New fears have arisen as Messianic Jews ally with evangelical Christians on Israel.
“Spiritual Nazism.” Those are the first words out of my rabbi’s mouth when I tell him I’m reporting on Messianic Judaism. To him, the prospect of Jews accepting a Christian salvation narrative, but still identifying as Jews, constitutes nothing short of the destruction of the spiritual life of a people.
But after nearly a year of studying and reporting on this phenomenon, I have my doubts about this dire indictment. Messianic Judaism, despite its promoters’ predictions, will not be radically changing Judaism anytime soon. It is, however, radically changing how Jews and evangelicals relate to one another and how evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians perceive Judaism, Jewish-Christian relations and the politics of the Middle East.
To some Jews, the growth of Messianic Judaism represents a mortal threat. There are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the United States, 350,000 worldwide, and 10,000 to 20,000 in Israel. This isn’t too dramatic, although it’s difficult to assess the future impact of new religious movements as they’re developing—who knew in the mid-19th century that the Mormon Church would be what it is today?
But Jews who fear the movement as a significant threat to Jewish religious life may not appreciate how little appeal it seems to hold for actual Jews. Many self-identifying Messianic Jews, particularly in the United States, are not and have never been Jewish. At El Shaddai, a Messianic Jewish congregation I visited on a Shabbat morning in Frederick, Maryland, I met just one congregant who had been born and raised Jewish—and the congregational leaders made sure to point him out to me. He was a Reform Jew who had lost interest, met an evangelical friend later in adulthood and found answers in the idea of personal salvation by a God made human. But many self-described Messianic Jews are evangelical or Pentecostal Christians enamored of a brand of philo-Semitism overlaid with a heavy dose of apocalyptic fervor.
The El Shaddai congregation, which is affiliated with the Messianic Jewish organizations Revive Israel and Tikkun Ministries, has a Torah. There’s music like you’d hear in a Pentecostal or evangelical megachurch. On Saturday mornings, congregational leaders, who appear to have little training in either Hebrew or trope, clumsily read and discuss part of the weekly Torah portion along with a New Testament text.
At a Tikkun Ministries conference a few weeks later in Maryland, I met more people who had been raised as Jews. But still, the service was Jewish ritual blended with a Pentecostal worship style, including songs praising Yeshua, blowing of a shofar (now commonplace at many public evangelical events, like the National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill) and prophecy about the return of Jesus. Worshipers recited the blessings in Hebrew, followed by a blessing for the “Messiah Yeshua” and praise for God “who loved us so much he sent us his only son.” To that week’s parsha, they added a reading in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem on his white horse. None of this seems likely to appeal to observant Jews, let alone to most non-observant Jews, who, polling data show, largely reject the Christian right’s authoritarianism and apocalypticism.
Yet if Jews overestimate the movement’s threat in the religious realm, in the political realm the reverse is true. Jews anxious for “support” of Israel by evangelical Christian allies overlook that the major pro-Israel evangelical organizations are closely bound up with the major Messianic Jewish ones—much more so than most Jews realize. These groups’ opposition to a two-state solution and support for the occupation might seem appealing to Jews who share those positions, but in Messianic Jewish parlance, “love” of Israel is what compels them to “restore” Jews and Israel to what they insist is God’s plan: for Jews to be followers of Jesus.
Although one of the most prominent Christian Zionists, Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee, caused a stir when he spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in 2007, AIPAC continues to build bridges with evangelical Christians who embrace Messianic Judaism. At the 2013 AIPAC policy conference, Sandy Wezowicz, the Israel Education Director for the worldwide Christian organization Aglow, told the audience, “I spend most of my energy and waking moments thinking about, praying about, and teaching about Israel.” What Wezowicz didn’t say is that Aglow is a partner of Revive Israel and Tikkun Ministries and shares their vision that the role of both Christians and Jewish believers in Jesus is to take dominion or possession of the earth in Jesus’ name. Unlike the more familiar end-times scenario, in which Jews convert or die as Jesus prevails at Armageddon, these evangelicals believe they must “purify” the earth in order for Jesus to return. That “purity” will be achieved as the church as a whole becomes more intensely devoted to praying for Israel to be “restored”—i.e. made Christian.
On its website, Aglow makes clear that its “mandate” for supporting Israel politically grew out of a global charismatic Christian prayer movement and what it claims are biblical prophecies of Israel’s role in setting the stage for the Second Coming. Aglow describes Jews as “the vehicle God has chosen to bring about His plan of restoration for mankind,” citing Romans 11:12: “Now if their [the Jewish people’s] fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the gentiles, how much more their fullness.”
This sort of rhetoric invites American evangelicals to perceive Jews not as targets for conversion to Christianity, but as their partners in redefining what Judaism is. Jews who remain Jews not only have failed to achieve personal salvation, in this view; they are impediments to the return of Jesus. It’s hard to imagine how groups like AIPAC could continue to welcome as allies Christians who believe Jews are nothing but failed Christians and Israel is the place where God will repair that failure. Is Messianic Judaism changing Judaism? Not very much. But if Jews take it seriously, it may—and should—complicate Jewish-Christian alliances.
Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist. Her website is sarahposner.com