"Jewish believers belong in Israel!"
There was an awkward moment as we mulled over the statement. Then the conversation picked up again. An Israeli Messianic leader had challenged a group of American Jewish believers about Messianic Jewish identity. His assertion? That Messianic Jewish identity was incomplete and unfulfilled for those living outside the land of Israel. His argument was based on the idea that diaspora Jewish identity was rooted primarily in rabbinic tradition and ethnic ("bagels-and-lox") customs and lacked almost anything theologically substantial. He then continued to describe the rich Jewish identity believers experience in the Land. As you might imagine, this triggered a lively discussion!
His statement was provocative, perhaps, but not all that surprising. Many Messianic believers in Israel feel passionate about aliyah.1 After all, there are relatively few Jewish believers in Israel. Who wouldn't want to see that community grow? And for those believers who have already made aliyah, the case is straightforward: they felt called to leave jobs, family, friends and the comfortable luxuries of life abroad in order to start afresh in the land of milk and honey. Shouldn't everyone?
For an increasing number of Jewish people, aliyah is making more and more sense. The years 2009 and 2010 marked the largest aliyah among North American Jews since the early '80s.2 While it does not compare to the immigration from the former Soviet Union in the early '90s, the increase from North America is noteworthy.
Different reasons have been suggested for this development. Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, claims that according to a recent study, the main reason North Americans gave for making aliyah was "a desire to be part of a Jewish country."3 Other motivations included antisemitism, the delegitimization of Israel and even the recent economic recession, which has not impacted Israel to the same degree as other countries.
Many families move to Israel in order to strengthen their Jewish ties and to embed themselves in a thoroughly Jewish environment. Learning Hebrew, celebrating Jewish holidays, raising children in the Jewish homeland, and living among other Jewish people from all over the world are a few additional reasons why people are attracted to living in Israel.
For Jewish believers, some of these motivations are incredibly important. In the Diaspora, Jewish believers often struggle to remain connected to their Jewish background. Some families compensate by attending a mainstream synagogue as well as a church or a Messianic congregation. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that Jewish people do not experience Jewishness outside of Israel, the reality is that many who live in Israel have found that their Jewish experience is enriched in many ways.
Paradise — or mirage? The challenges and advantages of aliyah
Peaceful Shabbat afternoons ... beautiful beaches ... conversations in Hebrew (once people get through ulpan4) ... incredible hummus ... taking a week off for Passover — these are often the pictures of Israel that come to mind for those considering moving there.
But what happens when the reality doesn't live up to the ideal? Rarely are potential olim5 motivated to relocate to Israel by thoughts of their children serving for three years in Gaza in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. Nor are they motivated by unemployment, the high cost of living, the Middle East conflict or adjustments to immigrant life.
The transition can be especially difficult for adults, who may come unprepared for the challenges. Rarely do those contemplating moving to Israel think of themselves as "immigrants," yet that is what they are. By comparison, one immigration researcher noted the following statement made by an immigrant to the United States who struggled with English:
"I feel like a child trying to organize my speech around basic words ... I want to say something coherently that can take just a couple of words, and it takes me two or three sentences and twenty minutes to put it together... ."6
For Jewish believers the challenges can be even more pronounced. One Jewish believer I know admitted, after a year of living in Israel, "I miss my family, friends and just being home." While the Messianic community is growing, it is still relatively small. Jewish believers may also experience a less than favorable reception in the Land. The aliyah process itself makes this clear as Jewish believers face discrimination and have in some cases been denied the right of return. A former aliyah officer explained to me that she was instructed to ask people making aliyah if they were followers of Jesus and was told that those who were wouldn't lie. I must admit I was impressed by our reputation for honesty, and yet I know some Messianic Jews who simply decided to avoid raising suspicions by keeping their faith hidden — even when asked directly. Some have compared this to smuggling Bibles. For others, the idea of being scrutinized has led them to abandon the thought of making aliyah.7
Yet while these issues should not be ignored, aliyah can also be an incredibly rewarding, positive experience in an individual's life. Many Jewish believers love the Israeli pace of life and the kinship they experience with Jewish neighbors and friends. Furthermore, keeping Jewish practices is rich and more integrated into everyday life than in the Diaspora.
Speaking of both the challenges and the advantages, one Jewish woman who blogs under the name "westbankmama" begins her entry with the following statement: "I firmly believe that Israel is the place to be for every Jew in the world." Then she concludes, "You have to come to Israel because you believe it is the best (if not only) place to live as a Jew and raise Jewish kids. You have to love it in your very bones, because it is hard work."8
A Biblical Perspective
Some biblically-minded Jewish people have taken on the challenges of aliyah out of biblical conviction. After all, there is no shortage of references in the Bible to the return of the Jewish people to the Land. Along with other Jews, many Jewish believers have found direction in passages such as these:
Therefore say: "This is what the sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again" (Ezekiel 11:17; see also Ezekiel 36:24).
"Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!' and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—" (Isaiah 43:5-6; see also Isaiah 11:12).
"I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number" (Jeremiah 23:3).
The Tanach is full of references to God's restoration of the Jewish people from exile back into the Land. But can we say that these texts point all Jewish believers back to the Land today?
Messianic Jewish writer David Stern argues that the Bible issues a general call for Jewish believers to make aliyah:
Messianic Jews have a special call from the prophet Isaiah to make aliyah: Those ransomed by Adonai will return and come with singing to Tziyon, on their heads will be everlasting joy. The will acquire gladness and joy, while sorrow and sighing will flee. (Isaiah 35:10, 51:11 CJB)9
Elsewhere on this passage Stern writes,
In context, the "redeemed of the Lord" are the remnant of Israel, which in the present era means Messianic Jews. So if you're waiting for God to "call" you to make aliyah, you've got it backwards! ... if you have not been personally called by God to remain in the Diaspora, you should be thinking seriously about aliyah, not waiting for God to give you a special word.10
While Stern does not conclude that all Messianic Jews are called to make aliyah (since some may be called to minister abroad), he does believe aliyah should be the default for Messianic Jews.
Yet there is more to these texts. After all, even if these passages point to a future return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, it is quite a different matter to claim they provide clear instructions to all Jewish believers today. They were written prior to and during the Babylonian exile. At that time, Israel was described as idolatrous and rebellious.11 The people were spiritually unhealthy and facing the harsh realities of exile. But while on the one hand we read about judgment, on the other hand we read words of hope. The language is restorative and eschatological. It shines like a light in a very dark chapter in Israel's history, filling the Jewish exiles with hope that they would be brought back into the Land at the appointed time. Even more than that, it gave them a glimpse into God's ultimate plan of redemption.
Here are three noteworthy emphases in these passages:
The immediate restoration of Israel is a precursor to the ultimate renewal of the earth. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others described the rebellion of their day and the reality of exile, but went on to depict an ultimate renewal beginning in Israel and spreading to the nations and the cosmos. For example, Isaiah 11 describes a time when the Jewish people would be gathered back into the Land, but then paints a picture of ultimate renewal in which the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the child will play with the cobra, and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.12
The physical return of the Jewish people to the land is linked to spiritual renewal. Whether Israel dwelled in the Land or in exile corresponded to their spiritual condition. Ezekiel 36 provides a good example of this idea. The text describes more than just the physical return to the Land. The prophet clarifies that "I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions" (Ezekiel 36:19). There follows the picture of Israel being cleansed from sin and restored to the Land:
"For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:24-26).
The focus is on the return of the people of Israel to the God of Israel.
God himself would redeem Israel, both physically and spiritually. In several of the passages quoted above, the restoration is entirely God's doing. In Jeremiah 23:5-6, He is called the "righteous Branch" and the "Lord Our Righteousness." In Isaiah 11:10 He is called the "Root of Jesse." In Isaiah 43:14 He is known as our "Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel," and Isaiah emphasizes in 43:25 that "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more." The return of the Jewish people into the Land is and never has been by our own hand and therefore cannot be forced.
While each of these texts depict a physical restoration of Israel, the recurring context seems to be God's covenant people Israel walking in relationship with and obedience to him. The picture of the Jewish people returning to the Land is entirely wrapped up in a spiritual redemption that only God can bring about. This is a restoration that will affect not only Israel, but will impact the earth and the cosmos! Therefore, an across-the-board call for Jewish believers to make aliyah seems to limit the scope of these passages, and also seems to draw unnecessary conclusions from them.
That is not to say that Messianic Jews who have made aliyah have not heard from the Lord. On the contrary! Many who have gone have received a clear call from the Lord. Some even see their relocation to Israel as significant and connected to this bigger idea of restoration in Israel.
Lisa Loden, a Jewish believer in Israel writes,
A Messianic Jew who lives in Israel often sees his presence in that land as both fulfillment of prophecy and as an eschatological sign. The Messianic Jew's identity is integrally related to being part of the Jewish people who have returned to the Promised Land to fulfill their final destiny.13
The ultimate fulfillment of this idea in the Scripture is in the redemption of the Jewish people. The key to our thinking should be oriented around a revival in the hearts of the Jewish people. This takes place when there is recognition of sin and a trust in God's redemption.
So whether or not one makes aliyah should be based upon personal conviction and God's leading. And let's remember that there are still large populations of Jewish people in cities around the world. What about those who are called to those communities? And what if God calls someone to something else altogether? These questions also need to be considered if we are truly thinking from a biblical standpoint. While Jewish believers may differ on the issue of aliyah, let's recognize that there remain plenty of opportunities for service both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Maybe asking whether all Jewish people should make aliyah isn't the right question after all. Perhaps a better starting point would be to ask, "How does God want me to serve him?"
1. Aliyah literally means "going up." The word is the common term for immigrating to Israel.
4. Ulpan refers to a school for the intensive study of Hebrew, typically by immigrants to Israel.
5. Hebrew for "immigrants."
6. P. Imberti, "Who Resides Behind the Words? Exploring and Understanding the Language Experience of the Non-English-Speaking Immigrant," in Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 2007:70.
7. In 2008, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Jewish believers born to Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers were entitled to make aliyah under the Law of Return and can practice whatever religion they wish. This is one example where the law has ruled in favor of religious freedom.
9. David Stern, in Voices of Messianic Judaism: Confronting Critical Issues Facing a Maturing Movement (Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed.; Baltimore, MD: Lederer Books, 2001), p. 194.
10. David Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto (Jerusalem, Israel: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1988),p. 228, as cited in Mitch Glaser, "Should Jewish Believers Make Aliyah to Israel?", Havurah (formerly Mishpochah Message), Spring 1989, online at http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/mm89_04/aliyah (article discontinued).
11. Ezekiel 36:25.
12. Isaiah 11:6, 8, 9.
13. Lisa Loden, quoted in Richard S. Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Milton Keynes, U.K.; Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2009), p. 223.