Book Title: Joseph Rabinowitz and the Messianic Movement: The Herzl of Jewish Christianity
Author: Kai Kjaer-Hansen (Author), Birger Petterson (Translator)
Date Published: December 1994
Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co
Genre: 1. Religious
2. History
3. Christian Books & Bibles
ISBN: 978-0802808592
Reviewer: Rich Robinson
Review Date: March 1, 1996

In 1882 a Russian Jew named Joseph Rabinowitz traveled to Eretz Israel to explore the feasibility of a Jewish settlement there. He returned home, as Kai Kjµr-Hansen tells us, with a new-found faith: that Jesus was the Jews’ brother and Messiah.”

This remarkable book about a remarkable Messianic Jew is the product of some years of in-depth research by Kjµr-Hansen, who is the International Co-ordinator of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism and has lectured at the Free Faculty of Theology at Aarhus in Denmark. He has also served as a pastor in Jerusalem. He has combined zeal for Jewish evangelism with a high level of scholarship in the preparation of this book. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of Jewish missions.

Rabinowitz’s life has already been sketchily portrayed in a number of collections of Jewish testimonies. Besides being longer than the other biographies in print, this portrayal of Rabinowitz is different for two reasons. First, it is based on meticulous research of the original sources. Those looking for a fast read and a breezy biography may well be disappointed, for each chapter contains a wealth of detail mined from these sources on the life and ministry of Rabinowitz, who lived in the nineteenth century in the town of Kishinev. The second difference is this. The book chronicles not just Rabinowitz himself but also the beginnings of a full-fledged Messianic movement in Kishinev, which Rabinowitz started. For this reason there is an abundance of valuable lessons and critical insights for the Messianic movement of the 1990s. As the Kjµr-Hansen writes:

The questions he struggled with as a Jew and a believer in Jesus have not yet found their ultimate solution. Today Jesus-believing Jews, whether they call themselves Hebrew Christians, Jewish believers or Messianic Jews, are wrestling with corresponding problems.…The struggle for Rabinowitz, as it was fought in Gentile Christian circles, also has a message in a modern context. Provided, of course, that one is prepared to learn from history. (p. ix)

Rabinowitz became a believer in Jesus in the 1880s around the time he became convinced that Zionism would not help the Jewish people because it simply left God out of the picture. Many Jews at the end of the nineteenth century were looking to improve their material and political situation. It is understandable then, that Rabinowitz’s early view of what faith in Jesus was all about included the belief that it would lead to an improved social and political condition for Jews. Not until later did Rabinowitz arrive at a more orthodox statement that included the work of Jesus as our sin-bearer: is there a lesson here about the growth in understanding of new believers?

Or take his attitude to the Law of Moses: that it was fulfilled in Yeshua but that it should be kept as a point of identity so as not to alienate Jewish people. Is there a lesson here for us—keeping in mind that unlike a hundred years ago, the majority of contemporary Jews are quite secular?

Interestingly, his attitude to the Talmud was that it had no authority (which most Jewish believers would agree with, recognizing the Bible as our authority) and derived from a time of Jewish spiritual darkness (which most would disagree with, recognizing the value of traditional Jewish literature). As we understand that Rabinowitz was a product of his times, in which many rejected traditional Jewish religion, what lesson is there for us in how we look at traditional Judaism?

What about the use of the term rabbi? Rabinowitz was called by that title by some Christians, but for the most part it was the Russian government—who had to grant permission for religious groups to hold public gatherings—that saw him and his followers as Jews, his meeting place as a synagogue and him as a rabbi. Is there a lesson in this for the use of the title “Messianic rabbi” in the modern movement—keeping in mind that the title was bestowed by the governing authorities?

What should we say about his evangelistic strategies? The unpronounceable name of God (the “Tetragrammaton,” often written YHWH) he pronounced as “Jehovah.” Why? According to Orthodox Judaism, only when the Messiah came could the name of God be uttered. Is there a lesson for us in finding bold and creative ways to proclaim the gospel?

I do not intend to provide answers in this review but only to show that one thing is clear: Rabinowitz put the question of the Jewish identity and lifestyle of believers on the agenda long ago. It is not only in the last few years that Jews who follow Jesus have been concerned with their Jewishness! This is must reading that will set a context for the contemporary Messianic movement. The reader may find it helpful to pick out a few key points in each chapter from the mass of details. It is especially encouraging to see the book co-published by a Scottish publisher, The Handsel Press, and a major American religious publisher, Wm. B. Eerdmans. I hope it receives the wide reading it deserves.

Rich Robinson is editor of The Messianic Review of Books.