Our Identity–In Crisis or In Christ?
An article entitled, Israel cracking down on ‘Jews for Jesus’ ” appeared in the February 4 edition of the Chicago Tribune—section 1, page 2, no less. In the article, the sympathetic reporter (Tom Hundley) raises the question: Why should Jews be deported from Israel because they believe in Jesus? He notes, “Israel was created to serve as a safe haven for all Jews. This includes atheistic Jews, New Age Jews, and Jews of the Lubavitcher sect who believe their 97-year-old rabbi in New York is the Messiah. It also includes thousands of new Russian immigrants with only the most tenuous links to Judaism.…But according to the Interior Ministry, it does not include Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah.”
The article offers brief profiles of three couples who were told they must leave Israel by February 20. One would have to be hard-hearted indeed to miss the reporter’s point: that these people are being treated unfairly, that “…many Israelis find [this] troubling and confusing,” and that the Interior Ministry (as portrayed in this article) is arbitrary and unresponsive.
Should we rejoice, that for once, Jewish believers in Yeshua are getting some decent consideration in the press? Brothers and sisters, if you think that article and that reporter are doing us a favor, think again.
Do we really want this kind of “sympathy” with the price being that Israel, the country we say we love, is put in such a poor light?
Let’s be realistic; how much love has the secular press shown for anything or anyone who bears the name of Jesus? Maybe the reporter’s sympathy toward Jewish believers in the Land is genuine, but maybe his sympathy would not have made it into print if it didn’t have a hard edge to condemn Israeli officials.
Let’s never be unsympathetic to the trauma that faces deportees. Let’s uphold them and pray for them during this difficult time. May God comfort and bless them, and may they feel at home in Him wherever they find themselves. At the same time, let’s not encourage the media to throw a pity party at Israel’s expense. Most of all, let’s try to separate out our personal feelings regarding this matter so we can take a careful look at some of the problem areas in the bigger picture.
Let’s look at the law and its application, or non-application, to us. Then let’s look at our identity, who we say we are versus who the unbelieving Jewish community says we are. Is there a way to close the gap? What are our rights as Jewish believers in Jesus?
The Law of Return
A number of Jewish believers in Jesus have immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return. Enacted on July 5, 1950, the Law of Return states that every Jew has the right to come to Israel as an oleh or an immigrant. The law describes a Jew as a person who was born to a Jewish mother (or converted to Judaism) and who has not voluntarily converted to another religion.
The purpose of the law was to facilitate immigration for Jews who were, in essence, refugees. Jews need a refuge, a place to run from the Nazis, from hostile neighbors, a place to live in safety as a Jew, a place to practice the Jewish religion. Israel was and is intended to be that refuge.
Not only does the Law of Return offer immediate citizenship, but the government has provided substantial benefits to make it easier for Jews to make aliyah.
For example, the Law of Return allows olim to import all their goods duty free. Those who are not included under that law face tremendous taxes in bringing anything of value into the country.
In addition, olim may purchase items such as washers, dryers, refrigerators and even automobiles tax free. When you consider that the tax on such items runs nearly 100 percent, this is almost equivalent to a 50 percent discount on major expenses.
Olim are allowed to live on an ulpan for five months, free of charge, and can receive rent subsidies for up to five years. The amount of the subsidy is calculated on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the family.
The Law of Return was generously designed. But the Law of Return was not the one made by God, it was made by people. They intended (and have a right) to be generous to those whom they have chosen as recipients for their largesse. Israel is a sovereign country and makes its own laws to extend whatever benefits it chooses to whomever it chooses. Israel also has a right to limit those benefits. The Law of Return does not offer “certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It offers specific material benefits.
When it comes to Jews who believe in Jesus, up to this point we are not and cannot be considered people who need a refuge from the non-Jewish world. One of the people mentioned at the beginning of the Chicago Tribune article was quoted as saying he came to Israel to “escape the ‘neo-Nazi environment’ of the Idaho community where he lived.” Sad to say, there is such a community in Idaho. There are also many, many communities to which this man could have “escaped” between Idaho and Israel! Of course it’s not wrong to want to move to Israel. But isn’t it a little hard to believe that an American had to immigrate there to escape neo-Nazis?
Furthermore, Jews who believe in Jesus are not perceived by the immigration officials as being in danger of persecution by Christians. Rather, they see us as having chosen to be a part of the Christian community. And in fact, we are part of that community, at least in the biblical sense. We are part of a shared body of Jews and Gentiles. “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6)
It is true that the word “Christian” has been used so loosely and improperly that other people misunderstand it. Being a Christian includes so much more than the average person understands, and it also includes so much less! Some Jewish believers insist we are not Christians when in all probability they actually mean, “I am not what you think a Christian is.”
We need to be very cautious that we do not trade one misunderstanding for another. It is crucial for our movement that we not allow rejection of certain terminology to be construed as a denial of doctrine. There are Christians and non-Christians who honestly wonder if we have invented a new religion because they heard a Jewish believer say, “I don’t consider myself a Christian.” They don’t know that it is merely the extra baggage associated with the word and not the theology that is being rejected.
If we have to be misunderstood (and unfortunately, it seems that we do) it is better for us to be misunderstood as unfaithful to the Jewish people than to be misunderstood as unfaithful to the Lord. The onus is on us to make a clear and strong proclamation of who we are as “Jesus people.”
In any case, wrestling with semantics to prove we are Jews is not going to make us eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. Much of the argumentation is based not upon our identity as Jews but upon our rights to the benefits included in the law.
Whether or not we consider faith in Yeshua “another religion” is not the point. The point is, the law has been framed in a certain way to enable the government to include and exclude certain people. Though the government up till now has not pressed their right to exclude us, they have had the right to do so all along. For the purposes of applying for citizenship, we are not considered Jews by the government of Israel. If we are not Jews under the Law of Return, in what way are we Jews?
Who is a Jew?
Who’s a Jew is a difficult question, and one fraught with irony. Maybe you heard the story of the black man who sat reading a Yiddish newspaper on a New York subway. Across from him sat a Jewish man, staring and wondering until he could no longer hold back. “Mister, zayt moykhl, ir zayt a yid? (Come on, are you really a Jew?)” The man looked up from his newspaper and responded, “Vos, bin ikh meshugah? Nor dos felt migi! (What, me a Jew? That crazy, I’m not!)”1
That reflects Jewish irony. While most Jews feel responsible to maintain a Jewish identity on some level, most also recognize that it has never been easy or convenient to be Jewish. There is a flip side to that story. It is a true story and I don’t mean to be unkind or tell it as a joke, yet I think you’ll see the irony.
A man and his wife were conspicuous members of a local messianic congregation. I say “conspicuous” because they were the most noticeable people in the congregation. They both davened furiously and the wife would even turn east to pray, which in this case was not toward the front of the sanctuary. Some found this a bit distracting.
He wore tsitsit and a yarmulke and had the most ornate tallis in the congregation. His wife wore long-sleeved plain dresses, always accompanied with a matching kerchief to cover her head. They looked like they might have just left Crown Heights or perhaps even Meah She’arim.
Someone told me that neither this man nor his wife were born Jewish. Curiosity drove me to ask this couple if that were true. After some sidelong glances, shuffling of feet and an uncomfortable pause, they both responded, “Actually, we’re not sure.” They launched into lengthy explanations, but in short, one grandparent (I don’t remember if it was his or hers) had never been willing to disclose her family background. The couple concluded that this grandmother was Jewish based on certain “Semitic features” detected in old family photographs. On the other side there was a family heirloom—a seven-branched brass candelabra—that had been handed down from previous generations. Although parents and grandparents denied any Jewish background, this couple was certain that the menorah plainly indicated Jewish lineage.
Perhaps you have met people with similar claims to Jewish heritage. Those “Jews by self-discovery” who say, “I am one-fourth Jewish,” or “I am one-tenth Jewish,” or “I consider myself Jewish because I have a Jewish ancestor” are expressing a positive desire to associate with our people. All of us who are born Jews are pleased and flattered that a person might feel that way. Yet it does not logically follow that such claims or desires make people Jews.
It’s not a fractional number of Jewish corpuscles in a body that makes a person to be Jewish. If it were, we could impart a Jewish identity through blood transfusions!
In order to live as a Jew, a person must find some community of Jewish people who are willing to receive that person as a Jew. Whether or not that person is Jewish in God’s eyes is another matter.
Is anybody a Jew who wants to be a Jew so long as they can get other Jews to consider them Jewish? Of course not! Being a Jew is not simply a matter of personal preference. Even though it is fashionable to call converts to Judaism “Jews by choice” as opposed to “Jews by birth,” there is much more than personal choice involved.
A convert to Judaism is a member of the Jewish religion. You might describe such a person as a Jew in the same way you would describe another person as a Buddhist or a Catholic. But subscribing to a religion, or any other set of ideas, cannot convert one’s entire identity, because there are two components of Jewish identity which cannot be gained through conversion: heritage and yichus (genealogy).
When we talk about heritage, we are talking about the social, spiritual, and historic forces that link us to the past and condition our present. Those forces interwoven with our physical ancestry or yichus make up Jewish identity.
It is interesting that one of the most cutting insults one Jew can give another is, “You’re not Jewish, you have turned your back on the Jewish people.” This is a cruel barb directed toward Jewish believers. It is intended to hurt us. But here is more irony, because if we really had purposed to turn our backs on our people, the remark would not be an insult. Nevertheless, we need to analyze the Jewish community’s insistence that we do not belong.
As painful as it may be to consider, there is a slight similarity between how the majority of messianic Jews see “Jews by self-discovery” and how the larger Jewish community sees us. The lack of any authentically Jewish yichus on the part of certain believers in the messianic community prevents us from considering them Jews, no matter how much they would like to be. Sometimes we are puzzled as to why they would not be satisfied to be what they are.
Likewise our insistence that Jesus is Messiah of Israel, God and Savior of the world disqualifies us from being considered authentically Jewish by the majority of Jews. Their question to us remains: “Why don’t you just call yourselves Christians?” They recognize something that some Jewish believers refuse to see. Our faith—what we believe about Jesus and our relationship to God through Him—contradicts the Jewish religion. Now that doesn’t mean that we aren’t Jewish, because, after all, many Jews believe things that contradict the Jewish religion. However, none of these other beliefs are seen as reason to ostracize and deny the Jewish identity of those involved.
From the vantage point of most in the Jewish community, our insistence on being accepted as Jews while embracing Christ is as troubling as it would be for us to accept as Jews those individuals who have no real Jewish ancestry. That is because the rabbis, the caretakers of Judaism, have made not believing in Jesus one of the primary tenets of the religion. It is our right, even our duty, to refuse to let go of our claim to Jewishness. Our Jewish identity is based on authentic yichus, heritage and even the ground of Scripture. At the same time, it is unproductive at best for us to insist that the rest of the Jewish community accept our definitions of what is authentic. Even less productive are demands that we be afforded the same rights and privileges as those whom the Jewish community chooses to recognize as Jews.
In her excellent paper, “Coming Clean: Jewish or Christian? (Messianic Judaism and the Language of Disaffiliation),” Susan Perlman points out the problem of improper motivation in insisting on our Jewishness. “If we are motivated by acceptance by someone or something other than God, then a problem, not so much of ethics, but of love and faithfulness, arises. Some Jews who believe in Jesus seek personal acceptance from the larger Jewish community. They try to define themselves into that community with language that says, ‘we are one of you,’ and certainly we are in some ways. But out of faithfulness to Jesus, we should not seek that kind of approval from those who are committed to rejecting the Messiah.”
Our Identity in Yeshua
If our goal is to be accepted by the Jewish community for the purpose of aliyah or any other reason, we are in danger. A desire to be accepted leads to a desire to please. If we take the road of trying to please those who reject Jesus, we are destined to reject Him, too, be it a blatant or subtle rejection.
Some have tried to describe the movement of Jewish believers in Jesus as a fifth branch of Judaism. That sounds good as a slogan but is not true as a fact.
God did not create Judaism. God created the Jewish people. Our religious leaders created Judaism, and one of the defining tenets of Judaism has become, “Jesus is not the Messiah.” How can we be a branch of that kind of religious conviction?
If we ever were a branch of Judaism, we were the branch that was cut off, but did not die. We are the branch that has sprung up from the stem of Jesse, and as a branch from his roots we continue to bear fruit. We are the remnant according to God’s gracious choice—not a withered and wilting group of wannabes whose greatest aspiration is to be an unwanted appendage to the Jewish whole.
Satan’s strategy tempts us to spend the lion’s share of our effort laying claim to a right to participate within the unbelieving Jewish community. That disputed claim is not the basis of our Jewishness, and it goes against the whole concept of holiness described in the Bible. Being holy always meant being apart from the majority.
As Jewish believers in Jesus, we need to ask ourselves what kind of yichus we really want. What kind of heritage should we be establishing for our descendants? Rather than looking to carve out a niche that is acceptable within the Jewish community, we must look to our own heritage. God shows us the basis for that heritage in Hebrews 11. We can build upon that heritage in the way we conduct our lives, walk with the Lord, seek to preserve our Jewishness and (should the Lord tarry) pass on that whole package to the children and grandchildren of our movement.
I am not arguing against our historic connectedness to our people Israel. Nevertheless there is a perverse insistence on acceptance by our unbelieving kinsmen according to the flesh. That insistence borders on violating Paul’s command: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness. And what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
He didn’t say don’t care, don’t love, don’t be compassionate. He said don’t be yoked together, or bound.
If we minimize our distinctive, that which makes us to be different, we trivialize the meaning of the greatest experience of our lives. Either we are banded together by our Jewishness or our Jesusness. If it is our Jesusness that binds us together, thank God because we have a message for the whole world that we can carry in a Jewish way.
We have a profound heritage, deeper and more important than any family tree, because it is of eternal value. It is the yichus we have received through adoption. We are connected, part of the family of God, through faith in Yeshua!
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Our new yichus includes still more: “For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” (Hebrews 2:11)
If Jesus is not ashamed to declare us His brothers and sisters, how can any one of us possibly be ashamed or want to conceal our yichus in Him? And yet some of our mishpochah want to be considered Jews who just happen to believe in Jesus. Their assurance to the mainstream Jewish community (or to the Israeli immigration officers) is that their faith in Yeshua won’t bother anyone. We just don’t have the right to make those kinds of assurances.
We must preserve the heritage we inherited, not only through our ancestors, but through faith in Israel’s Messiah Yeshua. The yichus by which we regard ourselves is not merely who our ancestors were, but how well we have received and passed on the heritage of faith from Yeshua Himself. That is going to bother people who do not believe and do not want others to believe in our Messiah.
Rather than insisting on our own rights as Jews, let us join our hearts and minds together to insist on Yeshua’s right to be praised and honored as the only hope and the only consolation of Israel. If we’re going to sign petitions to make our voices heard regarding our identity, let us make one great petition that shows allegiance to the One who is worthy of our deepest loyalty.
There are times and there are ways to take a stand and make our voices heard. At the same time, there are certain kinds of discrimination which are inevitable, and God receives glory when we accept suffering on account of our faith as a badge of honor.
Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.
1 Peter 4:16, 19
- Moment Magazine, December 1992, p. 51.
- See also Romans 8:16-17 and Galatians 4:4-5.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.