Are Jewish followers of Jesus still Jewish? Or have they forfeited their Jewishness by converting to another religion? And what about those who call themselves “Messianic Jews”? Are they simply evangelical Christians clothed in deceptive Jewish garb with the goal of preying on unsuspecting Jews?
A reader named Isaac responded to my May 17 article in Haaretz quite forcefully, saying, “Stop your gaslighting. You believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, you are a Christian, not a Jew. You cut yourself off from the Jewish people no matter what you may call yourself. . . . We withstood 2000 years of Christian attempts to convert us out of existence, we'll survive you.”
While other readers echoed similar sentiments, some took issue with Isaac, including SD, who wrote, “Actually, as long as he follows the commandments, he can believe in G-d however he wishes. The relationship to the community is the essence of Judaism. The relationship to G-d is completely personal.”
As expected, there is a wide range of opinion regarding whether a Jew who believes in Jesus is still a Jew. And over the last 48 years, since coming to faith in Jesus in 1971 as a 16-year-old, drug-using, hippie rock drummer in 1971, the majority of rabbis I have interacted with have said, “You’re still a Jew.” Yet others say, “You’re no longer Jewish.”
But what does this even mean? According to a 2012 ruling of the Rabbinical Assembly, “A Jew becoming a Christian is an apostate and whatever laws apply to an apostate apply to a 'messianic Jew.' In essence, 'Messianic Jews' have become Christians, even if technically they remain Jews in certain matters of personal status.”
If that is their verdict, so be it. The last thing I’m looking for is approval from rabbinic leaders or affirmation from the larger Jewish world.
If I agreed with these rabbis, I would be a traditional Jew. I am not, and do not claim to be. I respect them, but obviously, I differ with them.
As for the affirmation of the Jewish world, I willingly forfeited that when I professed Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and I understand that I will be viewed as an outsider or even an enemy. My ultimate concern is God’s approval, not man’s, and it is to Him each of us will give account.
As Hebrews says (to Jewish believers in the Messiah), “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:10–14)
If believing in Jesus means being called a meshumad (apostate) and reviled as a traitor, so be it. People suffer far worse fates than that because of their faith. And I have no problem identifying with Gentile Christians around the world with whom I share many common beliefs, even though we have certain distinctives in that faith as Gentiles and Jews.
Yet the reality is that without my faith in Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, I would have pursued a hedonistic lifestyle as a rock drummer. I would not have gone to college and majored in Hebrew. I would not have devoted years of my life to combatting and exposing historic and contemporary antisemitism. I would not be a staunch ally of Israel today, much more than most American Jews. I would not have found any meaning in Jewish identity.
Yet there are some Jewish followers of Jesus who feel an even stronger calling to embrace their Jewish identity as members of a Messianic Jewish congregation. And this is where things become even more ironic.
Let’s take two Jewish men, one named Dani and the other named Yossi.
Dani grows up in a secular Jewish home in Tel Aviv and is an outspoken atheist today. He does not believe that Jews are the chosen people since there was no one to choose us. He does not believe the Tanakh is God’s Word. And he does not affirm the spiritual authority of Orthodox rabbis, to the point that when he got married, he went to Cyprus for the formal ceremony.
Dani also enjoys going to the big rock festivals, where he has also been known to call out to Shiva. And he has often paid for psychic readings, believing there is some kind of “other” realm, just not the realm of God. As for Shabbat, it is simply a day off from work for him. There is nothing sacred about it.
Yet hardly anyone in the Jewish community questions whether Dani is Jewish.
Then there is Yossi.
He grows up in a secular Jewish home in Queens, New York and is called Joseph. By the time he is 20, he is a serial womanizer with a heavy drinking problem, and he has not been to synagogue his entire life.
Then, at the invitation of some friends, he attends a Shabbat service at a Messianic Jewish congregation in Brooklyn and experiences deep repentance and personal transformation through his encounter with God and his faith in Yeshua. He begins to observe the Sabbath, not according to Orthodox rabbinic halakha but based on the Bible and his congregation’s practices.
He celebrates Passover, looking back to the blood of the lamb at the exodus and seeing Jesus as the Lamb of God who died for our liberation as well. And over a period of years, he feels drawn to Israel, where he has now lived for the last 25 years, married to a native Israeli, and with their children serving in the IDF.
Yet many in the Jewish community would say he is not Jewish. Really?
Worse still, and adding to the irony, according to the rabbinical assembly, “A 'Messianic Jew' is not simply an apostate, but rather an apostate who has undergone a period of indoctrination into a cult-like organization and may require a process of re-education to make certain that he/she understands what Judaism is as opposed to the specific brand of Christianity that he/she has been practicing.”
So, a 20-year-old man who freely chooses to join a Messianic Jewish congregation, without coercion, who through years of continued study and prayer is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, “has undergone a period of indoctrination into a cult-like organization.”
What, then, would the rabbinical assembly say about an ultra-Orthodox youth, raised without TV, internet, or smart phone, with almost no secular education, virtually cut off from the outside world, and spending 14 hours a day immersed in rabbinic tradition?
Is the Messianic Jew, who loves to dialogue and debate and enjoys challenges to his faith, part of a cult, while the ultra-Orthodox Jew, cut off from the outside world, is not?
These are questions that need to be asked, even if they make some Christians and Jews uncomfortable.
Not everything we have inherited by way of tradition is good, accurate, and truthful, let alone inspired.
May the truth prevail! May the Messiah of Israel be known!