Image: Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th century self-proclaimed messiah. Public Domain.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” – Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b
Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in comments reflecting a “Messianic Jewish” point of view. It’s time for a policy statement about that, so here goes.
Rabbinic Judaism came into being in the first and second centuries when the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem closed the period of Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the notion that we have both a Written Torah (the five books of Moses) and an Oral Torah (the interpretation of those books passed down by a group of people known to us as the rabbis.)
There is a huge range of belief among Rabbinic Jews. We are more focused on actions than on belief, on keeping mitzvot (commandments) than on a particular orthodoxy (with a small-o.) We do not have creeds.
We do not have a messiah. Those of us who expect one (and not all of us do) are waiting for a political or military leader. We are not waiting for or interested in a savior to save us from our sins. This has been a matter of some distress to Christians, who historically want us to accept the person they believe to be a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but early on separated itself from us partly over doctrinal issues and partly over the fact that in the Roman world after the year 135 it was not healthy to be mistaken for a Jew. We Jews were rebels, we were trouble, and the Roman establishment did everything it could to put us out of business. Small wonder that the Christians of the time, who were interested in converting Romans to their faith, took care to differentiate themselves from Rabbis (aka Pharisees) in the Gospels, which were all written after at least one revolt against Rome.
Jews have suffered for centuries for our unwillingness to accept the Christian messiah. Those centuries of suffering – of murders, of robbery, of stolen children, of persecution, of genocide – inform a certain testiness when someone comes along cheerfully talking about “being both,” or of conversion to Christianity under cover of a Hebracized name for Jesus.
By the way, Jesus isn’t the only candidate for messiah in Jewish history. By some counts as many as 24 individuals have been proposed as messiahs for the Jews. Some disappear into history, taking a few followers with them; others have been major disasters. The fellow pictured at the top of this post, Shabbetai Tzvi, was one of those who did terrible damage to the Jewish People.
So-called Messianic Judaism is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. I do not teach Messianic Judaism. To my mind, it smacks of cultural appropriation – the adoption of the elements of a minority culture (Judaism) by members of the dominant culture (Christianity.) From where I sit, if someone thinks Jesus is their messiah, fine – but then they’re Christian, not Jewish. A person who worships Jesus as God may have Jewish ancestry, but their acceptance of that doctrine makes them no longer Jewish, no matter which of their ancestors were Jews.
And no, I’m not interested in a debate about this.
From now on, I’m simply going to delete “messianic” comments in this blog. Those who want that material have many websites upon which to find it. I can’t stop them from using materials on my site but I can prevent them from proselytizing at people who come here to learn about Judaism. That same policy also goes for Christians who proselytize.
So that’s the policy. Don’t bother posting that stuff, because I’m going to delete it.