Struggling For Credibility

The Messianic Jewish Movement has little or no credibility in scholarly Jewish or scholarly Christian circles. I used to attribute this to spiritual blindness that would be alleviated with the return of Yeshua, when he would return as a Jewish Messiah to the people of Israel, and the nations would come, repentant of their anti-Jewishness, and Israel would come, repentant of their disbelief in Yeshua. As I have spent more time in the circles of those who call themselves “Messianic,” I am starting to see the Jewish and Christian scholars are not as wrong as I presumed.

Messianic Judaism is a movement where people criticize their leaders for being poorly trained. This initially came about because this movement grew out of the Jesus movement of the late 1960’s-70’s where there was no training available for Messianic Leaders. Some leaders attended Bible schools and Christian seminaries to become grounded in scripture and theological issues, but this training left a serious void in Jewish subjects. Groups like the UMJC started Yeshivas to train leaders with more Jewish studies to supplement their other studies. Other Messianic theological schools started to provide a more complete Messianic Jewish education, because studying in a Christian seminary did not adequately prepare a leader to be a rabbi.

Some leaders also studied in Jewish graduate institutions to have a sufficient Jewish educational background to be a rabbi. All of this education took decades of work and study. The reason for this study is because when a leader is called a rabbi, he should know his way around a Siddur, be able to study Jewish rabbinic texts, and should be able to read the Torah in Hebrew. Why? Because in the larger Jewish world, our counterparts, the rabbis of traditional synagogues, can do this. Messianic as a qualifier to the term rabbi should mean that we believe in Yeshua as Messiah. It should not mean that we are lesser in education and knowledge.

Education is not for the purpose of having a swelled head or receiving honors. Education is so that when a leader says, “this is what the Torah teaches,” he should be as sure as possible that what he is saying is really what the Torah teaches.

I was ordained a rabbi in 1988 by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. It was also the year I earned my doctoral degree. There were not many leaders at that time with doctoral degrees and one leader wanted it announced with congratulations at a conference I was attending. That group did not put a great emphasis on theological education, and they reluctantly congratulated me from the podium. I felt I almost had to apologize for the degree, having to say it was not a big deal, but it was a big deal, and it enhanced the credibility of the movement. From that time, I did not use the title “rabbi” for almost seven years, until the rabbi I had been studying with over the course of many years told me he thought I deserved to use the title. I wanted to use the title when I had a commensurate education with those in the Jewish world who hold it.

The problem I had with the title earlier, was that in Messianic circles, some guy grows a beard, starts a bible study, and parrots what his favorite television preacher says, and calls himself a rabbi. Such a person having little or no formal training, spouts his opinion saying the Lord showed him this or that, and thinks he is a rabbi. Such a person sounds more like a pentecostal preacher than a rabbi. He blames God for his teaching, and then criticizes those who have studied by saying they are not listening to the Ruach haKodesh. They call those who have studied, carnal and not relying on the Spirit of God, thus dismissing all the study the person has done. This approach is foreign to Jewish values, where study is treasured.

One reason people disapprove of formal education is because what they learn does not coincide with what they already have decided to be true. If they have already made up their minds, they are closed to what they might learn, and what they believe may not have been as they first thought.

A related reason people disapprove of formal education, is a lack of submission to truth. Western culture is based on the principles of democracy. Even truth itself is left to a vote. People think their opinions are equal to all other opinions, even if theirs are based on ignorance, and others are based on study and fact.

Herein lies the problem. Messianic leaders are assumed to be uneducated, which is not always true, and yet if a leader studies, and his views do no coincide with what is generally accepted, he is rejected for not “agreeing” with his less educated detractors. It can make you throw your hands up and say “why bother?”

Of what value is education if people ignore facts for what is convenient? If what we believe is real, it’s not always going to be comforting and easy. Sometimes its going to be challenging. Belief in Yeshua for a Jew is costly. The price paid in family anguish and community rejection is high. I don’t want to pay that price for what is not true. I don’t have patience for theological games and imaginings. Whatever I accept has to be based on what is real. Yeshua is real, so I accept him. Other ideas, I’m not so ready to accept.

If we want the Messianic Movement to have respect in religious circles, we need to have a greater respect for education, and support educational institutions of higher learning like MJTI and Netzer David Yeshiva. We need to listen to those who have studied and consider that maybe we can learn from them. It means moving out of our comfort zones, and considering things we never thought before, or think of them in a different way.

It is not easy to do this. It takes open-mindedness and humility. Those who study do not do it for the honor. They are rarely honored. They do it for what they imagine our movement can be in the future. The question is, can our movement embrace education for the sake of its future?

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9 thoughts on “Struggling For Credibility

  1. good post – as usual!

    this summer, i’m finishing my degree in theology, history of religion & jewish studies.

    for one, i wanted to write my final dissertation on messianic judaism, but it was rejected by the professor, because it’s “not serious” (which why i’m writing about Joshua Abraham Heschel now).

    education is so very important. i have a jewish calendar with quotes every week, and i think every other week the quote is about the importance of study, of learning. there may be a reason to be called “people of the book”…

    do you know if any such yeshivot exist in europe? in french or german? sometimes i feel trapped over here, with nothing – no institutes, no congregations…

  2. yes, indeed, that is possible. but i’m also thinking of one or two friends who don’t speak one word of english. things like MJTI or even FFOZ don’t seem to exist here, and/or in french.

  3. This reflects my heart for the Messianic movement. We need individuals who are willing to engage in studies to develop solid theology and doctrine for the movement that is based on relevant truth for the movement. We need to mature in our understanding, and education is the foundation to bring this about. Thanks for your insights Michael they are right on the mark.

  4. “The question is, can our movement embrace education for the sake of its future?”

    You’re so right. IMO, we are at a turning point. If MJ doesn’t become a movement of learners (some of whom will are devoted to learning and teaching), we are destined to become an odd little Christian cult that confuses a Jewish veneer with the real thing.

    But this is a hard thing. So many of us came from spiritual cultures that value immediate experience or the exchange of opinions at the expense of a long-range strategy of growing deeper through BOTH learning and experience. This is especially fatal to any form of Judaism, which relies on a deep knowledge of the living tradition as well as a sensitivity to the present.

    We can’t be blamed for our origins in those spiritual cultures. That’s just how our movement arose in the 1970’s.

    But now is the time for MJ men and women to take individual and communal initiative to learn. Can I advise that we take “baby steps” as an alternative to doing nothing because so little MJ education is available? You might help by listing a few books of recommended reading.

  5. Fantastic piece and very well put. It really drives home some of what I have noticed in “Messianic synagogues” out here in AZ.

  6. Being a Gentile myself, I’m probably less concerned with “credibility”–which is akin to acceptance than I would be as a Jew. What I AM concerned about is being a fit instrument for the jealousy of Jews, as Paul discusses and as in the Song of Moses. That can only happen if Jews see me having what is theirs. They must see me drawing near to HaShem in ways that are dear to them. This is not possible without being taught by someone who knows what these things are.

    The Torah was told to Moses, who wrote some of it down. Many of the details, however were passes orally. How does one tie a tzitzi? How does one engrave the commandments on a doorframe? What is the method of sheckita? What is the requirement to honor one’s parents? Torah (instruction) was always meant to be taught, not merely studied.

    I don’t know you very well, but I am gratified to see that you stated that you did not call yourself a rabbi until the rabbi that you had been studying with said so. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops: non-Messianic rabbis ARE willing to teach those of us who are willing to learn. Moreover, they ARE willing to recognize the progress of those who do learn.

    Congratulations, thank-you, and may HaShem bless you for your commitment.

  7. This really is a concern. And in addition to the points you already made, it is important to also point out that one becomes a rabbi by receiving s’mikha from another rabbi or group of rabbis. Conferment of s’mikha MUST be passed down from those who also possess s’mikha from a recognized body (and cannot be self-administered).

    As you already noted – we have far too many people who cannot read Hebrew, do not know the first thing about anything Jewish, and one day start calling themselves “rabbis.” First and foremost a rabbi is a scholar. That has never changed in the Jewish community. Even though rabbis nowadays function in much more of a pastoral way, there is still a tremendous emphasis on scholarship and familiarity with Jewish texts.

    Bravo, Dr. Schiffman. Great post!

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