It’s a struggle for some people to believe that “Christian with Jewish heritage” and “Messianic Jew” are not the same thing. I completely understand why; it wasn’t that long ago that I myself would have failed to see the difference. My mind would have sounded alarm bells trilling “Traitor! Traitor!” too loudly for me to even try and understand the difference. But as my acceptance as an interfaith person grows – that is, someone who still carries with her the markings of a Jewish culture into a different faith – an updated explanation is warranted.
I don’t know too many people who converted from one faith to something totally different. I know people who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, and vice versa, which is not to be understated, but is still within the larger umbrella of Christianity. People like me are pretty rare. I wish I could say I grew up this way, with one Christian parent and one Jewish one, so my allegiances were always split, but that is not the case. No, I was nineteen years old when I started calling myself a Christian, after years of quietly admiring Jesus and reading books about saints, wishing I could have the faith that they had. More details about the “why” of conversion can be read about in my memoir.
For a while, I did the best I could to shoehorn Jewish practice into my new Christian identity, except my Jewish life before Jesus was surface level at best. What being a “Jewish Christian” meant for me was going to church and continuing to observe Hanukkah and Passover. The larger, more complicated issues of theology were completely lost on me. Through my involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ, I was trained to view the Old Testament as nothing more than a precursor to the New. It was an incomplete story filled with clues that pointed to the coming of a Savior, and to chop it short just before the start of Matthew was akin to driving a car with only three tires. In other words, the Jews supposedly had all the pieces, but were still missing the final piece to make the vehicle run properly.
This was back in the day when being the center of attention mattered so much to me (I don’t know who that person is anymore), so being the “Jewish believer” was a role I didn’t mind playing. Over time, that changed. Friends in my bible study group would ask me for the “insider’s scoop” on how to evangelize to Jews. Little did they know I was not the ideal person to ask, since I wasn’t converted by any “Did you know it’s Jewish to believe in Jesus?” rhetoric.
Many American Jews are familiar with those tactics already, because they are written on pamphlets that get distributed on car windshields in synagogue parking lots, in mailboxes, and are posed by street preachers in Jewish garb – tallits, yarmulkes, tefillin, the whole nine yards – as strangers walk by. While it’s true that Jewish spiritual education is lacking as assimilation increases, Jews aren’t stupid. “Yeshua Ha’Moshiach” is still “Jesus the Messiah.”
There was something infantilizing about those questions I couldn’t put my finger on. My Christian friends seemed to pity the Jews for missing their own Messiah the way many of us can’t find the glasses that are sitting right on our noses, and I was “lucky” to realize the truth: to escape that world of lies. There’s a disdainful attitude all too common in churches that Jews don’t know anything about their own Scriptures, and must be taught it by Christians: “Goy-splaining,” for lack of a better term.
What many Christians don’t realize is that it simply isn’t enough to convince a Jewish person that Jesus is God. The theological teachings of Christianity and Judaism have evolved in opposite directions over the last 2,000 years. Original sin has never been a Jewish concept, and eternal punishment for lack of belief may be the least Jewish of them all (and if you’re curious, as many people are, I still have trouble swallowing this one). Christians are quick to point out that Jesus intended to “fulfill” the Jewish law, so the two religions are theologically compatible as one, but that’s not what happened. Jesus’ intent aside, we now have two distinctly different religions that share origins in Abraham, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise, and those that do indirectly tell me that they don’t know as much about Judaism as they think they do.
Believe it or not, I study more Jewish theology now than I did pre-Jesus. My appreciation for it has deepened now that I study from a distance, but that distance isn’t as far as you might expect. The things that initially drove me away from Judaism are now the things I miss most about it; things I believe the church can benefit from. The lack of unity in Jewish belief used to bother me. You couldn’t look up a single explanation for “Jewish view of an afterlife,” for example, without stumbling on dozens of different answers. Christianity seemed more uniformed by comparison.
Of course, only after I became an insider did I see just how naïve it was of me to assume this. Whereas Christian tend to denounce differing viewpoints as heresy, Judaism has perfected the art of agreeing to disagree. I love the expression “two Jews, three opinions,” with an understanding that you can agree to disagree without losing your Jewish identity. I love the diversity in thought and the freedom to ask questions. I believe this, more than anything else, is the most “Jewish” part of my faith, and it gets me into trouble at times. Christians don’t have the best track record for handling doubts very well. My Jewish background is what enables me to change that.
I started using the expression “Jew-ish” to describe myself, first as a joke, but now somewhat more seriously. My family is not religious but is steeped in Jewish culture. My mom gets me Hanukkah socks every year. She also bought me a blue stocking that says “Happy Hanukkah” and a “Jewish penicillin” soup bowl. These are superficial totems of a Jewish identity, but they are markers of the sense of humor I’ve maintained because of my upbringing. I still feel a sense of camaraderie when I meet other Jews, and because of my decision to be honest about my journey upfront, I’ve been able to continue making Jewish friendships. This would not be possible if I identified as a Messianic Jew, because traditional Jews know that their messiah hasn’t come yet.