Jewish Identity and Faith in Jesus
|Book Title:||Jewish Identity and Faith in Jesus|
|Review Date:||Sep 1, 1996|
Kai Kjµr-Hansen has put together another book of seventeen essays following The Death of the Messiah, which he edited in 1994. The theme this time is Jewish identity. For anyone who knows anything about the contemporary movement of Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah, Jewish identity is a key issue. On the one hand, we are told by the Jewish community that we are no longer Jews, even though there is no agreement among Jewish people as to the definition of Jewishness. On the other hand, Jews who are for Jesus are conscious of having a history and destiny in common with the rest of the Jewish people, and of having a distinctive place within the unity of the church. And so identity is a key concern.
According to the preface, this book is intended largely to introduce non-Jewish readers to the challenges faced by messianic Jews. But it is perhaps not the best starting point for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the movement of Jews who are for Jesus. Such a person will need a little more orientation, for reading this book is like entering a cafe where several conversations are going on at once. It is not so much an introduction to the subject as it is a lively discussion among Jewish believers.
Jewish Identity and Faith in Jesus moves from historical issues (the Jewish identity of messianic Jews in the early centuries; nineteenth-century Joseph Rabinowitz) to theological issues (how should Jewish believers think about the law if they identify as Jews?). Finally, there are essays on the social aspects of being a Jewish believer: identification with Israel, integration into a local congregation, relations with Palestinians and non-Jewish Christians and the effect of the Holocaust and the Middle East situation on such issues. So: history, theology, and social concerns—a wide range of subjects all focused around the issue of Jesus and Jewish identity.
This is broad territory, and it is not possible for a 171-page collection to offer an in-depth look at all these areas. As with many collections of essays, this one is at times uneven and sketchy. It puts questions on the burner without always intending to furnish answers. In fact, certain chapters could undoubtedly have been expanded greatly, some to nearly book length. But it is important to at least raise the questions and put them on the agenda. I found the most helpful discussions to be in three areas:
1. The Nature of the Community of Jewish Believers.
Given our diversity of views on subjects such as the Torah, Messianic congregations and the importance of keeping a Jewish lifestyle,” are we one community or several? Other observers have described Jesus-believing Jews in terms of two communities: “Messianic Jews” and “Hebrew Christians,” the latter supposedly assimilated, the former supposedly more authentically Jewish. So I appreciated the refusal of Arnold Fruchtenbaum (in “Messianic Jews and Their Congregations”) to separate out Hebrew Christians as a different kind of movement from Messianic Jews. (It is important to note that those who separate out these two movements forget the meaning of the oneness of the body of believers. They also forget that Hebrew Christians were so called at a time when Jews were calling themselves Hebrews and when Jewish identity was expressed in ways other than that of traditional observance.)
2. The Nature of Obedience.
Here I appreciated Tsvi Sadan’s essay “Who Is a Jew?” because he refuses to make Jewish identity depend on a certain type of Torah observance. I say “a certain type,” because all Jewish believers would agree that the Torah is God’s word, but not all would take the practical ramifications in the same direction. I also welcomed Dan Juster’s definition of Torah (in “Messianic Judaism and the Torah”): “Torah can legitimately be defined as the order or design of God for human life.…However, the Torah of God as the total orientation of instruction includes the teaching of the whole Bible as applied to the New Covenant order.” As Juster points out in the same article, Reformed theology in Christianity always held the Law in high regard, even if the practical outworking was different from what some Jewish believers would understand.
In any event, it is impossible today to “keep the Law” as it was kept in the time of Moses. Every adaptation, every updating, every finding of a principle and then applying it requires interpretation. Rabbinic Judaism found the interpretation in a direction that required submitting to the authority of the rabbis. Some will see obedience to God as being more demanding under the New Covenant than under the Old but also less restrictive in the particular ways of obedience.
3. The Relationship of Jewish Believers to the Rest of the Church.
Walter Riggans (“Arguments Against Jewish Believers”) rightly speaks against those who describe the movement of Jewish believers as a “return to the first-century church.” Such an attitude destroys the fabric of relationships between Jews and gentiles in the body of believers. That viewpoint also wrongly imagines that all doctrinal developments in the church have been worked out in a non-Jewish context (or with anti-Jewish motives) and are therefore suspect or wrong. Not only do such attitudes lead to the dangers about which Riggans warns, but in addition they help to fuel the current “B’nai Noach” movement among non-Jews, whereby some who have said that they were once Christians now observe the “Seven Laws of Noah” under the guise of returning to the Jewishness of the gospel.
There are other noteworthy essays. As an American Jew, I found particularly helpful the essays on Israeli concerns: for instance, the summary of court cases in Israel involving Jewish believers (“Court Cases and the Struggle for Aliyah” by David H. Stern) and the delineation of the positions taken by Orthodox Israeli Jews on the question of Zionism (“Nationalism and Zionism” by Bodil F. Skj°tt).
The international character of the essays is to be applauded. Jewish believers have different concerns depending on their situation. Israeli Jewish believers are naturally concerned with issues having to do with aliyah, and with relations with Palestinians and with the Orthodox Israelis. Some concerns, such as the place of the Torah and the definition of Jewishness, are universal for all messianic Jews.
Although I would not recommend this as a first book on the subject to the average churchgoer, any seminary student, pastor or missionary will benefit from seeing the many questions laid out here, sometimes sketchily, but always inviting a continuing conversation. The reader can overhear the debates within the messianic Jewish community, which attest both to the unity among Jewish believers (for there are many shared concerns) and the youthfulness of the current movement (for many of these areas need to be worked out). The closing essay by Walter Riggans ensures that in the midst of the debate, Jewish believers are not seen as separate from the church but integrally a part of it, yet with distinct identities and issues to resolve. A glossary and short biographies on the contributors round off the volume.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.