Messianic Judaism

Written by Dan Cohn-Sherbok Reviewed By Graham Keith

It is both an unusual and a welcome development to find a constructive study of Messianic Jews from a leading Jewish academic rabbi. Up to now the Jewish community has given an almost uniformly negative response to those who have claimed that it is possible to be both Jewish and a believer in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah.

Cohn-Sherbok, however, argues this negative reaction is quite inconsistent with the current state of the Jewish community which accords Jewish status to a wide range of people who from the Orthodox viewpoint are heretics or apostates, including those who subscribe to eastern religions and those who do not believe in God at all. Cohn-Sherbok describes himself as a Jewish pluralist who sees the future harmony of the Jewish community as dependent on the recognition of the multi-faceted character of modern Judaism. In this Messianic Jews would find a place because they are committed to communal Jewish values.

This work is divided into three sections. The first is historical, tracing the emergence of the Messianic Jewish movement. The second section details the ways in which the movement has handled the liturgy for the various Jewish festivals; while the final section evaluates key issues raised by the movement—especially whether it can be considered authentically Jewish. The last section is naturally written, first and foremost, for the Jewish community. Thus, the chapter on Messianic Judaism and its critics deals exclusively with Jewish critics. There is no exploration of the reservations Christians might raise about aspects of the movement, though some of these do emerge in the first part of the book in the context of the split between Hebrew Christians and Messianic Jews.

In short, this book provides important materials for Christians to gauge the implications of Messianic Judaism for the wider church, but it is not itself a comprehensive assessment of this important movement from a Christian perspective. Another limitation of the book is the strongly North American slant. Undoubtedly this reflects the hub of the Messianic movement, but it would have been of value to know how it functions, away from American soil, especially in Israel where being authentically Jewish has different implications from in the Diaspora.

Given Jewish antipathy to Christian missions, Cohn-Sherbok writes with commendable sympathy and perceptiveness of earlier Christian missions to the Jews. His grasp of the theological background of Messianic Judaism (in North American Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism) is sure. His generosity of spirit, as well as his scholarly analysis, will be welcome across the Christian-Jewish divide. I am convinced by his arguments that it is illogical to exclude Messianic Jews from the Jewish community. But I also share some of the deep-rooted Jewish reservations about a plural society to which he alludes in his final chapter. Pluralism, after all, implies a certain relativism, or at least the readiness not to challenge other members of society with one’s own views. Yet, Messianic Jews have a strong missionary interest in other Jews. Inevitably, this will cause strains in Jewish society—and the same might be said if it was (say) a traditional Orthodox group which embarked on such a mission. As it is unlikely that Messianic Jews will lay aside their missionary thrust, I fear that Cohn-Sherbok’s plea for their recognition will largely go unheeded, though I would love to be proved wrong with this prognosis.

Graham Keith