Messianic Judaism

By Dan Cohn-Sherbok. London; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000. 234 pages.

One might wonder why a non-adherent would devote so much time and energy to researching Messianic Judaism. To ask this question of Dan Cohn-Sherbok—Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales and author of many other books on Jewish history and thought—one would also have to inquire after Carol Harris-Shapiro, whose Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey Through Religious Change in America, was also published within the last year. The publication of these two books and the subsequent controversy they engendered might lead Messianic Jews to conclude that we are much more interesting than we thought.

Both authors have received considerable criticism from the traditional Jewish community for concluding that Messianic Judaism is a legitimate form of Judaism. Conversely, the Messianic community has lauded these two books and authors for their (perhaps so-called) even-handed treatment of the believers, since in each of these studies we end up looking—well, not like the good guys, but at least like the not-so-bad guys.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is to be commended for his thorough research. The strength of Messianic Judaism is its attention to historical detail. Cohn-Sherbok’s historical account of Messianic Judaism begins rightfully at the time of Messiah Yeshua, continues through the Middle Ages, and on to modernity, where he concentrates most of his attention. Leaning heavily on the shoulders of works by Robert Weiner, Ruth Fleischer, and David Rausch among others, he constructs a linear progression of events that led to the modern Messianic movement. He does a fine job of tracing the development of missions to Jews and alliances of Jewish believers, which is no small task, given their overlapping influences. Most interesting is his analysis of the role that the Six Day War played in the shaping of the contemporary Messianic Jewish mindset.

In regards to both the history and practice of Messianic Judaism, Cohn-Sherbok lets our own leaders and documents speak for themselves. He reprints the twelve articles of the “Israelites of the New Covenant” written by Joseph Rabinowitz, as well as the constitution of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA), which later became the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA). He also quotes several parts of David Stern’s Messianic Jewish Manifesto, thereby allowing readers to see for themselves that Messianic Judaism draws sharp lines between “Hebrew-Christianity” and Messianic Judaism. In his section on Messianic Jewish observance, Cohn-Sherbok borrows extensively from John Fischer’s and Jeremiah Greenberg’s Messianic siddurs. For each of the holidays and observances, he gives the Messianic liturgy, though he notes at the outset that not all congregations or Messianic Jews use the same liturgy or celebrate the traditions in the same way.

After his section on Messianic Jewish history and (very) long section on Messianic Jewish observance, Cohn-Sherbok transitions into a section he entitles “The authenticity of Messianic Judaism.” One cannot help but noting that only three pages of this section are devoted to Messianic Jewish theology. The rest is a discussion of whether or not Messianic Jews can be rightfully called Jews. He concludes that Messianic Judaism is to be seen in the pluralistic model of a seven-branch “menorah” with each of the “candles” representing co-existing branches of Judaism. “These branches of Jewish faith converge as well as diverge from each other at central points: they are united at the base, but separate in their expressions of the Jewish faith,” he contends (p. 212). He continues, “To depict Messianic Judaism as demonic and dangerous suggests that the Jewish community shares a common set of religious values from which Messianic Jews have distanced themselves. But this is patently not the case” (p. 213).

And if all Messianic Jews wanted was affirmation, if all we wanted was to be “one of the gang” then yes, this pluralistic model would be suitable. But as Cohn-Sherbok notes in his abbreviated section on Messianic Jewish theology, “Jewish believers insist that Messianic Jews are the only truly fulfilled Jews. The basis for this claim is that God’s intention for his chosen people is that they should acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah” (p. 174). In this respect, Messianic Judaism’s exclusivity may give it more in common with the Orthodox than any party would like to admit.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok says in his introduction that he will assess Messianic Judaism’s claim to be “an authentic interpretation of the Jewish faith” (p. xii; emphasis mine). One might wonder where he got the idea that this is all we were claiming to be.