Will I Still Be Jewish If I Follow Jesus?
Working with Jews for Jesus in New York City, I have had many conversations about Jesus with Jewish people. Many are drawn to Jesus and even think he might be Messiah. However, a lingering fear keeps bothering them. “Will I lose my Jewish identity if I believe in Jesus?” they ask me.
At some point, every Jewish person who seriously considers Jesus asks this question. Most Jewish people are brought up to believe that Christianity is irreconcilable with being Jewish. So “placing your faith in Jesus” feels like a repudiation of one’s Jewish identity. For Jews, believing in Jesus isn’t simply an individual decision; we bear the weight of generations on our shoulders. Those who have gone before us made us who we are and shaped the way we think about our Jewish identity. Who are we to turn our backs on that?
But what is it?
The phrase “Jewish identity” has become a buzzword in the Jewish community the past few decades. Jewish people in the Western world have become fully accepted as members in a pluralistic society and now have the option of being engaged in the Jewish community or not. Intermarriage and assimilation make many Jewish leaders and cultural stakeholders nervous. So forming a strong Jewish identity has become a priority. But what does it mean?
Does it mean doing Jewish things, like going to synagogue, observing Shabbat, or keeping kosher? Does it mean feeling Jewish? Thinking Jewish? Depending on who is answering, any of these options are valid. How Jewish do you have to be to have a Jewish identity?
In the twenty-first century, there isn’t one way to be Jewish, because different Jewish people choose to express their individual Jewish identity differently. That’s why there isn’t a standardized Jewish identity to which all Jews subscribe. But, as Jewish studies professor Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet magazine, “The simple fact that we still ask what Jewishness means is itself a sign that it continues to matter.”
You can’t lose it
Most Jews are proud to be Jewish. Being Jewish is an incredibly valuable thing, whether someone is religious or not. Because of its value, we don’t want to throw it away. But even if you wanted to stop identifying as Jewish, it is still part of who you are and how God made you. You are Jewish whether you keep kosher and go to synagogue every week, eat bacon and never go to services, live in Israel or somewhere else, vote Democrat or Republican, or even stop publicly identifying as Jewish.
Jesus’ Jewish identity
Jesus lived the perfect Jewish life and died a Jew. His disciples and all his early followers were Jewish. The New Testament was written almost exclusively by Jews. Jesus fulfilled the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the Messiah.
And attitudes toward belief in Jesus are changing in the Jewish community. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 34 percent of Jewish Americans say a person can be Jewish if he or she believes Jesus was the Messiah. As more and more Jewish people embrace Jesus and then continue to live Jewish lives and raise Jewish families, the claim that one cannot be both Jewish and Christian is further dispelled. Although it may seem counterintuitive, many Jews who have come to faith in Jesus say their Jewish identity has been strengthened.
God made you Jewish
If Jewish identity is complicated on its own, then it is even more complex for Jewish people who choose to follow Jesus. However, if it is important to you, you will be able to find ways that authentically express your Jewish identity as a believer in Jesus. For many Jewish people, who for whatever reason were alienated from the mainstream Jewish community or Jewish practices, faith in Jesus inspired a renewed love for Jewish traditions, rituals, and holidays.
If Jesus really is the Messiah, then Jewish identity is compatible with following him. Placing your faith in Jesus doesn’t just mean assenting to a specific religious belief; it means allowing him to shape your Jewish identity.
God made you Jewish on purpose. What if faith in Jesus enables you to discover the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the One who has the final say on what being Jewish means?
 Adam Kirsch, “What is a Jew?” https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/8224/what-is-a-jew.
 S. Stencel, A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2013), 58.