Sunday, May 4, 2014

On J4J's video and the artwork of Marc Chagall

Like many others, I had a negative reaction to Jews for Jesus's video "That Jew Died for You." I noticed that the website for the video highlights the artwork of Marc Chagall. Since others have also appealed to Chagall's work as a way of understanding the video, I thought the comparison was worth scrutinizing further.
Jews for Jesus's "That Jew Died for You"
First: I don't think anyone believes the video deserves to be compared to Chagall on aesthetic merits alone. Chagall was a brilliant Jewish artist whose work has deeply moved countless people. "That Jew Died for You" is a low-budget film short produced for the internet to drive conversation and scandalize viewers. I understand the comparisons to Chagall as either an implicit defense of the artistic choice to depict Jesus in the Holocaust or as an attempt to associate the video with the power of Marc Chagall's work. In both cases, I think the association fails. Here's why.
Marc Chagall's "White Crucifixion"

One of the things that is immediately striking about Chagall's imagery of Jesus is that it clearly portrays Jesus as a Jew. By making Jesus resemble (both physically and in garb) the Jews from other time periods in history who appear next to him in various tableaus, Chagall presented a startling contrast to traditional Christian depictions of Jesus. By contrast, the J4J video does the exact opposite, portraying Jesus exactly as evangelicals have portrayed him for the last fifty years (down to the colored sash and glowing aura). This befuddling choice undermines the supposed point of the video: instead of being "just another Jew," Jesus is a glowing alien/foreigner from another time and place (and culture?). No tallis or tefillin on Jesus here...in this video, it takes a Nazi to recognize Jesus as a Jew.

Now, to be fair, I don't think Chagall's approach (making Jesus look like any other Jew) would have worked in this medium. After all, in Chagall's work, the primary thing that identifies the individual depicting Jesus as Jesus is the crucifixion itself. This leads me to my next point.

The second thing that I think puts this video at odds with Chagall's imagery is the question of the identification of Jesus's sufferings with the sufferings of the Jewish people. Chagall's works show Jesus being crucified while Jews are being subject to pogroms, etc...equating Jewish suffering with Jesus' suffering. The J4J video shies away from making this equation in the video. Nowhere is this more clear than when Jesus's hand appears from offscreen to help a young Jewish woman who has stumbled. Chagall's work points at that young woman stumbling and says, "Right there--that is Jesus stumbling." This video makes a different claim...which leads me to my third point.

The glowing hand of Jesus is the basis of my third and harshest criticism of "That Jew Died for You." For me, that was the moment at which the video completely shipwrecked itself on an iceberg of religious delusion. The appearance of Jesus' hand helping the girl up deeply betrays the commitment that all true art makes to its viewer, which is to tell the truth. No matter how much Christians might wish that Jesus's hand had reached out to help the stumbling girl headed to Auschwitz, the truth (and the challenge...and the shame) of the Holocaust is that, in the case of the girl at Auschwitz, that is exactly what did not happen. (I say "in the case of the girl at Auschwitz" because there are cases where help DID come from Christians: Corrie Ten Boom's family and numerous other Christians risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Their stories deserve and need to be told, now more than as ever.)

Now I don't think anyone would object to a Christian pointing to Corrie Ten Boom's actions and saying, "There, THAT is worthy to be associated with the hands of the Risen One." However, for Christians, the shame (and challenge) of the Holocaust was that this did not happen more...that so many were silent. The imagined hand of Jesus in this video not only fails to acknowledge this, it not-so-subtly denies it, glorifying an alternative reality which is in actuality a complete fantasy. This is not art, this is a parlor trick and is certainly not worthy of comparison to a true artist like Chagall.

I appreciate the desire to say that Yeshua was not ever present with the hand that persecuted the Jewish people throughout history...and that his presence was always with the hand of help. However, Yeshua bound himself to the actions of his disciples in his world, commanding them to be his hands and feet in a world which, for the time being, cannot see him. The fantasy hand of Jesus at Auschwitz promotes an alternative vision, a form of religion which uses Jesus's image as a panacea to try to cover over the pain and suffering which threatens God's reputation in the world as if to say, "We don't have to look at these things as they really are, because really Jesus makes it better behind the scenes." This is not the biblical picture of redemption; it a false image, one which deserves to be soundly rejected.

In conclusion, I do not believe that the producers or writers of this video seriously believe any of these things I am critiquing. I can believe, however, that the video's writers and producers imagined themselves to be doing something in the vein of Chagall's work. That fantasy deserves the same evaluation I assign to the glowing hand of Jesus at Auschwitz: wishful thinking.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Forward: South Dakota's Tiny Hillel Embraces Messianic Jews

An interesting story from Forward.com: South Dakota's Tiny Hillel Embraces Messianic Jews:

Hanna’s discomfort grew at the start of the fall semester, when another Messianic joined, bringing the membership to three Messianics and two traditional Jews, as two Jewish members had graduated the preceding spring. 
Hanna went to Hunt to discuss his misgivings. 
“I did understand where he was coming from,” Hunt said. “Having two-thirds Messianic Jews on the board of the Hillel is controversial.” 
But Hunt insisted that with so few Jews, they should continue focusing on their shared identity. 
By this point, Hanna was splitting his time between SDSU and the University of South Dakota, where he was working toward a doctorate in social psychology and behavioral neuroscience. He was also preparing to get married. These constraints, along with his dismay at the club’s new direction, moved him to leave B’rith Sholom at the beginning of this school year. 
Hanna also emailed Hillel’s headquarters in Washington about the club’s status around this time, but he received no response. A Hillel representative told the Forward that the organization has no policy on Messianic Jewish participation at its branches and no statement on this issue. 
But Hanna’s departure did result in one change: The remaining members amended the constitution to allow all members to serve as officers. 
“This is just one step to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” Hunt said.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Messianic Jewish synagogue Ruach Israel mentioned on JewishBoston.com

An article (by Rabbi Emma Gottlieb of Temple Beth David) answering the question "Do you think it's possible to be both Jewish and Christian?" gives three distinct examples of why this not a "black and white question" in the contemporary world. She mentions Messianic Jews under the section on "Jews who come to connect with the teachings of Jesus":
“Messianic Jews” are not considered part of the wider Jewish community). However, Jewish law is clear: once a Jew, always a Jew. Someone who is born Jewish but who converts to Christianity becomes an apostate (in Jewish legal terminology), but they can take steps to return to the Jewish community at a later time should they wish to do so. The Jewish community cannot turn such Jews away, although rabbis may have different requirements for their reentry depending on denominational ideology and understandings of Jewish law.
In what I found to be a very equitable gesture, the article closed with the following statement:
Do you want to learn about another perspective on this question? You can read about the beliefs of a local congregation that belongs to the movement of Messianic Judaism here.
The link is to an article on Ruach Israel's website entitled "What Exactly Is Messianic Judaism?"

A hearty yasher koach to Rabbi Gottlieb and JewishBoston for choosing to delve into the complexity of this question in the modern era and for recognizing the Messianic Jewish perspective rather than demonizing, mischaracterizing, or feigning ignorance.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Messianic Jews at the World Congress of Jewish Studies

Last week Christianity Today described Another Acceptance Milestone for Messianic Jews:
Messianic Jews—those who believe in Jesus—only comprise a small portion of the international Jewish community. But that hasn't stopped them from making their first official appearance at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies.

Hosted in Jerusalem, this year's meeting featured more than 1,000 Jewish lecturers and panelists, including the first panel focused on the role and influence of Messianic Jews. And according to Jews for Jesus senior researcher Richard Harvey, who served as one of the four panelists, the discussion was a very good first step.

"It means that Messianic Jewish Studies, or studies of JBY, is firmly on the agendain the academic world as a branch of Jewish studies," Harvey wrote on his blog regarding the panel, entitled "Contemporary Jewish Believers in Yeshua (Jesus): Trends and Turns after World War I." "There can be no denying that not only is the Messianic Jewish movement worldwide a significant phenomenon worthy of serious study, but that it also demands the highest level of academic excellence and scholarly integrity to do it full justice."
Here is the list of panelists and their presentations (from the conference website):
  • Hanna Rucks - "New Voices": The Russian Contribution to Messianic Jewish Theology in Israel
  • Gershon Nerel - A Jewish Church: The Debate over the Establishment of a Hebrew Christian Denomination between the World Wars
  • Richard S. Harvey - The Conversion of Non-Jews to Messianic Judaism: A Test Case for Membership and Identity in a New Religious Movement
  • Yaakov Ariel - Walking Together, Walking Apart: Evangelical Christianity and Messianic Judaism

'via Blog this'

Monday, July 29, 2013

Messianic Jews in New York Times, Christianity Today

Messianic Jews were mentioned in several major media outlets in the past week.

New York Times

From the New York Times article One App, More Than 400 Languages, on the runaway success of YouVersion's Bible app:
Today, the app contains everything from the New International Version to “The Message,” an ultramodern interpretation that reads like a juicy novel. It also includes the so-called Orthodox Jewish Bible, which was actually developed for a religious sect known as Messianic Jews, who believe that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews await.
Photo credit: New York Times.
From the caption for the above image: "the Orthodox Jewish Bible...created by the Artists for Israel International Messianic Bible Society...incorporates Yiddish and Hasidic cultural expressions into an English translation of both the Old and New Testaments."

The Orthodox Jewish Bible is certainly among the Messianic movement's more idiosyncratic translations (which is saying a lot). This fit right into the article's emphasis on the wide range of different Bible translations available through YouVersion. That said, the two other major Messianic Jewish translations, the Complete Jewish Bible and the Tree of Life version, are also available through YouVersion.

Christianity Today



Christianity Today's recent issue on Leviticus mentions Messianic Jews in two of its cover stories. In Learning to Love Leviticus, Christopher J. H. Wright explains how Christians can treat biblical "as a paradigm or model for our personal and social ethics in all kinds of areas: economic, familial, political, judicial, sexual, and so on"...without "upholding all the jots and tittles." In a paragraph on the food laws, he writes:
The distinction between clean and unclean animals and foods was symbolic of the distinction between Israel as God's holy people and the Gentile nations (Lev. 20:25–26). In the New Testament, that separation is abolished in Christ, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Through the Cross, God has made the two cultures one new humanity. And as Peter discovered through his vision in Acts 10, before going to the home of the Gentile Cornelius, what God has called clean should no longer be called unclean. Today some Messianic Jewish believers choose freely to observe the kashrut regulations as a mark of their Jewish community and cultural identity. But in their unity, believers are free from food laws.
Kudos to Wright for not ignoring the existence of Messianic Jews in the body of Messiah who observe the kashrut regulations of Leviticus. That being said, I found his claim confusing. Are the kashrut restrictions truly disruptive to unity? (In most Messianic Jewish synagogues I've visited, Jews and Gentiles experience free fellowship over kosher meals.) Furthermore, in conflicts over food between "stronger" and "weaker" brethren, didn't Paul instruct the strong to compromise for the sake of the weak? (This particular line of argumentation assumes that Messianic Jews observing kashrut would be identified with the weak. I myself don't necessarily read the passage that way, but perhaps Wright or those who agree with him do.)

The argument against the food laws from unity strikes me as rather weak on its own. In fact, I suspect that other theological convictions (such as the abrogation of the law in Christ or the supposed dangers of law observance) are really behind this argument, lending it support in the minds of those who accept it. Perhaps as post-supersessionist interpretation of the New Testament gains traction among contemporary scholars, Wright will find this reading of Acts 10 (and other related passages) challenged.

~

Readers who found Wright's comments on Messianic Jews rather uninformed may find much more to appreciate in Philip Cary's Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God. Cary's thesis is that reawakening an awareness of the theological and historical significance of Gentile identity can significantly transform Christian perspectives on the Old Testament's troubling genocide passages. Christians tend to identify too much with Israel, Cary contends, to the point where they forget their place in the narrative. "We have been reading Israel's Scriptures so long that we forget that these words were not originally addressed to us.":
In fact, with respect to the command to exterminate the Canaanites, our position is less like Israel's and more like that of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute in Jericho who befriends the Israelite spies. She has not taken part in Israel's exodus, but she has heard of it and believes it. She knows the name of the Lord, the God who has given the land to Israel, and she confesses that he is God of heaven and earth (Josh. 2:9–11). She is a believer, and eventually will be included in Hebrews 11's great litany of heroes who lived by faith. But she is not an Israelite. She is a Canaanite who hopes to live, not die. 
As a believer, Rahab can have hope, because the threat she faces is not so much moral as religious. It is not as if the Israelites were so much more righteous than every other nation (Deut. 9:4–6). Israel is holy not because of their own righteousness but because the Lord loves them and chose them as his people. And the holiness of the Lord is a kind of jealousy that claims Israel as his own, not allowing other nations to lead them into worshiping false gods (7:5–8). That is the holiness that leads to herem, the extermination of Rahab's people for their idolatry. 
My proposal is that to read this story properly, as Gentiles, is to put ourselves in Rahab's place. Our origin lies not with the people who hear the command to kill, but with those who are to be killed. We belong with those who should be devoted to destruction because we offend against the holiness of God. And yet what has actually happened is that, like Rahab, we have received mercy through faith in the God of Israel. 
To read the Canaanite genocide this way is to have our hearts formed the way the New Testament intends for Gentiles. 
I'm sure I wasn't the only one shocked to find this in Christianity Today. (For anyone troubled by the "fire and brimstone" tone of the above passage, make sure to read the whole article; Cary also discusses the beautiful consequences of identifying with Rahab, i.e. "You could say that what frees Rahab from herem is hesed, the lovingkindness of her relationship with Israel.")

Before concluding the article, Cary discusses to the historical relationship between Gentile Christians and Israel:
"In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3, esv)...Christ himself fulfills these words, making the blessing of Abraham into a blessing for all who believe. 
Because of this gospel blessing, we can hear "I am the Lord your God" as words addressed to us, since we too share the faith of Abraham. But notice what this commits us to. It means we Gentile believers in Christ are to be a blessing to the people of Israel, "that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy," as Paul says (Rom. 11:31, esv). 
Alas, what sort of blessing have Gentile Christians been to Israel? So much persecution of the Jews fills our history. Even our evangelism has often meant attempting to put an end to them. As Messianic Jews have recently pointed out, that is what Christians did by demanding that Jews who accept Christ must cease to practice Judaism—in effect ceasing to be Jews. It meant turning them away from their covenant with the God of Abraham and Moses, as if we had forgotten that this was none other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here Cary demonstrates familiarity with the central claims in Messianic Jewish thought--the unity of Jewish identity and Jewish practice, the validity of "Judaism," the deep flaws in the historic Christiant "gospel" of "Jesus, not Judaism." (Readers who find merit in Cary's insights here may want to check out his Jonah commentary before Yom Kippur.)

~

One other article in CT which may be of interest to Messianic readers is Daniel Harrell's account of The 30-day Leviticus Challenge his church did. I was half-expecting a conclusion like this: "After a whole month of these tedious and difficult laws, we were all more grateful for God's grace which sets us free from the law." Sure enough, Harrell set up a conclusion remarkably similar to this...and then elegantly debunked it:
But if reading Leviticus only succeeds in making you feel bad for being a lousy Christian, you've missed its point. Leviticus isn't in the Bible merely to show you your need for grace. It's in the Bible to show you what grace is for. The ancient Israelites were already chosen people before God gave them the Law. The Law's purpose was never to save anybody. Rather, its purpose was to show saved people how to live a saved life.
Reading on, I was also impressed by the transformations Harrell described in the lives of the Challenge participants: continued Sabbath practice, the conclusion that confession of sin is the "modern, post-Jesus equivalent" of sacrifices, and a congregational "Day of Atonement" (during Lent), of which he wrote:
Many left with similar feelings of walking on air—as well as intentions to be more grounded in God—which is precisely what grace (and the Law) are supposed to do. I couldn't help but wonder why we tend to view obedience as so burdensome. Could it be that we've never really obeyed?
Sounds like a pretty decent Day of Atonement to me.

HT Glenn for the tip about the Cary article.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Jewish Cantor on Tisha B'Av and welcoming all Jews (even Messianics)

Today Tablet magazine published a remarkable meditation by Cantor David Frommer in which Messianic Jews became the subjects of a Jewish chaplain's personal realization about Jewish unity. Writes Cantor Frommer of Tisha B'Av: "The holiday never resonated for me, until I understood its message about connecting with other Jews—even Messianic ones."

From another article about Cantor Frommer, via www.army.mil
This excerpt is certainly one of my favorite accounts of Jewish encounters with Messianic Jews:
Early in my deployment, I was sitting around the chaplain’s office on a Saturday evening when one of the Jewish civilian contractors arrived with a personal box of Havdalah supplies, prepared to conduct the service on his own in the room across the hall. He was one of my favorite congregants and had enthusiastically participated in all the services and classes I had offered. “I’m so glad you’re here—let me join you!” I exclaimed, barging in. “It’s so great that you have these … ” I said, as I removed a beautiful braided candle and some spices from the box he’d brought. 
“Well, that’s because of this,” he sheepishly interrupted, as he turned over a sheet of paper that had been in the box as well. It read: MESSIANIC JEWISH SERVICE. 
It was sort of like the climactic moment in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry finds himself alone in the bowels of Hogwarts with Professor Quirrell, who has supposedly been responsible for his safety, only to discover that Lord Voldemort has been inhabiting the professor’s body the whole time. I’d like to think my face remained unbothered, but it felt as though my eyeballs were spinning like a slot machine as I tried to figure out what to do. Having invited myself to this guy’s private Havdalah service, was I really about to withdraw my support because—though my Jewish activities had been open to Christians, Muslims, atheists, and even the descendant of a Nazi train conductor—a Messianic Jew’s beliefs marked him for special discrimination?
Meeting and interacting with real Messianic Jews softened Cantor Frommer's feelings towards them, but it was Tisha B'Av, with its lessons about Jewish unity, that made him realize the importance of welcoming them.

Read the full article here: Tisha B’Av on a Kuwait Military Base Gives a Chaplain a Lesson in Jewish Unity

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Baltimore's Jewish Times asks, "Can Jews Believe in Jesus?"

In "Fusion of faiths," Baltimore's Jewish Times writer Maayan Jaffe asks, "Can Jews Believe in Jesus?"

The article retreads much old territory: rabbis, anti-missionaries, and spiritual leaders emphasize how Messianic Jews are a threat to Jewish communities while demonstrating their ignorance of (or refusal to acknowledge) key distinctions within the movement (e.g. the difference between "Hebrew Christian" and "Messianic Jew"). “Whether you wear a tallit, keep Shabbat, observe all the holidays, do Torah study, once you believe in Jesus as your lord and savior, you are by definition Christian," claims one rabbi.

Jaffe also investigates a newer development: these lines of reasoning are much less convincing to younger Jews, some of whom are calling for tolerance. "I don’t believe anyone [should be] barred from attending Hillel events lest they break some sort of rules,” wrote one respondent to an online survey. "It’s unfair to assume that all the Messianic Jews are missionaries and that allowing them to Hillel events threatens the institution of Hillel itself,” added another.

Messianic Jews mentioned in the article include Dr. Mitch Glaser, Walter Lieber, and Rabbi David Rudolph.

See the full article at http://jewishtimes.com/fusion-of-faiths/.

Update: more thoughts below as I continue to react to the article:

  • "One could make a case within Judaism for certain reinterpretations of even ancient, deeply held practices. But that doesn’t mean one can declare pork kosher." Most Messianic Jews agree with this statement. Maybe you've got us confused with Reform Judaism, Rabbi Burg?
  • "The real battle starts in the fall, when they are at the student activity fairs and things like that,” she said." One wonders what kind of battle Ms. Shaffin is expecting.
  • "Rabbi David Rudolph of Tikvat Israel Messianic Synagogue, however, was met with opposition pretty much only from professionals; Messianic Jewish leaders now go by “rabbi” instead of priest." I'm at a loss on the second statement; I guess the author was unaware that only leaders in Catholic and Orthodox Christianities are referred to as priests, while leaders in other Christian denominations go by Pastor, Reverend, etc.