And "birthpangs" of messianic judaism by david sedaca

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 The second half of the 20th century has witnessed the rise of Messianic Judaism, a movement that has finally found its niche in the religious world. Today, Messianic Judaism is rapidly growing in different parts of the world: Israel, North and South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Because of its history and the impact of such a movement in the light of biblical interpretation, it cannot be dismissed as an experiment to be tested or a fad to be tried out. Any conscious analysis of Messianic Judaism has to be performed against its own historical and biblical backdrop.
Looking Back Through the Years

Almost three decades ago, at a gathering of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance in England, some of us of the younger generation who had assumed leadership roles in the organization felt the need to know about the early years and why was the International Alliance formed. At the time we still had with us the late Rev. Harcourt Samuel, who had been present at the first conference in 1925 and was gifted with a wonderful memory. For almost two hours he gave us a recollection of the early years, which we later on wrote it down and asked him to do the same.

What follows are recollections and excerpts from Harcourt Samuel's recollections 1, Sir Leon Levison's biography 2, "The History of Jewish Christianity" by Hugh Schonfield 3 and minutes of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance International Conferences. Much of this material is in my private collection of notes and letters I collected from my 35 years of service in the International Hebrew Christian Alliance, now the International Messianic Jewish Alliance.
Messianic Judaism of today did not develop in a vacuum but it is the logical consequence of a process that began 2,000 years ago, when a young Jewish man began to preach that the messianic hopes proclaimed by the prophets of Israel were fulfilled in Him. Most scholars agree that this man, Yeshua, lived a lifestyle consistent with first century Judaism. From Jewish records and church historians, we know that, even after the first century, when Messianic Jews ceased to be the leaders of the church, there were individual Jews who believed in Jesus. As consequence of a new interest in prophecy, especially with the birth of Dispensationalism, by the early 1800's there were several evangelical missions that had undertaken the task of intentionally reaching the Jewish people with the Gospel; among them the Swedish Lutheran Church, The Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom and throughout the British Empire. A significant turning point was the newly created Anglican See of Jerusalem of Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander in 1841, the first Jewish Christian Bishop of Jerusalem since 135 A.D.!
Messianic Judaism of today is the latest expression Hebrew Christianity, a process that started almost 200 hundred years ago. The resurgence of this movement as an identifiable group can be traced to Great Britain around the year 1850. At that time, there were thousands of Jewish people who converted to Christianity, but the end result of most of these conversions was the losing of their Jewish identity. By the middle of the 19th century, there were many outstanding Jewish believers in Jesus who began questioning the then prevailing principle that the corollary of accepting Jesus was the forfeiture of one's Jewish heritage. Although there were informal gatherings of Hebrew Christians throughout Europe, it was in England that their voices began to question the then prevailing principle that in order to believe in the Jewish Messiah one had to, for all practical purposes, forfeit one's Jewish identity.

It was then that in London, in September 9, 1813, a group of 41 Jewish believers formed the first formal association calling themselves "Beni Avraham," Children of Abraham. They met for prayer every Sunday morning and Friday evenings, and in teams of twos, visit Jewish believers during the week. When their work was extended, in 1935 they formed The Episcopal Jew's Chapel Abrahamic Society.Contacts in England between these Jewish believers ultimately led to the formation in 1813 of the first body of believers who recognized both their Jewish ancestry and their faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. Yet at this time they couldn’t see themselves forming independent churches, or even churches within their own denomination, the whole idea would have been extremely radical, since identifying themselves as Jews within the church was radical enough.

But it was only with the formation of an umbrella organization that Jewish believers were united in bonds of heritage, witnessing and relief. This organization was the Hebrew Christian Alliance. The idea was first promoted by Dr. C. Schwartz, of Trinity Chapel, and finally, in May 14, 1867, a resolution was passed to unite all Jewish believers under the umbrella of the Hebrew Christian Alliance and Prayer Union of Great Britain. The organization of this first national Alliance led to the establishing of similar Alliances in different parts of the world. With the appearance of the first Hebrew Christian Alliance, many Jewish believers in the churches came out to the open declaring their Jewish ancestry. This phenomenon spread like bush fire and, before the turn of the century, there were national alliances of Jewish believers established in many European countries. Since most leaders of the early alliances were clergy of different evangelical denominations, mainly Anglican, Brethren, Congregational and Lutheran, the idea of independent churches Hebrew Christian churches wasn’t even considered at the time.

Another group was formed also in England under the leadership of Dr. H.A. Stern, The Hebrew Christian Prayer Union. Its membership rose from 143 in 1883 to 600 in 1890!

Other countries followed and branches were formed in Germany, Norway, Romania, Russia, Palestine and the United States.

These organizations, although closely related with each other, lacked the international structure that would further unite them in their purposes. This need was finally met when in 1925 all the Hebrew Christian Alliances formed the International Hebrew Christian Alliance (I.H.C.A.). Before the outbreak of World War II there were twenty national alliances affiliated to the International Hebrew Christian Alliance. In the words of Hugh Schonfield "Since 1925, the history of Jewish Christianity becomes in effect the history of the IHCA."

Although these organizations were active, their main purpose had been fellowship and charity. Another step needed to be taken to develop these nascent organizations into a more formal and unified body. Yet, although some leaders began to feel the need to form independent congregations, they realize that such a step would neither be welcomed neither understood by their churches. One common concern was that the church would consider these organizations as "judiazers."

To counteract this concern, voices for independence of thought and the right to be called both Christians and Jews began to be heard. John Mark Levy in America brought forth this issue before Hebrew Christian organizations, Jewish missionary societies and the church in general. In Galatia, Poland, there was Christian Theodore Lucky, in Hamburg Paulus Grun through the columns of his magazine Ephrata, organ of the Jewish Christian Association, and in South Africa, Philip Cohen, who edited The Messianic Jew and gave three reasons for the need to change the attitude towards Hebrew Christians, and thus clearing the path for the formation of Hebrew Christian churches :

1. Deep love to our own nation, to its history and traditions.

2. A deep conviction that we who are Hebrew Christians can best serve the cause of Christ by demonstrating to our people that we still belong to them

3. The conviction that Jewish Christianity can only impress the Jewish mind by taking on a distinctively Jewish coloring. 4
Once Jewish believers tested their strength they realized that this was just the beginning of a much important movement. Sir Leon Levinson, first president of the I.H.C.A. wrote in 1927 in The Hebrew Christian Quarterly, the official organ of the I.H.C.A. that the numbers of Jewish believers were 97,000 roughly distributed as follows: in Vienna 17,000 accepted Jesus; in Poland 35,000; in Russia 60,000; in America and Canada over 30,000 and in Great Britain 5,000.

The next step forward was to establish a church made up of Jewish believers where their Jewishness could be emphasized. There had been a some several successful experiences in this regard. One was the Hebrew Christian movement in Kischineff led by Joseph Rabinowitz, who in 1882 founded the first Hebrew Christian community. Rabinowitz took the community of Hebrew Christian believers out of the boundaries of established churches and kept in within the realms of the synagogue. A similar success occurred under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein in Tapio- Szele, Hungary. The first Hebrew Christian Church in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was established in 1936 – my father, the late Victor Sedaca was the pastor— and similar churches were formed in different European countries.

           These and similar stories led to the analysis of the question of whether the time had arrived to "rebuild David's tabernacle that is fallen down" by establishing independent Hebrew Christian congregations. This question led to the setting up of a committee to study the viability of Hebrew Christian churches. This landmark event took place at the Budapest Conference of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance, the last conference before the Holocaust. By then, there were several Hebrew Christian churches in Europe, North and South America. But the tragedy of the Holocaust necessitated Jewish believers to shift gears from establishing indigenous congregations to escaping Hitler's camps and assisting refugees.

After Judaism was back on its feet again, Jewish believers continued developing their own spiritual quest. Thus, the Hebrew Christian movement began slowly to transform itself into Messianic Judaism as we know it today. In some places, it was a sharp and intentional breakaway from the Gentile church, while in others, the process was much smoother. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust and with the founding of the modern State of Israel, a new Jewish identity began to develop and the Hebrew Christian movement was not immune to these changes. The term Hebrew Christian no longer properly defined Jewish believers in Yeshua, therefore, a more adequate form of expressing their Jewish identity and beliefs was found in the term Messianic Jew.

The “Birthpangs” of Messianic Judaism

            Today, there are as many forms of Messianic Judaism around the world as there are Jewish people. In most instances, the transition from Hebrew Christianity to Messianic Judaism was difficult, and even painful. I know this well because it was under my administration as Executive Secretary of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance that the movement evolved to become the Messianic Jewish Alliance. The main problem arose from the fact that the traditional strongholds of Hebrew Christianity were the European Hebrew Christian organizations, and these European organizations did not see the need to break away from their evangelical churches. We called special meetings with the leaders of Hebrew Christian and Messianic Jewish organization, and after endless hours of discussions, we seemed to go nowhere. The Hebrew Christians were represented by older European leaders, while the Messianic Jewish movement was led by a young group of Jewish believers in America that had assumed the leadership of the American Alliance. The generational gap seemed too wide, and at the time it appeared that for all purposes, Jewish believers had to take sides, and these sides did not look “eye to eye.”

In addition, even within the Messianic movement in the USA, there was a divide that persisted until a few years ago. This division originated with the formation of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. The reason for this conflict came us result of the fact that the leaders of these newly born congregations were members of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America and they believed that the Alliance should not be involved with the individual and independent congregations. The issue was finally resolved with the formation of two similar organizations: the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America formed the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, while the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations formed the Union of Messianic Jewish Believers. Today these organizations work together and there is a healthy exchange of ideas and cooperation.

Messianic Jewish congregations are molded after the milieu they are part of. In United States, where the largest numbers of Messianic Jews reside, congregations tend to adopt more parts of the traditional Jewish synagogue service, with its own Siddur, Torah Scrolls, etc. On the other hand, in Great Britain, where the Hebrew Christian movement was stronger Messianic Judaism did not rapidly adopt traditional Jewish elements. Argentina, with a European evangelical tradition was slow to changes, but even though the largest numbers of Jewish believers are part of traditional evangelical churches, Messianic Jewish congregations are well established. In Holland most Jewish believers adopted the New Testament name given to the early followers of Yeshua, "HaDerech," the Way.  One of the hardest issues that Messianic Judaism is confronted with is the rejection suffered from mainline Judaism that for the most part, argues that Jews who believes in Jesus have given up their Jewishness.

Therefore, one thing that engages Messianic Judaism is the need to prove that even though it accepts Yeshua as the Messiah, it does not reject Judaism as a lifestyle, a people and a culture. But this is not the case of Jewish believers in Israel, where their Jewishness is taken as a fact. In the State of Israel their struggle is to have the same full rights under the Law of Return as all the other Jews since it is the religious establishment that questions its validity. In Russia and the former Soviet republics, there is true awakening to Judaism and Messianic Judaism. Under the Communist regime, Judaism was suppressed, and millions of Jews were alienated from their Jewish heritage. Now, with a new openness, not only are Jewish people re-discovering their Jewish heritage, but hundreds of them have come to accept the fact that Yeshua is the promised Messiah. Presently, there are Messianic Jewish congregations well established in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, and in most major cities of the former Soviet Union.

By 1993 there were 165 independent Messianic Jewish congregations world-wide, and a similar number of Jewish ministries and fellowships.  Today, there are almost 700 Messianic Jewish congregations that are identifiable as such, and most are affiliated to larger organizations. Among these associations are the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, the Fellowship of Messianic Jewish Congregations, The Canadian Fellowship of Messianic Congregations and Ministries, the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, etc. In spite of the different backgrounds, the Messianic Jewish movement is quite cohesive. The fundamental fact is not what makes these groups different, rather, what is the bond that holds them together in spite of all. The bond that unites Messianic Jews around the world is the belief that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, and that this belief does not make them forfeit their Jewishness.

Building Bridges or Building Walls?

Messianic Jews have accepted that the promised Messiah already came, and it was Yeshua of Nazareth. Messianic Judaism is in a unique position to build a bridge of understanding between traditional Judaism and the Christian church.  Messianic Jews are able to point out to the church the need to reconsider their Jewish origin, and at the same time, point out to Judaism the Jewishness of Jesus and His message.  There are more things that bring Judaism and Christianity together than pulls them apart; it is Messianic Judaism an example of both bound together.  This is what the early church was and it would be helpful for both religious groups to look back to their own history.

As Hebrew Christianity became Messianic Judaism, it is still searching to find its niche. It suffers rejection from traditional Judaism and it seems that it still has to justify its existence to the evangelical churches. Regrettably, many evangelical gentiles who have a deep love for Israel have formed Messianic Jewish congregations without being Jewish or knowing Jewish customs and traditions. These so called “Messianic Jewish congregations” do not represent true Messianic Judaism and have harmed the Messianic Jewish congregational movement. Many evangelical churches do not accept genuine Messianic Jewish congregations because of what they have seen in these fringe groups. In spite of the ongoing struggles, Messianic Judaism, as the heir of the early Hebrew Christian movement, is here to stay. In closing, it is fitting to quote what the Rev. Harcourt Samuel, who was appointed to be the first Secretary of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance in 1925 and continued serving as elected officer without interruption... until 1992!, said in occasion of the 100th anniversary of the British Alliance,
And what of the future? The aims of 1866 remain those of today. The years ahead may bring greater changes even than those behind, but until the glad day comes when all Israel shall be saved, those aims will remain.

Neither a church nor a missionary society, neither a congregation nor a sect, we are a fellowship in Christ, ready to help one another spiritually, and if needs be, materially too, the better to bear our God-given witness towards our Jewish brethren.

To the former, we confess "we have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets did write, Jesus"; to the latter we offer visible proof that "God hath not cast away His people which He foreknew," that "at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace." (Romans 11:2,5)

1 Samuel, Rev. Harcourt, O.B.E, These Hundred Years, The International Messianic Jewish Alliance,1966

2 Levison, Fredrerick, A Christian and a Jews: The Life of Sir Leon Levison. The Pentland Press,

Edinburgh, 1989

3 Schonfield, Hugh J., The History of Jewish Christianity. London, Duckworth Press, 1936

4 Schonfield, p. 170

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