What a Jew Needs from MJ

You might get the idea from the title that this post is about “why a Jewish person needs Messianic Judaism” or “needs Yeshua.” No, that is a separate topic. I’m talking about what a Jewish person needs to find when he or she comes looking on Google for “Messianic synagogue” in his or her city.

This is based loosely on the recent experience of a new friend of mine, a Jewish follower of Yeshua in a major city. Let’s call him Benjamin from Metropolis (it was hard to decide between “Metropolis” and “Gotham City”). Benjamin got in touch with me not very long ago to talk about faith in Yeshua. Benjamin had some years in the church and some years in mainstream synagogues, but zero years in Messianic Judaism. Having decided that faith in Yeshua is real and worth pursuing, Benjamin did not want to return to church and assimilate away from his Jewishness.

What should Benjamin do? After he decided to follow Yeshua, and with many vital questions and heart-wrenching concerns (we’re talking about people’s lives here), I could only recommend that Benjamin make the best of the MJ congregations in Metropolis. I knew, and told him in advance, that they were not very Jewish in practice. I had little idea how right I was!

Case exhibit #1: A very old and established Messianic congregation (you know, since the 1970’s, which we count as primordial) is in Metropolis. I knew this place was a Charismatic Christian Church using the label “Messianic Jewish.” That is what a certain large percentage of “Messianic” synagogues really are. But I also knew many Jews attended this place. I had high hopes.

Disappointment #1: There is no oneg at Metropolis Messianic. Oneg is the meal after service on Shabbat. It is customary to feed people and have social time over lunch on Shabbat. This is because on Shabbat, we don’t go to restaurants and services run long. It makes sense to eat together. But at Metropolis Messianic, everyone does go out for lunch to a restaurant, or they go home. There is a service and everyone leaves. So much for community. So much for being Jewish, which should at the very least mean, “We observe Sabbath.”

Disappointment #2: There is pretty much zero liturgy at Metropolis Messianic. It’s “Jewish” but there are few if any Jewish prayers.

Disappointment #3: There is pretty much zero Jewish education at Metropolis Messianic. When asked questions by Benjamin, the Jewish members know almost no Jewish terms. They have been living in a form of Christianity for decades now and forget what it means to be Jewish.

Big Disappointment #4: This one hurts to even write about. The yahrzeit comes for Benjamin’s child, who died as an adult. What could be more painful for Benjamin than the anniversary of his child’s death? He asks me, “Should I go to a mainstream synagogue where they will recite Kaddish and I can stand with the mourners?” I want Benjamin to be in synagogue and say Kaddish on the anniversary of his child’s death. But he calls Metropolis Messianic first to give them a chance. “No, we don’t do that,” said the congregational receptionist on the phone. And, yes, it was explained to them more than once that this was the anniversary of the death of an adult child. Metropolis Messianic, which is really not that large and should be more flexible to the needs of a person, doesn’t change their program for anyone. And Jewish mourners would do well to stay away.

Case exhibit #2, 3, 4, 5, and 6: Maybe Benjamin’s problem is that he stopped at six. After all, seven is God’s number. Maybe if he tried place #7 it would all come together. But exhibits 2-6 are all similar. They are all “Messianic” congregations with few or no Jews. I thought possibly some of them might do a better job of being Jewish than the actual Jewish leaders at Metropolis Messianic. I have seen gentile “Messianic” congregations that were Jewish in practice. Oh well . . .

Oneg: So far, none of the places Benjamin has gone to, driving more than an hour to get to some, have had oneg. They go to restaurants or home.

Hospitality: At one of them a famous Messianic speaker is coming (someone I respect, by the way). It is at least 90 minutes from Metropolis. Benjamin calls to ask if there is a possibility of asking someone to host him with some Shabbat hospitality over Friday night so he can be there for the event. “What’s that?” says the receptionist, “No, we don’t do that.”

The Label “Messianic”: It seems to be a niche brand that enables some independent teachers to attract a small but committed crowd. If they were called “Elm Street Slightly Jewish Charismatic Independent Church,” no one would come.

The Problem of False Advertising What do you call it when a restaurant says, “Authentic Italian,” and serves Chef Boyardee?

If you’re going to bother using the label “Messianic,” don’t you think you should know and practice Judaism to some degree (it’s a flexible concept and this does not mean being Orthodox)?

If not, what will you do when Benjamin calls?

How do we solve this problem? Well, for one thing, the few score of decent and actual Messianic Jewish congregations need to find some kesher (connection, cooperation, mutual excitement and goodwill for each other). We need some kind of brand recognition. TAKE NOTE: I will blog soon about some signs of life in Messianic Judaism, some organizations and congregations and people doing great things.

For another, I think some actually decent Messianic congregations suffer from identity-confusion, exhaustion from a lack of Jewish interest, and capitulation to a crowd that says, “Let’s forget about all that.” We need a vision check and recommitment to the meaning of Messianic Judaism.

And let me appeal to the groups who have no intention of being there for actual Jews but who use the label “Messianic” as if they do, in fact, exist for Jews: stop using the label if you don’t own up to it. Even if you are a group of mostly non-Jews and want to use the label “Messianic,” I could be okay with that if you sought to serve a Jewish person who came to you, if you practiced Jewish worship in some ways, if you could recite Kaddish with Jewish mourners, if you knew the difference between Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdallah, if you loved actual Jewish people.

Otherwise, there are other labels you could use. I admit that “Somewhat Jewish Independent and Separate from Everyone Else Fellowship” will get you few attendees. But there are other labels besides “Messianic” you could try.

COMING: More blogging about what good things are going on in Messianic Judaism. We’re small, but there are signs of life.

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18 Responses to What a Jew Needs from MJ

  1. James says:

    What you’ve written may be a shocking revelation for some (it’s amazing how some congregations really do think they’re doing “Jewish” right but actually don’t have a clue), but it’s what “Messianic Judaism” largely is and why I often put the word “Messianic” in quotes (my way of indicating it’s just a label and not a lived reality). What you are describing as the “target” MJ community, the one that Benjamin is looking for, basically functions identically to a non-Messianic (dare I say “normative) Jewish synagogue except that it is operated by and for ethnic, cultural, and religious Jews (people who were born and raised in Jewish religious homes) who are disciples of Yeshua of Natzeret; the Moshiach. As far as I can tell, those communities are all but non-existent.

    As you correctly point out, the other problem is even in communities where they exist, how do you find them? If you look in the phone book’s yellow pages (does anyone do that anymore?), how do you tell a “true” MJ synagogue from all of the ones you’ve just described? You might have more luck online, assuming all these congregations maintain a web presence. It’s pretty easy to tell a Charismatic or One Law “Messianic” congregation from one that operates based on a normative Jewish synagogue. Just look at their “vision statement” or similar document.

    All that said (and you know this better than I), the modern Messianic movement was spawned from the church and that’s where its roots lie. Until MJ can establish and maintain roots and tradition in Judaism, and do so over time (years or decades) as opposed to cultural, traditional, and historic Christianity, it will be a Christian church.

  2. Donna Levin says:

    Very interesting, Derek. I feel very blessed that our congregation has Oneg and uses some of the traditional Jewish liturgy each week. When a Jewish person comes in to our shul shouldn’t that person feel that he is in a synagogue? Even with our services and Oneg, we still struggle for community. Our home groups are struggling and most people come for services on Saturday and that’s it. I think many of the gentiles who attend are torn between two worlds. It could be that their family doesn’t support their desire to keep Shabbat and be more Torah observant. I have been to a few Messianic synagogues that are really church services that meet on Saturday. I know there is pressure on our rabbi for us to be more churchlike. Oy vey, why? If you want a church experience, then go to one. There’s certainly many choices out there. I wonder if we need to develop an online experience for people who don’t live near Jewish congregations. Would it be possible to develop a virtual experience for people? Do people like Benjamin need to find others like him and form Shabbat home groups and grow from the bottom up? I think we may need to pray for a Jewish and Hebraic awakening. The more I read about Hebraic versus Greek thought, worldview, etc., the more I am astonished at how Greek I am. I am convinced most people don’t have a clue about this.

    Recently I joined a Thursday evening online Chavurah group. We are all part of Dr. Skip Moen’s readers and we’re trying to build community (we are definitely open for new people to join us). In fact we’ll be starting to use the new Galatians book this week. We are very small, but are hoping to grow. Some of the people have left their churches because they are looking for a more Hebraic connection. It seems many people struggle to find the right place and are really hungry for community.

    It is time to grow those Jewish roots and keep feeding them.

  3. louise says:

    Alternatingly laughing and crying over this one. Good points, Derek.

  4. Carl Kinbar says:

    As you know, Benjamin’s situation is shared by many Jews. I am also doing some long-distance rabbinical work with some of them. Perhaps their most painful experience is that the very people who should understand, welcome, and bring healing to them–Messianic Jews–are more likely to misunderstand, reject, and wound them. They are marginal in the Jewish community and now find themselves marginal in the Messianic community.

    James doesn’t mince words: the correct label is “church.” The good news is that an increasing number of younger men and women (and some of my contemporaries as well) aren’t ready to join a church when they are looking for a synagogue community. We suffer the pain of alienation but, I suspect, an emerging Messianic Judaism will thrive only with some suffering.

  5. Rey says:

    Great post Derek!

    Yes this is a very big problem. I’ve been attending a Chabad Shul for almost 2 yrs and i will tell you that if one of my Christian friends would ever experience going to a real Messianic Shul or an Orthodox one they would label me as a heretic and part of a cult lol

    I agree with you 100% Derek, if your going to call your congregation “Messianic Judaism” it would make sense to follow ‘the traditions’.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Derek,

    Wow … You really hit the nail on the head with this post! As you rightly point out, most “Messianic” congregations do not even have a pulse on real Jewish life. And when we do not live by the rhythms of Jewish life, we wonder why we have such a hard time reaching Jewish people.

    Your example is only one of many situations I am aware of where a Jewish person open to Yeshua is turned away by a community that claims to exist for that person. Yet in reality, does not.

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  8. Jon says:

    whew…heavy post.

  9. Your article struck a nerve, and I find myself somewhere between amused and disgusted. I come from a home where hospitality was normal. When I have attended congregations where there was no oneg or hospitality, it left me frustrated, somewhat angry, and definitely feeling unwelcome. If people are not going to reach out to one another, it makes you wonder why they meet at all.

    The Christian world seems to fellowship around teaching alone (sola scriptura). The Jewish world does so around relationships, Torah and food. Food comforts, and people reaching out ministers. If you have only fed someone’s head, you have not done your job.
    \

  10. David Lazarus says:

    If you knew this was not a Messianic synagogue but a Messianic congregation why did you have these expectations? Since your expectations were met, why are you complaining it?

    You are criticizing this Messianic congregation by your own standards, standards they have not committed to, and you knew that. You say you know your friend would not find more Jewish practice at this congregation, and yet you sent him. And now you complain about what you knew would happen? What does it mean when you say, “I had little idea how right I was?” You didn’t know that you knew?

    Can you determine that the Messianic congregation “doesn’t change their program for anyone. And Jewish mourners would do well to stay away.” You know that they do not pray Kadish, or perhaps they don’t even know how to pray in Hebrew or Aramaic. So the issue is not that they don’t want to change their program. They don’t know how to pray the Sidur. That’s why you didn’t want your friend to mourn there. Nor is it fair to say Jewish mourners should stay away. Jews mourn in many different ways and many if not most don’t know the prayers. While I believe it is admirable and even necessary to teach our people the rich Jewish traditions, I suggest you show more respect to other Messianics that have other practices. Messianic Judaism is still very much in transition. I believe the way forward is towards a greater appreciation and practice of our traditions, but we must be patient and show respect for one another. That is also a Mitzvah. The kind of generalizations you make are not helpful in building community among us.

    I think that a congregation that calls itself a synagogue and whose leader is called a rabbi has an obligation to follow Jewish tradition. But it is clear from your post that this Messianic congregation does not.

    And why make such a stink about oneg Shabbat as though there was no “community” at the Messianic congregation because they didn’t have a meal. Standing around eating a piece of pickled herring and onion after service is nice, but have a little sympathy for other ways of expressing Messianic community in a congregation that does not call itself a synagogue. Don’t conclude as you did “so much for community” just because they didn’t eat after service. Try not to let your love of Judaism blind you to the benefits of other and legitimate attempts to build real community.

  11. “So the issue is not that they don’t want to change their program. They don’t know how to pray the Sidur. ”

    No, David, and I know that this issue strikes a personal nerve with you, but the problem is precisely that they DO NOT WANT to change their program because this is not the direction they want to go. The issue is their origins, overall outlook and chosen path, not lack of awareness. This doesn’t make them “bad” people or believers unworthy of fellowship – then again, this is not the focus of this post, is it? As far as knowledge goes, there are tons of materials available today online and in print, we have MJ educational resources, and we have some very novice-friendly messianic Jewish Siddurs that do not require much knowledge. The issue is attitude and direction.

    “Try not to let your love of Judaism blind you to the benefits of other and legitimate attempts to build real community.”

    Sounds like you would rather ignore the serious problem described in the post – perhaps because you don’t see it as a problem, David.

  12. Derek Leman says:

    David,

    Unlike Gene, I don’t know you personally. Your “about me” page on your blog impresses me immensely. You are obviously someone who has given his heart to Israel and the work of Messiah in the land.

    I think “Messianic” means something different to you than to me. I suspect your long time work in Israel has something to do with that. Consider this theory and tell me if it has merit:
    (1) Messianic in Israel means, essentially, Christian. This is the reason why some of my friends in Israel, who are more traditional and observant, prefer to call themselves Hasidei Yeshua.
    (2) Messianic outside of Israel used to mean and should mean “Messianic Jewish.” If you say to someone in the U.S. that you are Messianic, they assume you are Jewish. People who use the label Messianic and who are not Jewish here frequently have to add, “But I’m not Jewish.”

    So, my first point is that a congregation using the label “Messianic” ought to place a very high value on serving the needs of Jewish people coming to seek Yeshua.

    Now, I may have done a poor job in explaining myself. While I knew this place to actually be Christian, all their self-description and promotional material says they are Jewish. Their leader IS called Rabbi. They say they are XX% Jewish (where XX represents a number far larger than 50). They did refuse to make a change in their usual pattern to accommodate a Jewish mourner. They do know how to say Kaddish.

    My request is that a place which will not lift a feather to serve a legitimate Jewish need should drop the label “Messianic.” It would be an even greater shanda if I mentioned which congregation this is. These people should know better.

    But more than 35 years of serving a vision other than building a Jewish movement following Yeshua has caused them to serve a completely different constituency while retaining the illusion of being for the Jews.

    Many blessings on your work and it is possible I may be in Israel before year’s end. If so, I will plan to contact you and try to meet you in person.

    Derek Leman

  13. David Lazarus says:

    Derek,

    You raise an interesting question. “Messianic in Israel means, essentially, Christian.” As I said, MJ is in transition and has been for many years. It was not that long ago that we began calling ourselves “Yehudim Meshikim” in Israel. We chose this name in order to differentiate ourselves from Gentile Christians called “Notzrim” in Israel. So I don’t think Messianic in Israel means Christian, at least that was not our intention.

    No one can deny that our movement in Israel has been deeply influenced by Gentile Christianity. When I came to faith in Israel over 30 years ago there were only half a dozen congregations in the whole country and most of these were either lead by or supported by Gentile Christians. For the most part, over the past 3 decades Israelis have come to faith in Messiah through the witness of Gentile Christians. That is beginning to change, but the foundations for MJ faith in Israel come from Gentile Christianity. Who else was there to tell us about Messiah?!

    During these decades, many of us have tried to move towards a more Jewish understanding and expression of our faith. In the congregation I lead we began celebrating Jewish holidays only 20 years ago. In fact, we only began speaking Hebrew 25 years ago! I believe that this tendency of “reconnecting” with our Jewish roots will continue. Yes, there are many who do not appreciate our rich Jewish heritage. Some even oppose any connection with Judaism. Some of that is because in general many Israelis have a negative attitude towards Judaism to begin with.

    “This is the reason why some of my friends in Israel, who are more traditional and observant, prefer to call themselves Hasidei Yeshua.” I have a deep respect for our brothers and sisters connecting with their Jewish roots. I enjoy regular fellowship and deep friendships with many who call themselves “Hasidei Yeshua.” Most who go by this name are strong supporters of the so-called Messianic movement in Israel and as far as I can determine see themselves as part of our movement yet maintaining their unique emphasis and identity. Some of these prefer to see themselves as part of the synagogue. A small minority of these prefer not to be identified at all with the wider MJ movement in Israel. But in general we have a deep respect for one another and share teaching and seminars together.

    I am pleading for this kind of patience, understanding and communications. It is not helpful when “Hasidei Yeshua” criticize Messianics. That is not the spirit of Judaism which is not a monolithic faith and allows for a variety of expressions. I understand your concerns about the lack of Jewish life in Messianic congregations. I am challenged by the need to restore a Messianic body that gives full expression to our Jewish and Messianic beliefs. That is no small challenge and our movement is too young and too vulnerable for us to be throwing stones.

  14. Dear Derek,

    Excellent post, I think all these points very much need to be made. Coming from an Eastern Orthodox perspective on the Christian side of things, you and I obviously won’t see eye to eye on all theological and liturgical issues, but I do support the effort of Jews to find a place for Yeshua within Judaism. In truth, if I could find a community that seemed to be both authentically Jewish and Yeshua-centered, I would reconsider becoming MJ…

    However, the Messianic Jewish communities I have encountered have all been essentially evangelical Christian at core, and I am simply not persuaded by or comfortable with evangelical theology. I respect that you and the other authors on this site emphasize engagement with and knowledge of Judaism, but I’m dismayed by how few MJ’s seem to share this inclination. Too often, it strikes me that MJ is lacking the depth of both Jewish and Christian tradition, when “rabbis” and Jewish laity lack serious background and training in Judaism and have been trained solely in evangelical seminaries, for example…

  15. Kirk Gliebe says:

    Interesting blog Derek. I agree with you that the term “Messianic” carries little clarity (and as David knows even the descriptive “Yehudim Meshikim” is not clear enough to all in Israel among Yeshua followers), but instead of dwelling on our failings, let’s work toward a better understanding. We have lost our focus on reaching and serving our Jewish people for our Messiah Yeshua, which you do point out with appropriate force in your blog. We must recommit ourselves to this essential purpose for our Messianic Jewish Movement. Whether our individual communities are more or less observant is less an issue for me; my concern is whether or not they are composed of people born Jewish who have come to know their Messiah. Observance and practice will always vary among MJ communties, and yes it would be good for voluntary groupings of congregations like the UMJC and others to have common understandings of what “Messianic” means, but generally we need to show humility toward how other Jewish followers of Yeshua choose to live out their Jewishness.

  16. Daniel Nessim says:

    As Messianic Jews we need to be addressing this situation. I agree with David Lazarus’s opinion that the term ‘Messianic Synagogue’ should be used in contradistinction to ‘Messianic Congregation’.
    Here in the UK, we have an identical situation. The key term here is ‘Messianic Fellowship’ which is a good description regarding what we actually have. Sadly, we do have some ‘Messianic Synagogues’ but they are not Synagogues as all – they are filled with self-converted Gentiles and the Jews are hard to find. What it amounts to is that just as with the word ‘gay’ (which used to mean ‘happy’), the term Messianic Synagogue has been fraudulently co-opted so that those who truly DO have Messianic Synagogues can only use the term with difficulty.
    I believe Rav Shaul, or, say the writer of Judah in the Brit Chadasha, would not have stood for it. He would have vociferously stood for the truth and clearly decried deceptive use of these terms.
    To our own hurt we are often too polite. Personal attacks, vitriole, rudeness and nastiness are not helpful. What would be helpful is clearly stating our opinions and openly taking a stand.

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