A Critique of Messianic Judaism

So during my two decades with the Christian church, it was constantly pounded into me to get people to join the church organization, and for their personal spiritual benefit, to get them to say the “sinner’s prayer” where they confess Jesus as their Lord and savior. I went through various periods of trying to do that during my years in the churches. I never had much luck. And when I did get someone to say the sinner’s prayer, I invariably found that people would say the words, but things didn’t stick, and real, visible fruit of a person’s relationship with God never appeared. Often they would even forget that they said that prayer.

In the 90s when I was a Christian majoring in Jewish Studies in Germany, naturally the phenomenon of the Messianic Jews came to my attention. It was during that time that I learned that there were fewer than 50,000 Messianic Jews in the Holy Land. When I went to go live in Israel in 2018-2019, still a Christian, I gravitated towards hanging around with Messianic Jews in in that country, and I learned that there were still fewer than 50,000 Messianic Jews there. Now Judaism as a whole is known for not being particularly evangelistic, but the Messianic Jews supposedly are. They have that New Testament commandment to tell everybody about Jesus. Now whatever anybody may think about the historical Christian church, Jesus himself just isn’t that bad. “Blessed are the poor” is hardly a sentence your average Israeli should hate. The Messianic Jews constantly run around telling people they aren’t Christian, they don’t fit the common mold of crusaders and inquisitors that Jews have hated for a long time and for good reason. Now I know that coming to Israel after studying this for 20 years should not necessarily have resulted in the expectation that there would be eight million Messianic Jews in the country. But how about 70,000? Or even 60,000? Why did nothing change in the 20 years since I first learned the number?

Over the course of my year in the country with those guys, I will say I found them rather unfriendly. Also having spent years in the Evangelical churches, I am used to welcoming cards, house visits, etc. There, the whole process of being welcomed even got nauseating, with bureaucratic processes that often accomplished nothing. But at least they were trying. But the Messianic Jews I ran into usually told me they were too busy for me. And upon leaving the country, I got railed out of the place for violating common convention – talking to a person outside of my age and gender demographic. That whole event spawned a two-year odyssey of neurosis and insanity, and in some ways, enlightenment. During that whole two years, I was never able to get any of those Messianics to reconcile with me, though Jesus bellowed over and over in the New Testament about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Now that alone is a powerful testimony to the presence of God’s spirit with those guys, or lack of it. But this personal history I have is only part of the story. They live in a country where they know that Jesus is connected to ghettos and evictions and massacres spanning centuries by the churches who did things in his name. You’d think they would do something about that, but the problem is that they get a lot of money from Protestant Christians in the USA. And those Protestants have inherited their doctrines and understandings from those who massacred the Jews. And money talks. It talks so loud that it affects theology. And the Messianic Jews basically have the same theology as the Evangelical Christians who pay them and put bread on the table.

As a result, the religious Jews specifically, and Israeli population at large, listen to their claims that they are not Christians, but they look at the theology that they pipe, and they see quite correctly that they are in fact Christians. The Messianic Jews need validation from Christians. And they need money from Christians. And so their theology is Christian. Theology is subverted to group dynamics and economics. With this essay I want to provide you some examples of that.

Now the common ground between Rabbinic Jews, Karaites, Christians, and Messianic Jews is the Torah. Being the basis of law and ethics for western civilization as a whole, Torah even includes the seculars, whose ethics come from it. The Torah is an important thing for Jews, for Israel, and for the world. The Christians have an understanding of the Bible (including the New Testament), that Jesus replaced the commandments of the Torah. This has resulted in the Jews of New Spain being forced to live as marranos (swine), becoming the so-called crypto-Jews. It resulted in Jews being labeled as Christ-killers. It contributed to the holocaust. So I have to ask myself, is this understanding something that came from God? Would Jesus approve of this theological interpretation?

You have to understand, though, the historical gentile Christian churches were operating under unusual circumstances. They had all these prophecies from the Tanach and the New Testament about Israel being victorious. The New Testament even indicates that Jesus will come back to save the temple. But there was no Israel. There was no temple. So they spiritualized everything and made it all into metaphors about a conceptual temple, in a conceptual land, calling their churches the true Israel.

Now Rabbis and Christians can agree that there is that there is value to the idea of a metaphorical Jew, or to a metaphorical Israel. However, history has taught us that concentrating exclusively on the idea of a metaphorical Jew and a metaphorical Israel can result in putting actual Jews and actual Israel into ghettos by metaphorical Jews and metaphorical Israel. But now, after Israel has been re-established, now that the Jews are back in the land, the idea that actual Jews and actual Israel have a place at the table should be considered.

I would like to concentrate on the issue of whether Jews of today should follow Torah commandments according to the Bible, here talking about both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I will also concentrate on whether gentiles should follow the commandments of the Torah according to the Bible (again, including the New Testament). My aim here is to show that the Messianic Jews have a bad theology, unduly influence by the gentile Christian churches, and that this theology is actually a detriment to Jews claiming their destiny. Both Judaism and Christianity have this concept of “the remnant.” It describes those who are truly loyal to and devoted to God when compared against the broader population who is “supposedly” loyal to and faithful to God, but actually isn’t. All religious groups like to claim that they are the faithful remnant, while all others are just false hypocrites. The Messianic Jews have a particularly bad case of this as a small group claiming to be a part of a larger group (Judaism) that rejects them. I think they need to be taken down a notch. Maybe then they’ll figure out why they haven’t convinced anyone of anything in 30 years.

So in contemplating how the Messianic Jews have forsaken biblical (Including the New Testament) theology for that of the gentile Christian churches, let’s describe the group a bit. The gentile churches have a particular understanding of of a couple of verses from the New Testament that have bearing here.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4

They say that these verses, and others like them, mean that the Torah has been replaced simply by faith in Christ. In every way. However, just by looking at these verses, without even addressing broader context, I can spot some problems. Take the one from Galatians. I look around me in this café and see males and females. Every time I went to a church full of “believers,” I saw males and females. Also, while actual contractual purchase of a person or indentured servitude has been made illegal in western societies, this was not the case for any centuries in Christian Europe and the New World, and even today I still see wage slavery, and people being enslaved by intolerable lives and circumstances. So slavery existed for many centuries after people started to have faith in Jesus, and still exists today. But for some reason Jews and Greeks are no longer to be differentiated. How much sense does that make? We still have male and female, and still have slave and free, but we can’t have Jew and Greek anymore for some reason. Finally, this verse has to be consistent with other verses. So what about this next one?

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

Romans 3:1-2

And then what does Jesus have to say about following the law?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-19

Now when you ask a Christian what Christ fulfilling the law actually means, they normally tell you something about how we don’t have to follow the law, basically telling you that it has been abolished. But he specifically says he hasn’t abolished anything. And he specifically says that this situation will continue until everything has been accomplished. Everything hasn’t been accomplished yet, has it?

Could it be that the lack of distinction between Jew and Greek spoken of above deserves some sort of caveat? I mean I can pull up a map and see that Greece still exists. They still speak Greek there. So maybe a lack of distinction in every way between all types of people is not what is meant here. Maybe we should think about what sort of distinctions between Jew and gentile could be eliminated and what sort of distinctions should be maintained.

The New Testament has some things to say about distinction between Jews and gentiles following Torah.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Acts 15:1-21

This is a huge chunk of text. But from what we see, some people were claiming that everyone had to follow the Torah to be “saved” (in Christian terms this equates to having a relationship with God in any way), and that the result was a decision that gentiles should not follow the Torah because they can read about the law in the Torah. Interestingly, this is something that the Rabbis of Judaism would agree with mightily. Rabbis are expected to dissuade anyone interested in Judaism by requiring a potential convert to overcome their objection three times before considering them. They also have the concept of the “Son of Noah,” a gentile who knows, loves, and follows God without becoming a Jew. Rabbis actually consider issues of marriage, citizenship and relationship with the land of Israel, and other reasons for making a transition from Jew to gentile that to Christians seem nauseatingly unspiritual, but these reasons trump greater spiritual calling in many cases in the eyes of the rabbis precisely for the reasons that the apostles determine in the Book of Acts in the New Testament! Being a Jew just isn’t necessary to have a relationship with God, or to be “saved.” Not to say that spiritual reasons are to be completely disregarded. Someone who wants to truly follow the path of Kabbalah to its fullest is going to constantly encounter the question of following the Torah commandments, for example. Rather they say that these issues of community and culture are of equal importance, and extraneous matters of spirituality should be examined at depth.

So above we see the Rabbis in complete agreement with the New Testament in keeping gentiles away from the law when it comes to thinking one has to be a Jew to have a relationship with God. But the primary complaint here is that Jews seem to think that they should still be keeping Torah, and Christians think that no one should be keeping the commandments of Torah, and the Messianic Jews tend to go with the Christians. So let’s get back to that. But doing so, I would like to highlight that there are a few types of Messianic Jews. I’ll list their views on this issue of who should keep the law in some bullet points.

  • The Torah has been replaced by the Gospel of Jesus and nobody should follow it. This is the position of the gentile Christian churches and the vast majority of Messianic Jews.
  • The idea that the Torah has been replaced is a misunderstanding of the gentiles Christian churches, and in fact everyone who believes in Jesus and wants a relationship with God should be following the Torah. This is a small minority of Messianic Jews, but one that is fairly loud on the internet as a kind of cultic subset within Messianic Judaism.
  • The Torah was given to the Jews so that they could be a special people who bring divine light to the world, so Jews should keep Torah, but gentiles can have a relationship with God as Christians, and should avoid following Torah commandments. This is also a minority position within Messianic Judaism.

So the final bullet seems to be the only one that considers that there might be some kind of difference between Jews and gentiles, though not one that precludes them being on generally the same spiritual path, in this case the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The first bullet seems to be what I’ve complained extensively about above, that Messianic Jews have just adopted Christian theology for social and financial reasons that have ultimately made them into Christians of Jewish ancestry, which is the primary complaint of the rabbis of most sorts of Judaism. The second one, about the weird cultists who think everybody should become Jews, seems to be the one that the Apostles were worried about in the big chunk of New Testament that I quoted above. I haven’t talked about it much. So let’s explore it.

In Israel, the majority of Messianic Jews are actually Jews. That is, they are of Jewish ancestry and can verify their Judaism in accordance with the standard orthodox channels, they have just adopted a particular spiritual path: the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. There is a minority of gentiles who go to their synagogues, however.

In the diaspora, this is by no means the case. The Messianic Judaism movement in the United States does have at its core actual Jews. However, Messianic Jewish synagogues that get large or popular grow in numbers and almost invariably have a huge majority of gentiles in the ranks. These guys show up for a variety of reasons. Many just like the preaching or the style of the worship service. Messianic Judaism was born in the 1960s in America in connection with charismatic worship, the so-called “Jesus People” movement of Christian hippies with their buckskin shirts and acoustic guitars smoking marijuana in parks under trees as they gave their sermons to girls in tie-die shirts and toe rings.

However, there seems to be a large number of gentiles who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who are attracted to a very large variety of Jewish religious services, some of them very arduous with hours of prayers read in Hebrew, etc. Many are positively in love with amazingly restrictive rabbinic interpretations of how to follow the various Torah commandments from the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and other Jewish halachic sources. So this phenomenon is definitely not merely a matter of pleasurable worship. Quite frequently they have this desire for Judaism not because of marriage or cultural connection to any Jewish community or Israel, but despite this. Many a husband cannot for the life of him understand, and has no small problem with, his wife who insists on eating kosher food. And they turn up in the most amzing places. I’ve found them in Cuba and Argentina.

These folks rarely have any logical explanation for their drives. They frequently point to indefinable feelings they have, but more often they point to bogus theological interpretations from the New Testament where they think that they have some sort of requirement to follow Torah commandments like Jews. They think the standard Christian interpretation that the Torah has been replaced by Jesus is wrong, and that the proper interpretation of the entirety of the New Testament is that everyone who believes in Jesus should follow the Torah like a Jew.

This may be shocking to hear for many Jews and rabbis who are not familiar with this group. But yes, they are there. A few of them have an idea that the reclamation of the Jews includes divine activity that we are not aware of, and that people of ancient Jewish lineage are miraculously turned on to their Jewish roots. This idea had my interest for a while, as I have had quite a journey with Judaism myself, spanning decades, and after all that, I serendipitously found out in 2021 that I have 0.3% Ashkenazi Jewish DNA. So I thought to myself for a while, “maybe this weird lifelong involvement with Jews and Judaism may have some DNA root or something.” However, I had to note that these “spontaneous Jew wannabes” were never Muslim or Buddhist or atheist. Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists who decide to convert to Judaism do so for the typical reasons: they’ve married a Jew, they have a temporal need, they study Kabbalah or some other Jewish philosophy, or their community circumstance warrants it. But you have all these New Testament Jesus folks who insist that they should convert to Judaism or follow Torah commandments either for some completely indefinable reason, or for this theological interpretation of the New Testament that has them thinking they need to.

Now I don’t expect the reader of this essay to be a trained New Testament theologian. But looking at that big chunk of text from the Book of Acts above, that council of all the Apostles, what part of “gentiles don’t need to do this” isn’t clear? And for those who are familiar with rabbinic Judaism, what would you have to say about someone who cannot tolerate life as a Son of Noah yet can offer no explanation for their condition?

Ultimately I came to the idea that there is some psychology involved. Say you have five guys in a room trying to figure out the meaning of life by analyzing a Tolstoy novel. It just so happens that one of those guys is a character from the novel. The other four might be tempted to envy that guy. Never mind that the Tolstoy novel describes the characters in it as goofballs. Just like any given goofball.

I think when some Christians read the Bible, with the New Testament constantly referring to the Tanach, and with the Tanach itself being five times the size of the New Testament with all those prophecies about the final glory of Israel, a certain group of people can’t handle the idea that while the central meaning of the Bible is about everybody, they just aren’t Israel.

That’s my best guess. I can’t say I am absolutely right. To know for certainty would require that I know the heart of every man. And I too am a gentile with this connection to Judaism. I do have explanations, though, and they don’t involve bad theology. They are very, very strange explanations. But they don’t involve my personal desires a whole heck of a lot. A lot of the things I do, I do against my personal desire for pleasure and prosperity. And I haven’t seen stories that echo mine out there, so I am inclined to think I am different from others. However, I have to confess, I don’t ultimately know what is going on with these people.

That said, I personally am dismayed that a theology has been developed as a sort of a justification for their desires to connect with Jews and Israel that contradicts both the New Testament and the rabbinic Jewish understanding for good reasons to become a Jew or live like one. So that’s what I have to say about the second group of Messianic Jews.

So to recap, the first group of Messianic Jews adopts a Christian theology that is inherited from a gentile Christianity that developed when there was no Israel or Temple that sought to get around the intractable problem that the Bible says these things will be in existence in the future. All things Jewish are now only metaphors belonging pertaining to their churches. Money and camaraderie seem to be the reasons for this. The second group has adopted a theology that everyone, Jew or gentile, should follow the Torah. I suspect psychological phenomena are at the root of this.

Finally, though, there are these guys who think that Jews should follow the Torah commandments, while gentiles don’t need to bother with them. I really don’t think I need to quote a bunch of scriptures here. Rabbinic Jews see quite clearly that they should, and they already ward off gentiles with regularity. I only highlight again that they are in accord with the New Testament.

Rabbinic Jews tend to think that the New Testament demands that everyone, Jew or gentile, abandon the Torah, however. To explain how this is not the case, rather than quoting and explaining dozens of verses, I can only say that every verse in the New Testament that talks about avoidance of the law does so with the idea of salvation in mind. You don’t have to follow the law as a means of gaining salvation or having a relationship with God. Following commandments are results of that relationship, but they do not cause it. Most Jews are familiar with this idea, so it’s not important to explain it in great detail. I can only say that the New Testament is preoccupied with combatting the phenomenon of people thinking they have to follow the law to get be in good graces with God. That’s what all the verses that talk about not needing to follow Torah pertain to. It has nothing to do with churches replacing Jews. Rabbinic Jews who think the New Testament says Jews should abandon the Torah are buying into the bad doctrines of the gentile Christian churches who put them into ghettos for centuries.

To wrap up that bit about this last group that has this unheard of interpretation of the New Testament that Jews should follow the Torah but gentiles shouldn’t really bother with it, I’ll just point to the verses above that say the Jews were given the oracles of God, and that Jesus said the commandments aren’t going anywhere until the end of the end. I’ll add that the Tanach itself says the children of Abraham should follow Torah and gives some specifics about certain gentiles living with Jews and walking with Jews under various conditions who should do the same, but never expects Mongolians to follow Torah commandments, for example. It’s very clearly for the actual nation of Israel.

Sadly, though, this group is very small in Messianic Judaism. There is no personal gain in having this theology. Rich, numerous gentile Christians aren’t going to be in love with it. It isn’t preached in their chuches. It doesn’t provide any psychological buttress for any gentile who wants all of the Bible to apply to them on every level. So the Messianic Jewish position that agrees with the rabbinic Jewish tradition as well as accounts for all statements from the New Testament ends up being a couple of nobodies. And the rabbinic Jews look at Messianic Jews as a group of people trying to take Jews away from obedience to Torah, or as a group of people trying to turn everybody who believes in Jesus into a Jew, which of course would wipe out any other Jewish population that didn’t believe Jesus is the Messiah.

This particular question, about whether Messianic Jews think gentiles should follow Torah, or whether they think Jews shouldn’t follow Torah, is only one theological issue surrounding that group, but I think it is central in showing how the group has subverted theology to community, and theology to psychology, and done so in such a way as to basically ruin their presence in the Jewish community.

A personal event happened to me in my life that basically convinced me that it was time to say these things. I really do think God motivated me to condemn the Messianic Jewish community as I have. Again referring to the phenomenon of the righteous remnant, the Messianic Jews see themselves as the only Jews who have it right. But I can tell you from experience that the Messianic Jews are not the remnant of Israel. They’re not any different from any given fallible religious community full of their hypocrites and fools. They don’t act like Jesus or Moses says they should, just like nobody else does. And their theology is a result of circumstance and psychology. And if the Messiah doesn’t appear in the next fifty years, there will still only be 50,000 Messianic Jews in Israel fifty years from now. The righteous remnant is going to be like the 7,000 who have not bowed to Baal that God whispered to Elijah about, or like the blowing wind that Jesus mentioned to his disciples. They are not going to be found all lined up in one synagogue with one group or sect or denomination. And the Messianic Jews are doing a great job of showing everybody that they aren’t any kind of representation of what this righteous remnant would look like if you could see it. That’s my critique of Messianic Judaism.

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