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Wrangling with J4J

Charlie from AnotherThink recently asked whether I'd address the question of so-called Messianic Jews and why, if liberal Jewish communities are open to so many new expressions of Judaism and new manifestations of God, "claiming Jesus as Messiah is one of the few faith blendings that can still get you arrested in almost any synagogue in America."

He raises an interesting point. The short answer, I think, is that while  communal definitions of what makes a Jew may vary, most Jews seem to agree that belief in Jesus as the Messiah makes one Christian. (It depends, of course, on what one means by "messiah," about which more anon.) While many of us, myself included, would argue that Christians and Jews can and should learn from each other, our traditions do differ, and Jesus is the crux of what separates us. (Pardon the pun.) But there are larger issues here -- proselytizing, and the nature of religious identity -- and once I start thinking about this stuff, I get twitchy; I learned skepticism of Jews for Jesus at a young age, and I still have strong feelings about their mission.

I pride myself on being liberal and tolerant. On genuinely believing that every faith has a role to play in the world. On seeing my fellow human beings as made in the image of God, all nurturing their own holy sparks, regardless of who or how or whether they worship. I favor empowering people to claim their own spiritual labels. So why don't I like the term Jews for Jesus? Why does the movement (I'll abbreviate it as J4J) make me so uncomfortable?

This essay has been fascinating and challenging to write. On the one hand, I was reared to regard religious identity as binary, and to find Christian evangelism threatening. The authoritative voices of my childhood tell me that J4J are wolves in sheeps' clothing, out to destroy Judaism by introducing an antithetical teaching from the inside. On the proverbial other hand, my adult self finds identity binarism troubling, I like to think of Judaism as flexible (and I regard calcification of the tradition as a negative thing), and I've worked hard to nurture respect for Christian teaching and practice. I bring both of these perspectives to bear on my exploration of J4J, and I've done my best to tread lightly through this minefield!

As a kid, I was taught that J4J preyed on the fringes of the Jewish community, seeking converts. When I began to write this post, I wondered: is that unconsidered knee-jerk opposition, or is there truth in it? Certainly Christianity historically proselytizes, while Judaism historically doesn't (tradition instructs us to turn away a potential convert thrice, to ensure that s/he's making the choice for the right reasons). But does J4J really proselytize to unwitting Jews? I wasn't sure, so I went to their website to sleuth it out for myself.

A caveat: their website may not be a complete reflection of who they are and what they stand for. But it's the public face they present to the world, so it's what I'm responding to.

Their site is divided into two parts: half for Jews ("for seekers") and half for Christians ("for believers"). The half of their site intended for Jews features pages like this one explaining their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. But I'm most fascinated by the half of their site that wasn't meant for my eyes, the "for believers" side. There I learned their mission and what they stand for. And the answer (to "are they really trying to proselytize to Jews") is: yes! Their priority is sharing Christ with the unsaved, and they regard themselves as a "mission to the Jews."

The million-dollar question is: if belief in Jesus as the Christ (the Son of God and the only path to salvation) is central to their teachings, can they legitimately claim the label "Judaism" for what they practice? I would argue, no. That notion of Jesus is Christian doctrine, cloaked in Jewish trappings. They use the flavors of my tradition (the sounds of Hebrew, the melodies of Jewish worship, the language and terminology, the vast libraries of Jewish commentary and scholarship) in order to further a perspective that negates the sanctity of Judaism (e.g., that Jews need to be "saved" and Jesus is the only legitimate path to God). They fetishize the look and feel of Judaism, but they don't engage with our texts or our worldview from within; their Jewish-style praxis is a means to the end of spreading the gospel. They're co-opting the exterior of my tradition to promote the interior of their tradition. And I don't think that's fair.

Let me be clear: it's not the Christian call to spread the Good News that distresses me, but the dissembling I see when Christians call themselves "Jews" purely for the sake of missionary work. Many Christians want to witness to non-Christians, and I can respect their desire: if one genuinely believes that one's faith is the only path to salvation, it makes sense that one would feel called to witness. To me, though, there's a difference between witnessing with openess about one's religious affiliation, and disguising oneself as a member of my community in order to gain my ear. And that's the rub: to me, the "Jews" part of the J4J label doesn't fit.

J4J says "[w]e are proof-positive to the world that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus," but it depends on what one means by "believe in Jesus." If one means "believe Jesus was a tzaddik (righteous man) and teacher who had great things to tell the world," that's consonant with Judaism. If one means "believe Jesus is the sole path to salvation, supplanting and invalidating the Jewish covenant with God" that's (a very particular kind of) Christian doctrine. Once a faith centers around belief in Jesus as the Christ, I would argue that faith is no longer Judaism. I've heard some call J4J "halakhic Christians," which is a term I find much more palatable, though I doubt they'd claim it for themselves.

The questions that underpin this whole discussion are: what is Judaism, and what is Christianity? What defines us? Where is the boundary between one and the other?

Judaism and Christianity are deeply similar in many ways. We're siblings, or maybe parent and child. So delineating the differences between us is uniquely challenging. The two faiths have many commonalities: monotheism, teachings on the timelessness of the soul, the body of text Jews call Torah and Christians call Old Testament (though our interpretations of it differ -- as do our orderings of its books).

My extended musings on Judaism and Jewish identity will have to wait for another blog post, because that's a whole essay all its own. (In a very small nutshell, for my own part, I'd say Jewish identity is both cultural and religious, and that Judaism centers around a personal and collective covenant with God which is encapsulated in Torah.) But I think it's worth noting that religious identity can be hard to pin down. Some cases are obvious: Orthodox Judaism is Jewish, and the Methodist Church is Christian. Other cases are blurrier: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints considers itself a flavor of Christianity, though some Christians disagree.

Finding a definition of Judaism that both encompasses and works for the Reform movement, the Conservative/Masorti  movement, the Orthodox movement, the Reconstructionist movement, the Renewal movement, and Chabad (not to mention the other branches of Hasidism) isn't easy. Then fold in other sects, like the Ethiopian Jews who reject rabbinic Judaism entirely...! Clearly Judaism is vast and contains multitudes.  Some would argue that we should also accept J4J within the Jewish tent, as a fringe minority but Jews nonetheless. I don't want to fall into kneejerk or needless binarism, and I don't like defining Judaism negatively, but my kishkes (guts) say that J4J looks Jewish on the surface but is not Jewish at its heart -- for reasons outlined in their statement of faith.

The J4J statement of faith tells us that they accept the Christian Scriptures, they "recognize the value" of traditional Jewish literature "but only where it is supported by or conformable to the Word of God" (e.g. the Christian Scriptures), and they believe "that Jesus the Messiah died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice; that all who believe in Him are justified, not by any works of righteousness they have done, but by His perfect righteousness and atoning blood and that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved."  This? Is not Judaism by my definition.

I believe that Judaism can and should and must be open to change. (I deeply love the Jewish Renewal movement for that reason.) But the change proposed by J4J -- that we accept Jesus as the one-and-only Messiah, who died for our sins and will return to redeem believers -- feels to me destructive of Judaism, rather than organically supportive of it. J4J argues that the Christian Scriptures supplant the Torah, and that Jews need to change our relationship with God, with holiness, and with redemption. That's pretty major, and feels to me like a fundamental shift away from Judaism. (Maybe Jewishness is like funk: hard to define, but I know it when I see it, and belief in Jesus as the singular Christ isn't it.) Belief that Jesus is or was God, in ways other humans or other prophets are not, strikes me as a departure from the expansive Jewish tradition of prophesy and human equality. Not all Christians regard Jesus that way, of course; and I imagine not all J4J folks do, either. But as far as their official doctrine is concerned...? Looks pretty Christian to me, no matter how many Hebrew words they use to describe it.

I believe strongly that Jews and Christians can work together, live together, love together. We can study together and pray together. We can learn a lot from each other. But conflating our faiths does us both a disservice. I admit that the margins are blurry; and I admit to some discomfort with the exclusionary nature of rigid religious definitions; but to me, J4J isn't a branch of Judaism, because of their emphasis on Jesus as the Christ.

Why am I comfortable with Judaism and Buddhism as bedfellows, but not comfortable with J4J as a blending of Judaism and Christianity? I've already acknowledged how Judaism and Christianity are similar. Amusing one-liners aside, Judaism and Buddhism have similarities, too: the Jewish notion of gilgul is not unlike Buddhist teachings on reincarnation; Judaism has a mystical and contemplative tradition that's not dissimilar from Buddhist visualization and mindfulness practices; etc. Maybe more relevant is this  notion that "Buddhism does not exclude Judaism, nor vice versa, and so perhaps a Jewish Buddhist could indeed have the best of both worlds, could have the benefit of the wisdom of two harmonious, illuminating sources of thought on the path to true enlightenment." Ultimately, I see nothing in striving for compassionate mindfulness or sitting zazen that's antithetical to Judaism...whereas arguing that Jesus as the Christ is the sole path to salvation is pretty antithetical to Judaism.

Charlie's original question related to "claiming Jesus as Messiah," and I think the definition of messiah is at the heart of this. Jews and Christians don't historically use the term the same way.

When Jews talk about the Messiah we don't mean what Christians mean by it. משיח/Moshiach is generally translated as "anointed one," and that's a term that recurs often in Torah (many prophets were anointed; so was every king, up to and including Cyrus of Persia), but nowhere in Torah is there a mention of "The Messiah" as Christians understand the term. (An alternate interpretation suggests that moshiach means "messenger." *) The post-Biblical Rabbinic tradition affirms five things about moshiach: he will be a descendant of King David, gain sovereignty over the land of Israel, gather the Jews there from the four corners of the earth, restore them to full observance of Torah law, and, as a grand finale, bring peace to the whole world.  Reform Judaism takes a different perspective; rather than focusing on the coming of a specific moshiach, they speak of a messianic age in which human efforts, not a divine messenger, will bring about a utopia, when the world will be healed of its ills and the work of creation will be complete.

But regardless of whether one adheres to the traditional Rabbinic notion of moshiach, or to the contemporary Reform notion of the messianic age, the Jewish concepts are not compatible with the tenet that Jesus is the one and only Son of God, the Messiah, and the only path to God-the-Father and salvation. Granted, there are Christians who don't regard Jesus in that way, either. But the J4J site makes it pretty clear that J4J does.

Framed another way: not all fruits are apples, but all apples are fruits. Not all Christians regard Jesus as the Son of God and the sole and unitary path to salvation...but all who regard Jesus as the Son of God and the sole and unitary path to salvation are Christians. J4J promulgates that teaching; ergo, they're apples  Christians.

The J4J folks say they want to present opportunities that Jews can't dismiss. They frame their evangelism to Jews very carefully, explaining,"If you can understand the need for missionaries to go overseas and tell the gospel to people who otherwise would not hear, we hope you will understand that most Jewish people will not hear the gospel unless it is delivered in a way that takes into account a lifetime of conditioning or indoctrination. "

Though I suppose from a certain point of view all religion is "conditioning" and "indoctrination," I resent the implication that their faith is Truth while mine is merely brainwashing. And it seems to me that they call themselves Jews in order to proselytize to Jews from a privileged position, and that's what really distresses me about them. Because Christianity is culturally dominant, Judaism has developed tendencies of insularity to combat assimilation. I think that insularity has outlived its usefulness, and I'm working to change it...but J4J makes my job harder, because their insidious evangelism makes Jewish communities inclined to close ranks. That proverbial rose by any other name would smell as sweet; Christian evangelism is still Christian evangelism, even if it calls Jesus "Yeshua."

On a related note, Judaism actually has its own messianism. There's a strong messianist movement within Chabad Hasidism, which holds that Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was/is moshiach. A lot of Jews have issues with that claim, including a lot of other Lubavitcher Hasidim. (Read that piece here if you don't have a subscription to the New York Times online.) Jewish messianism is a fascinating issue, and I'd love to see more articles and conversations about it, but talk of "Messianic Judaism" rapidly becomes talk about J4J, leaving this other realm of interesting stuff unexplored. Alas, to really do justice to the messianism within Chabad, I'll need another blog post for another day...


*The word "messenger" in Hebrew has several forms.  The Modern version is שליח/shaliach, from the verb שלח ("send out"); an older alternative is מישך/m'yushach, whose biblical conjugation -- I'm told -- would also be moshiach. Hence, moshiach means both "anointed one" and "messenger." Biblical Hebrew is neat.