There's a new synagogue in Houston. You may have heard of it. They moved into their new building a little less than a year ago. “A procession of 300 or more walked two miles to honor God and the Torah, led by a worship band playing songs like Od Avinu Chai and Mazel Tov V'siman Tov, then dancers in blue and white, then the Torah under a chuppah (wedding canopy) held up by four young men.” Their new building has “a magnificent foyer paved in Jerusalem stone, with archways looking like a street in the Old City.”
Once inside the building, their rabbi, “Rabbi Richard Freeman, … spoke briefly from the … Torah portion, which [summarized] God's instructions to Israel, to love and fear the Lord, to keep his commandments, and hold fast to him. Rabbi Freeman said that this instruction grew out of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, to bless him and his offspring, and all the nations through him. Just as a single apple seed contains the potential not only for an apple tree, but for an entire orchard, so this promise was a seed that contained the whole story of Israel and everything in it, including Messiah himself. In the same way, Rabbi Freeman continued, 27 years ago God impressed him and his wife, Patsy, with a word that was the seed for all that had come to pass at [this new congregation]: "Go to Houston and raise up a congregation where Jewish people can hear the Good News of Mashiach within a Jewish context – and after they come to faith in Yeshua can continue to live a Jewish life.”
Oh yes, I forgot to mention, the name of this new synagogue is Congregation Beth Messiah, and it is not really a Jewish synagogue at all. It is a Christian Church preaching the Christian Gospel, but dressed up in Jewish garb. Its followers claim to be “Messianic Jews.” Its web site is beautiful and even has links to real Jewish sites, including the Jewish Encyclopedia on line, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and local Jewish agencies like the Jewish Community Center, the Houston Jewish Federation, Holocaust Museum Houston, and the Houston Jewish Calendar of events. But they also have links to their parent organization: the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, and other Christian and Messianic sites.
I can see how a marginal Jewish person might be truly confused by looking at this web site. Maybe they really are Jewish. They have pictures of people dressed in tallises, carrying a Torah scroll, links to information about Judaism. It can be a bit seductive. Maybe you can claim to hold fast to Judaism and yet believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and even more than that, that Jesus was also God. Maybe such people can legitimately consider themselves both Jewish and Christian at the same time. After all, Jesus was Jewish, as were all of the apostles, and a large number of the early Christians. Moreover, if you can have such a broad spectrum of beliefs within the Jewish community – represented by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and even secular humanist Jews – on what basis can you exclude so-called “Messianic Jews”?
Good question. So this morning I'd like to offer not one, but six answers to that question.
The first reason that Messianic Judaism is completely different from “Judaism” Judaism is that Messianic Jews believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. In doing so, they bring their own interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures to establish certain identifying characteristics for the Messiah. He needs to be born to a virgin. He must be born in Bethlehem. His hands will be pierced. He will be scorned. And many others. Then they set about to show that Jesus fulfilled these circumstantial criteria.
Needless to say, the Jewish people for 2,000 years have rejected the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. In doing so, we rejected these circumstantial criteria because they were never really part of our understanding of who the Messiah had to be, and the interpretations they gave for Biblical passages were never our interpretation of those passages. Moreover, we relied on the substantive criteria that Jews had always believed the Messiah was supposed to meet, the accomplishments the Messiah was supposed to achieve during his lifetime. These included: to restore Jewish independence and political rule over the Land of Israel, to bring universal recognition of God's authority over human life, to bring about universal peace and unprecedented prosperity, and to bring about an age of brotherly love and piety. It goes without saying that Jesus fulfilled none of these conditions during his lifetime. Christianity responded to this difficulty by developing the idea of a “second coming” – that these substantive goals for the Messiah would be met when Jesus returned. Jews had never believed in a “second coming” and rejected the idea when it was proposed by Christians. At the time it was proposed, of course, it was assumed that Jesus' return was imminent, that the Messianic era was just around the corner. Now, some 2,000 years later, Christians continue to await that second coming, and we Jews continue to believe the Messiah will come, only we think it will be his first visit.
I do not mean, by the way, in my statements this morning to denigrate in any way those of the Christian faith. I believe they see their faith as an honest interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is a faith that has many things in common with our own. They believe in one God (albeit in three parts that we do not understand). They believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and had a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets. Moreover, it is a faith that demands of its adherents moral behavior. And these things we have in common should in no way be dismissed. They represent a significant area of agreement we have with Christians that we can and should build upon in working together to make the world a better place, and to enhance an attitude of mutual respect and understanding for each other. However, I do mean this morning to describe why Christianity is nevertheless a separate religion that is ultimately incompatible with Jewish belief and practice. You simply cannot be a good Jew and a good Christian at the same time.
So, the first difference then is over whether Jesus was the Jewish Messiah or not. They say he was; we say he was not. There is no movement in Judaism that accepts Jesus as the Messiah, just as no Jewish movement today accepts Bar Kochba, Shabbtai Zvi, Jacob Frank or any of a number of other would-be Messiahs in Jewish history.
But more than that, Messianic Jews and Christians have a dramatically different concept of the very meaning of the term “Messiah.” They hold that somehow Messiah also meant God Himself. Jews always believed that the Messiah would be a human being. The Messiah would be a political or religious leader of the Jewish people, something like Moses, perhaps with Divine support by means of miracles, plagues, parting of seas or what have you. But, the Messiah himself – like Moses – was going to be a mere mortal. And here we have a fundamental chasm of difference in belief with the Christians. For us, God is God, and human beings are human beings, and there can be no hybrids, no spatial-temporal shifts in the cosmos that allow God to be human for a day, or a year, or 30 years. Christians, on the other hand, insist that Jesus was Divine: the Son of God and God at the same time.
So, the second difference, then, is over the Divinity of Jesus. There is simply no branch, denomination or movement of Judaism that holds that God can be a human being, even for a little while.
Now let's think of this dispute in terms of the Korach rebellion. Korach was basically challenging Moses' authority to be the leader of the Jewish people. Incidentally, he also challenged God's authority, since it should have been obvious by that point – some 10 plagues and countless miracles into the march toward Israel – that God had in fact appointed Moses. The moral of the story in the Torah reading is that you cannot have challenges like that stand, at least not while maintaining one people. You want to follow Korach? Fine. But you are not part of the Jewish enterprise if you do. Of course, in Korach's case it also had some nasty consequences which I certainly do not mean to suggest would or should apply to followers of Jesus. Indeed, in Jewish tradition, good Christians – just like good Jews – share in whatever reward there will be in the afterlife. You do not have to be Jewish to obtain this reward. I am simply making the point that one people, one religion, can only have one ultimate leader, one path through the wilderness they are traveling along together in the same general direction. Something as fundamental to a monotheistic religion as whether Jesus was God or not, is not a subject that that religion can have a difference of opinion about.
A so-called “Messianic Jew” can make whatever arguments he or she wants to make about how Jews just don't understand, we use the wrong criteria to decide who our Messiah should be, or whatever other arguments he wants to make. But at the end of the day, this decision was already made nearly 2,000 years ago by the Jewish people and has been upheld for every single one of those years since then. Period. You want to believe Jesus is the Messiah? You want to believe he is God? Great. There is a religion out there that shares your beliefs. But it isn't Judaism.
A third reason you cannot be both a good Jew and a good Christian at the same time is that we do not share the same canon of sacred literature. That is, Judaism holds one set of books to be holy, while Christianity holds another set of books to be holy. Yes there is some overlap. We both agree that the Hebrew Scriptures are sacred. But the Christians also have a collection of writings they call the New Testament, (or Brit Ha
hadasha in Messianic Jewish terminology) or what we call the Christian Bible. They believe this “New Testament” is also holy. We do not. We reject that collection of writings. They are not part of the literature we refer to when we seek to understand God or what God wants from us. Beyond the Christian Bible, there are also other Christian writings that – while they may not be considered exactly sacred, they are nevertheless part of Christian authoritative books – the writings of the early Church Fathers, of Thomas Aquinas, of Augustine, or depending on your denomination, perhaps the writings of Martin Luther and others. They are not part of the Jewish bookshelf. But they are part of the Christian bookshelf.
On the other hand we have a whole library of books we do consult to understand God and what God wants from us, books that are not part of the Christian bookshelf. These include the Talmud, the classic Midrash collections, the classic Jewish commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, the codes of Jewish law from Maimonides and Joseph Karo and others. All branches of Judaism consult these books – though some consider them more authoritative than others. No branches of Judaism consult the Christian bookshelves when they seek an authoritative Jewish answer to ultimate questions.
An American analogy would be for the Supreme Court of the United States to ignore our own Constitution and laws and turn instead to documents of Turkish, or Russian, or Chinese law. The Supreme Court would simply not turn to such foreign sources as legal authority to decide a case in American law. They are not part of the canon of American jurisprudence.
Similarly, in the case of the Korach rebellion, our Sages suggested that Korach tried to subvert Jewish law. He asked Moses if a person would have to put up a mezuzah on a doorpost of a house that already contained several complete Torah scrolls. After all, a mezuzah only contains two paragraphs of the Torah. Why would you need to affix it to the doorpost of a house if the house had inside it several complete Torahs? By asking the question, Korach was making up his own law instead of following the law God gave us.
Jews turn to the accepted canon of Jewish literature to answer questions about God. Christians turn to the accepted canon of Christian literature to answer the same questions. That is as it should be. But you can't tell a Jew that the Jewish interpretation is not authentically Jewish and that the Christian interpretation is.
The fourth fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism is our views of sin and repentance. For Christians, humans are born into a state of sin that we inherited from Adam and Eve. For Jews, humans are born innocent, not having committed any sin of their own. Moreover, Christians believe that since we will all sin – no human being is perfect, after all – we all require atonement. On this part we agree, by the way. But Christians then believe that since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and therefore we no longer perform atoning sacrifices, there is only one way to atone for your sins. You must accept the idea that Jesus was the ultimate and final sacrifice and that he died to atone for your sins. If you believe that, God wipes your slate clean, and your sins are removed. If you do not believe that, (at least according to traditional Christian doctrine) you are forever tainted with sin and you cannot attain the rewards of heaven. Indeed, you will go to the other place instead. That part, we do not agree with.
Rather, Jews for 2,000 years have believed that there are many ways to atone for your sins, to have them wiped clean, even without the sacrifices that were once performed in the Temple. First, if you have committed a wrong against another human being, you must compensate them for the wrong you committed. Then you must ask their forgiveness – up to three times. If they do not forgive you after your third request, you are considered absolved anyway. But, you must still square your account with God, because besides wronging that person, you have also wronged God because that person is one of God's creatures.
Now to square your account with God for a sin – whether it was a wrong committed against God directly or a wrong committed against another person – you can do one or more of several things. You can pray to God and ask God's forgiveness. You can engage in the study of Torah, that is Jewish wisdom, as an act of contrition. Or you can fast as an act of contrition. Or you can perform good deeds – gemilut hassadim, acts of lovingkindness toward someone in need, or give tzedakah (charity) to a worthy person or cause. Any of these acts, according to Jewish faith, atones for our sins. Notice that we do several of these on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – for obvious reasons.
No Jewish denomination or movement considers the belief in Jesus as an act of atonement for sin.
The fifth fundamental difference is our emphasis on deeds versus faith. It is well known that Christianity – while strongly encouraging moral behavior – nevertheless emphasizes faith. Because of their belief (at least in traditional Christianity) that the only way to obtain heavenly reward is through belief in Jesus as your savior, your belief becomes – of necessity – much more important than what you actually do in this world. Even if your sins are minor they cannot be erased without the requisite belief in Jesus. Conversely, even if your sins are more serious, they nevertheless can be erased by that same belief. Because of our emphasis on compensating those we harm before we can seek God's forgiveness. And because the avenues for atonement in seeking God's forgiveness require action on our part – gemilut
hassadim, tzedakah, fasting, turning in contrition to the study of our sacred literature – our actions are much more important than our beliefs. And the more serious our sins, the more atoning actions we are required to make. That is not to say that Judaism is not interested in our beliefs, or that Christianity is not interested in one's deeds. But the emphasis is clearly different.
Every denomination of Judaism emphasizes the importance of good deeds. The word mitzvah – commandment – is universally recognized as an essential building block of Judaism. As for faith, you will find a wide range of beliefs among Jewish thinkers – even looking only at the so-called “orthodox” ones – as to what the nature of the ultimate reward in the next life will be like, when the Messiah might come, how God might calculate and weigh our sins and our good deeds, and all manner of such issues. It can hardly be said that any one belief on these issues is so critical.
Finally, the sixth fundamental difference is over the very nature and future of the Jewish enterprise. Ultimately, Messianic Jews must admit that they are Christians. After all, they adhere to specifically Christian doctrines of belief. They do not suggest that Jews should only marry Jews or that they must raise their children as Jews. They would have to admit that they are much more concerned that their children believe in Jesus, than that they believe they are Jewish or are continuing a Jewish tradition. They do not even recognize a uniquely Jewish mission or Jewish relationship with God, but rather see their relationship with God fundamentally as one through Jesus. They have little or no interest in the large part of the canon of Jewish sacred literature that is outside of the Hebrew Bible. Their beliefs and practices are therefore not consistent with the preservation of the Jewish people, the Jewish way of life, or Jewish tradition.
It would be similar to having American public schools teaching French history instead of American history. Or perhaps, even better, it would be like encouraging Americans to become citizens of Canada or Mexico.
Each one of these fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity would make the two religions incompatible. Collectively, it should be quite obvious that one does not become a “fulfilled” Jew by adopting Christian beliefs. In each one of these cases the major movements of Judaism are on the same page, while Christians are in a different book altogether.
So do not be confused if you are perusing the Beth Messiah web site, with its Jewish trappings and window-dressing. It is, in the end, essentially a Christian Church dressed up to look like a Jewish Synagogue. Its members believe Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, despite the fact that he brought about none of the aspects of the ideal world we Jews have always associated with the coming of the Messiah. Its worshippers pray to Jesus, something Jews would never do. For us, Jesus was a man and we do not pray to humans. For them Jesus is Divine. They read, study, and preach from the Christian Bible, which is not part of our sacred literature. They believe that Jesus died for their sins, and that belief in that fundamental principle of faith is required to get to heaven. We believe atonement is achieved through good deeds and acts of contrition, and therefore what we do is much more important than what we believe. Yes, there certainly are differences between the different movements of Judaism. But we all agree on these fundamental issues, and profoundly disagree with the spiritual leaders and congregants at Beth Messiah.