what changes people perceptions, above all, is action. If people see us, and know us, as people who are Torah faithful, and not just in religion only, but in deed we actually do the weighty matters of the Torah, the desired outcome will naturally come.

What is the desired outcome? Let's start with a credible message of Yeshua-as-Messiah to Jews, such that the Jewish world sees us not as heretic deceivers tricking people into converting to another religion, but as faithful, Torah-observant people within Israel. People that show love and actually do the things the Torah commands, not just the legalese and the ritual.

If that happened, I think we'd see many more Jewish people in our movement. No conversion required; why would a Jew need to convert to another religion to follow the Jewish Messiah? It shouldn't be that way, and that, I think, is the raison d'être for the Messianic Judaism movement.

I sympathize with that goal, and will do everything to help them succeed in that goal.

As for me, the Lord has called me to a different focus: Hebrew Roots, which shares some goals with the Messianic Judaism, albeit with some important differences. More on that in another post.

What do you think, fine and learned disciples of Yeshua, should Jews for Jesus be the face of all things Messianic?

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Husband, dad, disciple of the Jewish Messiah Yeshua, technologist. Author of Chavah Messianic Radio, MessianicChords, and EtzMitzvot. @judahgabriel


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