Is this ‘Judaism Lite’?

Tonight I went to a lecture with Rabbi Avi Weiss at the historic 6th & I synagogue in downtown Washington, DC.

Rabbi Weiss has been named by Newsweek as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. He is the founder of what he calls “Open Orthodoxy,” with its own rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and now a women’s program which trains women to be spiritual and halachic leaders, Yeshivat Maharat. He is the Senior Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and has long been a pioneering voice within Modern Orthodoxy. He recently made headlines over the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz (who is the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat and part of the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale).

Several times during his lecture tonight on Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Weiss was clear to dismiss the accusations that Open Orthodoxy is “Orthodox-Lite.” At one point he stated, “Open Orthodoxy is a combination of fluidity and tradition, but it is NOT Orthodox-lite.” Open Orthodoxy is serious about halachic observance and adherence to the mitzvot. It just happens to also be open in its relation to the world, to education, and other movements within Judaism, etc.

Much of what Rabbi Weiss discussed tonight made me think a lot about the current state of Messianic Judaism. In many ways, Messianic Judaism today operates exactly as “Judaism Lite.” This is exactly the point we made in a previous blog post, Messianic Judaism and Coffee.  In that post we made the point that we have built a very comfortable spiritual home for Jews and non-Jews who do a little bit here, mix in a little bit there, read a book or two … and soon declare ourselves to be Jewish connoisseurs.

Continuity can only exist when we continue to live a Jewish life with and among our people. Let me make clear that “living as Jews” does not necessarily mean “Orthodox.” There are many ways to be Jewish. But Jewish life must be committed to the foundation blocks which have held us together for over 3,000 years.

The UMJC’s definition of Messianic Judaism makes an important statement that Messianic Judaism embraces “the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.”

Jewish people today (and all people, really) are searching for meaning, belonging, and spirituality. This is regularly supported by numerous poles.  But they are looking for something that is rooted, serious, meaningful, and intellectually stimulating. They are looking for something that is not “Judaism Lite.”

During the most recent Borough Park Symposium, several of the presenters suggested Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionism as a possible model for creating such a dynamic and meaningful Jewish experience. However, I challenged this idea in my response paper. In my opinion, the message of the Reconstructionist movement is not very compelling to young Jews.  Although there is an emphasis on community and belonging, it is missing the key ingredient.

In fact, three of the papers presented at the Symposium (by Cohen, Moskowitz, and Fleischer) all referenced Mordecai Kaplan.  I found this interesting because although Kaplan may decidedly be a resource for Boomer Jews, his writings rarely inform today’s younger engaged Jews, who look to Heschel, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Shlomo Carlebach, and other vibrant spiritual thinkers. This is because the concept of Judaism as a Civilization is losing ground in America today.  An ethnic Judaism of bagels and lox cannot maintain Jewish identity over time, or over the span of multiple generations, primarily because it lacks a vision that is compelling to young, Post-Modern Jews. And this is especially true of Messianic Judaism.

A Messianic Judaism that is really just “Judaism Lite” is not going to cut it. We need to offer a serious Jewish experience that is meaningful, credible, and deeply engaging. That is why my colleagues and I have been working so hard to build such a form of Judaism.  And this is especially evident within our work in the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC).

It is time for a Messianic form of Judaism that is not “Judaism Lite.” We can either be true connoisseurs with a deep value and knowledge of our history and tradition, or we can continue to drape our faith with a Tallis and call it “Jewish.” It is my deepest conviction that the only Messianic form of faith that can survive into the future is one that truly is a Messianic form of Judaism. Maybe it’s time for an “Open Messianic Judaism.”

What do you think?

About Rabbi Joshua

I’m a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband … not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I’m just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Santa Monica, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin’ hot human rights attorney… and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.

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29 Responses to Is this ‘Judaism Lite’?

  1. Joshua says:

    YES! I completely agree that we need to get serious about our Judaism.

    Judaism, not Jewish culture.
    Judaism, not Hebrew roots.
    Judaism, not words. Actions. As in, open your shul to help the struggling in your city.
    Judaism. As in Torah,
    living communities of regular minyanim,
    people (even new guests) invited over for Friday night dinners after a Friday night service (even followed by a service on Saturday!).
    Serious Judaism. As in, I know what the major commentators on the Torah are.
    As in, my MJ synagogue has Talmud discussion groups.
    Judaism. As in a kosher kitchen (at least in our shuls as a start)
    Really serious Judaism. As in, MASHIACH! Our High holiday services change your life.

    Judaism. Learning, knowing God through our history, texts, experience, and changing the world by Messiah!

  2. Carl Kinbar says:

    I think you’re right.

    I notice that you quote from the UMJC’s definition of MJ. It seems to me that MJ is witnessing the beginnings of a textual tradition represented by the Hashivenu Core Values, the UMJC definition of MJ, and the MJRC Standards of Observance. (I have a chapter on these documents in an upcoming Zondervan book on MJ.)

    One thing that sets these apart from other important writings is that they were produced not by individuals but by groups. The portion that you quote–MJ embraces “the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant”–expresses the common theme of the three documents and, IMO, serves as a sort of mission statement for what I call “emerging Messianic Judaism.”

    In the past few months I’ve made connections with several twenty-something MJs–none of them from “our” circles–who have embraced emerging MJ entirely apart from these organizations and documents. This is an encouraging sign that Hashem is working both within and beyond organizational boundaries to bring about something new and compelling.

  3. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Carl and Joshua,

    Thanks for your feedback!

  4. James says:

    I probably shouldn’t even comment, not being Jewish and not being part of the MJ movement, but is Messianic Judaism a single expression of Judaism? When you contrast Open Orthodox with the more traditional Orthodox practice vs. Reconstructionist vs. the other expressions of Judaism, aren’t they all Judaisms? Are there not different organizations and congregations within MJ that practice Judaism to different standards that are analogous to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc…?

    When you say that Messianic Judaism isn’t “Judaism Lite” (with a Yeshua twist), how do you propose to make it “heavy”? Is there more than one way to do so?

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      James,

      I just want to make clear, your thoughts are always welcome and appreciated!

      Regarding the question, “aren’t they all Judaisms?” The answer is yes. That is why this is an intra-Jewish discussion. And there are indeed multiple ways to practice one’s Judaism, that is why I made the caveat above that “‘living as Jews’ does not necessarily mean ‘Orthodox.’ There are many ways to be Jewish.”

      However, as far as how to make MJ “heavy” is the reintroduction of certain foundational concepts that are paramount to any form of Judaism (and currently not present in much of what is identified as ‘Messianic Jewish’).

      As Heschel once said, Judaism is more than a way a living, it is a way of thinking as well. Most Messianic Jews do not think like Jews. Nor is their practice a Judaism. The standard has been to drape Christianity with a Tallis and call it Jewish. When we do so, our detractors are correct in calling us deceptive and not truly being Jewish.

      Therefore, an emerging Messianic Judaism (to borrow Rabbi Kinbar’s phrase) requires that we build our theology upon the three central pillars of Judaism – namely, 1) the G-d of Israel 2) the People of Israel, and 3) the Land of Israel. And the Messiah of Israel must be understood in relation to these principles.

      So to make MJ “heavy,” as you ask, we must truly be a Messianic form of Judaism – living within our Jewish community, sharing the values of our larger Jewish community, with a theology built upon Judaism. As my friend and colleague Dr. Mark Kinzer has so eloquently argued, Yeshua can already be found at work among our own people and faith. At times he may be hidden, but he is still present among and within Israel. Therefore it behooves us to find him there, instead of continuing to try to find him elsewhere and then dragging him back into Judaism. Yeshua, as Israel’s Messiah, is existent within the body of faith, and as the Remnant of Israel, we need to be the embodiment of that reality within our Jewish people.

      • James says:

        As far as I can tell with my limited perspective, it seems like there’s a very small core of ethnically and religiously Jewish Messianics in existence who actually live a lifestyle consistent with being Jewish. The vast majority of MJ (currently) seems to have a fairly strong Christian influence (I don’t mean that in a bad way…that’s just what it is) and is primarily operated by a non-Jewish leadership.

        The task then, would be to form and maintain Messianic Jewish synagogues that operate in pretty much the same model as non-Messianic synagogues with the Jewish members living Jewish lifestyles 24/7. Obviously, there would be varying degrees of observance but as you say, it would all be Jewish observance.

        This is easier said than done, because by and large, MJ is still an extension of the church and as you say, is Christianity draped with a Tallis. We’ve seen the resistance to his sort of move recently relative to Gentile participation. How can a Gentile be a full member of a “true” MJ congregation and still not feel like a second class citizen? Should Gentiles attend MJ congregation (and a year ago, I couldn’t imagine asking such a question)?

        • Rabbi Joshua says:

          James,

          I agree with you, except for one small comment that MJ “is primarily operated by a non-Jewish leadership.”

          Actually, the leadership of MJ is predominantly Jewish (even if theologically more from the ‘Christian’ perspective). This is certainly true of the mainstream movements like the UMJC and MJAA. There may be individual leaders of some congregations who are not Jewish within these two organizations, but their leadership structures are Jewish. This is also especially true also of the mission organizations, J4J and Chosen People Ministries.

          • James says:

            I agree with you, except for one small comment that MJ “is primarily operated by a non-Jewish leadership.”

            I was looking at MJ with a much wider lens and including OL and TH as well as what you probably think of as “Messianic Judaism proper”. I doubt that most people outside the movement, including the church, know how to tell the difference. That’s another hurdle to cross when trying to communicate your message.

            I know there are no UMJC and MJAA affiliated congregations any where near me and I wouldn’t know how to find one, assuming they are located in major population centers in the northwest such as SLC, Portland, and Seattle. Christians and other interested and curious folks, when looking for an MJ congregation, don’t look for the congregation’s affiliation. They just assume MJ is one entity across the board. Probably most groups out there who call themselves “Messianic Judaism” aren’t affilated with anyone.

        • Rabbi Joshua says:

          And that is certainly a problem.

  5. “Are there not different organizations and congregations within MJ that practice Judaism to different standards that are analogous to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc…?”

    James, I think this is inescapable. In my expedience the spectrum of Jewish believers today, while still solidly more on Evangelicalism than Judaism side, spans just about all of the existing streams within modern Judaism. The best we can do is lead by example and offer guidance, and of course, our unity is in Yeshua and Jewish people, and yes, Judaism in its many expressions. I especially like the Chabad approach – there are no secular, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox – we are all Jews, just with varying levels of observance.

    While there is virtually no possibility to create a uniform “Messianic Judaism” (nor is one needed, really), to paraphrase Pirkei Avot, while “we are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” (meaning, to continue working on drawing Jewish followers of Yeshua back into the Judaism fold). This is why I applaud the pioneering and much needed efforts by Hashivenu and MJRC, even if I have a few disagreements with them at times.

  6. James says:

    I especially like the Chabad approach – there are no secular, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox – we are all Jews, just with varying levels of observance.

    Good thought, Gene. I agree, not only do I think that a uniform Messianic Judaism won’t exist, but that it probably can’t exist, for the same reason that there is no single, uniform expression of Judaism or Christianity. To extend the Chabad perspective, there would be a single body of Messianic Jews, all displaying various levels of observance. Not sure how that would apply to non-Jewish believers except as varying degrees of Noahide observance, as you describe it on your blog.

  7. “Therefore it behooves us to find him there [within Israel/Judaism], instead of continuing to try to find him elsewhere and then dragging him back into Judaism. ”

    Joshua, that was beautiful.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Thanks, Gene.

      Will you be in Dallas this year? If so, let’s make sure to find a time to hang out.

  8. Rabbi Yaakov says:

    The dilemma which Messianic Judaism faces is the same crisis that Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism all face. It’s interesting to note that while all of the above mentioned branches are losing adherents at a rapid rate due to assimilation (& lack of practice & substance) the Orthodox Jewish movement, specifically Chabad and other traditional congregations are growing at an equally rapid rate. The very issue which Messianic Judaism tries to solve will ultimately be its downfall. Messianic Judaism only exists because of a lack of Torah knowledge & Jewish values among its practitioners. I have never met a Messianic believer who grew up in a “frum” Torah true home that kept Shabbat, kept Kosher & observed all the Halachic laws of Judaism. To every Jew that has been raised in a traditional Orthodox Jewish home, the very thought of Messianic Judaism is repugnant. Every Messianic I’ve met has been Jewish in last name only (& many times not even that). Yes, they went to an occasional “temple” service. Yes, they had gefilte fish a few times and that is the extent of their Jewish knowledge.

    I view your calling for Messianic congregations to research & embrace their Jewish identity as a wonderful thing. As members of the Messianic movement learn about real Torah Judaism, they will start to understand that Messianic Judaism & Traditional Judaism are inherently incompatible. It is at that point that your congregants will be faced with the stark reality that what they practice is not Judaism but veiled Christianity with a sprinkle or two of Yiddishkeit thrown in for good measure. It is at that point that Messianic Judaism will be forced to either morph into mainstream Christianity or will be absorbed into a more traditional albeit less orthodox branch of Judaism without the Messianic component. Messianic Judaism will not remain for long, it can’t, because its very existence is a contradiction of faiths. Messianic Judaism will ultimately assimilate its way out of existence and Reform, Reconstructionist & Humanistic Judaism all attest to that fact.

    I sincerely pray that those who search for real Yiddishkeit ultimately come home to where they belong.
    Shalom,

    Rabbi Yaakov

  9. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Rabbi Yaakov,

    Thank you for commenting. Regarding your comment that:

    “Messianic Judaism only exists because of a lack of Torah knowledge & Jewish values among its practitioners. I have never met a Messianic believer who grew up in a “frum” Torah true home that kept Shabbat, kept Kosher & observed all the Halachic laws of Judaism.”

    In the majority of cases, you are indeed correct. However, it is not true in all cases. There are actually a number of individuals who grew up in frum homes who continue to live observant (to varying degrees) Jewish lifestyles. And there are also those who maybe did not grow up religious, but for many years have become quite knowledgeable of Jewish life and practice.

    You may not know of us because we do not regularly comment on most Messianic blogs, participate in most Messianic public events, or hand out tracts on street corners.

    I myself am just tired of the typical anti-Missionary arguments like the only Jews who believe in Yeshua are stupid and ignorant of Jewish life. There is a growing number of Messianic Jews who not only live Jewish lives, but who also have credentials from Jewish institutions, degrees in Jewish studies from prestigious colleges and universities, and even smicha from respected authorities and yeshivot.

    However, again, it is a little harder to often find us because we do not stick out so readily. In fact, we look and often live just like you. We shop at the same kosher markets, live in the same communities, and attend many of the same shiurim.

    The age of “ignorant Messianics” will only die out over the next generation. As Messianic Judaism (along with other progressive forms of Judaism) become more religious, those remaining will have to have a stronger Jewish life and identity. It is hard enough to be Jewish, especially with extremely high assimilation rates. So the only Jews who will remain are those who opt for more than “Judaism Lite.”

  10. This is an excellent blog post, I would argue that any Judaism not fully founded and centered on Torah and Halacha is no Judaism at all (I’m not advocating Orthodoxy for everyone here though.) HaShem gave the Jewish people the Torah, the purpose of which was for Israel to be a light to the nations and to make Israel (Jewish people) distinct from the other nations. So for me Judaisms that deny the fundamental and divine nature of the Torah are denying the very essence of what makes us Jews unique, and the framwork for which HaShem gave us to be the light to the nations. At the same time Judaisms that are so isolated from the rest of the world, in my mind are also denying the purpose of us which is to be a light. In my mind for Messianic Judaism to ever come into it’s full potential we must never lose the Torah or an adherence to halacha. Also it is imperative in my mind that Yeshua is understood in completely Jewish light and moved out from under the shadow of the church. We also must have a through understanding of Judaism not for sake of “saving” Jews but simply because Judaism is our religion. Over all my Hashem bless the work of our hands.

  11. Joshua says:

    Rabbi Joshua,

    That was very well put. Thank you for pointing this out.

    “In fact, we look and often live just like you. We shop at the same kosher markets, live in the same communities, and attend many of the same shiurim….The age of “ignorant Messianics” will only die out over the next generation.”

  12. Carl Kinbar says:

    “Obviously, there would be varying degrees of observance but as you say, it would all be Jewish observance.”
    I agree, James. Emerging Messianic Judaism IS characterized by a serious, though mostly not Orthodox, degree of observance. Witness the MJRC (ourrrabis.org) and numerous groups and individuals who are Torah-oriented and don’t even participate in mainstream MJ.

    As Heschel observed in “God in Search of Man,” halachah and aggadah are polarities that are both essential to a vital Jewish existence. He comments that Judaism tends toward a halachic orientation that lacks spiritual vitality (my paraphrase – I don’t have the book handy). It needs the embrace of aggadah in order to thrive as more than orthopraxy. For us, “aggadah” is not only traditional midrash (and you know my serious commitment to midash) but our larger narrative. An emerging MJ narrative must be more than “we have become Torah observant” in order to function in dynamic interplay with halachah.

    But we also need some of the characteristics of the emerging church because they are, for the most part, dealing with modernity in creative and effective ways. Their emphasis on community, permeable boundaries, and service are not “churchy” and learning some lessons from them incurs a dept to creative Jesus-followers rather than to organized Christianity or Christian tradition. In other words, it will not flavor us as “Christian.”

    Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth.

  13. Carl Kinbar says:

    Note: I should have written “semi-permeable” boundaries.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Carl,

      Great comments and additions to the discussion! As you know, I am a big fan of Heschel. And you hit the nail on the head with the statement that “an emerging MJ narrative must be more than “we have become Torah observant” in order to function in dynamic interplay with halachah.”

  14. Meira says:

    Interesting and all-too-relevant points here, especially for myself – a Jew who has possibly c0me to believe in Christ or Yeshua (not sure on terminology, or indeed on him being moschiach at this point, but that’s a much longer story) through dissatisfaction with a great deal of “Judaism lite.” I grew up in a secular/intermarried family, became very interested in Judaism as a teenager, and moved back and forth throughout the observant Conservative world and Reconstructionist/Renewal circles in college and my twenties. I came to feel an increasingly dissatisfaction with that world and a greater desire for the Truth with a capital T – initally I thought that meant Orthodox Judaism, but instead I had a series of religious experience I was really not expecting, that forced me to reexamine what I thought of Christianity.

    Admittedly, most of my experience with messianic Jews in the past was more in line with what R. Yaakov said – folks who had very little Jewish knowledge and seemed to be thinly veiled evangelical Christians. Having spent years learning Hebrew, studying Tanakh and Talmud, Yiddishkeit, etc, I was entirely dissatisfied – and from my studes in New Testament/Early Christianity, I have serious misgivings about a lot of evangelical theology as well.

    I struggle as well because I sometimes see an impulse among messianic Jews to label everything they dislike about contemporary/rabbinic Judaism as “Pharisaism” or “spiritually dead.” I disagree with this, but I feel the same temptation myself at times, as I came to find the Orthodox communities I explored often spiritually arid and unpleasantly legalistic – though I don’t doubt that many members were sincere and found them spiritually fulfilling. I don’t want Judaism Lite, but I don’t want stifling reactionary Judaism either.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Meira,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. And let me know if I can be helpful in any way on your journey. In fact, there are some great resources I could point you to if your interested.

  15. Carl Kinbar says:

    Meira,

    We can empathize with your struggles. Rabbi Joshua would probably be too modest to suggest that he and his wife may be of help to you — but they can.

  16. Meira says:

    Dear Rabbi Joshua,

    I’d be happy to hear more thoughts on recommendations/reading material. Right now I’ve mostly been sinking my teeth into things such as Mark Nanos’ Biblical scholarship and several of Daniel Boyarin’s books – quite interesting material, though not always clear what practical/spiritula consequences to draw from the ideas there!

    Shalom,
    Meira

  17. Herbert Roy George says:

    I am disappointed that the three central pillars of Judaism does not include ‘gentile’ relationships / ‘love for your neighbor’. I am a new comer to the MJ movement and a non-jew and am still evaluating what it is all about. There is a lot of struggle for identity vis a vis Judaism while trying to be distinctive from the church at the same time.
    People like me who have become post christian identify with this struggle and we go in the opposite direction that MJ should be coming from (OT to NT). Is the MJ movement ready to handle this niche crowd yet ? – I am not sure.

  18. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Herbert,

    Thank you very much for your comment. Just to clarify, ‘love and respect for your neighbor’ is already (and must remain) a central tenant in Jewish theology. And Messianic Judaism must always remain welcoming to visitors and sojourners within our midst. But to be fair, this is not the soul purpose of Messianic Judaism.

    Messianic Judaism is a Jewish movement for Yeshua within the Jewish community. Therefore, Messianic Judaism must exist to primarily meet the need of Jews and intermarrieds. However, Messianic Jews also have a task in being a Light to the Nations to also help those like yourself connect in a meaningful way to their own faith traditions, and also gain a knowledge and appreciation for the Jewish people, Israel, and the Jewish context of the New Testament.

    I believe, along with many of my colleagues, that within the wider body of Messiah there will be two distinct (yet complimentary) entities. And we each need each other, and must work together for the return of Messiah, but have distinct roles to play.

  19. AOPC says:

    Interesting to see who *else* attended r. weiss engagement…It was for me something of a last attempt at giving ear to Modern Orthodoxy – and I almost laughed outloud at the Camus-quoting “kumbaya”-style song at the end – being sung mostly by Baby-Boomers. I’m slightly sad to hear of your move to LA, as it would have been good to physically meet someone with whom I might actually discuss Judaism/JC related issues as they form in my mind; I have been an observant Jew for years, and now am asking serious (and at times academic), questions about Christ. Perhaps there is someone of comparable academic background in the DC area you could put me in contact with? All the best
    AOPC

  20. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Shalom AOPC,

    That is funny we were at the same event! And I agree with you about the little niggun at the end. I too am sorry we did not get to meet before we moved. However, I would love to be in contact. You can email me directly at rebyosh@ahavatzion.org. And, yes, I can maybe put you in contact with someone in the DC area.

    Kol tuv!

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