Messianic Judaism: Living In Between

By Michael Clark (source

Messianic Judaism continues to grow in number of believers and in self-definition

Messianic Jews, caught between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, still wrestle with the identity of their faith, even as their number continues to grow. But ultimate acceptance, and even short-term success, is in the will of Abba.

NORFOLK, Virginia—The banner in the hall of what was recently a Christian school reads, “Yeshua, The Living Torah.” It hangs next to a flag of Israel.

It’s not a trick, it’s not an invasion, but a transition to Messianic Judaism — a transition under way for decades. After Norfolk Christian Schools built a new lower school campus, the school sold the large brick building in south-eastern Virginia to Beth Messiah Synagogue, Tidewater.

Before buying the building, the congregation rented facilities for more than 22 years. Beth Messiah’s setting is typical for many, if not most, Messianic Jewish congregations, said Rabbi Joseph Rosenfarb. Instead of renting or borrowing space in Christian churches, the next step for such congregations is to acquire permanent buildings, structures that the congregations own.

“It’s been makeshift in the past,” Rosenfarb said of worship accommodations. “We’re seeing our people moving through a natural progression.”

It’s a young progression. Messianic Judaism has existed under that title since the 1970s. Before that, dating back to the 19th century, Jews who believed that Jesus is the Messiah worshipped under the accepted tag of Hebrew Christians. Anthropologists have called them Jews who’ve accepted Christ as Saviour, but who want to keep identities as Jews.

Part of the identity is in the terminology. Messianic Jews use original Hebrew terms in their faith. God the Father is Abba. Jesus Christ is Yeshua HaMashiach and the Holy Spirit is Ruach HaKodesh (literally, it’s Spirit, the Holy). There are hundreds of other different terms, including B’rit Hadasha for New Testament and Mikveh for baptism, that help form a body of belief unlike both Christianity and conventional Judaism.

A faith in between better-known — and financially advanced — faiths leaves Messianic Judaism somewhat isolated. The terminology shift from Hebrew Christians in the 19th century to Messianic Jews just a few decades ago means the faith is still young in its identity.

That fresh identity and the semantics of definition still hinder the faith, says Mark Kinzer, Ph.D., Spiritual Leader of the Congregation Zera Avraham, a Messianic Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The struggle with identity is more than immaturity, though, as Kinzer wrote in the Winter 2000 issue of Kesher, A Journal of Messianic Judaism. “It reflects the complex, challenging, and disturbing questions raised by our very existence for two communities who, through almost two millennia, have defined themselves in opposition to one another. The precise nature of our relationship to these two communities and their histories and traditions defies simple formulas.”

Beth Messiah’s Rosenfarb explains that his faith is a Judaism, not a “Hebraicized Christianity.” “It’s a Jewish movement, with Yeshua (Jesus) as the jewel,” he added.

Overcoming opposition from both sides is an uphill battle. “The Christian Church has the attitude that ‘you’re our poor lost brother,’” Rosenfarb said. But traditional Judaism sees Messianic Jews as a threat, “a Christian community, dragging Jews away from the Jewish community with a long-term goal of making Christians out of them.”

Forming alliances between congregations has helped Messianic Jews build their numbers. According to the publication, Reform Judaism, about 10,000 Jews belonged to Hebrew Christian groups, including Messianic Judaism, in 1978. By the mid-1990s, the number swelled to nearly 200,000 members.

Messianic Judaism has been labelled as one of the fastest-growing sects of Judaism — thanks to the passion and involved commitment of believers. Several sources estimate the number of Jews in the U.S. who believe in Yeshua in some way to be close to a million people.

Some of that growth is the result of better organization. The Hebrew Christian Alliance of America, formed in the 1900s, became the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) in 1975. Other Messianic Judaism umbrella organizations have formed since then, including the following:

The International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), an outgrowth of the MJAA; the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC); and the Fellowship of Messianic Congregations (FMC).

Rosenfarb helped form the IAMCS, but cites the UMJC as the chief organization for Messianic Jewish congregations.

No matter who’s who or which synagogue belongs to which organization, Messianic Jewish congregations need to grow, Rosenfarb insists. He believes they will grow because of the nature of the believers.

“Our congregation is highly active, highly motivated, and highly involved,” Rosenfarb said. “Messianic congregations usually have 75 percent involvement” in activities.

Such participation is necessary for such a young faith—still building its identity.

Mark Kinzer suggests that identity will be crucial—but not because of what men do or say.

Messianic Jews have invested too much energy in the names critics give them, Kinzer suggests. Messianic Judaism’s name is its most valuable tradition, “with a capital ‘T.’” He also notes that the name tells how Messianic Jews are related to the communities with which they are connected. Paying attention to “the implications of what we have called ourselves, and, perhaps, of what we have been called by One far greater than we,” Kinzer wrote, “will foster growth toward a secure and mature identity as Messianic Jews practicing an authentic and integrated Messianic Judaism.”

This combination of passion, involvement, and maturing grasp of identity should ensure more growth in the ranks of Messianic Jews, and the continuation of what Rosenfarb called a natural progression as a religious expression.

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