Despite much progress made in understanding multicultural and religious diversity, certain ethnic and religious groups continue to be neglected by the psychological community. Messianic Judaism remains a largely misunderstood and ignored expression of cultural and spiritual diversity. Numerous fears and misconceptions persist within both Christian and Jewish communities with regard to this movement. Even less is known about the psychological experiences of individuals committed to Messianic Judaism as they navigate the mazeway of their identity. This article attempts to shed some light on aspects of psychological identity of Messianic believers by first presenting the historical and theological background of the movement and its influence on the current experiences of its adherents. Research on ethnicity and its psychological consequences is then used to elucidate unique aspects of Messianic identity. Finally, practical recommendations for mental health professionals working with this population and a future research agenda are provided.
"How did you become a Christian?" "When did you convert?" are some of the questions this author is frequently asked by well-meaning people in different life contexts. What is a relatively straightforward question for most believers in Jesus evokes for me a number of divergent reactions that produce varying answers depending on the particulars of the situation. Do I take the time to explain that I do not identify myself as a Christian or convert but rather a Jew who believes in Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) as the Promised Messiah? By doing so, I risk being misunderstood and incurring the potential disapproval of the person asking the question. Or do I simply swallow my irritation and describe the story of coming to faith in the God of Israel and the Messiah that was sent to redeem the Jewish people and the rest of the world?
While this dilemma might appear trivial to some, it in fact represents part of a larger story that needs to be heard and understood by Christians and non-Christians alike, including mental health professionals working with individuals who identify themselves as Messianic Jews or Gentiles. This article will provide an exploratory look at this growing movement in its historical and theological context, the status of ethnic and cultural identity of individuals who comprise it, and pose issues that professionals in the mental health disciplines in general, and Christian psychology in particular, need to be aware of.
First, Messianic Judaism will be defined and its distinctive aspects described. The historical and theological context for understanding Jews who believe in Jesus and the particulars of Jewish identity will be presented. Second, relevant research on ethnic identity and its association with psychological functioning will be reviewed. Finally, implications of this knowledge base for clinical multicultural competency and a research agenda that would include Messianic believers will be proposed.
Messianic Judaism defined
While some differences in emphasis may be found among different constituent groups within the movement, Messianic Judaism is generally understood to be a movement of Jews and Gentiles committed to the Messiahship of Jesus that view the perpetuation of Jewish life and tradition and identification with the Jewish people and Israel to be central to their ethnic and spiritual identities (Kinzer & Juster, 2002). The two-pronged aspect of Messianic experience is essential to this definition: simultaneous commitment to the Jewish people and the larger Body of Messiah (Christ) as communities of reference. Recent controversy among various groups within the movement surrounds the relative centrality of each community to the corporate and individual identity of Messianic believers (Robinson & Rosen, 2003; Kinzer, 2000). Additionally, the importance of Torah observance and relationship to Old and New Covenants have been central themes generating dialogue and at times disagreement within various bodies in Messianic Judaism.
Based on one's perspective on these controversial issues, distinctions have been made between Jewish or Hebrew Christians and Messianic Jews (Stokes, 1994). The former largely adhere to Protestant Christianity while embracing selective aspects of their Jewish ethnicity. For instance, they are more likely than Messianic Jews to attend a local church, while celebrating some Jewish holidays or listening to Messianic music. The latter category differs in both conceptual and practical ways. "For the adherents to Messianic Judaism, the requirement of Jews, as Jews, to keep the Law of Moses, is foundational to religious expression and ritual. The Law of Moses, rather than being done away with in the Messiah, is fulfilled and continued ... their religion is Judaism, not modern Judaism to be sure, but a Judaism that attempts to conform to a form from the first century" (Stokes, 1994, p. 42). Since Messianic Judaism as a movement appears to be aligning itself more with the latter model, this article will explore the experiences of individuals whose self-understanding and lifestyle center around being Jews who believe in the Messiahship of Jesus rather than viewing Jewishness as an add-on to their otherwise primarily Christian identity. In reality, however, the lines of demarcation separating the two categories are less clear than stated here and some of the identity struggles experienced by Messianic Jews may also be relevant for Hebrew Christians attending Gentile Christian churches. Moreover, the degree of similarities and differences between the psychological worlds of two groups is a question that awaits empirical examination.
Historical and theological context
For a more comprehensive exposition of Messianic theology and relevant historical background, readers are encouraged to consult other sources (e.g., Kinzer, 2000; Schiffman, 1992). A brief overview of these issues here will set the stage for the discussion of psychological aspects of Messianic experience.
The messianic movement is over 2000 years old, as Jesus and his disciples lived and taught in a Jewish religious and cultural context, bringing the Good News of salvation primarily to all layers of Jewish society. So Jewish was the thrust of the Messiah's message that following his death and resurrection, many of the questions that plagued the Apostle Paul and early followers of the "Way" (Acts 9:2) had to do with the applicability of Torah (Law) to Gentiles who were coming to faith (Acts 15; Galatians 2-3). Moreover, although the term "conversion" is typically used to describe a change from one religion to the other and to signify Paul's experience in Damascus, the Apostle of the Gentiles did not become a Christian but a leader of a new movement within Judaism as a result of his encounter with the Messiah (Williamson, 1982). Instead, he felt called to take the Good News of salvation to Gentiles who previously had been strangers to the God of Israel. Neither Paul nor other early Jewish disciples would have been accused of being non-Jewish, but rather, perhaps unfaithful Jews by virtue of their identification with the Messiah (Williamson, 1982).
Notably, first century Jewish believers who represented a majority within the ecclesia at the time decided not to impose Jewish traditions on Gentile followers of Jesus on theological grounds (e.g., Acts 15; Kjar-Hansen, 1996). However, tensions between the believing Jews and Gentiles, compromises that had to be made to assimilate the growing number of Gentile believers from the Roman world, and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD dramatically changed the existing situation. By the time the Gospels were written, the influence of Jewish adherents and the importance of Torah observance were diminished. Unfortunately, the same broad-mindedness extended by Jewish believers to non-Jews with respect to their distinctiveness was not reciprocated (Kjar-Hansen, 1996). Forced separation between Christianity and Judaism ("de-Judaizing" process) was legislated through church laws, the writings of many Christian theologians, and the sociopolitical climate in the Diaspora. Jewish believers were accused of heresy sometimes solely on account of keeping the Torah (Pritz, 1996). Replacement theology (or supersessionism) became the dominant model of understanding Jewish-Christian relations within the church.
Supersessionism refers to the notion that Jewish people are rejected by God and that the Gentile church replaced them in the economy of salvation, thus making Jewish Law irrelevant in God's eyes (Williamson, 1982). To obtain a more comprehensive understanding of Christian theology's stance vis-a-vis the Jewish people and the God of Israel, readers are encouraged to review Soulen's (1996) work on the topic. For the purposes of this article, major types of supersessionism and their detrimental effects on Christian theology will be briefly reviewed. Economic supersessionism refers to the belief that everything that describes the economy of salvation in its Israelite form (i.e., Mosaic Law) is obsolete and replaced by the "true" spiritual form (i.e., the church). Punitive supersessionism involves the notion that God terminated His covenant with Israel due to Jews' rejection of Jesus and the gospels. Thus, God's rejection and punishment of the Jews is brought about by their own disobedience. Moreover, …