You would think that the identity of Messianic Jews in Israel would be a well defined and biblically based identity, resistant to all kinds of pressures both from Christian assimilation and from Jewish religious intimidation. Sadly, this is not the case. Though there are important exceptions, Messianic Jewish understanding in Israel is weak, and there are huge differences among leaders and the people concerning the meaning of Jewish identity and calling. This was documented in a doctoral dissertation in social anthropology by Keri Warshawsky at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Warshawsky is a Messianic Jewish scholar and a long-time friend. Her work should be a wakeup call to the leadership in the Land. The following observations are my own, but are confirmed by her dissertation.
Romans 11:29 states that the Jewish people retain both an irrevocable calling and giftedness. Amazingly, within the Israeli Messianic community, there is little depth of understanding as to what this means. Even if the leaders understand the significance of Romans 11:29, they have failed to convey it to their people. For many Messianic Jews in Israel, the primary meaning of Jewish identity and calling is to live in the Land promised to our ancestors, to speak Hebrew, serve in the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) and celebrate the feasts. Living in the Land, speaking Hebrew and serving in the army are important elements, but are not enough to create a foundational core of Jewish identity.
In Israel, the biblical feasts and the Sabbath are celebrated as national holidays. In many congregations the significance of these feasts and the centrality of their fulfillment in Yeshua is not emphasized. Just how these feasts are still important since they have been fulfilled in Yeshua is often unclear. There is little teaching on the continuing prophetic meaning of the Feasts and the Sabbath.
Not only do the feasts point prophetically back to what Yeshua has already fulfilled, they also point forwards to that which He shall fulfill in the future. When Messianic Jews understand this prophetic dimension, their celebration of the feasts serves an important intercessory function. Sadly, this is not understood by many Israeli Messianic congregations. In addition, the difficulties with transportation make it challenging for many congregations to have gatherings on the Feasts and especially on Yom Kippur. So the corporate dimension of congregational gathering is lost to many congregations.
Some groups are anti-rabbinic, believing that an authentic Messianic Jewish identity must be separate from rabbinic tradition. In contrast, there is a small minority which is extremely rabbinic in orientation. They seek to solve the problem of Jewish identity by fully embracing rabbinic tradition. Because the cultural identity of a people consists of the traditions, customs and beliefs identified by that people, whether good or bad, adopting rabbinic tradition seems to solve the problem of cultural dissonance within the Messianic community. As attractive as this answer is to some, it is not the right answer.
Expression of Jewish Calling and Identity is Lacking
Leaders whose backgrounds are rooted in Evangelical Christianity, in either its charismatic or non-charismatic form, lead most Messianic Jewish Congregations in the Land. The worship gatherings look like Vineyard Churches or Hillsong in Hebrew or Russian. Because the primary reason for our being in the Land is not understood, we end up with this identity confusion. Therefore our services do not express the sort of worship, thanksgiving and prayer that embraces our calling. Likewise, due to this lack of understanding, Israeli Messianics are not zealous to fulfill their Jewish calling. The majority realize that the Jewish people are to welcome Yeshua at the end of the Age, but do not grasp the full meaning of the priestly calling. The great danger is that the Messianic Jewish community will lack courage and motivation to fulfill their unique destiny in the will and purpose of God. In this weakness, some are tempted to leave Israel for better financial opportunities in the Diaspora. Because I have read the end of the story, I am confident that this situation will change. We will get things right in due time!
Messianic Jewish Identity is a Priestly Calling
The Jewish calling has a unique priestly application. The word priest carries the implication of intercessory mediation. It is part of our national-ethnic identity as a nation set apart among the nations. As well, all Yeshua believers are called as a “Kingdom of priests”. But within this general calling to all believers everywhere there is a specific, complimentary calling for Messianic Jews. Messianic Jews are unique because they are included both in the priesthood of all believers and also within the national priesthood of Israel. In my short book, The Irrevocable Calling (I recommend obtaining a copy), I present the case that Israel’s priestly calling includes Messianic Jews because only they are in a position to fulfill this role as representatives of Israel’s Messiah.
The Messianic Jewish priestly call consists of three aspects. First, our preservation and unique Jewish way of life is a sign to the world of God’s existence and faithfulness. Second, our way of life is a testimony that life is better in the Kingdom of God. Third, our life is a life of intercession that calls into being that which is portrayed in the Sabbath, Feasts and unique practices of Israel. The New Covenant Scriptures assume a fundamental understanding of this among Jewish believers in Yeshua. They do not focus so much on Messianic believers’ priestly role, since most of the text is concerned with the establishment of the Gentiles in Yeshua. The writers are also concerned to keep the Gentile believers from the influence of legalistic teachers that would require them to live a full Jewish life.
I want to particularly emphasize this third aspect. Our worship and teaching is to show not only the depth of fulfillment of Jewish life in Yeshua, but the prophetic dimension that is found in the Sabbath and the Feasts. Each gives different emphases that dramatize the prophetic future that God has promised. Our life by faith “calls into being that which is not” as portrayed through these practices. We are in the Land so we may be a more effective prophetic witness and fulfill this intercessory role. Only when this important calling is understood will Messianic Jews take their full place in Israeli society with courage.
Rabbinic Judaism and Our Priestly Calling
I also believe that as the saved remnant of Israel (Romans 11:5, 16), we are to play a key role in correcting the traditions of our people that come from Rabbinic Judaism. The Bible commands us to give honor where honor is due and to honor our fathers and our mothers. It also teaches us to point out error and to depart from that which is not good. Rabbinic Judaism preserves much that is biblical. Many practices are good, beautiful and true and are coherent with the Bible. This includes many of the prayers, even though in spirit they anticipate a Messiah yet to come. It is our role to know enough about and participate sufficiently in our heritage to show our respect for what is good.
However, it is also our role to correct that which is not good, including hair-splitting legalism and law multiplications that are not in accord with Scripture. In addition, the biggest issue is Yeshua himself. Paul explains in Romans 10 that we Jewish people sought to establish our own righteousness and therefore failed to submit to the righteousness that came from Yeshua. Historically, we as a people group have refused to identify with Yeshua’s death and resurrection and thereby be transformed. This witness and transformation is crucial in bringing our people to Yeshua. We have a priestly call to our own people that cannot be fulfilled unless we are part of our people and engage in this task with love and confidence. May God help us to pray and teach. We are working on it!