Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. 218 pages.
Anticipating attack, I geared myself up to read Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey Through Religious Change in America. Mentally, I steeled myself against what I thought was coming: a diatribe against the divinity of Messiah Yeshua, a lament over the loss of Jews to this “lie” called Messianic Judaism, or at the very least, criticism that would compel me to question what I believe and why I believe it. It was probably the last possibility that I feared the most.
So even before I glanced at the prologue—in which Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro explains her purpose in undertaking this study, which has generated reactions ranging from interest to scorn among mainstream Jewish reviewers—my mind ran through responses and retorts to what I assumed would be her criticisms. After all, isn’t the best offense a good defense?
Other Jewish believers in Yeshua can probably relate to this mentality. Having been rejected or reviled by many of our fellow Jews, and sometimes misunderstood by Gentile Christians, some of us are used to being on the defensive. In fact, one might say that we have become kind of comfortable there. But Harris-Shapiro does not allow Messianic Judaism the luxury of victimization. True, she aligns herself with the majority of the Jewish community in denying Yeshua’s messiahship. Yet her position as a woman Reconstructionist rabbi allows her to empathize with being a minority within the greater Jewish community.
Harris-Shapiro does not set out to debunk the claims of Messianic Jews, but simply to understand them and their implications for the state of American Judaism as a whole. She seeks to answer the question of why any belief (atheism, humanism, Buddhism, Reconstructionism, hedonism) other than faith in Yeshua, is considered acceptable for the American Jew. What is it about Messianic Judaism that Jews find so threatening?
Motivated in part by the fact that her cousin became a believer some time ago, Harris-Shapiro spent years attending Messianic conferences and consulting Messianic Jewish and Christian resources. Most of her observations are of people associated with one particular (and barely disguised) Messianic congregation. Yet her work is hardly a simple case study. Her bibliography cites authors from Arnold Fruchtenbaum to David Stern, as well as listing several obscure items that most in the Messianic community have never even heard about.
Her writing is articulate and her analysis lucid. In chapters entitled “The Messianic Jewish Self” and “Community”, the author examines Messianic Jews’ relationships to each other, to unsaved Jews, to unsaved Gentiles, and to the church. She views what she sees as the desire of the Messianic community to be of the church, but not in it, as the root of much of Messianic Jews’ inward and outward tension: “The idea of…being part of the ‘saved’ and part of the ‘chosen’ must be continually negotiated” (p. 15). She continues with a discussion of Messianic rituals and practices, and observations of gender roles, leadership structure, and life cycle events in the Messianic community. She also profiles how Messianic Jews uniquely address issues commonly faced by most American Jews, such as assimilation, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the state of Israel.
Harris-Shapiro’s book is an ethnography, but it suffers from what the author readily admits is only a partial immersion into the Messianic mindset. Her worldview is one which celebrates modern American Jewish pluralism. Consequently, she finds the exclusive claims of Messianic Judaism to be problematic, claiming they lead to the “villainization” of the mainstream Jewish community. “While at best traditional Jews are respected, or affectionately seen as misguided, at the worst they are seen as a spiritual threat,” she maintains (p. 100). It is no secret that she regards evangelism—which she calls “proselytization”—with disdain. This cannot help but influence her perspective, as she readily admits.
However, it is doubtful that a work such as this could have been written by someone within the Messianic community. An insider could overlook ambiguities that Harris-Shapiro cites. One such example: most interesting is her commentary on how Messianic Jews don’t seem to know from whom they are seeking a stamp of approval, whether from the Jews, the Christians, or the Lord.
In light of Messianic Judaism, Rabbi Harris-Shapiro concludes, American Judaism is forced to ask questions about its own identity. In the first chapter entitled “Studying the Messianic Jews” she states, “…the Jewish community needs a sense of ‘who we are’ to maintain its group cohesion and identity” (p. 2). The reason that traditional Judaism is so repulsed by Messianic Judaism, she says, is because Messianic Judaism, like a “carnival funhouse mirror” reflects a religion whose own ambiguities and fragmentation has caused it to define itself not by what it is, but by what it is not (p. 189). “When the only shared core value within American Judaism is that Jews do not believe in Jesus, it is clearly an insufficient response” (p. 187). I couldn’t have said it better myself.