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Judaism is Not Jewish

Author ,
Category Articles
Date November 26, 2003

Baruch Maoz, a Christian pastor in Israel, has been confronted with a phenomenon called ‘Messianic Judaism’ for many years. It is a blending of Jewish cultural practices with Christian convictions about the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Claims are made that this is the most potent means of leading Jewish people to faith in their Messiah. Even more exaggerated claims are made, that Messianic Judaism represents God’s End-Time revival among the Jewish people. So we see British Christians going to Israel to take part with the people of that land in Jewish holidays and religious celebrations. Baruch Maoz argues that the Messianic Jewish movement has allowed the authority of the rabbis to overshadow the rightful authority of Scripture, and that the movement is in deep trouble. He has done this in his book entitled, “Judaism is not Jewish: A friendly critique of the Messianic Movement” (UK: Mentor: Christian Focus Publications and Christian Witness to Israel, 2003) 4OOpp., p/b., £ 10.99 (ISBN: I 85792 7877).

In the most recent edition of the quarterly magazine published by the Christian Witness to Israel Richard Harvey was asked to review the book. Richard Harvey is a Jewish believer who teaches the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at All Nations Christian College in Ware. Baruch Maoz responds to his review.


This book, weighing in at a hefty 400 pages, represents the fruit of many years of biblical study, theological reflection, and pastoral ministry amongst Jewish people. Baruch Maoz provides a sympathetic but critical analysis of the theology and practical outworking of Messianic Judaism, both in Israel and the Diaspora. whilst the book strongly criticises some aspects of the Messianic movement, its warmth of tone and depth of theological engagement issue a challenge to the movement that cannot be ignored.

The book is divided into two main sections assessing the Messianic Movement first theologically and then practically. These are interspersed with expositions of key biblical texts. The running commentaries on passages from Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and other New Testament books contain some of the finest writing in the book, being devotionally uplifting, pastorally sensitive, evangelistically challenging and theologically incisive. There is also a series of appendices on the history of the Messianic movement, prospects for Jewish evangelism, sample texts on Messianic Judaism, Jesus in the Talmud, and a full, up-to-date bibliography. There is also a useful glossary of terms and a comprehensive index. Add to that a moving forward by Stan Telchin and you have a rich resource for private devotion, informed prayer and fuel for discussion on a subject that is both important and controversial within the field of Jewish mission.

Jewishness or Jesus?

Baruch focuses on several themes, such as the supremacy of Christ; the authority, interpretation and application of Scripture; the call to holiness; the nature of Jewish identity; the difference between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”; the theological maturity of the Messianic Jewish movement; the danger of Rabbinic Judaism obscuring the Gospel in the life of Jewish believers in Jesus; and the call for effective evangelism. Baruch addresses these issues in the light of Reformation principles of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Sola Scriptura – Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, Scripture Alone. As a result, he finds much of the theology and practice of the Messianic movement wanting and is not averse to saying so, in an inimitable style that combines warmth, humour and a sharp wit.

As I understand it, the key argument Baruch seeks to establish, and one with which not all will agree, is that “Judaism” is not “Jewish.” By “Judaism” he means the religious system developed by the Rabbis in the light of the destruction of the Temple, Diaspora existence and the rabbinic rejection of Jesus. This “Judaism” is not properly “Jewish” in the original sense that God intended “Jewishness” to be – a biblical culture and identity which reflects God’s presence and values, and is fulfilled in Christ. As such this “Judaism” should have no recognised authority over the beliefs and practices of Jewish believers in Jesus, and “Messianic Judaism”, in seeking to combine faith in Jesus as the Messiah with a modified form of “Judaism”, inevitably pursues a false trail.

Baruch’s view is that the Jewish identity of believers in Jesus should be expressed in cultural, national and other “secular” ways, without the “religious” values Rabbinic Judaism seeks to impose. “Messianic Judaism”, as opposed to “Jewish Christianity”, fails, according to Baruch, to distinguish between the religious and cultural/national aspects of “Jewishness”, and therefore buys into a rabbinically-imposed set of norms of what is expected to be truly “Jewish”. Messianic Jews mistakenly see “positive religious value” in observance of the Torah. Baruch’s concern is that this marks a return to legalistic works-righteousness and that the celebration of “Jewishness” usurps the place of “Jesusness” in life and witness.

Culture or religion?

As one who is happy to be called a Messianic Jew and has been involved in the Messianic movement since the 1970’s, I accept much of the book as accurate in analysis and valid in criticism. Messianic Judaism, as part of the whole Body of Christ, is semper reformanda! But it seems to me that the central premise of Baruch’s argument, that “Judaism is not Jewish” does not ultimately stand. To most people, Jewish or otherwise, “Judaism” (of which there are several varieties) manifestly is Jewish, even though it may not be in accordance with biblical faith or recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Even the term “Jewish” can not be made to apply simply to an ideal expression of what Jewish identity ought to be, an identity fulfilled in Christ. “Jewishness” is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, encompassing religion, culture, history, language, politics, food, family and humour. Baruch is calling for a redefinition of terms and categories to fulfil a particular agenda. “Judaism is not Jewish” works well as an evangelistic critique of the religious system of Rabbinic Judaism, and as a pastoral challenge to the Messianic movement to live for Christ alone. But as an organising principle for the theological distinction between Jewish Christianity and Messianic Judaism (the one, as Baruch understands it, being rightly “Jewish” and the other wrongly buying into a form of “Judaism”) it fails to provide a coherent understanding of the complex nature of Jewishness or adequately define the nature of the relationship between Jewish identity and faith in Christ. At the end of the day, “Judaism” and “Jewishness” share the same etymology: Yehudi – Iudaios – Jew. The term was not designed to bear the weight of excessive theological loading.

For heaven’s sake

Ultimately the issues which the existence of Messianic Judaism throws up, and which Baruch is concerned to address, cannot be pinned down to labels, organisational programmes and structures, styles of worship, degrees of observance or personal choices, but are part of the mystery of the sovereign purposes of God in electing a remnant of Israel who accept Jesus as their Messiah. The Messianic movement is one particularly visible aspect of this divine initiative, and those of us involved in it, or who live out our Jewish identity in the light of the fulfilment we have in Christ, are bound to express all the problems and possibilities of a group belonging to two distinct communities that have failed to understand each other, and have often been antagonistic, since the time of the New Testament.

Whilst Baruch takes a strong position in opposing Messianic Judaism, as he perceives it, his book is ultimately constructive, in that such “arguments for the sake of heaven” (to use the rabbinic dictum!) cannot but be for the benefit of the building up of the Body of Christ. Messianic Jews are therefore greatly indebted to Baruch as they seek to clarify and articulate their position more carefully vis-a-vis the major theological enterprises of Judaism and Christianity. “Judaism is not Jewish” represents a major contribution to the debate on the nature of Messianic Judaism, and is thus a key tool for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the issues that face Jewish evangelism in the 21st century.


Richard Harvey has honoured me by reviewing my book “Judaism is not Jewish.” I could not have wished for a more gracious reviewer and I give God thanks for the opportunity to dialogue with friends in the Messianic Movement, which opportunity the book was intended to create. If my contribution is deemed by members of the movement to be “constructive”, as Richard Harvey describes it, and “a key tool for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the issues that face Jewish evangelism in the 21st century”, what more could I reasonably hope for? I thank him for his high commendations.

Richard rightly identifies a major thesis in my book by focusing on the issue of Judaism versus Jewishness. Contrasting his view with mine he says, ” ‘Judaism’ (of which there are several varieties) manifestly is Jewish”. But that is not all, he insists: “Judaism (of which there are several varieties) manifestly is Jewish even though it may not be in accordance with biblical faith.” Here lies the contradiction inherent in Messianic Judaism.

The Bible or the rabbis?

Of course, Judaism is Jewish in the sense that it is the means whereby Jewish people have identified themselves for the last 2,000 years – although the Judaism of today is very different from that of 2,000 years ago. As Richard puts it, ” ‘Jewishness’ is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, encompassing religion, culture, history, language, politics, food, family and humour.”

But his very terminology indicates that he is here speaking of national culture, not necessarily
‘religion.’ Jews – religious or otherwise -continue to identify themselves culturally by way of Judaism to this very day, and my book encourages Jewish followers of Jesus to do so. That is my own practice, as anyone who is acquainted with me knows full well. There is no reason for us to forgo the calling God has placed upon us, by seeking to annul our circumcision (1 Corinthians 7:18).

But how can Judaism be Jewish in a religious sense if Richard is right (and I believe he is) when he states that Judaism is not “in accordance with biblical faith”? If the Jewish people are called by God to himself – on ‘his’ terms – then the introduction of unbiblical norms and practices into their relationship with God is an aberration that ought to be challenged rather than embraced. Either the word of God is sufficient to define one’s duties to God, or it is not; either Judaism – as a religion – is biblical, or it is simply not Jewish.

True to God or the people?

What is more, the creeping error that insists that Judaism is “the root of our [Christian] Faith” undermines our confidence in Scripture and our ability to read the Bible properly. The growing number of adherents to the Messianic Movement who question the deity of Christ, or who are inclined toward a form of legalism that replaces grace with works are disconcerting indications of the direction in which the movement is liable to go – God forbid – if the process is not stopped. Regretfully, Richard does not address this issue, nor does he discuss the significantly poor appeal that the Messianic Movement has in the eyes of non-Christian Jewish people, as evidenced by the poor evangelistic performance of the movement. These issues need to be addressed because they are foundational to the assumptions that will guide the movement and determine its form and content in the coming years.

Richard assumes that Messianic Judaism is “part of the mystery of the sovereign purposes of God” and is a “particularly visible aspect of this divine initiative [of bringing Jews to Christ]”. If Judaism is indeed unbiblical – and in that particular sense not Jewish – then the Messianic Movement ought not be described in such glowing terms, and its adherents would do well to re-evaluate their attachment to it.

Ultimately, our calling is to be true to God, even if that means that we are deemed by our people to be untrue to them. As we relearn to faithfully articulate the gospel while neither denying nor neglecting our Jewish identity, we will have grounds to look to God to bless our efforts by his grace, and to bring an increasing number of our beloved people to repentance and to a saving faith in Jesus, the Messiah appointed for us (Acts 3:20, 26). I invite Richard and others to join me in a serious re-evaluation of our methods and our theology. We have much to learn from each other so we can serve God better and present the gospel to our people more clearly.

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