1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993
Question: What is Humanistic Judaism’s position regarding Messianic Jews? Are they Jewish? If so, how are they distinguishable from Gentile Christians?
Responsum: Few issues in Jewish life arouse Jewish emotion more than the proselytizing activity of Jews for Jesus. After centuries of Christian persecution and oppression, which left powerful memories of aggressive missionary activity and forced conversions, our view of Jewish converts to Christianity (as Messianic Jews are often regarded) tends to be less than friendly. Many Jews see them as traitors and turncoats, betrayers of our people, consorters with our historic enemies, unconscionable subverters of Jewish survival in the century of the Holocaust.
Almost universally, Jewish organizations refuse Jewish status to Messianic Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court, in a recent, much-publicized decision, denied them the status of Jews, a decision that runs counter to the principles of both Orthodoxy and Zionism. Rabbinic Judaism maintains that the children of Jewish mothers are Jews, regardless of their religious beliefs; Jewish identity is ethnic and “eternal.” Zionism maintains that Jewish identity is national, not religious; even atheists, practitioners of yoga, and believers in reincarnation and astrology are Jews so long as they identify with and participate in Jewish national aspirations. (Ironically, Messianic Jews, who are rejected as Jews, have a stronger belief in the validity and authority of the Torah and theological Judaism than do secularists who are accepted as Jews.) The decision to reject Messianic Jews is not a matter of principle. It is an act of anger and spite. Once belief is ruled out as the criterion of Jewishness, then singling out messianic beliefs as a sign of non- Jewishness is invalid.
The criterion for Jewish identity (as established by the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Brussels in 1988) is the willingness to identify with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people. Messianic Jews identify with that history, practice that culture, and accept the burdens of the Jewish fate. Why should people who actively desire to identify with the history, fate, and culture of the Jewish people be rejected as Jews when the most wild-eyed, New Age hippie with minimal interest in Jewishness retains Jewish identity?
From a Humanistic Jewish point of view, believing that Jesus is the Messiah is no more offensive than believing that the Lubavitcher rebbe is the Messiah. If we are not prepared to exclude “errant” Lubavitchers, then why exclude “errant” believers in Jesus? We, as Humanistic Jews, would prefer that Jews be rational and nonmessianic. But, if they choose to be messianic, we are not going to engage in the absurd game of choosing “kosher” messiahs over “non-kosher” messiahs. Rabbi Akiba believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Did Akiba thereby cease to be a Jew? Thousands of Jews in the seventeenth century believed that Shabbatai Zevi was the Messiah. Did they, too, stop being Jews? Why pick on Jesus? After all, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot claim at interfaith banquets that Jesus was a Jew and simultaneously deny the Jewish identity of born Jews who want to be Jews and who choose Jesus as their savior.
From a Humanistic Jewish perspective, all messiahs are ridiculous. But being ridiculous does not disqualify a person from being a Jew. Judaism is a pluralistic civilization. It can accommodate theists and atheists, mystics and rationalists, halakhists and individualists, devotees of the rebbe as well as devotees of Jesus. Messianic Jews are Jews, even if their belief system may be offensive to us. They are entitled to the privileges of Jews under the Law of Return. They are entitled to participate in the deliberations of Jewish communal bodies so long as they are not seeking to proselytize.
Gentile Christians are not interested in Jewish identity. They are not interested in celebrating Jewish holidays, even from a messianic point of view. They are not interested in participating in Jewish culture or in identifying with the Jewish historical experience. Gentile Christians participate only in Christian culture. Messianic Jews have chosen to participate in Jewish culture as their primary culture.
Messianic Jews are very far from Humanistic Jews in their belief system. But, like the Lubavitchers (who are almost equally as distant) they share with us a commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.