A Jewish reporter and writer, Menachem Kaiser, attends a Hebrew Roots conference and writes about it in Tablet Magazine’s Jewish Life & Religion section, with surprising results.
I myself am involved in Hebrew Roots – I help lead a Hebrew Roots congregation in Minnesota – and I have been involved in the broader Messianic movement since childhood. So I can tell you with certainty that this article is quite accurate and refreshingly honest.
It shows the good - thousands of gentiles getting together to say the Shema, are you kidding me? This is from God!
And it shows the bad (some pseudo-scholarship, unfortunate showmanship).
The whole piece reflects the Hebrew Roots world accurately, with the ultimate conclusion left opened to the possibility that there is something bigger at work here.
Kaiser opens the article with a bang:
Many of the thousand-plus people who attended Revive 2013, a religious conference held at the Dallas Sheraton last June, wear tzitzit. Many keep kosher and observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Some of the men have beards and peyos. Some have even undergone adult circumcision and/or have circumcised their children. They learn Hebrew, Chumash, even Talmud, and travel whenever they can to Israel. All of them truly, deeply love Hashem.
“All of them truly, deeply love Hashem.”
To hear a Jewish person say this – even if tongue-in-cheek – is really small miracle. I can already hear the Jewish objections, “But they follow JESUS! Their dead man idol!” – we’ve heard this for so long, but we continue on in our convictions.
It’s why this article is so sweet to my mind; a fresh perspective from the Jewish world that maybe these people really do love God. (Thank you, Mr. Kaiser!)
This opening statement of the article sets the tone for its remainder, which is unmistakably opened – even welcoming – to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, all these gentiles drawn to Torah and Israel is something from God.
Kaiser marvels at the unique nature of this movement,
Hebrew Roots, then, is arguably the first non-Jewish movement to approach Torah…as the sort of religious lifestyle to strive for. And many are fulfilling mitzvot that aren’t explicitly stated or detailed in the Torah, such as praying the rabbinic liturgy and observing Hanukkah. Some put on kosher tefillin every morning, and I met a number of Hebrew Roots followers who do not touch money on the Sabbath.
Kaiser ends up speaking to Rico Cortes, a well-known leader in the Hebrew Roots world. Cortes talks about his background, his stance on the Torah, his love for HaShem, his survey of the Hebrew Roots world and its observance. “It’s the Wild West out there”, says Cortes, accurately describing the Hebrew Roots movement in its infancy.
Cortes shows Kaiser things God is doing in the Hebrew Roots world. For example, he shows a video of a prayer session Cortes held in mainland China in which 500 Chinese illegally gathered to pray the Shema (Deut 6:4). I think this made an impression on Kaiser and the Jewish audience – what does it mean when thousands of gentiles are risking jail time in an authoritarian state for the sake of saying the Shema? I think there is something powerful about that.
(A side-note to Christians: the Shema is totally underrated in Christianity. Jesus said it was the most important commandment in all of Scripture (Mark 12:28-31), yet we never hear about it in Church.)
Kaiser reports his take on the Hebrew Roots practice, both the good and bad.
Tony Robinson, the founder of Restoration of Torah Ministries, read passages from Tanakh, threading a Yeshua-centric theme through the Old Testament. He wore a white polo shirt with his ministry’s emblem on the breast; his tzitzit—traditional style and size, with tekhelet—hung neatly at his sides. With a pastor’s enthusiasm, Robinson, who is black, offered an interpretation of Mordecai and Samson as symbols of resurrection, as examples of victory through death. Ed Harris, who heads the ministry Beit Yashua, gave what he described as ad’var torah in which he spoke about Midrash, Breslov hasidism, and tzedakah. A soft-spoken, professorial woman named Anna talked about something called Refinement Theory. She projected a diagram shaped like an hourglass. The top was marked “All the Children of Israel,” and the bottom, “All with faith in Christ.” Yeshua was at the midpoint. Her class included a linguistic analysis of the root—which she correctly referred to as the shoresh—of the biblical word bekhor, the first-born son.
I spent a number of years studying in Orthodox day schools and yeshivas. It was a little weird listening to all these yeshiva-style techniques and phrases employed in a decidedly non-yeshivish context; in many ways, the classes were not unlike the sort of traditional Torah classes I was familiar with, if a lot more Yeshua-friendly, and with many more instances of people in the audience indiscriminately shouting, “Amen!”
Is the purpose of Hebrew Roots just to bring converts to Judaism? Kaiser is perplexed as he talks to attendees about this.
I asked Camero [a Hebrew Roots conference attendee], as I asked everyone else I met, why he doesn’t simply convert to Judaism. His answer was characteristically straightforward: “Because I don’t want to be Jewish.” The way the followers see it, Hebrew Roots is not about being Jewish; it’s about obeying the Torah. I got various explanations as to what that means exactly. Some believe you mustfollow the Torah’s rules; others believe you should; and others are of the more didactic opinion that if you’re not naturally drawn to the Torah lifestyle, then, spiritually speaking, you’re not where you need to be. The Jews, as Camero and others explained to me, have guarded and maintained “the Torah way of life.”
Perhaps a better way to answer this question is, “We don’t want to give up our convictions about who the Messiah is. And besides, while Jews are special in God’s plans, he loves gentiles too!”
If we could convert to Judaism and retain our belief in the divine Messiah? Judaism – and Israel the nation – would see a strengthening of numbers, an influx of people who are ardent lovers of Jerusalem, Torah-keepers who stand with the Jewish people whether or not they are accepted by the religious Jewish world.
But it’s not so much about acceptance. It’s more about being part of Israel. Our convictions tell us that we’re part of God’s people – the commonwealth of Israel – without conversion to Judaism, and instead because of our trusting in Israel’s God and Israel’s Messiah. We want to be part of that people, not a separate religion foreign to Jewish life, and that animates us.
In Hebrew Roots, we have come to realize that Jesus faith is intrinsically Jewish: Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jewish, Paul was Jewish, virtually every book in the New Testament was written by Jews. Therefore, “conversion” is almost a misnomer; if our faith is intrinsically Jewish, our faith is – at its heart – a kind of Judaism already, or at least offspring thereof.
Christianity, which God has used to draw billions of people from the nations to the God of Israel, has produced some unfortunate side-effects: a disregarding of Jewish identity, a rejection (or worse, persecution) of the Jewish people, and replacement theology, the idea that God has replaced Jews with Christians.
Hebrew Roots wishes to reform Christianity and refocus its massive weight towards a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish theology and wishes to see all of God’s promises for the Jewish people come to fruition.
If the Jewish world would say to us in the Hebrew Roots movement, “We know you love HaShem, and even though we disagree about Jesus, we welcome you”, I can say with certainty there would be thousands of ardent Zionists moving to Israel with a desire to blossom the land, support it, grow it.
And it would happen yesterday.
Hebrew Roots: a stepping stone to apostasy?
The comments to the article are provocative and fascinating.
Michael Skobac of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization which attempts to persuade Christians to reject Jesus and convert to Judaism, sees Hebrew Roots as an opportunity for more Judaism converts. He says,
I am being contacted on a daily basis by people on this journey from some form of Christianity to some kind of Hebrew-Roots and finally toward full conversion to Judaism or following the Noachide path. I believe it is the first stirrings of what the prophets foretold will ultimately take place, "..ten men of all the different languages of the nations will take hold or the corner of the garment of a Jew and say: Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you!" (Zechariah 8:23)
Well, at least we can agree that Hebrew Roots is being used by God.
Skobac thinks its purpose is to cause the nations to reject Israel’s Messiah, I think it’s being used by God to restore Israel-centric faith to the nations, culminating in Messiah’s arrival in Jerusalem.
Hebrew Roots has witnessed some success in this regard. Its push to restore a Torah foundation to Christianity has not gone unnoticed by the larger Christian world. I remember last year when “Bible Answer Man” and old guard Christian apologist Hank Hanegraaff, perplexed at this phenomenon of Israel and Torah faith, wrote (paraphrasing), “What’s going on with all these Christians thinking we should keep the Torah? What’s with all these Israel focused Christians?”
(What’s going on, Mr. Hanegraaff, is a move of God that’s impacting Christians and Jews in a tangible way, and not in the ways that most men want! )
Back to the article in question, one commenter, Yehoshua Friedman, says maybe, just maybe this “Hebrew Roots” thing is good, and argues the Jewish world cannot and should not ignore it,
It is of course unnerving for a Jew, even a non-orthodox one, to encounter this phenomenon. One feels that the sacred objects are somehow being hijacked. But these people are sincere and developing and evolving. It resembles a wheel of fortune -- where it stops, nobody knows. But they are also intense believers in the messiah figure of the New Testament, which is incompatible with Judaism, whether orthodox or not. How they deal with this problem is going to be different for different people. Yet as Jews we can't ignore them. The phenomenon is too compelling. But as Rav Soloveitchik wrote almost half a century ago, this question is not going to be solved until the final redemption. But meanwhile significant parts of the Christian world are evolving, and it is going to take great Jewish spiritual leadership to figure out how to navigate these changing relationships. Do we have that kind of leadership today? Clearly not. Will we get there? For the needs of this question and many others I sincerely hope and pray so.
Again, I find common ground here. I agree with Friedman that this question won’t be solved until the final redemption. (As Kaiser wrote, Hebrew Roots is all about final redemption, “restoration”, “renewal”.) We really do think that God is doing something among the nations, and part of that is happening through the Hebrew Roots movement.
Christians loving the Torah. Christians loving HaShem. Christians embracing the Jewish people – yes, even if they don’t follow Jesus. Christians remaining as friends of Israel when it’s increasingly unpopular to do so.
Yes, this is from God.
But not everyone thinks so. Commenter Lisa Leil says,
They need to stop worshipping the dead guy. Idolatry is not "obeying the Torah".
Another responded to that comment,
What does it mean for us as Jews that the first reaction to an article about another religious group is to call them idolaters, referring to their holy figure as "the dead guy?" It's incredibly offensive, and I hope I'm not the only one who thinks so. Similar comments directed towards Jewish ideas or figures would be called anti-Semitism.
My response: Lisa’s view is typical, but I’m not bothered by it. If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, then God will have to change people’s hearts, even people like Lisa. The sad history of pain inflicted on Jews by so-called Christians preclude any other option.
Another surprising opinion from commenter Brent Albana,
I have more respect for these "Hebraic Christians" than I do for "Messianic Jews" or "Jews for Jesus." At least this roots movement acknowledges that they're Christian. Whereas the "messianic Jews" and "Jews for Jesus" continue to pretend that they're Jews which is patently offensive. If a Christian group wants to acknowledge that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew, and that they want to follow in their messiah's faith I see no problem and am not offended.
And finally, another commenter, Daniel Cohen, writes,
I am Jewish and live in Israel. You [people who are slamming Hebrew Roots] are being very disrespectful. Not everyone had the luxury of growing up in a Jewish Household. These people are finding themselves attracted to Judaism for all of the reasons that we love it. Respect them. Give them time. It is a Hillul Hashem.
I appreciate Cohen’s respectfulness, even if he is hinting that we will all give up our conviction about Messiah and just convert to Judaism.
The flip side, Christianity, thinks we exist so that Jews will convert to Christianity.
I see things differently. I think Hebrew Roots is about boundary-redrawing, renegotiating the wall erected between Judaism and Christianity, the human-created wall that divides two groups of people that God loves and cares for. It will culminate in the restoration of all things, the final redemption.
Folks, it’s a time of transition. I think God is doing some awesome things among the nations. He’s causing Christians all over to acknowledge the centrality of Israel in God’s plans, to love the Jewish people, to embrace the Torah. This is Hebrew Roots.
Meanwhile, God is also at work in the Jewish world. I think He’s softening Jewish hearts to the possibility that Yeshua was Israel’s Messiah:
Rabbi Boteach says Jesus is kosher, and that “it is not for Christians to teach the Jews about Jesus, as has been attempted for so many centuries, but rather, for the Jews to teach Christians about how Jesus lived, prayed, worshipped, and died as a Jew.”
Rabbi and Orthodox Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin says the idea of a divine Jesus is compatible with Judaism. Boyarin,
“Jews must stop vilifying Christian ideas about God as simply a collection of ”un-Jewish,” perhaps pagan, and in any case bizarre fantasies. . . . Recognizing these ideas as deeply rooted in the ancient complex of Jewish religious ideas may not lead Jews to accept them but should certainly help us realize that Christian ideas are not alien to us; they are our own offspring and sometimes, perhaps, among the most ancient and all Israelite-Jewish ideas.”
Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine says Jesus has been misunderstood, saying he demonstrably was “a halakhically-obedient” sabbath keeper. His Torah arguments with Jewish leaders should be seen in this light: “one does not debate something in which one has no investment.”
Rabbi Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, says that Jesus, “whom I refer to as rabbi Jesus”, says Riskin,
“[He] lived the of a Jewish rabbi, in Israel, at a very critical time in our history. And I've constantly come back to a study of his personality, and his teachings…and I've come to the very obvious conclusion that Christians and Jews are the root and the branch. Jesus emerged out of Jewish teachings and Jewish society. Jesus went on to present much of the fundament truths of the bible to the entire world.”
Israeli religious leader Ariel Cohen Alloro says,
“Christians have suffered by having little or no access to the original Judaism that Yeshua taught, Yeshua called it "the Faith Once Delivered" but in no way did Yeshua start a new religion called Christianity. If anything, Yeshua taught unity and love and care for each other, not unsanctified division and religious competitions between one another.”
So much of this was, until recent memory, unthinkable. It remains a highly charged, emotional topic for Jews and Christians, even a divisive one. But I think it’s from God!
I leave you with a quote from one of our scholars, underlining what I consider to be a compelling argument for the messiahship of Yeshua, the salvation of the nations:
“Jesus did not come into the world to establish a lovely new Gentile religion called Christianity.” Rather, as Paul says so beautifully in his Letter to the Romans 15: 8-9 “. . . the Messiah became a servant of the Jewish people in order to show God’s truthfulness by making good his promises to the Patriarchs, and in order to show his mercy by causing the Gentiles to glorify God.”
Folks, the Hebrew Roots movement and indeed the broader Messianic world is evidence of God at work among the nations, softening Christian hearts to Israel and Judaism, softening Jewish hearts to Yeshua.
And this, friends, is why I believe as I do.