Shortly after Reform and Conservative leaders hit upon the winning
strategy of telling their followers that Orthodox Jews do not consider them Jewish, a remarkable full-page ad appeared in The New York Times. Entitled 'A word of advice to 80 percent to 90 percent of American Jewry from Jews for Jesus,' the ad was filled with solicitude for injured feelings of Reform and Conservative Jews.
'We understand how you must feel,' the ad began. 'We Jews for Jesus are used to that kind of de-labeling." We too have been found not 'Jewish enough or pious enough to suit some standards."
No doubt American Jews were shocked by the thought that they had anything in common with Jews for Jesus. More than 30 years ago, Philip Roth noted in a Commentary symposium that American Jews define themselves not in terms of what they are, but in terms of what they are not: We are not Christians.
More recently, critic Michael Medved has written, '[American Jews] do not believe in Jesus as the messiah. End of sentence, end of story... This rejection marks the sum total of their theological commitment, the beginning and end of their ideological identity as adherents to what is still misleadingly described as 'the Jewish faith."'
Rabbis who do not balk at marrying Jews and non-Jews or two men, he points out, will nevertheless refuse to marry to 'Messianic Jews,' even if they are halachically Jewish.
Deep in the collective unconscious of the Jewish people is the memory of millions of ancestors slaughtered in the name of Jesus. That collective memory no longer prevents more than half of American Jews from marrying Christians or 10 percent of born Jews from joining Christian churches or other religions. Yet visceral feelings of revulsion toward Christian symbols are still widespread in the Jewish community, particularly among the older generation.
There is an almost unanimous consensus in the Jewish community that joining Jews for Jesus cuts one off from the historical continuity of the Jewish people. (Curiously most American Jews do not perceive their non-Jewish grandchildren are irretrievably lost in the same way, though an American Jewish Committee study found that 82 percent of children of intermarriage are not raised as Jews.)
Though American Jews may be certain that they are far better Jews than those who identify themselves as Messianic Jews, it would be a valuable thought experiment to ask themselves why. That question would force them to consider - perhaps for the first time - the crucial issue of what determines legitimacy of a particular belief or practice in Jewish terms.
TRUE, Judaism rejects Jesus as the messiah. But it also insists upon a God, who gave us His law at Sinai. Why is the acceptance of Jesus as the messiah more un-Jewish than rejection of God as lawgiver? Why is Jewish atheism less oxymoronic than Jewish Christianity?
By what standard is the modern Jewish conscience so easily reconciled to 'rabbis' who declare the Five Books of Moses irrelevant to determining their position on homosexuality or any other issue? By what authority do those same rabbis suddenly 'discover' that having a Jewish father makes one Jewish? How can 4,000 delegates to the recent Reform convention in Dallas gulp down non-kosher food without qualms?
Messianic Jews accept most of Maimonides' 13 principles of faith; most American Jews would be hard-pressed to affirm more than a few, if they knew what they were. Many groups of Messianic Jews are halachically observant to a far greater degree than most Reform and Conservative Jews. So why is one group Jewishly illegitimate and the other legitimate?
Unfortunately, that is not a question American Jews are equipped to answer, for they have lost the habit of asking themselves how a particular practice or belief is legitimized in Jewish terms, or of thinking about legitimation at all. Challenged to justify their practice or belief in Jewish terms, they are more likely than not to stare at you slack-jawed, unable to comprehend the question at all.
They have not been taught to think of mitzvot as God-given law, but rather as suggestions awaiting their approval. Their standard of judgment is: I like this mitzva; I don't like that one. Reminds one of the old American Bandstand: 'I give that record an 8, Dick. I can really dance to it."
The issue of legitimacy is not merely theoretical. It lies at the heart of the pluralism debate in Israel today. If the state puts its imprimatur on Reform conversions, why not on those of Messianic Jews, who outnumber Reform Jews in Israel today? If the Supreme Court requires the Western Wall to be open to 'egalitarian' minyanim, why not the prayer services of the Jews for J?
The Supreme Court will not be able to trick its way out of the conundrum, as it did in the Brother Daniel case, by declaring that one cannot belong to two religions at the same time. Jews for J don't consider themselves Christians but Messianic Jews.
If neither history nor Halacha are any longer a guide to legitimacy - as
must be the case to classify the Reform and Conservative movements as merely different 'streams' of Judaism – then history and Halacha cannot be used to deny equal rights to Jews for J.
We are not dealing here with some law professor's slippery slope. The New York Times ad makes the argument clearly: We are as entitled to call ourselves Jewish as anyone else. The Jews for J are nothing more or less than the ultimate Jewish pluralists.