The Star and the Cross: What is messianic Judaism?

How can I can wear a Star of David and believe in Jesus at the same time? It seems like one of the biggest issues to begin the discussion with is the question “can someone believe in Jesus and still be a Jew?” A resounding yes. Messianic Jews believe that the most Jewish thing a Jew can do is be messianic. Thus messianic Jews believe that the most Jewish thing a Jew can do is believe in Jesus, who is also known as Yeshua. We believe that Yeshua fulfilled the prophesies about the Messiah given by God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus he is our Jewish messiah and, contrary to what rabbinical Judaism has taught for centuries, to deny Yeshua is to deny the messiah and therefore to deny the One who sent him. Messianic Jews believe that through Yeshua anybody, whether Jew or non-Jew, can come into a living relationship with God.

But what is a relationship with God? I once heard a conversation between a messianic Jew and an orthodox Jew on the radio that centred around the question “what do messianic Jews have that orthodox Jews don’t?” The context to this question was that the messianic Jew had been talking about how when he had become messianic he entered into a relationship with God that was so profound that it changed his whole life. In response to this, the orthodox Jew argued that he, too, had a relationship with God. He prayed many times in the day starting with a morning prayer (Modeh Ani) and ending with a prayer before he slept (the Shema). He argued that every moment he spent in service of God and that he felt that he had a relationship with God that was superior to a messianic Jews because his was based on obedience to God – he had the Torah and the mitzvoth (commandments) and, through this, he not only believed in God, but actually loved God through his actions, something he implied messianic Jews did not do.

So what is the real difference between the messianic Jews’ ‘relationship with God’ and the orthodox Jews’ ‘relationship with God?’ I believe that the major reason for why messianic Judaism is so different from rabbinic Judaism is because each religion believes in a method of relating to God that is vastly different. Ironically, this difference is easy to demonstrate through showing what messianic Jews have in common with rabbinic Jews. This is that both messianic Jews and rabbinic Jews love the TorahHowever, both believe that Torah is fully expressed or realised in totally different ways. Rabbinic Jews believe that the written Torah is complemented by an oral Torah – that Moses was given two Torahs from God on Mt Sinai, one written and one oral, and that this oral Torah was passed on from Moses to the Judges, then to the prophets and finally to the Rabbis. They believe that each book of the Tanakh (Old Testament) had an oral tradition that accompanied it which was passed on to each generation eventually being recorded in the Talmud. This oral Torah is where the written Torah is fully realised – most fully indeed, through the Talmud.

Although there is some evidence for an oral Torah given to Moses, messianic Jews totally reject the Talmud as being from God. Though rabbinic Jews consider these texts to be authoritative on how we should relate to God, messianic Jews believe that these works are “perspired, not inspired” (Paul Cohen). Messianic Jews believe that many people have worked hard on these texts, but they firmly believe that they are not authoritative on how we should relate to God. Ultimately, messianic Jews believe that if there was truly an oral Torah then it has been lost to history, and thus what rabbinic Jews have today is a collection of commentaries, rules and so on that were formed long after Moses or any of the other prophets had died.

Messianic Jews therefore believe that all parts of rabbinic Judaism that are informed by the doctrine of the oral Torah are not informative on how we should truly relate to God; though they are informative on other matters. Messianic Jews value these documents but do not believe that they present a valid way of relating to God, but at best a very good commentary on the scriptures. They believe that through these documents many aspects of rabbinic Judaism have become man-made and that whatever oral Torah may have existed is Moses’ day, the one that exists today is not from God but is from the Jewish rabbis and sages.

So back to our radio friend. What would a messianic Jew say in response to his objection? We would say that his relationship is with his religion, not with God. Isaiah stated, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (29:13). Messianic Jews believe that rabbinic Judaism, as it stands today, has become diluted with human traditions so that it is a scramble of things from God and things from men.

Point of case, messianic Jews believe that the Torah is not fully expressed through the oral Torah, but through the New Covenant (New Testament) and specifically through Yeshua. Yeshua said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). We believe that everything in the Tenakh (Old Testament) is fully expressed and realised in Yeshua. Everything, from religious holidays like Pesach (Passover) to the codes of practice written in the Torah, have a fuller meaning in the light of Yeshua.

Take the Pesach lamb for example in the exodus story. God commanded that the Israelites slaughter a lamb and cover the door posts of their houses with its blood so that when He passed through Egypt to judge it and saw the blood on a doorpost, His judgement would pass over that household and the destroyer would not enter. Yeshua was called by Yochannen the Immerser (John the Baptist) “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) and later by Rabbi Shaul (Paul) “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). This is because we believe that when we stand before God on judgement day, that if the blood of Yeshua covers over our lives, then the judgement will pass over us and we will stand right with God.

Again remember the famous story of Abraham and Isaac spoken of in Torah. This story is about a man who God had told to sacrifice his beloved son. At the last moment an angel calls out to Abraham just before his knife falls and tells him to stop. Then Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket which he sacrifices instead. This is the message of Yeshua. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.” The story of Abraham is a pre-illustration of the story of Yeshua who would die for sin of the whole world on a cross. Yeshua is that ram who dies in the place of Isaac. Moreover, this story of a father willing to give up his son resonates with the message of Yeshua.

Yeshua is God’s revelation of the fulfilment of Torah. Judaism is founded on a single event in history where God revealed himself to a whole nation, over a million people, at a single point in time at Mt Sinai – and as he spoke the mountain trembled and the people thought they would die. Messianic Judaism is founded on this event and another which happened almost a thousand years after. Messianic Jews believe that God spoke at Mt Sinai and established a method by which his people Israel would relate to Him and then, years later, God spoke again and established a method by which the whole world would relate to Him – and his words became flesh and lived among us and he was named Yeshua. Yeshua is the “seed” of Abraham through whom all nations will be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18). He is the “light for the Gentiles that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). His days are from eternity (Micah 5:2).  He is the child spoken of in Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). He is our Messiah. He is the Messiah.

Key Terms and Definitions:

Torah – translated to mean “instruction” / First 5 books of Bible / Pentateuch / Genesis, Exodus, Liviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Tenakh – term in Judaism for the canon of the Hebrew scriptures / an acronym: Torah (instruction); Nevi’im (Prophets); and Ketuvim (Writings) hence TaNaKh / Christian’s Old Testament

Yeshua – the actual name of Jesus in Hebrew

Messianic Jews – a jewish person who believes that Jesus is the jewish messiah.

New Covenant – Hebrew Brit Chadasha / New Testament

Talmud – “instruction/ learning / teach / study” / records of rabbinic discussions

Mishnah – “repetition” or “to study or review” / first collation of the oral Torah / first major work of rabbinic Judais

Shema – “Hear” – the start of a famous song/ bible verse “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.” (Deut. 6:4)

Modeh Ani – “I give thanks” – name of a famous Jewish prayer sung in the morning


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4 Responses to The Star and the Cross: What is messianic Judaism?

  1. Shimmel says:

    Thank you, both informative and enlightening on what Judaism believes and Messianic Judaism. You have managed to touch on the main points I knew and explain things I did not know in a concise article.

    Well defined differentiation between two long apposed faiths, the faith in our traditions and the faith in there fulfilment almost 2000 years ago.

    He is our Messiah. He is the Messiah. Amen

    Thank you

  2. Joel Burman says:

    Thanks for your comment Shimmel. Sorry I didn’t reply to it earlier.

    Yes it was my intention to draw out the difference between the two faiths. I shared the main idea of this article, that all of us love torah but we express it very differently, with a rabbi and was interested in how difficult it was for him to see my point. I believe that the “faith in our traditions” is key to this. This is because I believe that it is these traditions that form a major lens through which many jews interpret the Bible. As a result of this, I have been told many times that only Jews could really interpret the Bible properly. Passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc are all interpreted through that framework which enables rabbis to say that the messianic interpretations are wrong.

    What do you think? To what extent does the”faith in our traditions” distort an honest reading and understanding of the Bible?

  3. Connor says:

    Thanks for the interesting info.! I have a question that I hope is not a stupid one-I am trying to learn. What are some of the differences between the beliefs of messianic judaism and christianity? Both require the Tanakh, and both believe in Yeshua as the messiah. Are they vastly different, then?
    Thank you for your attention.


    • Joel says:

      Both Jews and Gentiles can be Christians, but only Jews can be “Messianic Jews.” To be a “Messianic Jew” is an ethnic AND theological position. This is a term that many Jewish believers like to use because Christianity often seems like a foreign religion to many Jews. Messianic Jews believe in all the main tenets of Christianity, as you can see in the statement of faith on this website. However, some Messianic Jews keep Torah to varying degrees (like the Jews described in Acts 21 by James). Others, on the other hand, do not and are indistinguishable from Christians except that they keep their identity as Jews when following the Jewish Messiah.

      Most Messianic Jews believe that God is still obligated to keep the promises made to Israel and that one day Israel will turn to God in repentance by the act of turning to Messiah Yeshua. They believe that the church has not replaced Israel, but that, on the contrary, the church’s roots are Jewish; it’s fathers, rather than being Luther or Calvin or anyone similar, are who the NT calls “fathers,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not only is the church’s roots Jewish, but there are two programs that God is working through in this world – 1) national Israel (the Jewish people) or the Kinsmen of Messiah AND 2) the church or the Body of Messiah. One day in the future these two programs will meet when the people of Israel become the beating heart of the church and there is “life from the dead” for the world (Romans 11).

      Hope that helps.

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