Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey Through Religious Change in America, Carol Harris-Shapiro, Beacon

Editor’s Note:

Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro has written a book on messianic Judaism that is causing a stir in the Jewish community. Spokesmen from all the major branches of Judaism have strongly opposed it. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called her argument to include Jewish believers in Jesus as Jews absurd.” He went on to say that “there’s no such thing as a ‘messianic Jew.’ The whole notion is a fraud. There will be no compromise on that point.”1 Rabbi Jerome Epstein, vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism concurred.2 Lawrence Shiffman, professor of Judaic Studies at New York University and an Orthodox Jew, felt that she “has been sucked into the very conception the missionaries want to create.”3 Is it possible for this Reconstructionist rabbi and anthropologist to have come to her conclusion honestly? We hope that our ISSUES readers are open-minded enough to check out her book on their own.

Rabbi Harris-Shapiro aligns herself with the majority of the Jewish community in denying Yeshua’s messianic claim. Yet her position as a woman and a Reconstructionist rabbi allow her to empathize with being a minority within the greater Jewish community.

Harris-Shapiro does not set out to debunk the claims of messianic Jews, but simply to understand them and their implications for Judaism as a whole. She seeks to answer the question of why any belief (atheism, humanism, Buddhism, Reconstructionism, hedonism), other than faith in Yeshua, is considered acceptable for the American Jew. What is it about messianic Judaism that Jewish people find so threatening?

Motivated in part by the fact that her cousin became a believer in Jesus some time ago, Harris-Shapiro spent years attending messianic conferences and consulting messianic Jewish and Christian resources. Most of her observations are of people associated with one particular messianic congregation. Yet her work is hardly a simple case study.

Her writing is articulate and her analysis lucid. In chapters entitled “The messianic Jewish Self” and “Community,” the author examines messianic Jews’ relationships to each other, to traditional Jews, to non-Christian gentiles, and to those gentiles who do believe in Jesus. She discusses messianic rituals and practices, and includes observations of gender roles, leadership structure and life cycle events in the messianic community. She also profiles how messianic Jews uniquely address issues commonly faced by other diaspora Jews, such as assimilation, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

Harris-Shapiro’s book is an ethnography, but it suffers from what the author readily admits is only a partial immersion into the messianic mindset. Her worldview is one that celebrates modern American Jewish pluralism. Consequently, she finds the exclusive claims of messianic Judaism to be problematic, claiming they lead to the “villainization” of the mainstream Jewish community. “While at best traditional Jews are respected, or affectionately seen as misguided, at the worst they are seen as a spiritual threat,” she maintains (p. 100). It is no secret that she regards evangelism, which she calls “proselytization”, with disdain. This cannot help but influence her perspective, as she readily admits.

However, it is doubtful that a work such as this could have been written by someone within the messianic community. An insider could overlook the challenges that Harris-Shapiro cites. One example: most interesting is her commentary on how messianic Jews don’t seem to know from whom they are seeking a stamp of approval, whether from the Jews, the Christians or God.

In light of messianic Judaism, Rabbi Harris-Shapiro concludes, American Judaism is forced to ask questions about its own identity. In the first chapter, entitled “Studying the Messianic Jews,” she states, “the Jewish community needs a sense of ‘who we are’ to maintain its group cohesion and identity” (p. 2). The reason traditional Judaism is so repulsed by messianic Judaism, she says, is because messianic Judaism, like a “carnival funhouse mirror” reflects a religion whose own ambiguities and fragmentation has caused it to define itself not by what it is, but by what it is not (p. 189). “When the only shared core value within American Judaism is that Jews do not believe in Jesus, it is clearly an insufficient response” (p. 187). Those of us who are Jewish believers in Jesus agree.

Endnotes

  1. Kessler, E. J. The Jewish Forward, June 4, 1999: p. 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.