Are Messianic Jews Really "Just Trying to Convert Us"?
All they do is try to convert us.
They should just call themselves Christians.
They are liars.
Any of these sentences sound familiar?
I hear statements to this effect quite regularly, and I have for almost as long as I can remember. I hear them from Jews, young and old, who feel an intense and visceral anger towards people who identify themselves as Messianic Jews.
While the Jewish community is united on almost nothing, it appears that most share at least one opinion – an intense objection to everything that Messianics stand for (I will use the term “Messianics” moving forward, though it is not the term I prefer, because it does not provide a value judgment for whether these individuals are Jewish or not).
One would think, then, that American Jews would have a solid working knowledge of who and what Messianics are. That we would be somewhat familiar with the ideology of this group towards which we harbor such great disdain, whose existence causes us such immense distress. But we don’t.
Generally, American Jews have only heard of one Messianic organization (Jews for Jesus, which does indeed focus a great deal of its energy on proselytizing), and in my experience most have zero friends or acquaintances who would characterize themselves as Messianic. We also tend to be entirely unaware of the broad spectrum of Messianic organizations, beliefs, and practices, and prefer to treat it as one giant monolith.
The worst thing about our ignorance is that we have channeled it into something uglier: hatred. We feel a passionate and extreme disgust towards Messianics, and we occasionally have no problem saying so directly and in public.
A few years ago, I was pretty ignorant and hateful myself. If you had asked me, as a teenager or in my first year or so of college, what I thought of Messianics, I probably would have launched into a diatribe starting with one of the provocative statements from the introductory paragraph above.
But then something terrific happened: I actually met one. I think I kept a decent-enough poker face when I first found out (on Shabbat, walking home from services!), but honestly…I was stunned. My first assumption was that, sometime in the next ten to fifteen minutes, this new friend of mine would try to convert me to Christianity.
That’s what these folks did, so I thought. I had been told as much in religious school, in my youth group, and at many casual gatherings in my Jewish community growing up. These people, in my brain, wouldn’t have gone to services and dinner simply because they enjoyed it. They had an agenda.
What I learned, very quickly, was that I was wrong. This new friend of mine and I became quite close, and he was more knowledgeable about Jewish text than the vast majority of Jews I knew. He and I had terrific conversations about everything from Lag B’Omer to Birkat Haminim (the blessing directed at the “heretics”) to (yes, even) the Gospels.
I learned something that, looking back, should have been unbelievably obvious – especially to someone like me who considered himself open-minded and progressive: prejudice is bad. Judging entire groups of people before we know any of them is a problem. We shouldn’t do it.
It is time for many of us to do some soul-searching regarding the way we speak about Messianics. The way that we feel so comfortable generalizing about a group that is unbelievably complex and quite diverse. The way that we dismiss as illegitimate any attempt at engagement with Jewish text or holidays from those who believe that Jesus is messiah. We need to do some serious thinking about how we can disagree with them passionately but in a way that is respectful and kind. The best way to do so, if you ask me, would be to shift our “speaking about” to “speaking with.”
Synagogues and Jewish communal organizations around the country work hard to create meaningful interfaith programming. Many have done terrific work partnering with nearby churches, mosques, or other spiritual centers to promote understanding and build bridges. But I am unfamiliar with any effort by a non-Messianic Jewish organization to actively connect with Messianics in a way that would help us learn from and with each other.
I desperately hope we can find a way to change that. While there are indeed Messianics who proselytize, there are also many who do not. While there are indeed Messianics who lack knowledge of Jewish text and tradition, there are also many who have tons. While there are indeed Messianics who do not know or care much about Jewish liturgy or rabbinic texts, there are some who pray Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma’ariv every day (a friend I sent a message to while preparing this piece politely excused himself from responding right away because he needed to go daven shacharit). So many of these people would absolutely love to interact with non-Messianic Jews simply to grow and explore religious issues together. Are we ready to do the same?
It is past time for us to engage personally with the people who cause us so much anguish, instead of talking about them and scowling when we pass by their place of worship across town. It’s time for us to stop thinking of Messianics as sadistic missionizing machines fixated only on changing our religious beliefs. It’s time to put an end to our communal condemnation of Messianics. Instead, we should treat them as we would any other group: like real human beings worthy of our respect.