When I was in rabbinical school, a visiting scholar wished to contrast something in the Gospels with a Jewish text, and he asked someone to read the passage in Hebrew translation.
Now, in Orthodox semicha programs, we discuss sensitive topics which would make many squirm — the color of menstrual blood on cloth, for instance, or the feel of the inside of a shechted cow’s lungs — and we generally hold these discussions with straight faces. And yet, when one of the students started reading from the Gospel in Hebrew, everyone became jittery, made quips like schoolboys, and hit each other on the backs, giggling.
Why was this? Because Jesus made us — as he makes many Jews — profoundly uncomfortable. It is hardly surprising that Shmuley Boteach’s two most controversial books were called Kosher Sex and Kosher Jesus.
I was reminded of this incident when, at an event for Vice President Mike Pence, a Messianic rabbi recited a prayer for the victims of the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. It turns out that the idea to invite this person came from the Jewish Republican candidate for Michigan’s 11th congressional district, Lena Epstein. When confronted with this, Epstein explained that the choice of a Jew for Jesus was “because we must unite as a nation.” In other words, a Jew for Jesus is a hybrid, both Jew and Christian, and thus, a way of coming together.
The reactions of the Jewish community ranged from dumbstruck, to offended, to hostile. I do not believe this was primarily because of theology — though certainly theology plays an important role in Jewish differences with Christianity — but rather sociology.
A Brief History of Christianity: From Jewish to Gentile
The reason for the harsh reception of Messianic Jews may best be explained with a brief look at the history of Christianity from a Jewish point of view. Toward the end of the Second Temple period, when Judea was ruled by Rome, a Jewish preacher named Jesus went around the countryside preaching his doctrines. He was speaking to Jews — and about Judaism. At one point, Jesus was arrested for sedition and executed.
If Jesus’ story had ended here, it is possible he would have been remembered by Jews as a Jewish preacher. Maybe some of his teachings would have made it into Jewish writings, or maybe he would have been forgotten entirely. But that is not where his story ended.
Jesus’ disciples were convinced that their teacher had not really died but had gone up to heaven. Soon, other ideas began to emerge: he allowed himself to be killed; he died for our sins; he was the Messiah; he was the literal son of God; he was part of God himself.
The nascent Jesus movement, which was led by Jesus’ younger brother James, began to proselytize, even to non-Jews. At first, these newcomers were told that they must circumcise and keep the laws of the Torah. This began to change, however, when another Jew, Paul, who believed that Jesus appeared to him in a vision, argued that the commandments were only for Jews, and that gentile converts need only accept Christ, not the law.
This dispute between Paul and James was heated, and yet, it was entirely “in-house” — a dispute between Jews about a new Jewish movement that had begun to see traction among non-Jews. James wanted the movement to stay Jewish; Paul wanted a hybrid group.
Paul’s theology, which won out among the Jesus believers, was a victim of its own success. The Jesus movement became so overwhelmingly gentile that within a century, it lost any connection to Judaism and had virtually no Jewish following. In short, Jewish Jesusism died, and Christianity was born.
Keeping Judaism Jewish
Fast forward 2,000 years, and the world has 1.2 billion Christians, but only 15 million Jews. We are a tiny group in comparison with the mammoth that is Christianity in all its forms; if combined we would make up only 0.0125 percent of the whole. Thus, even if Jews for Jesus want one, there simply cannot be a Christ-believing form of Judaism nowadays, because in any “merger,” Christians would hold 99.9% of the stock. Messianic Judaism’s attempt to recreate Paul’s vision of a Jewish Jesus movement actually achieves the reverse: not a Jesus-worshiping form of Judaism but a Jewish form of Christianity.
Let me illustrate the point by contrasting two hypothetical images, one from Roman times (adapted from the book, Paul Was Not a Christian), and one from today: If a random Greek-speaking Roman had found a copy of Paul’s epistles in the year 60 CE, he would have characterized them as “Jewish stuff.” They quote from the Bible and discuss the one God, the messiah, circumcision, and table fellowship with gentiles. Only Jews would care about such matters.
Nowadays, if some random English-speaking person were to come upon these same epistles, even if she were unfamiliar with them, she would say they are “Christian stuff.” They talk about the importance of faith in Christ, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the establishment of churches. Only Christians would care about such matters.
In each case, the person would be correct. The Jesus movement did start as a Jewish movement, but now it and its symbols are entirely gentile. Jesus may once have been a Jewish preacher, but for 2,000 years, he has been the Christian god. The Jesus of today is emphatically not Jewish.
This is why appeals to Chabad Messianism or Rav Nachmanism miss the point entirely. It is not about messianic claims per se; it is about how claims about Jesus directly connect a person to the massive and entirely separate religion called Christianity. Debates about theology with Chabad or Bratslav are entirely in-house; these groups are unmistakably Jewish, as are the deceased leaders they revere.
Not so Messianic Judaism, with its use of the New Testament and faith in Jesus Christ. Even if it is composed of Jews who have created a distinctly Jewish form of Christianity, Messianic Judaism and the Jews for Jesus movement remains unmistakably Christian.