A Different Kind of Dialogue? Messianic Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations

Article excerpt

In the 1970s, both Jews and Christians were surprised to see the rise of a vigorous movement of Christian Jews. Messianic Jews embraced the evangelical definition of Christians as people who undergo experiences of conversion or being born again, as well as evangelical manners of reading the Bible and evangelical codes of personal morality, but wished to maintain a measure of Jewish culture and identity. The same years were the heydays of Christian-Jewish dialogue, which brought about a break-through in the relationship between the two faiths. Situated in a very different cultural and theological climate, Messianic Jews have engaged in a very different experiment in Christian-Jewish relations that also signified a new understanding of the relationship between the two faiths, albeit in a very different manner than liberal Christians and Jews envisioned. Students of Christian-Jewish relations in our time should therefore pay attention to the Messianic Jewish movement, which, like the dialogue, also signified a change of heart in relation to the Jews, this time among conservative Christians.

Historical background and early years

The roots of the new movement can be traced to Pietist and evangelical missionary ideology in the modern era that advocated the position that accepting the Christian faith did not stand in contradiction to Jewish identity but rather made it more complete. The evangelical premillennialist view that has considered the Jews to be the Chosen People has also served to offer justification for maintaining Jewish identity, customs, and symbols. There were attempts at creating communities of Jewish-Christians in the nineteenth century, but such experiments were short-lived. "Judaizing" had traditionally been considered heresy, and many expressed suspicion toward the idea of separate Jewish congregations. Converts too were often afraid of arousing suspicion that their conversions were not genuine and, as a rule, chose to join non-Jewish churches. (1) Attitudes gradually changed, and in the 1920s, the Presbyterian Church, USA, initiated the establishment of Jewish-Christian congregations, intending them to serve as centers of evangelism among the Jews as well as communities where being ethnically Jewish was normative.

The more assertive and independent movement of Messianic Judaism that came on the scene in the 1970s represented a new generation that possessed unprecedented freedoms of choice, including the amalgamation of traditions, which previous generations had considered alien to each other. This offered Messianic Jews a sense of mission as they felt that they were healing historical injuries. The new movement has attempted to create a young and exciting vision of Christianity that worked around traditional views of a faith alien to Jews. Evangelical Christian attitudes also changed and became more accepting toward ethnic pride and incorporation of symbols and customs from other traditions, such as Native Americans, although an amalgamation of the Christian faith and Jewish identity was, perhaps, even more daring. The war in June 1967, between Israel and its neighbors, also affected the manner in which evangelical Christians had come to view the Jews and their role in history, boosting the converts' status, their pride in their roots, and their desire to maintain Jewish identity. (2)

In the first phase of the movement, Jewish converts to Christianity established congregations on their own initiative, which were largely independent of the control of missionary societies or Christian denominations. An early and central congregation, within the larger movement, has been Beth Yeshua in Philadelphia. In the late 1960s, Joe Finkelstein, a chemist and a Jewish convert to Christianity, gathered a group of Jewish teenagers who were looking for an alternative to their parents' middle-class environment, as well as a haven from the more dangerous aspects of the counterculture. The Christian-Jewish communities demanded abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and pi emarital sex and encouraged their members to obey the law and work hard toward careers. …