Since the title of this paper comes in the form of a question, I want to remove all suspense and answer the question up front. Is a postmissionary, truly Messianic Judaism possible? The answer is absolutely, categorically, incontrovertibly, without question or equivocation, NO. As stated (in Gentile terms) by Oswald Smith, “The church that does not evangelize will fossilize,” and once we lose the missionary burden and spirit and passion – which, inevitably, begins with one’s own people – we lose an essential aspect of the heart of the Lord and an essential component of our faith. This is certainly an extremely critical question!
Obviously, both the title and subject of this paper are inspired by the watershed volume of Dr. Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People,2 a volume that has received considerable attention in the Messianic Jewish community, especially in academic circles.3 All of us are indebted to Dr. Kinzer for his careful scholarship and for the many important issues he raises, some of which challenged me personally, forcing me to look again at some familiar texts and to ask myself some searching questions. Certainly, there are many topics that he has put on the table in a clear and reasoned way that demand our attention, most specifically, the question of the problem of assimilation for Jewish believers and the proposed solution of a strict bilateral ecclesiology.
On the other hand, in the midst of 300 pages of often nuanced and sophisticated arguments, it is somewhat shocking to arrive at two of the book’s main conclusions: first, that Jewish believers should embrace Orthodox Judaism; and second, that our witness of Yeshua to our own people should henceforth “be rendered in a postmissionary mode.”
Kinzer explains the second point as follows: “. . . the Jewish ekklesia will, as the UMJC definition states, ‘bear witness to Yeshua within the people of Israel.’ The Jewish ekklesia will not hide its light under a bushel. Its Yeshua-faith and its Judaism are not two separated realities but one integrated whole. Its Yeshua faith will affect every dimension of its life, including its participation in the wider Jewish world. However, its witness to Yeshua will be rendered in a postmissionary mode.”
What does exactly does this mean? “First, the Jewish ekklesia will realize that it must first receive the testimony borne by the wider Jewish community to the God of Israel before it is fit to bear its own witness. It must hear before it can speak. It must learn before it can teach. What it receives, hears, and learns will affect the substance – and not just the form – of what it gives, says, and teaches. Second, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness to the One already present in Israel’s midst. It does not need to make him present; it only needs to point other Jews to his intimate proximity. The Jewish ekklesia bears witness to the One who sums up Israel’s true identity and destiny, who lives within Israel and directs its way, who constitutes the hidden center of its tradition and way of life. In the words of Joseph Rabinowitz, it bears witness to ‘Yeshua achinu’ – Yeshua our Brother, who like Joseph, rules over the Gentiles while providing for the welfare of his own family who do not recognize him. For the Jewish ekklesia, all Judaism is Messianic Judaism because all Judaism is Messiah’s Judaism. Third, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness discreetly, sensitively, and with restraint. It is always aware of the painful wounds of the past and seeks to bear witness to Yeshua in a way that brings him honor from among his own.”4
In all candor, and with due respect for Dr. Kinzer’s scholarship and personal commitment to the Lord, these suggestions are outrageous and must be categorically rejected, with the exception of several phrases with which, I trust, we would all agree. That is to say, would any of us argue that we should be insensitive when witnessing to our people? And would any of us differ with the concept that Yeshua “sums up Israel’s true identity and destiny”? Putting these small disclaimers aside, however, I reiterate: These suggestions are outrageous and must be categorically rejected.
The rest of this paper will be devoted to articulating my response to Dr. Kinzer’s “postmissionary” proposal. For the moment, I want to add my own comments to the statements just quoted: “First, the Jewish ekklesia will realize that it must first receive the testimony borne by the wider Jewish community to the God of Israel before it is fit to bear its own witness.” Translation: Before we can share our faith, we who are commissioned by Yeshua and empowered by His Spirit to be His witnesses must first receive the testimony of a diverse Jewish community that continues to reject Jesus as Messiah and considers our belief in Him to be completely idolatrous. “It must hear before it can speak. It must learn before it can teach.” Translation: We must learn from those who, for the most part, have not spent a second meditating on the glorious truths of the New Covenant Scriptures and instead, for the most part, have spent their time immersed in the traditions of man. They, who Paul tells us are enemies of the gospel on our account, are now our teachers, and we their students. “What it receives, hears, and learns will affect the substance – and not just the form – of what it gives, says, and teaches.” Translation: As we listen carefully to the rabbinic authorities, we will learn that our view of the Messiah is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, that our view of the authority of the Torah is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, that our view of God is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, that our view of salvation and atonement is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, that our view of the inspiration of the New Testament is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, that our view of oneness with our Gentile brothers and sisters is not in harmony with the rabbinic view, and that if we do not submit ourselves fully to rabbinic authority we can make no real claim to legitimate Judaism. So, if we listen and learn well, we will no longer have our faith!
“Second, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness to the One already present in Israel’s midst. It does not need to make him present; it only needs to point other Jews to his intimate proximity.” Translation: The prophets who spoke of God abandoning our people because of our sins were actually mistaken, since God never abandons His people Israel. And Yeshua Himself was mistaken in claiming that there would be tangible judgment on His generation for their rejection of Him along with His real absence from their midst until they recognized Him as Messianic King.
“Third, the Jewish ekklesia bears witness discreetly, sensitively, and with restraint.” Translation: Forget about the bold and fearless proclamation of Yeshua the Messiah in the Book of Acts; forget about Paul’s counsel that his answer to both Jews and Greeks was the undiluted message of Messiah crucified (yes, forget about the fact that, in the words of one prominent evangelist, “the power is in the proclamation”); forget about Yeshua’s promises that we would be put out of the synagogue for our faith and that we would be persecuted by our own people for our association with Him. It’s time for a new and better method, one that emphasizes being accepted by the very community which the Scriptures tell us would often reject us, a method that to a great extent bypasses the reproach of the cross. “It is always aware of the painful wounds of the past and seeks to bear witness to Yeshua in a way that brings him honor from among his own.” Translation: From here on, we assume that every Jew we meet – even the most secular, anti-traditional, detached-from-his or her-roots Jew – is keenly aware of the painful wounds of “Christian” anti-Semitism and will not respond to a compassionate and clear call to repentance, will not respond to the convicting power of the Spirit, will not respond to the power of the gospel, and will not respond to the glorious testimony of the Son of God (although this is how many of us – including the presenter of this paper – came to the Lord). Such is the way of postmissionary Messianic Judaism. (And I have not even mentioned the fact that Dr. Kinzer wants the Christian Church at large to adopt a similar approach in terms of restraining its witness to the Jewish people, a suggestion that would literally damn multitudes of our people.)
I suspect that some of you may be a little uncomfortable at this point, thinking that my “translation” is over the top. Rather, what is over the top is the thesis being put forth by Dr. Kinzer and others, and it calls for a strong and unambiguous response. Anything less than that allows us to entertain concepts that, in my opinion, fly in the face of key biblical truths, most centrally, that our people are lost without explicit faith in Yeshua and that it is our sacred mission to be unapologetic witnesses for Him, to them.
While reading Postmissionary Messianic Judaism,I found myself going back and forth in a spirited internal debate over many of Dr. Kinzer’s important points, but his conclusions brought me to Tevye’s famous breaking point in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand!” To reiterate once again: He is asking us to negotiate that which is non-negotiable, and I say this as someone who is close to a good number of rabbis, including the ultra-Orthodox.
To be sure, my hundreds of hours of dialogue and discussion with the rabbinic community – especially, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis – have produced in me a profound respect for traditional Judaism, an appreciation for the beauty and spirituality of many of our traditions, and a pained conflict in my heart over the lostness of these people for whom I deeply care. To me, traditional Judaism is the most beautiful and comprehensive religion made by man, yet it remains so near and yet so far.
Even more personally, most of us as Jewish believers have loved ones who have died without a profession of faith in Yeshua – my own dear father falls in that category – and we all hold out hope that somehow, someway, through last minute divine intervention, we will see these loved ones in the world to come. Yet we cannot change our theology to make a way when Scripture makes no explicit way.
For several years now, I have had a weekly dialogue by phone with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood, New Jersey, sometimes studying Talmud and New Testament together, other times just talking about our respective views on various subjects. (I should note that this rabbi is a rare Tanakh expert in his very frum community, since the great majority are not as fluent in Bible as in rabbinic traditions.) We even covenanted to pray regularly for one another with the following words: “God, I pray for Y- and for myself that you would give us the courage to follow You and Your truth wherever it leads, regardless of the cost or consequences, whether by life or by death.” Our love and respect for each other is deep, and yet we both recognize that the distinctives of our beliefs are mutually exclusive – this would be the case even if I were a card-carrying, Hashivenu-belonging, orthopractic, Torah-observant, Messianic Jew – and that to accept the other’s faith would mean the fundamental repudiation of our own. We hold to two different systems of authority and live with two different spiritual orientations, and despite the massive areas of commonality and solidarity we share, we are in two different religious camps with a great divide between us.
I am, quite obviously, sensitive to the emotional issues involved in this discussion, I am sensitive to the theological issues involved (most prominently, the pervasive influence of supersessionism in Christian thought and practice), I am sensitive to the intellectual issues involved (specifically, with regard to traditional Jewish thought and praxis), and, having spent many years speaking to the Church about the horrors of so-called “Christian” anti-Semitism, I am sensitive to the historical issues involved as well. The scriptural testimony, however, is absolutely clear, and that must be our final guide.
My response will emphasize five main points: First, that our calling as Jews in general and as Messianic Jews in particular requires us to be active witnesses; second, that the Jewish rejection of Yeshua today is integrally related to our forefather’s rejection of Moses, the prophets, and the Messiah Himself; third, that the New Covenant documents make abundantly clear that our people are lost without explicit faith in Yeshua as Messiah; fourth, that the overwhelming emphasis of the New Covenant documents is YESHUA rather than Judaism; and fifth, that the path to postmissionary Messianic Judaism is the path to the negation of the true Messianic faith.
To begin, then, I have stated that our calling as Jews in general and as Messianic Jews in particular requires us to be active witnesses. As stated by Christopher J. H. Wright in his important new volume, The Mission of God, “As Luke 24:45-47 indicates, Jesus entrusted to the church a mission that is directly rooted in his own identity, passion and victory as the crucified and risen Messiah. Jesus immediately followed this text with the words, ‘You are witnesses’ – a mandate repeated in Acts 1:8, ‘You will be my witnesses.’ It is almost certain that Luke intends us to hear in this an echo of the same words spoken by YHWH to Israel in Isaiah 43:10-12.”5
The text in Isaiah begins and ends with these words: “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD . . . You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.”
What is the lesson we can learn from this? Before the time of Yeshua, the people of Israel were called to be witnesses of the one true God to the nations, declaring His glories to the world. Once Messiah came, the Jewish disciples were called to be witnesses of the Messiah to the rest of their Jewish people, as well as to the rest of the world, as stated in the texts from Luke and Acts just referenced, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This understanding is also reflected in Paul’s famous words in Rom 1:16, words which, I suspect, are not shouted from the rooftops of postmissionary, Messianic Jewish congregations: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” And let us not forget the Lord’s words to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus: “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:16). Romans 1:16 reflects Paul’s role as a witness.
My point, then, is quite simple: As Jews, we are called to be witnesses of the one true God to the nations, and as Messianic Jews, we are called to be witnesses of the Messiah to our own Jewish people as well as to the nations. Can anyone doubt for a minute that this was the self-understanding of the Jewish believers in Acts? Can anyone doubt that they saw themselves as the God-chosen remnant, calling their ignorant and/or unbelieving nation to repentance and faith? No amount of historical, theological, or ecclesiastical developments can alter this reality, and without the witness of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, our people will remain ignorant of their Messiah. And, speaking directly to my fellow Jewish believers, if we cease to be intentional, deliberate, and unashamed witnesses of our God and Messiah to Israel and the nations, we fall short our calling as Jews and as Messianics.
Furthermore, the reason the Spirit was given in Acts was so that we could be witnesses, and regardless of one’s pneumatology, there can be no doubt that the primary purpose of the giving of the Spirit, according to Luke-Acts, was to empower us to be witnesses. This means that postmissionary, Messianic Jewish congregations are quenching and/or limiting the Spirit’s purpose and power. Stated more bluntly, to be postmissionary is to fail to work fully with the Holy Spirit’s intentions and, at times, even to work against the Spirit’s intentions. (Note, in passing, that there are roughly sixty references to the Holy Spirit in Acts as compared with only seventeen references to nomos, law, and some of those latter references occur in contexts speaking of the Torah’s witness to the Messiah. Note also that the name Moses occurs 19x in Acts while Iesous is found 69x and christos is found 25x.)
This fundamental point of our calling to be witnesses could be developed at length, but since it is so self-evident, based on a straightforward reading of the New Testament texts, and since it will be further reinforced by the points that follow, I will move on.
Point number two: The Jewish rejection of Yeshua today is integrally related to our forefather’s rejection of Moses, the prophets, and the Messiah Himself. Dr. Kinzer and others would argue that the Church’s departure from its Jewish roots, coupled with its historical sins against the Jewish people, have rendered its witness to Israel ineffective at best and destructive at worst, since acceptance of the Church’s message would mean Jewish assimilation and, with that, the abandonment of Israel’s unique calling. Furthermore, it is alleged, God has providentially preserved our people through rabbinic Judaism, and therefore traditional Judaism must be affirmed as valid. As stated in Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, “Our thesis – the legitimacy, value, and importance of rabbinic Judaism – remains intact. That thesis is crucial. If rabbinic Judaism is not valid, then no Judaism is valid.”6
Now, I am sorely tempted to focus on this thesis, but that is not the primary purpose of this paper. Suffice it to say that if rabbinic Judaism is “legitimate” – and I say this with, perhaps, more respect for rabbinic Judaism than many Messianic Jews would have – it must be taken on its own terms, and those terms include: 1) the supremacy of torah she-be-al-peh, the Oral Law, both in biblical and halakhic interpretation, calling for immersion in the Talmud and Law Codes; 2) the rightful authority of the rabbis, both past and present, meaning that it is not for our us to pick and choose which aspects of rabbinic Judaism to keep and which to discard; 3) the rejection of God’s tri-unity, most particularly, the rejection of the deity of the Son, and the rejection of any type of “salvation” experience through faith in Yeshua’s death and resurrection.
I remind you that in the early days of Hasidic Judaism, the Hasidim were subjected to excommunication primarily because of halakhic deviations, while the Karaites to this day are rejected as legitimate practitioners of Judaism because of their rejection of the oral traditions. And, according to the well-known pronouncement of the Agudath HaRabbonim in 1997:
The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabonim) hereby declares: Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. Their adherents are Jews, according to the Jewish Law, but their religion is not Judaism.
The Agudath Harabonim has always been on guard against any attempt to alter, misrepresent, or distort the Halacha (Jewish Law) as transmitted in the written and oral law, given by G-d through Moses on Sinai. It has, therefore, rejected recognition of Reform and Conservative movements as Judaism, or their clergy as Rabbis. It has publicly rebuffed the claim of “three wings of Judaism”. There is only one Judaism: Torah Judaism. The Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all, but another religion.7
Not only, then, are some Messianic Jews deceiving themselves by thinking that they can openly maintain their New Covenant faith and at the same time be received by Orthodox rabbis, but they are deceiving themselves by thinking that Orthodox Judaism is fully valid in God’s sight. If it is, then Messianic Judaism is not – and I have yet to meet an Orthodox rabbi who would dispute this point, let alone recognize the legitimacy of a Messianic Jewish “rabbi.”
Volume 5 of my series on Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus – the final volume, thank God – is devoted to traditional Jewish objections, focusing on the Oral Law, and so I refer those interested in a further critique of rabbinic Judaism to that volume when it is published.8
For now, I will return to my second point, namely, that the Jewish rejection of Yeshua today is integrally related to our forefather’s rejection of Moses, the prophets, and the Messiah Himself. That is to say, before there was such a thing as “Christian” anti-Semitism, before there was such as thing as supersessionism, even before there was such a thing as rabbinic Judaism, our people had been consistently guilty of rejecting the Torah and the prophets – this is testified to by the historical record of the Tanakh, the words of the prophets, and the words of the psalmists – and Yeshua’s rejection by our people in the New Testament (at the least, on a corporate, leadership level) is traced directly to this pattern. As Stephen said to the Sanhedrin, not to some godless mob on the street:
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
This is in harmony with Yeshua’s own words to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:29-39 (and note v. 32: “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!”), and it is consistent with the messages of the apostles in Acts, right to the closing verses:
The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: “Go to this people and say, ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’ For this people]s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’” Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen! (Acts 28:26b-28)
It is clear, then, that our Messianic Jewish forebears in Acts saw our people’s rejection of Yeshua as part of our historical pattern of disobedience, and the fact that the good news was now being embraced instead by the Gentiles (see, e.g., Acts 13:46-48) was further evidence of divine judgment on our nation. This stark reality that Jewish loss meant Gentile gain was not candy-coated into something redemptive for Israel, as it is in Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (we’ll return to this, below); rather, it was a national tragedy.
You might say, “Fine and good. I accept your perspective in terms of the Jewish rejection of Jesus in New Testament times, but that was before Christianity broke away from its roots and presented a distorted message to our nation. Surely, our people’s ongoing rejection of Jesus is primarily due to Christianity’s failure.”