During our recent UMJC-sponsored webinar, we asked the question “why aren’t more Jewish people finding their spiritual home in Messianic Jewish synagogues?” We dissected the common myths that congregational leaders parrot to justify the absence of Jewish people in our pews. Here’s a re-hash:
Myth #1: Jewish people just aren’t spiritual enough.
How many times have you heard some variant of “Jewish people are just not interested in spiritual things?” I hear it frequently parroted from the bimot of congregations that are failing to attract a critical mass of Jewish people. It’s utterly bogus, and can veer toward the anti-Semitic accusation that Jewish people are only interested in affluence and materialism. Numerous studies have shown that the average Jewish “dropout” is actually a spiritual seeker. Did you know that 60% of all people in cults are Jewish? There’s a reason why Shlomo Carlebach took his guitar to ashrams in the 60s … that’s where the Jewish people were, desperately seeking a connection to G-d.
Today’s Jewish seekers look for G-d on hiking trails, on globe-trots through Asia, through social activism, and in the community of faces gathered around their dinner tables. In the 21st century, Israel is still living up to our namesake as the people who wrestle with G-d. We seek intellectual rigor, meaningful prayer, and opportunities to put feet on our faith (see Pirkei Avot for a pithy way to say this). Most significantly, we seek genuine community with other Jewish people who share these interests.
But what do Messianic congregations greet these G-d wrestlers with? The “brand” we’ve built tends to be cluttered with tchotchkes, scarves, banners, powerpoint prayers, costumes, doctrinal statements, anti-church rants, partisan politics, and long-winded sermons. What is profoundly alienating about all of this is that it reflects an unapologetic disinterest in the spiritual needs/wants/desires of Jewish people. Is there any wonder why there is such a disconnect?
Myth #2: Jewish people are not interested in Yeshua.
The second myth that we comfort ourselves with is that Jewish people are just not interested in Yeshua. Also bogus. It’s rare that I meet a Jewish person who hasn’t at some point engaged in a wrestling match with that guy from Nazareth (or isn’t on the verge of beginning one). Many have even dared to have a conversation with G-d about him. But Yeshua the person/Messiah/divine figure is not the problem. Surely, every once in awhile a theological objection poses too high a hurdle for a Jewish person to embrace “that guy.” For example, the concept of Yeshua’s deity can feel like idolatry. The “Trinity” feels like a rejection of the most famous Jewish prayer. The idea of two Messiahs, or two arrivals of the same Messiah, although once embraced, is no longer considered a mainstream Jewish view.
Although these theological hurdles are significant, often it’s other things that get in the way, and provoke a stronger reaction in the Jewish neshama. It’s the way Jesus’ followers have treated the Jewish people for two centuries. It’s the way he’s developed in the popular imagination, as a flaxen-haired pacifist draped helplessly on a cross. Or it’s the fact that, historically, Jews who follow Yeshua don’t become better Jews. A Jewish Messiah who fills the job description would make Jewish people into better Jews, nu? See my favorite manifesto of Stuart Dauermann’s for more on this. Why, then, are Yeshua’s Jewish followers sometimes the most visible proponents of rejecting Jewish practices, traditions, values, and potential spouses? And why are his Gentile followers constantly quoting that Pharisee (Paul) to defend their view that they are the “real” Israel?
All this happens (hopefully) outside the confines of a Messianic congregation. In light of “all this,” isn’t it a shame that when a Jewish seeker darkens our doors, we clutter the path with polyester banners, pixelated prayers, Fiddler on the Roof costumes, random shofar blowings, and broken (or no) Hebrew? All of which send the message that HERE is definitely not the space for a Jewish wrestling match with a first-century stone mason. HERE is not where Jewish people aggressively pursue torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim together. No, HERE is where we type Judaism into Google and stir in a little Jesus … because that’s just how we like it, thankyouverymuch.
MYTH #3: Messianic Judaism is just too hard.
What’s implied in the third most convenient myth is that the Jewish people who are not attracted to our congregations “just can’t hack it.” It implies that those of us who stick with Messianic Jewish communal life despite weekly fits of exasperation have far greater moral, spiritual, and social fortitude than the average Jewish follower of Yeshua.
The Royal “I” can straddle sociological, religious, and ethnic fences with aplomb. “I” can handle a constant stream of rejection, criticism, and judgmentalism from my own people and from the Church because “I” am not ashamed. “I” will raise Jewish children better than you will, so help me G-d. “I” have the vision, and “they” do not.
This is also bogus. Being Jewish is difficult, in and of itself. G-d pulled the entire people of Israel into the wilderness and it turned out that pretty much NO ONE could hack it, not even Moshe Rabbenu. But hardship has never kept the Jewish people from passing our traditions, texts, and faith from one generation to another. And the generations of Jewish people who have been led by a compelling vision (articulated by Joshua, Solomon, David, and Herzl) have invariably held themselves together.
The shame reflex, it turns out, is a rather convenient excuse for failing to offer a compelling vision for Jewish life to Yeshua’s Jewish followers. And this gets us back to Myth #1. By which I mean, there are no Jews (or few Jews) in our pews because we aren’t preoccupied with understanding or meeting their spiritual needs.
To illuminate alloftheabove, I offer the account of Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jewish girl whose heart was stolen by that stone mason from Nazareth. Three years after beginning her walk with Yeshua, she wandered reluctantly into a Messianic congregation in the South (which I will decline to identify, primarily because she could have had this experience almost anywhere). Here is her recollection, from her book “Girl Meets G-d“:
“A man in a tallis, a prayer shawl, stands at a podium in the front of the room, and a small choir clusters to his right, leading the congregation through songs that are printed on a transparency and displayed on a large screen. In the corner of the room, a circle of women are dancing, some variation of the hora. I am prepared for that. I’ve read a recent ethnography of a Messianic Jewish congregation, and the author explains that dancing is an important element of Messianic worship services. I feel an unexpected pull to join them. The dances are similar to those at Tova’s wedding. I have not yet found a group of Anglicans who love Jewish folk dancing.
The service consists mostly of songs, with a little spontaneous prayer thrown in. No one mentions Sukkot. The fact that it is Sukkot doesn’t seem to be part of the service at all. Why bother playing at Judaism, I wonder, annoyed, if you don’t move by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar? I have been trying, since I got baptized, to learn to live according to the seasons of Advent and Lent, but so far my body still thinks in terms of Jewish holidays.
The absence of Sukkot is just one of many things that irritates me about the service. The pink satin yarmulkes, straight out of a Reform synagogue in the 1908s, irritate me. The gold-and-magenta banners proclaimed YESHUA irritate me. And the music irritates me. Rather than sing the haunting melodies available to anyone who is casually acquainted with the centuries-old Jewish cantorial tradition, the folks [at this congregation] seem content with songs that sound as though they had been lifted from the praise music guide at any nondenominational evangelical church, only [these] songs have a little Hebrew thrown in.
This is how I feel all morning: that [this congregation’s] Judaism is just raisins added to a cake – you notice them, but they don’t really change the cake. The structure of the service bears no relation to the Jewish liturgy, and I can’t tell if my fellow worshippers think that being Jewish leads them to understand Jesus any differently from the Presbyterians down the street. Add Hebrew and Stir.”
Is it really Lauren Winner’s fault that her first experience in a Messianic Jewish congregation left her with a sour taste in her mouth? Here was a young Jewish woman, thoroughly persuaded of the Messiah-ness of Yeshua, seeking a deep connection with G-d, carrying a wealth of Jewish literacy. She writes that a few days later, for Simchat Torah, during a visit to the Orthodox synagogue that she attended in college, she finds the Jewish spirituality she was seeking (sans Yeshua). With a Hebrew-flavored Pentecostalism on the one hand, and an Orthodox community on the other, is it any surprise that Ms. Winner chose Anglicanism instead?
Pretty much every fiber of my being wants to create spiritual homes for people like Lauren Winner. In my humble opinion, this is exactly what Yeshua expects of his Jewish followers in the 21st century.