The Messianic Jewish Congregational Movement
by David A. Rausch
Dr. Rausch is associate professor of church history and Judaic studies at Ashland, (Ohio) Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 15-22, p. 926. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
To my surprise, even most evangelicals opposed the Messianic Jews, accusing them of rebuilding the wall of partition between Jewish and gentile Christians and, in fact, of going back under the Law. A well-known Hebrew Christian whom I interviewed, a leader in missionary outreach to the Jewish community, shook his head and quietly explained:
To these “Messianic Jews” Jewishness means Judaism . . . a rabbinic Judaism of the Ashkenazic flavor. . . . They neither have a real knowledge of Jewish history or of Jewish-Christian history, nor do they possess a good handle on biblical exegesis. . . . Like the Ebionites of old they will finally blend into Judaism and deny the Messiah.
This evangelical attitude came as a shock, for initially I had thought that the movement was simply a “Jews for Jesus” extension of previous Hebrew Christian evangelistic organizations that also had been opposed by both Christians and Jews.
Whatever one’s stand on the issue, it is important to gain some understanding of this movement. Although many regard the concept as unthinkable, the movement is growing and is gaining gentile supporters. The number of Messianic congregations (“synagogues”) continues to rise, and there is a fervent commitment on the part of these Messianics to “discover their Jewishness.”
However, Messianic Jews themselves were of little help to me in tracing the historic roots of the movement. As I interviewed their leaders across the United States, I found a prevalent belief that they had coined the term “Messianic Judaism.” Others thought that the term had originated within the past ten or 20 years. Most of their opponents also agreed that this was so.
In fact, both the term “Messianic Judaism” and the frustration with the movement go back to the 19th century. During 1895 Our Hope magazine, which became a bulwark in the fundamentalist-evangelical movement under the editorship of Arno C. Gaebelein, carried the subtitle “A Monthly Devoted to the Study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism.” An organ of the Hope of Israel movement in New York City, the magazine maintained that Jewish converts should not sever themselves from their people and their Jewish practices. It castigated the gentile Christian church for teaching that Jewish believers must refrain from observances proclaimed in the Mosaic Law.
This approach did not escape unscathed; other Jewish missionary enterprises labeled Our Hope’s “Messianic Judaism” as outright “Judaizing,” declaring that such theology was “unscriptural, mischievous and dangerous.” Even the coeditors, Gaebelein and Ernst F. Stroeter, a former professor at Denver University, later split over the issue. Gaebelein switched his position regarding Messianic Judaism; Stroeter maintained its validity to the end of his life. This was very important in Gaebelein’s case: he might not have been accepted as a leader within fundamentalist evangelicalism, nor become a famous Bible and prophecy conference speaker, if he had not changed his view.
For the scholar who seeks to unravel this tangled history, there are many surprises. It is fascinating that the movement would arise in the American branch of the Hebrew Christian Alliance (HCAA), an organization that has consistently assuaged the fears of fundamentalist Christians by emphasizing that it is not a separate denomination but only an evangelistic arm of the evangelical church. The organization’s Quarterly, however, reveals that the tension between the Messianic Jewish movement and the Hebrew Christian movement had always been present. After the inception of the HCAA in 1915, the first major controversy was over an “old” heresy -- and the “heretical” dogma that was being proposed was Messianic Judaism. The controversy could have split the organization asunder during that period but for a strong united effort against Messianic Judaism. The outcome was a statement explaining that “history and experience proved [Messianic Judaism’s] doomed failure” and emphasizing, “We will have none of it!” The statement concluded:
We are filled with deep gratitude to God, for the guidance of His Holy Spirit in enabling the Conference to so effectively banish [Messianic Judaism] from our midst, and now the Hebrew Christian Alliance has put herself on record to be absolutely free from it, now and forever.
Rosen is an enigma with regard to Messianic Judaism, and perhaps his organization engenders both gentile and Jewish confusion over Messianics. The slogan “Jews for Jesus” caught on in the 1970s and catapulted Rosen’s little band of missionaries into national prominence. Subsequently, enterprises ranging from overt Jewish missionary efforts to orthodox Messianic congregations have been called “Jews for Jesus.” The label is unfortunate, because it blurs the two distinct threads within Jewish Christianity that have historically run side by side. At one end of the spectrum is the Hebrew Christian movement, made up of missionary societies and individual missionaries who regard themselves primarily as an evangelistic arm of the evangelical church to the Jewish community. At the other end of the spectrum are the most orthodox of the Messianic congregations and individual adherents who regard themselves primarily as Jewish -- Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Between the ends of this spectrum fall an array of congregations and individuals. And, to complicate the matter, some Hebrew Christians now call themselves Messianic Jews.
Another reason why the all-encompassing label “Jews for Jesus” is unfortunate is that Rosen’s organization uses confrontation tactics which many Messianic Jews (and some evangelical Christians) cannot condone. In practice, the principle of confrontation holds that making the Jewish community angry or stirring up controversy equates with “publicity,” no matter whether a Jew is converted or not. Sensitivity is sacrificed for confrontation. Understanding is sacrificed for getting the message out.
This point was not clear to me when I began my research, but Moishe Rosen soon set me straight. He told me that an article I had written for a Jewish publication, in which I had briefly mentioned him, was “sugarcoated” with respect to Jews for Jesus. It was a mistake I never made again. Once I understood the concept of confrontation and had documented its effect, pieces of the “Jews for Jesus” puzzle began to fall into place.
Evangelical Christians are to be found on both sides of the confrontation issue. A professor at an evangelical liberal arts college explained to me that he liked the intense confrontation, saying: “My money goes to Jews for Jesus, because you can see they are doing something. Jews are ready to kill them for their boldness -- yes, for their antagonism!” Quite a few Christians agree with him; Rosen’s organization grossed nearly $2.5 million last year. However, Messianic Jews and other Christians (evangelicals among them) are not so sure. Even Billy Graham has come out against evangelistic enterprises aimed solely at Jews. These people believe that the confrontation tactic only increases the historic antipathy felt between Christians and Jews -- antipathy that has expanded into crusades and pogroms. The effectiveness of the message of Christ is thus lost.
Currently, I find many Messianic Jews dissociating themselves from the label “Jews for Jesus,” explaining that the organization is “just a small group of 100 or so Hebrew Christians in a west coast missionary enterprise that is very vocal and widely publicized.” For the messianic congregation that is seriously attempting to foster a first century, Jewish-Christian worship experience, repeatedly defending Rosen’s actions exacts too high a price for them to pay.
For example, there has been intense reaction to the Jews for Jesus program, “What Evangelical Christians Should Know About Jews for Jesus.” Carrying the subtitle “A Confidential Report: Not to be Distributed to Non-Christians,” a printed outline explained “confrontation tactics” and seemed to espouse “Jewishness” only as a plot for bringing Jews into the evangelical church. This material has led to charges by both Christians and Jews that Messianic congregations were “Jews for Jesus” and thus were fakes. While most Messianic leaders maintain cordial relations with Rosen, to many he is an expendable commodity. The program of the Messianic congregation is quite different from his.
On the other hand, Rosen has seen the effectiveness of the Messianic congregations. A pragmatic individual, he voted for the HCAA’s change of name in 1975 and has just organized his own Messianic congregation in New York City. Jews for Jesus may be expanding to a two-pronged ministry; i.e., confrontation-oriented evangelistic teams, plus lower-key, stable congregations. This current development will cause controversy and may further confuse what is distinctively Messianic -- the expanding congregational movement. One minister from the west coast has stated: “I have a regular Christian congregation with some Jewish converts in it, but if these fanatics who call themselves ‘Messianic Jews’ want to play their little congregational game, we can play it too.”
Among his many activities, Juster serves on the board of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, holds extensive discussions with rabbis in the Washington, D.C., area, and was invited as a participant in the 1980 dialogue between evangelicals and Jews. He is an open and eloquent individual who strives for complete honesty in Messianic Judaism, and so does his wife, Patti. She once received a phone call scoring the Messianic congregation for being deceptive, because Jews could not believe in Jesus. Since the caller had identified himself as being from Conservative Judaism, she suggested that he talk to the “nice rabbi” at the Conservative congregation down the street. There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally, the caller said: “I don’t know quite how to tell you this, but I’m the rabbi of that congregation.”
This bizarre episode led to a dinner invitation and dialogue, but the rabbi still feels that there are awesome dangers in the Messianic movement. In light of the history of Jewish Christianity, one cannot blame the Jewish community for being suspicious. In his study The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (1934), James Parkes concluded: “In the whole of this account it is significant that no honorable part has been played by converted Jews, as interpreters of their old faith to the new.” Nonetheless, Messianic Jews are now determined to reverse that stigma. A training institute has been established in Chicago, and some congregations have begun religious schools for their children.
The annual conference, which used to struggle to reach an attendance of 150, now draws nearly 1,000 participants for its weeklong session. The schedule has been dominated by topics such as rabbinic theology, the Holocaust, modern anti-Semitism, gentilization of Messianic Judaism, Messianic congregations, Messianic communities, and Messianic Jewish history.
For some, however, much more is needed. In my travels throughout the United States and Canada, I met scores of Messianic Jews for whom most of their congregations are too “liberal” with regard to traditional (or Orthodox) Jewish practice. Many of these people are on the periphery of the movement, watching its progress but choosing to worship in regular Orthodox or Conservative Jewish synagogues.
Those few modern Messianic congregations which have tried to institute Orthodox worship have invariably met with disaster. When the Los Angeles congregation was judged to have become “too Jewish,” the Assemblies of God took their building away from them (Phil Goble, author of a book titled Everything You Need to Grow a Messianic Congregation, had attended that group). In Pittsburgh, because of internal friction, the Orthodox Messianic congregation has dissolved.
Yet traditional Messianic Jews do exist and share a great concern that the Messianic congregations should at least progress toward traditionalism in their liturgy and institutions. As Andy Pilant, a traditional Messianic worshiper from Pittsburgh, told me:
The only thing I knew is that if we were going to be Jewish, we had to be honest about it. . . Jewishness was something that was more than laying teffilin, more than just singing Jewish songs. It was thinking Jewish, it was smelling Jewish, it was taking Judaism and putting it out to the ends of your fingertips -- so that everything that you come in contact with would have a Jewish touch to it.
Daniel Juster has said: “Why are they so mad at us? It is as though they have kept a well-guarded secret that Judaism and Christianity are not incompatible, and we have exposed their little game!” That statement continues to gnaw at my historical consciousness.