Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What is Messianic Judaism? [UPDATED]

This may seem like such a basic question for those of us who have been in the movement for many years.  But this basic question is not so easy to answer.  And if you look across the internet you will find some really terrible definitions for Messianic Judaism.  Here's a few examples:

Wikipedia:  "Messianic Judaism is a syncretic religious movement [that] blends evangelical Christian theology with elements of religious Jewish practice..."

That's pretty bad.  Here's one from a UMJC pamphlet I just picked up this past weekend:

"What is Messianic Judaism?  Messianic Jews are Jewish people from all walks of life who have come to believe in the promised Jewish Messiah of Israel.  Today, there are tens of thousands of Messianic Jews in the United States alone..."

Messianic Judaism is Messianic Jews?  Shouldn't we have a definition that takes into account the fact that the overwhelming majority in Messianic congregations are not even Jewish!

So let's have some better definitions!  Any brave souls out there?  Let's discuss...

The following are pertinent excerpts relating to the definition of Judaism:

"What is Judaism?  Is it the religious behavior of all people who call themselves and are known to others as Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews?  Or is it an ideal set of beliefs and practices against which the practices and beliefs of real Jews are to be measured and judged?  If the former, Judaism is a relativistic construct of human beings, and no variety of Judaism is any more correct or authentic than any other.  This is the perspective of the historian.  If the latter, Judaism is a body of absolute truths revealed by God and/or sanctioned by tradition, and those interpretations of Judaism that more nearly approximate these absolute truths are truer and more authentic than those that do not.  This is the perspective of the believer,"  pg. 130 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye Cohen.

The New Encyclopedia of Judaism:

"Judaism  The monotheistic faith of the Jews.  The word itself (Yahadut) does not appear in the Bible.  It is first found in II Maccabees and in Esther Rabbah (7:11).  It appears to have been coined by Hellenized Jews (using the Greek word Judaismos) and denotes both a religious and a national concept.  The question of whether the Jews constitute a religion, a nation, or both, has been discussed for centuries, especially since the EMANCIPATION..."Judaism" is an all-embracing concept incorporating not only the ritual aspects, and has been described as an entire 'way of life,' or 'civilization.'"

The Encyclopedia of Judaism Vol. II:

"JUDAISM, DEFINITION OF:  A Judaism is a religion that [1] for its way of life privileges the Pentateuch and finds in the Five Books of Moses the main rules defining the holy way of life, [2] for its social entity identifies the group that embodies faith as the Israel of which the Hebrew Scriptures speak, and [3] for its world view recapitulates the experience of exile and return that the Pentateuch sets forth....Dealing with the diversity of Judaisms within Judaism proves somewhat easier if we simplify our terms and speak not of 'the religion, Judaism' but of a 'Judaic religious system.'  A religious system comprises three components:
[1] A world-view...
[2] A way of life...
[3] A particular social group...
...How do we tell when all three are present and thus define a social group, a Judaism?  We look for the emergence of a striking and also distinctive symbol, something that expresses the whole all together and at once...that captures the whole and proclaims its special message:  its way of life, its world-view, its conception of Israel.  For a Judaism, such a generative symbol may be 'Torah,' God's revelation to Moses at Sinai.  Or it may be 'Israel,' God's holy people.  Or, of course, the generative symbol may come to concrete expression in the conception of God."

The Blackwell Companion to Judaism:

pg. 11 "The approach we work out here requires us to describe not Judaism as a whole--all the Judaism of all times and all places set forth through the common denominator that holds them together--but a Judaism, that is to say, a single religious system.  Such a system will be composed of three elements:  a world-view, a way of life, and a social group that, in the her and now, embodies the whole.  The world-view explains the life of the group, ordinarily referring to God's creation, the revelation of the Torah, the goal and end of the group's life in the end of time.  The way of life defines what is special about the life of the group.  The social group, in a single place and time, then forms the living witness and testimony to the system as a whole and finds in the system ample explanation for its very being.  That is a Judaism."

pg. 3 "Judaism is a religion, so we begin by asking what we mean when we define religion in general and one religion in particular....Religion combines belief or attitude, world-view, which we may call 'ethos,' and also behavior or way of life or right action, which we may call...'ethics.'  ....religion [also] explains the social world made up by people who believe certain things in common and act [in common] and so [we may call this aspect] ethnos.  These three things together--ethos, ethics, and ethnos--define religion, which forms the foundation of the life of many social entities in humanity."

pg. 4  "...public consensus [of practicing Jews] defines the faith..."

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions:

"Judaism.  The name 'Judaism' emerged at around the opening of the Christian era...Like other aggregating names of major religions, it is misleading if it implies that there is uniformity of belief and practice among all Jews.  Yet it is appropriate if it draws attention to a shared genealogy (identified through having a Jewish mother, and going back to 'our fathers...' and to a sense of being a people chosen to receive God's guidance in Torah--though the emphasis on being a chosen people has itself been questioned during the 20th cent.  Today a distinction is frequently drawn between 'secular' or 'cultural' Judaism (denoting those who accept the history and values of Judaism, but who do not observe the details of Torah...and 'religious' Judaism, which implies acceptance of Torah.  Even then, there are major differences in the ways in which Torah is brought to bear on life, among the major divisions of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative...Attempts to define 'normative Judaism' have not met with extensive success; but at the least it can be said that Judaism is inseparable from the idea of the peoplehood of Israel; and that adherence to another religion such as Christianity or Islam is incompatible with Judaism of any form (i.e. even with an ethnic or cultural sense of Judaism); those known as 'Jewish Christians' are those who accept that Jesus was indeed the Christ (i.e. messiah) and are thus not accepted as Jews by Jews in general."

Cohen, "The Beginnings of Jewishness":

pg. 109  "In the previous chapter I argued that th history of the word Ioudaios demonstrates that before the second or first century B.C.E. we can speak not of 'Jewishness' but of 'Judaeanness.'  'Judaeanness' was a function of birth and geography; Ioudaioi belonged to the ethnos of Judaeans in Juaea.  Even when Judaeans left their homeland to live in the diaspora, they maintained themselves as ethnic associations.  Ethnic (or ethnic-geographic) identity is immutable; non-Judaeans cannot become Judaeans any more than non-Egyptians can become Egyptians, or non-Syrians can become Syrians.  However, in the century following the Hasmonean rebellion two new meanings of 'Judaeans' emerge:  Judaeans are all those, of whatever ethnic or geographic origins, who worship the God whose temple is in Jerusalem (a religious definition), or who have become citizens of the state established by the Judaeans (a political definition).  In contrast with ethnic identity, religious and political identities are mutable:  gentiles can abandon their false gods and accept the true God, and non-Judaeans can become citizens of the Judaean state.  Thus, with the emergence of these new definitions in the second century B.C.E., the metaphoric boundary separting Judaeans from non-Judaeans became more and more permeable.  Outsiders could become insiders."


  1. Yesha'yahu ShomerMarch 1, 2014 at 9:38 PM

    I always knew that is was a religion.

  2. One thing it is NOT, another form of Judaism that denies that Yeshua is G-d! Anyone who denies this truth is not part of the body of Christ, does not have the baptism of the Holy Spirit, do not bear his name, and have no place with G-d. Those may be among us, but they are not us. They have a form of godliness, clever words, but ultimately they are of the Kingdom of Darkness, resistant to come to the truth.

    "And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:

    And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.

    Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    For many are called, but few are chosen."

  3. Re: "One thing it is NOT, another form of Judaism that denies that Yeshua is G-d!"


  4. Without putting too fine a point on it, modern Messianic Judaism should not differ from first the century structure and praxis of the followers of Rabbi Y'shua. There is not to be offices of authority (Matt 23:8), but rather brethren submitting to Heavenly authority and to the instruction of Torah and the illustrations of the rest of scripture. There is supposed to be offices of service and individual callings within those offices. But all authority rests in Heaven.

    In my mind, the demands of some, that Messianic believers submit to rabbinic halacha is rebellion to the express instructions of our Master, Y'shua. Talmud is a wonderful illustration of the influences of Hebraic, Hellenistic and Oriental thought on scripture. But scripture it is not.