"Messianism" or Messianic Judaism?
By David Sedaca, Executive Secretary of
the International Messianic Jewish Alliance

The man sitting with me at the lunch table had all the trimmings of a traditional orthodox Jew: black suit, full grown beard, and kippa. Our appointment was set in a Jewish delicatessen in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood. I ordered a traditional sandwich, and my friend - looking at the waitress after reading the menu - asked, "Whatís a matzo-ball soup?"

She immediately realized that this manís "Jewishness" was questionable. I already knew what the waitress had just discovered, that he wasnít Jewish, he was "pretending" to be Jewish.

Although matzo-ball soup is not the test for Jewishness, neither does the black suit, nor the beard, not even the kippa makes one a Jew.

An Israeli statesman, when asked to define who is a Jew, replied, "I cannot tell you precisely who is a Jew, but I can tell you without any doubt who is not."

I had known my lunch guest for several years. I first met him when he was a Baptist minister in Florida who had immigrated from Latin America. He was then pastor of a vibrant Baptist church in Florida. Now, he was part of a growing group of individuals who have become enamored with Judaism. Most of them claim to have discovered some Jewish ancestry from the time of the Decree of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain - an event that happened in 1492!

Others claim that somehow the Lord revealed them their Jewishness suddenly, in a moment, a mystery that had remained hidden all their lives. This phenomenon that began about 10 years ago within Spanish-speaking churches in Southern United States, is now spreading to more than 30 other countries world-wide. We wouldnít be talking about this phenomenon if it werenít for the fact that this movement has endangered the credibility of bona fide Messianic Jews, Jews whose Jewishness is unquestionable.

Those in leadership who are attracted to this form of religious expression do not limit their newly found lifestyle and worship to their own personal lives, but have influenced their churches to becoming Messianic Jewish by adopting a Jewish worship style. In almost all cases, this has been the result of visiting a legitimate Messianic Jewish congregation, or when attending a national or regional conference of Messianic Jewish organizations.

The questions that need to be addressed are mainly the following: What is genuine Messianic Judaism; What is the danger of non-Jewish Messianism; and if there an answer to the problem.

Defining Messianic Judaism

As to the question of what is genuinely Messianic Jewish, we would say that Messianic Judaism is a worship style and a way of life embraced by people who being Jewish have accepted Yeshua (Jesus) as their Messiah. Messianic Jews express their faith in Yeshua within a Jewish context. They did not "convert" when they accepted Yeshua, but rather express their belief in him from a Jewish standpoint without abandoning or renouncing to their Jewishness. The key to understanding what it means resides in understanding the two words used to define it: "Messianic" and "Jewish".

The word 'Messianic" derives from the word Messiah, name given to Godís anointed who would come for the salvation and restoration of his people, Israel. A genuine Messianic Jew is an individual whose first and foremost belief is that Yeshua is Israelís Messiah. All other things become secondary and dependent on this principle. This was Paulís guidance principle. He clearly stated his "raison díÍtre" when he contrasted his own Jewishness with his personal faith in Yeshua. Writing to the Philippians, Paul declares, "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Messiah" (3:5-7). It is the knowledge of the Messiah that defines and constructs a genuine Messianic Jewish expression. My personal experience with people coming from a non-Jewish background who have embraced Messianic Judaism is that, for many of them, their need to show their newly found Jewishness overshadows everything else.

But Messianic Judaism is also defined by the word "Judaism." Words are vehicles by which we convey ideas. What do we understand when we use the word Judaism? We know that Judaism is much more than a religion. A case in point is the fact that a good number of Jewish people, both in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, do not believe in a personal God, while many Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora, adhere to an strict form of Orthodox Judaism.

We also know that presently, Judaism has no real links to race. We see black Jews from Ethiopia, dark-skin Jews from Yemen, Mediterranean Jews from Spain and Latin America, fair looking Jews from central and northern Europe; all of them bond by their Jewishness without any real racial homogeneity. Present-day Judaism cannot be truly defined by its racial connotation.

Judaism can be defined as a sense of uniquely belonging to a people, Israel, that transcends time and place. It is that sense of belonging and "being" that defines one as a Jew. Itís the fact that Jews have adopted and adapted religious, cultural and social traits what defines them as a people. It is celebrating Passover, whether or not you believe that the exodus from Egypt took place exactly as written in the Torah, or you accept it as part of your heritage. Itís that sense of knowing what matzo-ball soup is, whether who are a Jew from Argentina, Florida, or Israel.

The dangers of non-Jewish "Messianism"

The issue that occupies our attention is whether non-Jewish people embracing Judaism in order to be Messianic Jews is a harmless fad, a genuine expression of faith, or a danger to the genuine Messianic Jewish movement. For lack of a better word I define this phenomenon as "Messianism" for it does not contain genuine Judaism in it.

I perceive Messianism as a danger to Messianic Judaism because of the following reasons. In first place, it is based on a false premise, that of discovering their Jewishness by their claim that 500 years ago, thousands of Jews were forcefully converted to Christianity in Spain and Portugal. Judaism has ways to prove the Jewishness of the "Marranos," - Jews converted to Christianity outwardly while keeping Jewish secretly. The Sephardic Jewish communities (Sephardic referring to Jews from Spain and Portugal) have accepted six elements that must be in place in order to certify oneís Jewishness. In no order of importance these elements are:

  • Knowing oneís ancestral lineage as close as possible to the time of the Decree of Expulsion on 1492.

  • Some idea of the place of origin in the Iberian peninsula.

  • Observance of Shabbat traditions and Purim, whether open or secretly.

  • Circumcision of all males.

  • Marriage within a defined number of families.

  • Some idea of the origin of oneís surname.

    Traditional Sephardic rabbis will accept four of the six mentioned requisites. Although traditional Judaism should not dictate oneís own identity, it is of paramount importance that we prove to be who we claim to be. In most cases, those who adhere to Messianism have come to discover their Jewishness only after being exposed to Messianic Judaism. This alleged "ex post facto" Jewish identity only serves to give reasons for traditional Jews to discard Messianic Judaism as a false form of Judaism. Many in Messianism seek to prove by any means their Jewishness while forgetting the fact that "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him" (1 Cor. 7:18-20).

    Moreover, Messianism put strong emphasis on anything Jewish, sometimes without knowing how does traditional Judaism see them. A case in point was my meeting with the leader of a Messianic Jewish congregation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had recently discovered his Judaism and was now trying to be as Jewish as he could. Our meeting took place at 7:00 PM. He came wearing a kippa, and to my surprise, he was also wearing a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl. To come to see me he had taken the subway, and all that time he was wearing the tallit. Any Jewish person knows that the tallit is only worn in the synagogue, or for rituals, but not at night, and least of all as part of one apparel. I asked why he was wearing the tallit, and he replied that it was for witnessing purposes. But any subsequent witnessing intended to reach out to the Jewish people would have been in vain. In his ignorance of Judaism, he had probably offended and turned Jewish people off.

    In third place, Messianism has accepted the modern state of Israel as a perfect entity that can do no wrong. A Jewish friend of mine from South Africa calls this phenomenon "a severe case of Israelitis." Do not get me wrong, I believe in the State of Israel, and will defend it from all enemies. Nevertheless, I believe that Israel needs to repent and come to the knowledge and acceptance of Messiah. This blind acceptance of all that the State of Israel does, drains away energy from witnessing and evangelism to be carried out in Israel.

    Our response to Messianism

    What should our attitude be? I would start by encouraging those who are not Jewish but wish to be part of Messianic Judaism to identify WITH Israel, not AS Israel.

    Second, there has to be sound biblical teaching on the value of oneís Jewishness. It should be a bridge to reach out to our unbelieving Jewish friends, and not a stumbling block to both Jew and Gentile. A misinterpreted Messianic Judaism will do harm to both Judaism and the church.

    Third, our teaching should be that in Messiah, Jew and gentile are one. This does not annul Godís special relationship with Israel, neither makes gentiles second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. I strongly believe that the Lord did not make a mistake when he made me Jewish, but neither He made a mistake when he made you a gentile. He had a purpose and a plan for each one of us.

    We should also identify and isolate false teaching from sound doctrine. We must preserve the integrity of the word entrusted to us. Messianic Judaism is a reflection of Godís salvation for His Jewish people, interpreted properly is a mighty tool to proclaim Godís message, but misused can become a stumbling block.

    David Sedaca
    shalom@imja.com