"Spiritual Nazism." Those are the first words out of my rabbi's mouth when I tell him I'm reporting on Messianic Judaism. To him, the prospect of Jews accepting a Christian salvation narrative, but still identifying as Jews, constitutes nothing short of the destruction of the spiritual life of a people.
But after nearly a year of studying and reporting on this phenomenon, I have my doubts about this dire indictment. Messianic Judaism, despite its promoters' predictions, will not be radically changing Judaism anytime soon. It is, however, radically changing how Jews and evangelicals relate to one another and how evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians perceive Judaism, Jewish-Christian relations and the politics of the Middle East.
To some Jews, the growth of Messianic Judaism represents a mortal threat. There are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the United States, 350,000 worldwide, and 10,000 to 20,000 in Israel. This isn't too dramatic, although it's difficult to assess the future impact of new religious movements as they're developing--who knew in the mid-19th century that the Mormon Church would be what it is today?
But Jews who fear the movement as a significant threat to Jewish religious life may not appreciate how little appeal it seems to hold for actual Jews. Many self-identifying Messianic Jews, particularly in the United States, are not and have never been Jewish. At El Shaddai, a Messianic Jewish congregation I visited on a Shabbat morning in Frederick, Maryland, I met just one congregant who had been born and raised Jewish--and the congregational leaders made sure to point him out to me. He was a Reform Jew who had lost interest, met an evangelical friend later in adulthood and found answers in the idea of personal salvation by a God made human. But many self-described Messianic Jews are evangelical or Pentecostal Christians enamored of a brand of philo-Semitism overlaid with a heavy dose of apocalyptic fervor.
The El Shaddai congregation, which is affiliated with the Messianic Jewish organizations Revive Israel and Tikkun Ministries, has a Torah. There's music like you'd hear in a Pentecostal or evangelical megachurch. On Saturday mornings, congregational leaders, who appear to have little training in either Hebrew or trope, clumsily read and discuss part of the weekly Torah portion along with a New Testament text.
At a Tikkun Ministries conference a few weeks later in...