Area rabbis: 'messianic' Judaism not Jewish

The Dayton Jewish Observer/November 2008

The Cherish The Gift Of Faith advertising spread appears each Saturday in the Life section of the Dayton Daily News. Subtitled "A Listing of Worship Opportunities In The Miami Valley," and adorned with a cross as part of its heading, the two-page spread features display ads from area churches, listed by denomination.

Several months ago, an ad appeared under a new heading: Jewish. The ad, which has run every Saturday since, reads, "Beth Simchat Yeshua Messianic Synagogue invites Jewish Believers in Yeshua (Jesus) & Gentiles with a Jewish Heart to Shabbat Worship Services Saturdays 10:00 AM."

Thurlow Adams, who refers to himself as "Rabbi Tzion," placed the ads on behalf of his six-year-old, 30-member congregation, which meets rent-free in a room at East Dayton Baptist Church in Kettering each week.

A mechanical drafter by day, Adams says he's pleased with the response from the ad.

"I ran this ad in the Dayton Daily News just to reach out to folks who were looking for a Messianic Congregation," he says.

Each week, according to Adams, six to 10 people attend his Shabbat service. The only members with Jewish lineage, he says, are himself, his wife and two grown children, and one other woman in the congregation.

"The rest," Adams says, "are folks from a non-Jewish background who are believers in Yeshua, believers in Jesus and they just have felt and believed that there was something missing in their not being connected to the continuity of Judaism."

But according to Rabbi Judy Chessin, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Or, a Reform congregation in Washington Township, and chair of the Dayton Synagogue Forum, there is nothing Jewish about a "messianic" synagogue.

"When an individual chooses Jesus as their Lord and savior, they have become Christian," she says, "because that's the fundamental viewpoint of Christianity: that Jesus is Lord and savior, and Jews believe the Messiah has not come. It's as simple as that."

Rabbi Hillel Fox of Beth Jacob Synagogue, a traditional congregation in Harrison Township, concurs.

"Every single branch of Judaism agrees that 'messianic' Judaism is beyond the pale of Judaism," he says. " It is clearly Christian belief camouflaged to look like Jewish belief for the sole purpose of trying to convert Jews to Christianity."

Adams, who says he was ordained as a rabbi by the "messianic" Federation of Jewish Congregations and is also ordained as a Mennonite pastor, claims he fully understands why the mainstream Jewish community has issues with messianic Judaism.

But he adds that his focus is on Jews who have already converted to Christianity, "Jewish believers assimilated into the church, to get them from the church and into a Jewish setting."

Adams says Beth Simchat Yeshua is funded by its members; their tithes pay for the purchase of the display ads and prayer books for the congregation. He says they have also purchased their own Torah scroll.

Chessin says that Adams may not realize it, but "messianic" groups such as his have their roots in the Jews for Jesus movement of the early 1970s.

"We happen to have all kinds of evidence that Jews for Jesus in the 1970s marketed specifically to Jews and tried to create a way for them to convert without feeling guilty as we approached the millennium," she says. "The hope was that if they'd had enough converts, that the second coming would happen in the year 2000."

In addition to Beth Simchat Yeshua, two other "messianic" entities are based in the Dayton area: Shalom Judaica Books & Gifts in Englewood and Sh'ma Yisrael congregation at New Hope Community Church in Dayton.

Judaism's main movements - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform - agree that "messianic" Judaism is not Judaism. But the question of whether a Jew who adheres to another religion is still a Jew differs among the movements.

"The question is: is it a conversion to choose the theology of another faith?" says Chessin.

The answer depends on each Jewish movement's beliefs about halacha, or Jewish law.

According to halacha, if you are born a Jew, you are always a Jew, even if you convert to another religion. Even so, Chessin says, the convert would not be considered part of the Jewish community.

Fox says that for most Jews who convert to another religion, should they choose to return to Judaism, they would not have to go through a conversion within traditional Judaism.

In most cases, he says, Jewish law illustrates that the person did not start with a real knowledge of Judaism. "They didn't know what they were choosing," Fox says. "It's like a child who swears something that they don't understand. You don't hold a child accountable because they didn't realize what they were saying. In most cases, that's the situation: that people have not been given a good Jewish education. They grew up in an assimilated household and then they are influenced by someone to these ideas."

Rabbi Bernard Barsky of Beth Abraham Synagogue in Oakwood, says that within the framework of Conservative halacha, the chair of the movement's Law Committee has stated that "A Jew who converted to another religion and returns to Judaism should undergo tevillah (immersion in the mikvah) without a blessing, and make a declaration in the presence of the bet din (rabbinic court)." Barsky also points out that this is not an official position of the Law Committee.

In an e-mail, he explains that it would be his position that the returning "messianic" Jew "be considered as an apostate who converted to another religion and should undergo immersion in a mikvah (I'd probably include the blessing, though)."

Within Reform Judaism, which does not adhere to halacha, Chessin says, "once you convert to Christianity, you are no longer a Jew." An individual returning to Reform Judaism would have to undergo a conversion.

Beth Simchat Yeshua's ad continues to run in the Gift Of Faith section. But through the efforts of Jewish Community Relations Council Director Josh Lader, it is now under the heading of "Messianic Synagogue."

Chessin says it's important for Jews to understand the nature of "messianic" Judaism.

"One of the pitfalls for us is that we Jews don't understand," she says. "And when we run up against these people or missionaries or our children are approached by 'messianic' Jews on campus, the kids are not equipped to give the information, clear and straight, that if you believe in Jesus as the messiah, you are Christian. It behooves us not to bury our heads in the sand or run away, but actually become educated in this kind of thing and know that it is false advertising to say they are synagogues."

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