Stuart Dauermann walked into what he thought was a kosher delicatessen and saw what he thought was a Jewish counterman putting together what he thought was a ham sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread. With astonishment he stared at the apparently Jewish proprietor and said,

Isn’t that a ham sandwich?”

To which the answer came, “So?” Stuart’s forehead creased into about a half dozen P-lines (P for perplexity) as he pointed to the sign outside that said “Kosher.”

He blurted out, “Doesn’t that sign say this restaurant is kosher?”

“Soitenly,” the proprietor answered (the deli was in Brooklyn). “Strictly kosher,” he added for emphasis.

“Well then,” said Stuart, “how do you reconcile your making a ham sandwich with that ‘Kosher’ sign telling us that it is all right for an observant Jew to eat here?”

“Vell, I’ll tell you, young man,” the owner said to Stuart (who is old enough to be flattered that someone would address him that way), “my father-in-law who owned the store before me put up the sign. I’m strictly kosher, but not so kosher as him. He was very strictly kosher. I’m just ordinary strictly kosher.”

So who was more confused, Stuart or that store owner? Maybe the story never even happened, but one thing is clear and one thing is true: even if every Jew had the same understanding of what it means to be kosher, every generation has their own idea of what it means to be a Jew.

Statistically Speaking

Jewish identity and expression is important to most Messianic Jews. Nevertheless, there is no one agreed-upon manner in which this identity is best demonstrated as proof that we are truly Jewish. Perhaps our very eagerness to disagree is the best evidence that we are truly Jewish!

Many of us have said we are more committed to living as Jews now than we were before accepting Yeshua. This concern to identify as Jews can be seen through a study of surveys of Jewish believers in Jesus collected since 1982.

One question on the survey was: “Do you celebrate the Jewish holidays?” Of the almost 4,000 surveyed, approximately 75% (after adjusting for the 12% who did not respond) stated that they celebrated the holidays either regularly or intermittently. Less than a quarter of those responding said that they did not observe the holidays at all. The actual responses were as follows:

Response number of respondents percent
Yes 1230 32%
No 862 23%
Sometimes 1253 33%
No Answer 446 12%

What we call ourselves also tells much about our identity. When given choices about what to be called, most wanted to be known by a term that emphasized their Jewishness. Individuals were allowed to select more than one term and often did choose more than one term which identified them as Jewish. The results are as follows:

Response number of respondents per cent of total response
Jewish Christian 1378 36%
Jewish Believer 1364 36%
Hebrew Christian 842 22%
Christian 1489 39%
Messianic Jew 1376 36%
Other 58 2%

If you’re wondering why the numbers don’t total 100%, remember people were allowed to choose more than one name. It is clear that the respondents are eager to maintain their Jewish affiliation.

Difficult to Define

But how can Jewish believers express our Jewish identity when there is no agreement about what it means to be a Jew—with or without the Messiah?

Are we Jewish because of a religious commitment or because we are part of the Jewish people? Who determines who is part of that people and who is not?

After all, we Jews are proud of the fact that we do not have a Pope, and that we are not bound by a belief system which goes against our sense of reason or conscience. But when religious authority is arrogated from the hand of God and the Scriptures are entrusted to people—and only people—for proper interpretation, a babel of confusion results. If all Jews recognized God and believed the Scriptures, there would be less confusion regarding who is a Jew.

When Israel was a theocracy (governed by God) and we were together as a people, no one had to ask what it meant to be Jewish. We didn’t worry about identifying ourselves, we just obeyed God. We crossed the Red Sea, we ate manna, we watched God’s presence in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We knew we were separate and we knew we had better do what God commanded. We knew we were Israelites. We didn’t know from Judaism. Our life wasn’t an “ism.” It was stumbling along after the One who had set us apart for his glory.

Now we’ve got a religion that’s supposed to provide boundaries for what it means to be Jewish. The religion is called Judaism and it is mostly based on what the rabbis say that the Bible means and what they have decided that God wants from us in light of the fact that there haven’t been any recent partings of the Red Sea. Some people who practice Judaism believe in God while others just believe in the Jewish people.

One thing that all agree upon is that Jews are supposed to be different, separate. But how, and for what purpose? It’s difficult to say in today’s secular and humanistic society. But Judaism does keep up with the times, which seem to say that you’re not exactly required to practice “our religion,” you’re just expected to defend it as the religion you would practice…if you ever decided to become religious!

So what makes a Jew a Jew? Eugene Borowitz, a contemporary Jewish thinker/author, defines the Jewish people in terms of an ethnic group, not members of a religion. He captures the heart of a dilemma—the secularization of Jewish identity and culture—in his book The Masks that Jews Wear. In a profound chapter entitled “The Power of Being an Ethnos,” Borowitz states:

“Ours is a time of widespread agnosticism, at least on the surface. Most people cannot see themselves as in any way significantly believing. If we insist that to be a Jew means one must be ‘spiritual,’ we will be not only historically inaccurate but irrelevant to most modern Jews.…Ethnicity now furnishes the reserve staying power for the community.

For, though we may not be very ‘spiritual,’ most American Jews are still somehow quite Jewish. And being Jewish through their eating, drinking, joking, social style, companionship, they cannot easily shake the old dream. God lurks behind the chopped liver. The caterer, for all the vulgarity he may have fostered, must be seen as a low- level, latter-day Levite, serving the ritual assemblies of the Jewish masses, the commonality that is the Jewish people.”

page 125

This should be a helpful insight to some Jewish believers who mistakenly think they lack Jewish identity because they were brought up in homes with meager religious training. Borowitz speaks to this even more directly as he reflects:

“These apparently secular entities, the family and the community, are effective largely because they have centuries of Jewish practice behind them. The present social order may be substantially different from what Jews were once accustomed to. Nonetheless, many of the values that family and community transmit remain valid, though transformed to meet the new social situation. The old passion for learning is fulfilled largely through the university rather than the yeshivah, and the traditional emphasis on charity is carried out as much by supporting governmental welfare programs as by giving to private and Jewish institutions. The major change is in the form; the human substance seems largely the same.”

page 121

If we somehow feel less Jewish because of a lack of religious training then it should be noted that we are no more or less Jewish than most of world Jewry! Most of the people who tell you that you can’t accept Jesus until you fully understand the Judaism of the rabbis have little understanding of the religion themselves.

We should not search for our Jewish identity in merely religious terms. We are part of the Jewish peoplehood and our identity stretches beyond the religious traditions associated with being a Jew. Most of us did not accept a religious definition of “Jewishness” prior to being saved—why should we feel obligated to accept it now? Because the anti-missionaries say so?

Have you ever noticed how Jews who believe in Jesus are expected to play by a different set of rules? Changing rules to disqualify some players while allowing others to play by more lenient rules is cheating. Accepting those new rules is like asking to be cheated out of our Jewish identity. So if someone tries to guilt-trip you by asking how much Jewish education you’ve had or how “observant” you are just say, “Not enough…but what has that got to do with being Jewish or being for Jesus?”

This is not to speak against the beauty of continuing or even adding Jewish religious traditions to our homes, Messianic congregations and meetings…but let’s not allow the Jewish religious establishment to call the tunes to which we dance! We must pay the piper, so we should choose the tunes. And our maestro must always be the Messiah!

Still, the question of Jewish identity is much debated among Jewish believers in Jesus. Our faith in Jesus does make us different, so we keep wondering, (to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase) “how should we then live?”

A Shattered Hope

In the exuberance of an influx of Jewish believers in the 1970’s, some hoped that Messianic Jews would form the “fifth branch” of Judaism. Those hopes have repeatedly been dashed. Unlike Reform or Orthodox Jews who might choose to attend a Conservative synagogue, we have not been welcome at synagogue services or Jewish events. We have been ousted, insulted and threatened. We are considered outcasts, the evangelism Yeshua commanded is called shameful and our movement is cast as a villainous plot.

Rather than a fifth branch of Judaism we have been portrayed as the nemesis of Jewish leadership. Our Messianic faith has become the raison d’etre for the creation of new Jewish defense agencies. Self-proclaimed heroes line their pockets by terrorizing the Jewish community with lies about who we are and what we do, then promising “with your help” to stop us. To put it crudely, we have become the golden goose that is kept outside the barn.

So what can we do, pretend to fit in? Lie to ourselves and our fellow Jews about who Yeshua is for the sake of our Jewish identity? God forbid. We should just accept as part of our identity the fact that we will never be accepted until he is accepted. When it comes to Jewish identity, we must not accept the criteria or seek the acceptance of fellow Jews. We must forge our own path under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

The Shoe Doesn’t Fit The Other Foot Either

The debate among Jewish unbelievers about who is Jewish has drawn much publicity—especially since the Orthodox have greater control over Aliyah policies: particularly regarding the Law of Return. The Orthodox minority has stated aloud what has been an unwritten policy—that Orthodox conversion is the only conversion to Judaism recognized by the State of Israel as kosher.

Many American Jews are outraged by Orthodox intransigence to recognize as legitimate “conversions” other than their own. Whether or not these laws are ever enforced, many Jews with spouses who were not “properly” converted have been shocked by what we have always known: namely, how it feels to be shut out of the Jewish community on the basis of non-conformity to a particular religious dogma.

A Jewish believer was dismayed when she tried to enroll her daughter in the Jewish Community Center’s Hebrew school and the child was denied entrance. (It is not advisable to send a child to a non-Messianic school anyway, but this family lived in an area where there was no other means of Jewish education available.)

It seems that the Conservative rabbi who led the opposition to the child’s entrance is married to a woman who converted to Judaism. An article appeared in the local newspaper wherein the rabbi, his wife and the congregation expressed disappointment with what they felt to be Israel’s repressive new policy on “conversion.” The mother of the child who was denied entrance to the Hebrew school wrote a gentle, well-tempered note to the rabbi, asking how it felt to be discriminated against because others within the Jewish community considered his “brand” of Judaism deficient. (The rabbi has yet to respond.)

Except for a religious minority and a more extreme Orthodox fringe, Jewishness is commonly understood in sociological terms, not religious definitions. If religion was the definitive factor, far too many Jews who are politically and culturally active, but religiously unaffiliated, would be excluded. But a positive definition broad enough to encompass the expanse of modern Jewry would come too close to including us! And that cannot happen, because there exists an emotional subtext to the understanding of what it means to be Jewish—a subtext which excludes Jews who believe in Jesus.

Fellow Jews therefore feel threatened by our presence yet have no definitive means of removing us without also excluding themselves from Jewish life. While the anti-missionaries don’t care much about double standards, most Jews realize that they will have to live by any set of rules they try to impose upon us. And the shoe fits just as poorly when it’s on the other foot…because that shoe is just too small for most Jewish people, whether or not they believe in Jesus.

Therefore, the Jewish community continues trying to define our movement out of existence by telling us what Jews must not be or believe rather than positively what we must be and believe. Thanks be to God, we do not exist on the basis of someone’s definition, whether positive or negative.

And since we do exist, many in the movement are searching for a more definitive Messianic Jewish way to live, especially now, with so many children to be raised. For in a community of believers, the children are not only the concern of the parents, of’ all who are looking to the future.

The Messianic Jewish Life…Style

What does it mean to have a Messianic Jewish life-style? Are we to simply accept what Judaism has to offer and “Christianize” (or “Messianisize???”) traditional liturgy and prayers and practices when possible?

Once we accept the Messiah, is being Jewish reduced to maintaining a proper diet of bagels and lox…if the price goes down? Should we shy away from any and all Jewish religious traditions because they would indicate that we are “still under the Law?” (As if most American Jews who practice these traditions know what it means to be really under the Law.)

The seemingly indefinable nature of Jewish identity makes it all the more difficult to describe what it means to have a “Messianic Jewish lifestyle.” Perhaps we should break it down to two steps: “Messianic” being the first step, and “Jewish” being the second. And the main thing to remember about step one is that being Messianic is more of a life than a style!

A “lifestyle” represents an individual expression of fashion. It cannot grow or change because, as soon as it does, it is not the same style. Hippie-ism was a lifestyle. A yuppie is a thirty-five-year-old hippie who has come to enjoy, expect and encourage what was once despised. What was avoided, abandoned, and abjured is now pursued. It is not that the hippie lifestyle changed. It’s just not “fashionable” anymore.

Believing in Jesus is not a lifestyle at all…it is a Life! The Bible tells us that Life is in the Son (Yeshua), and that if we have the Son, we have Life. (1 John 5:10-12) Life is only discovered by accepting Yeshua.

Lifestyle speaks of passing trends whereas Life in Jesus is eternal and has the power to transform. Lifestyle demands conformity whereas Life fosters diversity. True, our faith does demand some conformity, but not to the changing trends in Judaism, or even to the convictions of other Jewish believers in Yeshua. Rather, to be Messianic is to become conformed to the character and image of the Messiah.

On to step two: the Jewish part of the Messianic Jewish life. Jewish identity is more than a birthright. It is best understood and appreciated when practiced. Yet, many of us remain on the sidelines of the Jewish game when we should be players.

Most of us enjoy our heritage, but any active identification and Jewish practice as followers of Yeshua seems to cause grief. It’s hard enough for Jews who don’t believe! Borowitz writes “It would be difficult to deny that most of us prefer Jewish association to Jewish dedication.” (page 124)

But as Jewish believers in Jesus we should be activists. We cannot sit by and allow others to be Jewish on our behalf. The fact that your grandfather was a religious Jew, or that your aunt keeps kosher, or that your children read a little Hebrew does not make you actively Jewish. Being Jewish is not based upon warm remembrances of childhood. Our Jewish past does not insure a Jewish future. Our children will remember more of what we do than what we say. The identity of the next generation of Jewish believers depends in part upon our practicing the Jewish identity we claim is so important.

As believers, our Jewish identity must stretch beyond culinary and cultural concerns, for God indeed lurks behind the chopped liver! The more secularized forms of Jewish life are but a lifeless shell of what was once the living faith of the people of Israel. It is like a fossil of the most unkosher crustacean: the once warm home of a living thing becomes stony and cold when its inhabitant departs. If God is extracted from Judaism there is nothing left but the empty traditions of a once great Semitic civilization.

Where does that leave those of us who are Jews with lives that are centered on God and his Messiah?

Well, we are not contending for a specific manner of dress to identify Jewish believers in Jesus. We cannot say with certainty that Yeshua wore a kippah or tallis. Maybe he did, for it would have been consistent with his character if that was truly the custom by which we Jews identified ourselves in his day. After all, Yeshua did not use external distinctives to separate himself from fellow Jews. But we do know from the New Testament that Jesus was kind and considerate…and more concerned with what was written upon the heart than what was contained in scrolls upon the arm.

It is true that groups like Jews for Jesus sometimes wear T-shirts and jackets with slogans to identify ourselves as followers of Yeshua. But there is no universal “Messianic Jewish dress code” by which all Jewish believers in Jesus can be recognized.

Nor are we talking about mere semantics. The switch in terms between Hebrew Christian and Messianic Jew is simply that…a switch in terminology. Those of us who are part of the “Messianic” generation must not be so naive or presumptuous as to think that heroes of the faith like Rachmiel Frydland and others who called themselves Hebrew Christians did not know what it was to be Jewish!

The variety of labels and teachings among Jewish believers need not be divisive. We have not so much a contradiction, but a difference in emphasis. In this, the Messianic community is perfectly consistent with other Jewish people. How do you suppose the saying about four Jewish people having five different opinions became so well known?

Some teachers in our movement emphasize the importance of studying end-time prophecy; others emphasize the importance of making Aliyah. Some feel that following a prescribed set of Jewish rituals is important. Some emphasize building congregations and others emphasize evangelism. Some emphasize reaching for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Others emphasize preaching of the Word, and teaching of doctrine. Is one right to the exclusion of all the rest? Only narrow-minded, shortsighted people would think so.

Various Messianic leaders are stressing a wide range of important issues that need to be weighed on the balance scales of our hearts, with the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Those who wish to impose their sectarian viewpoints on the rest of us run the risk of causing division and strife. No outside force can stamp out our movement but, if we insist on picking each other apart from within, the movement could well grind to a halt.

A word of caution might prove helpful here: beware of modern day Gnostics! Gnostics were those who claimed to know the deeper secrets of faith which would enable those who followed their practices to be closer to God. We have modern day, well-meaning Messianic Gnostics who advocate certain rabbinic practices as a necessary ingredient to the deeper, fuller, Messianic life.

It is particularly distressing when such advocates are Messianic gentiles who feel constrained to admonish those who were born and raised Jewish on how to live as Jews. What they usually mean by being Jewish is something external, such as wearing a yarmulke or laying tefillin—the shortest route to their being able to identify as Jews. If a Jewish or gentile believer desires to identify with outward symbols of rabbinic Judaism, and they are able to balance outward garb with the inward grace described in the New Covenant, they are free to do so. But it is narishkeit to instruct a Jew to be a Jew. What else can we be?!

And yet the question of how to go about being Jewish s still difficult to answer. We know that we must do something, but along with the rest of the Jewish community, we do not know exactly what to do.

If you were hoping this article would provide the answer, you will be disappointed. When the question is “How do we work out our Jewish identity?” the answer can only be: “It’s personal! Go work it out with the Lord.” Maybe that sounds vague and non-committal, but in this we are committed to vagueness, for these are things we believe the Scripture leaves to each believer’s discretion.

How dare any believer force his or her idea of living Jewishly on any other believer when, in the context of diet and festivals, Scripture tells us: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:4,5)

“Messianity”: Being More Like Messiah Jesus

Messianity is a movement. It is Life. It is not sectarian because it includes Jews and gentiles: whoever puts their trust in the Messiah. Our movement is sometimes misunderstood as fostering spiritual and social separation between Jewish and gentile believers. But if we carefully listen to the message of the Messianic movement, we discover a spiritual unity which transcends distinctives.

Messianity is one movement which is truly universal for it has the capacity to include all peoples and any manner of life as long as that life does not contradict the Word of God. For example, Judaism and certain churches make provision for divorce, but in the Messianic Life, divorce is not the answer to marital distress. Divorce between believers is only possible when one or both of the marriage partners decides to step out of the will of our Messiah. Self-denial and the way of the cross is the Messiah’s way. No manner of self-indulgence is encouraged by the Lord, who says “take up your cross and follow me.”

Jewish tradition has a place in our expression of Messianic Life: an important place as a tutor, a teacher, a reminder. But it can never be central, for the Messiah alone must be the core of our existence. Any Jewish tradition that reminds us of God’s promises, God’s redemption, and how the Messiah fulfilled Scripture is good. But whatever causes us to hedge on a forthright commitment to Jesus is wrong.

Our movement towards the Messiah must be to become like him, to love like him, to be sacrificial in serving one another. Like him, we need to radiate the beauty of his Father to our people. Our “lifestyle” is in actuality his life flowing through us.

So if you want to be the kind of Jew Jesus wants you to be…if you really want to live a Messianic Jewish Lifestyle…be transformed and conformed to Jesus the Jew. As our lives reflect his presence, others (and especially our own people whom we love so dearly) will catch a glimpse of what is most beautiful and noble about being Jewish…and even more, they will see what is most beautiful and noble about Yeshua.

Will there be unity among Messianic Jews, Jewish believers, Hebrew Christians or whatever we might choose to call ourselves? Only if we choose to be unified where God calls us to unity and graciously give a wide berth to fellow believers in matters which have not been mandated by Scripture. When it comes to areas of personal expression and conviction, “a call to unity” is really a call to conformity, and we run the risk of sanctimoniously strong-arming the very brothers and sisters whom we should seek to serve!

So let us seek conformity—not to one another but only to the person of Christ, Yeshua. When we are all more like him, we will know the joy of Messianic unity which he prayed that we would enjoy!