How Jewish Should Messianic Jews Be?
By Derek Leman, Member of LCJE's Coordinating Committee

A review of How Jewish is Christianity? by Louis Goldberg, ed., Zondervan, 2003

I was reminded while reading How Jewish Is Christianity? of the value of hashing out opposing positions on subjects of great importance. The place of Messianic congregations and the role of Torah and tradition in our congregational life is a subject dear to me. My own opinions and preferences seemed firmly set.

What a breath of fresh air it was, then, to read William Varner, the late Louis Goldberg (of blessed memory), Arnold Fruchtenbaum, John Fischer, and Gershon Nerel discuss these very subjects. I was reminded that over time unquestioned assertions can become fossils.

Part of the Counterpoint series, books that pit varying theological positions in a dialogue with one another, How Jewish Is Christianity? stands out as one of the best in the series. Whereas some volumes in the series fail to really bring out systematic distinctives between theological positions, this volume does so quite well.

With the risk of oversimplifying, the various positions are: (1) William Varner against separate congregations of Jewish believers, (2) Arnold Fruchtenbaum for Messianic congregations as long as Torah and tradition are optional, (3) Gershon Nerel for Messianic congregations that emphasize Torah and Jewish continuity but not rabbinic tradition, (4) Louis Goldberg for Messianic congregations that observe Torah and tradition while recognizing that neither are authoritative, and (5) John Fischer for Messianic congregations that are Torah and tradition observant without making rabbinic tradition equal with Torah.

Particularly helpful are the introduction and concluding essay of the book. Louis Goldberg has written a helpful summary of Messianic Jewish presence through the centuries as an introduction. David Stern, emerging from a writing hiatus, has written a helpful projection into the future of Messianic Judaism.

A large part of the value of the book for me was reading the positions least like my own. William
Varner’s warning that separating Jewish believers into Messianic Congregations can lead to division was a welcome caution for me. Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s challenge that many who hold to the continuing validity of the Torah are inconsistent was also a wise warning.

I also found new ways of presenting truths dear to me. Gershon Nerel stirred something in me when he spoke of Jewish believers as a threat to Christians throughout history as long as Christians imagined themselves to be the true Israel. John Fischer taught me some new ways to explain some of the convictions that I hold dear. Louis Goldberg made a concise case for allowing Jewish believers freedom to practice traditions.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Anyone who picks up this slim volume (208 pages) hoping to find a discussion of Jewish themes and practices in Christian traditions will be disappointed. A more accurate title would have been, How Jewish Can Messianic Jews Be? Perhaps the title chosen will draw more people to read the book and reflect thoughtfully on the role of Jewish believers amongst the people of God.

Regardless of the reader’s preferences and positions regarding Jewish believers and their place amongst the people of God this book is useful. Jewish mission leaders who are not strong on the need for indigenous Jewish congregations will find much food for thought here. Messianic leaders who have no developed philosophy of adaptation of Jewish tradition will find concise and helpful arguments for several different positions. Everyone will benefit from Louis Goldberg’s 14-page summary of the history of Messianic Jews and David Stern’s advice for the future of work in the Jewish vineyard.

Perhaps this book will lead readers to follow David Stern’s wise advice at the close of the book:

We should develop and ecclesiology that takes into account three groups of people corresponding to the olive tree analogy of Romans 11:17-26: the cut off natural branches grafted back into their own cultivated olive tree (Messianic Jews), the branches of the wild olive tree grafted into the cultivated tree (Gentile Christians), and the cut off natural branches that have not yet been grafted back in (non-Messianic Jews).

Amen, and may all God’s people be of one mind and one purpose as we await the return of Yeshua, brother-Messiah for Israel and friend-Messiah for the nations!

Derek Leman