By Shoshanah Feher. AltaMira Press, 1998. 205 pages.
Just how effective are Messianic congregations in reaching Jewish unbelievers with the gospel message? Shoshanah Feher offers us a case study in her own encounter with a Messianic congregation in the Los Angeles area. After over three years’ exposure and a detailed and inside view of Adat haRuach (a pseudonym), Feher, a Reform Jew, remained personally unconvinced of the validity of the claims of Yeshua.
Feher was unconvinced by the decoding and recoding of Jewish symbols in Messianic life to reflect Christian norms. “This active form of culture, which continuously recreates and defines Jewish ritual in Christian terms—is what binds the community of Messianics” (p. 20), but the resultant blurred ethnic and religious boundaries trouble many in the Jewish community.
The attraction for Messianic Jews is the congregation’s Jewish style because elements of Jewish ethnicity and the Jewish emphasis of the teaching are more palatable to them that that of Gentile churches. The appeal to Messianic Gentiles is the opportunity to adopt a new ethnic and religious identity otherwise unavailable to them. However, this new composite identity left Messianic believers strikingly ineffective in relating to Jewish non-believers. One interviewee told Feher:
I don’t have any friends [emphasis mine] that are non-Believers. It is hard to carry on a friendship with someone who doesn’t share the same ideals and beliefs. It’s really hard. That’s why you’re such and enigma to so many people—because they feel such an attachment to you, but yet they don’t know how to relate to you. (pp. 55-56)
Feher found this remark characteristic of the tensions experienced in Messianic congregational life. Ostensibly, these congregations should find a strong basis for relationship with the Jewish community, but in the end, they are unable to connect effectively. Structures erected to bridge Jewish and Christian identities are actually ineffective in transporting Jews to the Messianic community. They become barriers rather than bridges as the Messianic congregation turns inward, and the emotional energy generated for the outside world is instead focused on the Messianic community. Consequently, “the emotional investment demanded of Adat haRuach members is too high…” and they leave the community (p. 166). Feher found that, of the thirty people she interviewed during her time at Adat haRuach, fifteen had left five years later. The reasons for departure cited were that Adat haRuach was too Jewish, not Jewish enough, too exclusive with regard to other Christians, or too socially controlled.
Feher’s observations of this one particular congregation reflect a fundamental problem for Messianic congregations, which my own study of over sixty congregations corroborated.* Messianic congregations attempt to diffuse the tension between Jewish and Christian traditions. While they provide initial relief from this tension, over time the congregations themselves can become a crucible for increased tensions. Issues surface that press participants either to conform radically to the newly created cultural norms of Messianic life or to seek relief by exit.
Although she applauds the Messianic congregational objective of removing the barriers between Jewish and Gentile Christian communities, Feher questions
whether Messianic Believers can identify satisfactorily with two communities that traditionally call for exclusive identification.…I believe although they are committed to breaking down fences between Jewish and Gentile communities, in fact they produce new fences. (pp. 75-76)
Blessing their Manischewitz wine in the name of the Father (Abba), the Son (Yshua), and the Holy Ghost (Ruach Hakodesh), they succeed in offending Jewish and Christian sensitivities alike. (p. 98)
Feher postulates that because they sense resistance from both communities, Messianic Jewish congregations distance themselves from Jews who refuse recognition of Messianic Jewishness and from Gentile Christians who do not recognize the essential Jewishness of Christianity. “This in turn results in pleasure based on difference: Glad to be neither Christians nor Jews, Messianic Believers consider themselves an exclusive group” (p. 93).
Her critique touches at the heart of the Messianic congregational movement. Her conclusions suggest that Messianic congregations are neither successful in attracting the Jewish community to the Messiahship of Yeshua nor at providing a long-term refuge for those who accept it. This is a hard message to hear, but recommended reading for those interested in seriously examining the effectiveness of Jewish cultural adaptation in Messianic Jewish congregations or Jewish evangelism.
* Wasserman, Jeffrey Steven. “Messianic Jewish Congregations: A Comparison and Critique of Contemporary North American and Israeli Expressions.” Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997.