The Threat of Messianic Judaism

Our new issue on The Threat of Messianic Judaism came out today. We decided to do a story on Messianic Judaism because on the surface, it appears to offer a harmonization of Christian belief and Jewish ritual practice–”the best of both worlds,” so to speak. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that it’s not, that few Jews consider Messianic Jews to be Jewish, that some Messianic organizations are merely fronts for evangelical Christian missionaries.

In the issue, we look at how Messianic missionaries use a variety of approaches to proselytize to Jews: in Phoenix, Messianic Jews run a Judaica store; on the campus of Colorado State University, they hand out pamphlets with fabricated rabbinical quotes; in New York last summer, Jews for Jesus set up kiosks at a shopping mall; and in Germany, they target Russian Jewish immigrants for conversion.

Something similar to what is happening to Russians in Germany is happening to recent Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. Falash Mura, Ethiopians of Jewish origin who converted to Christianity generations ago under social pressure, have been immigrating to Israel for the last 15 years. Because their Jewish education was so minimal (read: non-existent) in Ethiopia, they are easy prey for the claims of Messianic missionaries who argue that there’s no tension between being Jewish and Christian at the same time. Moreover, missionaries in Israel have provided friendship, money and housing to people who typically come to Israel with almost nothing.

A recent JTA article elaborates on the missionary efforts and the controversy over exactly who is doing the proselytizing. Some Ethiopian Israelis claim it is fellow Ethiopians who are taking advantage of Israel’s open immigration policy towards Ethiopians, while others say the missionizing is primarily being done by non-Ethiopian Christians. One Ethiopian leader even levels the charge that non-Jewish Ethiopians are paying to marry Falash Mura, moving to Israel, divorcing their Jewish partner and then bringing their families to Israel under the humanitarian Law of Entry, which allows relatives of Israelis to immigrate to Israel.

In any case, all the stories point to what the simplest solution is to missionary tactics, be they from Messianic Jews or traditional evangelical Christians: Jewish education and support. Except in rare cases, missionaries are not forcing anyone to convert. If Jews, in interfaith couples or not, have knowledge and a positive attitude towards Judaism, they are unlikely to be susceptible to a missionary’s efforts. Which is just another good reason why Jewish institutions should make every reasonable effort to welcome interfaith families.

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