When did modern "Messianic Judaism" begin?
(This post is in response to comments re: Whatever Happened to Messianic Judaism?)
About thirty years ago David Rausch investigated the history of the MJ movement. He wrote in part:
« It is ironic that The Hebrew Christian Alliance of America [founded 1915] was charged in the early years of its existence with some of the same charges that Hebrew Christians would level against Messianic Judaism during the 1970s. In 1940, Rev. Elias Newman addressed the Silver Jubilee Hebrew Christian Alliance Conference in St. Louis, Missouri and reminisced about those early difficult years:
"Twenty-five years ago when we began to unite we were warned, we were threatened, we were cajoled, we were urged not to form such an alliance. It was supposed to be unscriptural. We had to watch our steps. If we wanted to eat a Jewish corned beef sandwich we were considered Judaisers. If we wanted to get married we were told we must marry a Gentile; there were a few Hebrew Christian girls and they had to marry Gentiles and if we were impudent or imprudent to cast an eye upon one of these maidens, flesh of our flesh, we were considered in danger of apostacy, etc."
Newman said that some Christians were afraid that the Alliance was trying to form "a Hebrew Christian Church." He wryly mused about this view, "Hebrew Christians must not unite. Union was only for Gentile Christians."
As one travels the United States and interviews Messianic Jews today, he is impressed with the fact that quite a few leaders believe they coined the term "Messianic Judaism." Of those who are not quite so bold as to suggest such pioneering, many Messianic Jews believe that the term originated within the last 10 or 20 years. It is quite amazing, therefore, to find out that the fledgling Hebrew Christian Alliance of America did some "attacking" in its early period, thwarting a controversy that might have split it asunder if more of its members had adhered to such "heretical" dogma. The year was 1917 and the controversy: Messianic Judaism.
The Editorial Notes of the combined July and October issue of the Alliance Quarterly in 1917 contained a section subtitled "Messianic Judaism." Its tone was antagonistic, perhaps even angry. It began by explaining, "The Hebrew Christian Alliance has come into being, with the sound principle to keep clear of all controversial subjects." [sic!!] ..."But we were obliged to make an exception... We felt it our duty to make it clear that we have nothing to do with this so-called 'Messianic Judaism,' in any shape or form, nor have we any faith in it," the editorial firmly stated....
The Alliance underscored the fact that these Messianic Jews felt that "by observing Jewish ceremonies and customs" they would demonstrate their "national-continuity" and would win the Jews. The Quarterly concluded that "history and experience prove its doomed failure."
....This editorial noted its opposition to the "misguided tendency" of Messianic Judaism, pointedly declaring "we will have none of it!" It stated that the Conference declared "to know nothing save Jesus only!" And finally, the editorial concluded: "We are filled with deep gratitude to God, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in enabling the Conference to so effectively banish it from our midst, and now the Hebrew Christian Alliance has put herself on record to be absolutely free from it, now and forever."
....The whole controversy stemmed from a paper delivered at the Hebrew Christian Alliance Conference in 1917 by Rev. Mark John Levy entitled "Jewish Ordinances in the Light of Hebrew Christianity." In his paper he began by reading his "memorial" passed by the Protestant Episcopal Church during its General Convention in 1916. Levy, obviously a minister in the Episcopal church, had pleaded for many years that the General Conference pass the following statement. It read:
"Our Jewish brethren are free to observe the national rites and ceremonies of Israel when they accept Christ (as the Messiah), according to the clear teaching of the New Testament and the practice of Christ and the Apostles."
Levy noted that the Protestant Episcopal Church had approved this after "mature consideration," and he evidently felt his well-reasoned argument from history and scripture would affect his assembled fellow Hebrew Christians in the same way....
[Here appears the text of a longer resolution proposed by Levy to the Alliance.]
A "lively" discussion followed this resolution in which twenty-three Hebrew Christians rose to give their views. Rev. Mark John Levy responded, but to no avail. The results were published in capital letters in the Alliance journal so everyone would notice: "THE RESOLUTION WAS THEN PUT TO A VOTE AND WAS LOST, ONLY THE MOVER AND ONE LADY VOTING FOR THE RESOLUTION." As the Alliance members concluded this meeting by singing the long metre Doxology, they had taken a firm stand against Messianic Judaism and had promised themselves that the Alliance stand on this issue would never change.
Fortunately, a summary of the arguments both against and for the Resolution during the discussion was published in another section of the journal. It is important in its entirety for it reflects both positions and the antipathy which predicated the controversy of the 1970s....
The arguments sound strangely familiar to the scholar who studies the Hebrew Christian movement and the Messianic Jewish movement today....
Reich [a more conciliatory Hebrew Christian] actually pointed out that Levy was not a heretical Messianic Jew and that his proposals were not as bad as Messianic Judaism. [Note that they seem to have had a definite picture in their minds of what "Messianic Judaism" was.]
...Unfortunately, such a conciliatory spirit did not characterize the Hebrew Christian Alliance in general. One of the victims was Hugh J. Schonfield, the writer of the infamous Passover Plot of the 1960s. Few realize that Schonfield was a vibrant Hebrew Christian in the 1930s and was responsible for an excellent scholarly study, The History of Jewish Christianity (1936). Schonfield traced the gentilization of the Jewish Christian by the Christian Church from the first to the twentieth century, and by appealing to history and the Bible, defended the tenets of Messianic Judaism. In the nineteenth century he found "an entirely new generation of Jewish Christians more on the pattern of the original Nazarenes." This posed an "acute problem" for the Christian Church, Schonfield asserted, because these "New Covenant Jews... would not be absorbed, they would not be assimilated. They claimed the right as Jews to maintain the name and the customs of their race. They held that they had not forsaken Judaism, but crowned it with Jesus, the chief corner stone." Some Christians welcomed this, but others "determined to wreck it by branding it as heresy." [Rausch's endnote (48n37) reads: "The critics called these Jewish Christians who wanted to hold on to their Jewish customs, "Ebionites."]
Schonfield does not mention the ruckus at the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America in 1917, but he does recall that Mark John Levy had tried in the 1890s to pass his resolution in the British Hebrew Christian Alliance....
"Dr. Rosedale, the president, actually confessed to Levy that 'The Hebrew Christian missionaries are dependent on the Gentile Christians for support and they cannot afford injustice to their families to risk the charge of Judaizing.'"
...In South Africa [at the beginning of the twentieth century], Philip Cohen's Jewish Messianic Movement published the journal, The Messianic Jew.
....In 1925, the International Hebrew Christian Alliance was formed, and Hugh Schonfield had such high hopes for this organization in pulling together this Jewish Christian consciousness around the world that he wrote: "From 1925 the history of Jewish Christianity becomes in effect the history of the I.H.C.A. One of the immediate results of its constitution was that many secret Jewish believers in Jesus, including a number of rabbis, began to communicate with the Executive."
....Indeed, the Hebrew Christian movement had been in a renaissance and Jewish Christian consciousness had been revived. [Yet] A veritable battleline had been drawn between the philosophy of "Hebrew Christianity" and the philosophy of "Messianic Judaism." Schonfield was a casualty of this clash, but others would grow stronger through the battle. Hebrew Christianity would be more visible and more acceptable to the Christian Church. It would receive broad Evangelical support during the twentieth century. Messianic Judaism would continue a quiet existence in selected individuals and would continue to feed upon the Hebrew Christian literature and experience. The charge of "Judaizer" would be leveled at any Messianic Jew who was too visible, but Messianic ritual was tolerable in small doses. If the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America, however, thought that it had severed itself from Messianic Judaism by declaring in its journal in 1917 "to be absolutely free from it, now and forever," it had a big surprise in store for it. Ironically, it would be in the American branch of the Alliance that Messianic Judaism would breathe new life and become very visible. It would be in the American Alliance that the Old Guard Hebrew Christian would cry "mutiny" and "treason" as the New Guard Messianic Jew took the reins of leadership. » [Rausch, Messianic Judaism, 32-43]
Wow! I have a lot to say about this. I expect you do as well. But let's read a little more of Rausch, from a later chapter on changes that happened in the wake of Israel's Six Day War of 1967:
« This deeper identification with Judaism... materials to foster an emphasis on Jewish heritage and culture... Herbert Goldberg would espouse a form of traditional Judaism that his sons would expand and intensify. Such youthful fervor could be both appreciated and disdained by an older generation. As one older woman declared in the First Hebrew Christian Church in Chicago: "They will play a guitar in this congregation over my dead body!" [Was a guitar supposedly "too Jewish"? Traditional Jewish synagogue services have no guitars.] ...This culminated in a motion at the 1973 H.C.A.A. conference in Dunedin, Florida that the name of the organization be changed to "The Messianic Jewish Alliance." The vote was very close, but the supporters of the name change were defeated. Those in sympathy with the name change felt that the hands raised in support of the name change were not counted correctly. In retrospect, many feel that this miscount was unintentional and that a row of affirmative votes may have been skipped. At any rate, the debate was very heated and a member of the Old Guard cried out, "This is Revolution!" ....Two years later at the 1975 conference at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, Messianic Jews overwhelmed the conference numerically and the name change went into effect without any problems.
The name of the quarterly publication was also changed to The American Messianic Jewish Quarterly. In the Summer, 1975 issue the name change was defended in this manner:
"For a long time the members of our Alliance felt that it was time to change our name to identify ourselves more with Messiah and with our people. In the Bible our people were called Hebrews at the time of Abraham and the Exodus. Then the name Israel and Judah became prominent... Jews and Jewish people became the prominent term to describe our people. We felt that this name should be adopted to describe our race and people. The word Hebrew describes rather the language that our people use in Israel, which language is also spoken by most of the Arab citizens of Israel, while the word Israel describes citizens of the State of Israel whether Jewish or Arab. Messianic and Christian have exactly the same meaning. The word Messianic relates to the Hebrew word Messiah which means "The Anointed One." The word Christian relates to the Greek word of Christos which has exactly the same meaning "The Anointed One."
"Our Jewish believing brethren," the publication commented, "felt that the word of Hebrew origin better reflects our attitude to Messiah and our people... Messianic better reflects our identity."
...The name change, however, signified far more than a semantical expression -- it represented an evolution in the thought processes and religious and philosophical outlook toward a more fervent expression of Jewish identity... In addition, some of the Old Guard did not return to the conference and hundreds of young people became involved within the movement. Nearly one thousand individuals would show up at the conferences in 1979 and 1980. The New Guard had arrived; a "revolution" had indeed occurred.
Christians had differing attitudes toward these Messianic Jews....
The same forces that for generations had precluded maintenance of Jewish practice and worship among those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah would fight against the manifestation of such practice among the fledgling Messianic Jewish movement of the 1970s. During this period, some Christians from partial or nominal Jewish backgrounds would feel that they had been "betrayed" into gentilization by well-meaning church members, theologians and evangelists. Recovering their "Jewishness" was certainly an evolutionary process for those who had been told the option was not available. Gentile spouses of some of these Messianic Jews would encourage and enhance their efforts, becoming more "Jewish" in their practice at home and in dietary standards. Such a learning process could take years, while frustrations from opposition and the shock of a new culture provided formidable obstacles. It was the Messianic Synagogue that would play a significant role in binding the individual elements into more of a concerted effort. » [Ibid., 75-83]
Rausch claims that the name change from "Hebrew Christian" to "Messianic Jewish" that took place in 1975 was substantive and not only semantic. I think he is right. But notice that the "justification" of the change tried very hard to make it appear merely semantic! ("Messianic and Christian have exactly the same meaning"; etc.) In my opinion, this demonstrates that a change of degree, but not a change of kind, had taken place. It may have been a real change; but it did not go far enough. I had previously assumed that this decision derived from a conscious choice to locate the movement outside Christianity and inside Judaism. However, this may not have been the case at all!
If my analysis is correct, then we can finally start to understand why today, in 2010, we are still confronted with the very same controversy as in 1917 (or 1817, for that matter)! For me, the very first step of any true Messianic Judaism is to define itself clearly as a kind of Judaism (i.e., Jewish faith). This seems obvious even from the very term itself. By definition, Messianic Judaism cannot be Christianity! Yet most "Messianic Jews," following the 1970s movements, actually never clearly defined themselves in this way! Regardless of how they call themselves, apparently most still think of themselves as the "Jewish wing of the Church"; i.e., as a part of Christianity. That makes them Hebrew Christians, not Messianic Jews.
In 1817, it was "heresy" to advance "Jewish Christianity" — i.e., the maintenance of some limited Jewish culture for ethnic Jews within the Church. In 1917, it was "heresy" to advance "Messianic Judaism" — i.e., the actual practice of Jewish (i.e., biblical) "ritual." What will the situation be in 2017? Unfortunately, we seem stuck in the same never-ending pattern of "heresy" accusations, which of course stem from the choice that historical (Gentile) Christianity made almost two millennia ago to separate from Judaism and to fight against it. Increasing doses of "Jewishness" have become "acceptable" within Christianity in the last 200 years; but the mainstream "Messianic Jewish" movement has yet to leave Christianity!
Why? I don't understand it, because Christianity is completely irrelevant to my faith. I am a Jew who believes the Tanakh and seeks to live by it. When I meet other Jews who use this same terminology, I am flabbergasted if they then locate themselves within Christianity. Yet very many do! Is it perhaps because of this fear of "heresy"?
The fact is that true Messianic Judaism, or whatever you choose to call it — a Jewish faith of Jews living as Jews and believing in the Jewish Messiah — is "heresy" from the perspective of both historical Christianity and rabbinic Judaism! To which I say: So what?! If it's true, it's true!
Rausch has much more of relevance to say. I also have some more thoughts. I'll try to share some of each in future posts.
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[[ Above excerpts taken from: David A. Rausch, Messianic Judaism: Its History, Theology, and Polity (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1982). Double chevrons « » enclose excerpts from Rausch's book. Square brackets [ ] within the excerpts mark my additions or comments. All italics within the excerpts are reproduced from Rausch's original published text. Bold text represents my emphasis. ]]