I was raised Jewish. I became a Christian. Please don’t call me a “Messianic Jew”

messianic-jewsI started calling myself a Christian in the fall of 2008 – nearly ten years ago. I accepted a friend’s invitation to check out my school’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, fulfilling my long-term fascination with the man who called himself God.

This isn’t an unusual story for a lot of people. Becoming “born again” is nothing scandalous in America. Unless your family is Jewish, as mine is.

In retrospect, this decision to convert was foreshadowed almost my entire life. My tiny Jewish community didn’t have its own building, so I had my Bat Mitzvah in a rented church. It was to the chagrin of some Orthodox guests that crosses reflected light in the stained-glass windows as I chanted my Torah portion. I also developed a fascination with Catholic saints from a young age, and read about them with the same level of devotion that the average little girl reserves for Disney princesses.

My “conversion story” is a triumphant success or a devastating failure, depending on who you talk to. My family felt like they failed me in terms of providing a proper Jewish education, but Christians – evangelical Protestants, in particular – held me up as a shining example of how far God can reach; how He would stop at nothing in order to save “the lost.”

Dozens of people from “Cru” – the shorthand form of the evangelism group “Campus Crusade” – wanted to hear my “testimony,” but few of them wanted to hear about my interest in saints that was the seed of my eventual conversion. Instead they pressed for emphasis on when exactly I realized I was lost; when I realized that Judaism was a “false” religion, and Jesus was the only source of Truth.

It was as if I’d failed to market myself properly as a Jew who came to Jesus. I was useless in offering my fellow crusaders advice on how to infiltrate Jewish campus groups and convince the people there – some of whom were my friends – that they, too, could be Jewish and believe in Jesus. They wanted me to spill secrets I just didn’t have.

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These memories (which are chronicled in my memoir) came back when it was revealed to the press this week that the Republican candidate for Alabama senator, Roy Moore, doesn’t have a Jewish lawyer like his wife, Kayla, said he did, in a weak effort to combat rumors of their antisemitism. Their lawyer, Martin Wishnatsky, identifies as follows: “I’m a Messianic Jew. That’s the term they use for a Jewish person who has accepted Christ.”

I’m not sure who this “they” is that Wishnatsky is referring to, but if his story is anything like mine, maybe that particular label, “Messianic Jew,” is a result of being pigeonholed by evangelism-minded Christians who want to put him on a pedestal as part of the “saved heathen” narrative. To me, tying my Jewish background in with my Christian faith in that manner makes it sound like I was duped by manipulative missionaries, when in fact the opposite was true.

Yes, there were plenty of conversion attempts by classmates throughout my childhood; yes, my family’s mailbox was periodically stuffed with Jews for Jesus literature. What I took from those incidents was a realization that that particular branch of Christianity was one I didn’t want to be part of.

I had Catholic classmates whose faith I deeply admired – friends who never dangled Jesus as a carrot stick before offering their friendship. They had deep, non-cheesy “Jesus is my boyfriend” type love for this God-man called Jesus, and I could ask them about it without fear of getting roped into sermons, or threatened with eternal damnation if I didn’t cooperate.

The story my Catholic friends told was a love story like no other: the story of a God who loved His creation so much, He came down to meet them in person, and did so not with the dramatic fanfare you’d expect, but as an infant born in utmost poverty. I secretly identified with Jesus when it seemed like my own friends betrayed me, as middle school girls tend to do. I identified with him when I felt lonely and misunderstood, and eventually called to him for comfort when suffering the damage of sexual assault.

These Catholic classmates made Jesus much more attractive with their honesty and personal stories than any attempt to “goy-splain” biblical Hebrew ever did. That is what eventually paved the way for my participation in the Episcopal Church: a decision that was completely my own, to express a faith that is uniquely mine, and no one else’s.

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Chanting Torah at my confirmation service, spring 2004

So why do Wishnatsky’s words still bother me? If he self-identifies as a Messianic Jew, that’s certainly his right, but his blanket insistence that “this is what they’re called” still rubs me the wrong way.

There was a time when I shopped around “Messianic synagogues” to see if I fit in there, and I have to confess that I felt more awkward in those congregations than I ever did as the only Jewish kid in class growing up. While there are plenty of members who do have Jewish background, some sources estimate that this only applies to roughly half the members.

If Messianic Judaism was simply a home for Jews who don’t fit in with traditional synagogues, but don’t fit in with gentile churches, either, I wouldn’t care so much. But similar to Jews for Jesus – which is strictly an evangelical group, not a Christian denomination – there’s a darker side to this movement:

A core component of Messianic Judaism is witnessing and missionizing to other Jews. According to the evangelical theology accepted by Messianic Jews, those who are not saved are destined for eternal damnation. Helping to bring someone to Yeshua and thus to salvation is a responsibility of all Messianic Jews, and many embrace that role, particularly when it comes to Jewish members of their family. This is often at the root of the animosity between Messianic and mainstream Jewish communities.

When Messianic Jews try to do outreach within the mainstream Jewish community they are often met with resistance and outrage. Among other things, the Jewish community objects to the title Messianic Judaism, because the messianism practiced by Messianic Jews is Jesus-focused, and thus by definition not Jewish. The use of the term Messianic Judaism strikes many as a subversive way of attracting Jews who do not know enough about their faith to realize that what they are learning about is Christianity.

I visited Messianic synagogues to find people “like me,” and I was deeply disappointed. I was just as much of a spectacle there – “Look, a real, live Jew who believes in Jesus!” – as I was in Cru. I felt objectified. And when pressed, yet again, for more details about what it was in the Torah that told me Jesus was the Real Thing, I felt used.

If my story of “coming to the Lord” inspires someone else to do the same, that’s great. But I’m simply not interested in seeking converts like notches in a belt, and manipulating Hebrew texts to do it. In my experience, that was what the Messianic movement expected of me, and I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do it. How could I, when I knew exactly what it felt like to be targeted, just for being born a certain way?

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My whole life, all I’d wanted was a relationship with God. If the resources for that existed in the Reform tradition in which I was raised, perhaps I wouldn’t have ever felt called to church. My story can be boiled down to the following facts: the Judaism I grew up with just didn’t satisfy my spiritual needs. It’s likely that this happened because I failed to properly understand it, but that is the truth.

There were no road-to-Damascus moments in which God spoke to me and showed me the error of my ways; there were no burning bushes, nothing dramatic whatsoever. My actual conversion story is duller than what the self-described MJs wanted it to be. I felt chased out of that movement because I wanted my story to remain just that: my story. I didn’t want it being used as a tool for evangelism, and I still don’t.

But evangelical fascination with Jewish culture continues. There’s something almost fetish-like about it, the way I’ve seen people’s expressions change when it comes up that, no, I’m not going home for Christmas because my family doesn’t celebrate it. Why? Oh, because they celebrate Hanukkah. There have been moments when the entire conversation redirects, and the “I’ve always had a heart for Jews!” comments begin. One woman asked if she could touch me, believing I was a direct descendant of Moses. Another man stalked me around campus for months, convinced God “sent” me to him to be his missionary wife in Israel.

I’m not sure what it is that I’m doing to attract these incidents, but they continue to happen, even though the frequency has decreased. It’s distressing, it’s objectifying, and it needs to stop. It’s an inverse form of antisemitism that presents itself as flattery.

I still claim Judaism as my heritage – how can I not? – but I’ve never been religiously Jewish, ever. My faith today has certainly been influenced by Judaism, but calling my Christian faith “Jewish,” based on the circumstances of my birth, is disingenuous at best. Your background does not necessarily determine where you belong, especially when you get no say in the matter. The Jewish “quirks” I retain today are similar to the tendencies of “cradle Catholics” who still identify with the cultural aspects of their family’s faith, even if they no longer subscribe to the belief system.

Humans are tribal creatures, and not all of us remain with the same one all throughout our lives. In many ways, conversion is a lot like remarriage: the person you were when you married your first spouse does not disappear when you marry another, but you can’t (at least not legally) be married to two people at the same time. At some point, you make a choice.

Judaism is a great religion, and I respect it very much. My beliefs just happened to evolve in a different direction.  The Messianic movement, and evangelicals with a “heart” for Jews, miss the rich history of Judaism on its own terms – not simply as Christianity, the Prequel.

See also: Why I’m not a Messianic Jew

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post

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29 thoughts on “I was raised Jewish. I became a Christian. Please don’t call me a “Messianic Jew”

  1. Doug Carmel says:

    Hi Sarahbeth,

    As a MJ myself (born as raised in the Jewish Mecca of NYC) I understood many parts of what you have written here. Also, I did question some parts as well. If you don’t mind me thinking out loud…. I wanted to gently challenge some of these thoughts.

    “But evangelical fascination with Jewish culture continues. There’s something almost fetish-like about it….”

    This is sort of baffled me as to why you would be fascinated (or perhaps annoyed?) with their fascination. The real question should be, why wouldn’t gentiles believers – who genuinely love God – not indeed have a ‘fascination’ with Jewish people / culture. The entire Bible is filled with references to God being called the “God of Israel.” God’s relationship with Israel (Jewish people) fills the message from start to finish. So in a parallel thought, if a family member I loved (like my daughter) was a figure skater, why would it fascinate anyone that I had a fascination with figure skating?

    Actually, it is precisely because of this historical lack of “fascination” in the churches 2,000 year history that many of our Jewish people have been persecuted and maimed. So rather than bemoan this “fetish like’ fascination, many MJ’s celebrated it and welcome it.

    “I’m not sure what it is that I’m doing to attract these incidents, but they continue to happen….”

    Again – to think out loud…. why would you believe that it was your actions which were responsible for attracting people and not see that it was due to their love for God and His label as the “God of Israel” that was attracting them. You genuinely sound very humble. I appreciate that. So I am a bit confused as to how you could believe that your yourself were “attracting” people rather than understanding it was who God who calls Himself “the God of Israel” that was attracting people. Sort of like why a person who was the child of Elvis would constantly be “not sure why” people seek them out. Surely this is rather curious to me with someone as articulate as you. Yes, I understand your frustration, but maybe not confusing this with something that you are “doing” as you (nor I for that matter) warrant anything special about our lives to make us be so attractive to millions. It is He they seek.

    And lastly, I must say I was the one fascinated by your statement… “But I’m simply not interested in seeking converts like notches in a belt, and manipulating Hebrew texts to do it.”….

    Again, as a MJ for 30+ years, I hope you know that we are not looking for “notches” on our belt in seeking to win people to the Lord. I will refrain from mentioning the numerous requests God makes of His people to tell others to turn from bad ways. (The Hebrew prophets are filed with this message). So our motivation is love, not notches.

    Nor do we “manipulate” Hebrew texts. Here I must say that I go beyond the fascinated phase to a bit of the outrage stage. Why? Because this accusation is so constantly ringing in my ears from the Jewish community, it is completely disheartening to hear it from someone in the family. Dr. Michael Brown has a great five volume set called “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus” that puts to rest many of these false claims against MJ’s of manipulating Hebrew texts with excellent scholarship. So, whenever I hear this accusation of “manipulating” – it falls into the same category that I feel “flat earthers” fall into. Sincere, but ignorant in this particular area.

    OK – with all that being said, I hope you know that I am sincerely pulling for you. I rejoice in that you have found the Messiah. And I desire only good things for MJ’s and for those who choose a different “label” but follow the same Messiah of Israel.

    In His Shalom,
    Doug
    http://www.rockofisrael.org

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beth Caplin says:

      Hi Doug,
      Regarding your first point, I’m not obligated to tolerate behavior that puts me on the spot and makes me feel objectified, which is quite different than admiring someone’s ability to ice skate. It’s like telling a woman to take cat-calling, or other offensive behavior, as a compliment because she’s pretty.

      There’s a difference, I think, between actively converting people and sharing your faith. I’m quite active in the latter. If someone converts as a result of reading my story, that’s great, but it’s on God to make that happen – not me.

      Finally, I’m not unfamiliar with the tenets of Messianic Judaism, and I think in many cases they have taken liberties with translating Hebrew texts (of course, they are far from the only Christian group to do this). My concern is when Christians go out of their way to instruct Jews on how to properly read their own text. What’s wrong with accepting that there is a Christian lens and a Jewish lens with which to read the Bible? Historically speaking, that’s exactly what happened.

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      • profjmrood says:

        When I was at the University of Chicago doing my dissertation in Islamic history, I was a very alienated Conservative Jew. I spent a year at Hebrew University as an undergrad and when some students from InterVarsity invited me to a debat on the origins of the universe I was intrigued. I went and then ws invited to attend a Jews for a Jesus Bible Study. I didn’t like the for Jesus part but I was desperate. I’d done advanced Hebrew and Arabic for years, and I went loaded for bear, ready to fight with them. But I was astounded to see that their translations were more close to the Biblical Hebrew than the JPS translation I’d used for years. I had noticed the Masoretic text was different, and that the liturgy was also not translated directly in the siddurim I’d used. So I found that they were reading the text very accurately. Note that J4J is Protestant, not “Messianic.” I agree with you that many Messianic Congregations Don’t do Hebrew well, which bugged me. But some do a great job. If the leaders are seminary trained or at least went to a Bible College the scriptures are generally reliably translated.

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    • profjmrood says:

      Dear Sarabeth,
      Richard Harvey shared your piece on Facebook, where I read it. I enjoyed your reflection and agree with you. I prefer Jewish Christian though, because I teach at an evangelical university convulsed by identity issues. Since ethnically I’m Jewish, I’ve been pushing against the idea that Jews are white. I have been privileged to be an American, free to follow my conscience and experience religious freedom. I also write about Jewish-Arab subjects and engage as Jewish Christian with Israelis and Palestinians, Muslim and Christian.
      In writing about Jewish Christianity over the centuries, I have been using the term “Messianic Movement” especially in Israel and the United States because it captures my belief that is the Holy Spirit that has stimulated the reception of the gospel among Israeli and Jewish people since the Holocaust. I have been strengthened in this by the work of Lamin Sanneh, who writes about the Christianity as a movement and force in world history.

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      • Beth Caplin says:

        I’ve jokingly described myself as “Jew-ish” (even used it in the title of my second memoir). If Judaism is also defined as an ethnicity, “Jewish Christian” would be appropriate – I just don’t use it personally because it’s heavily stigmatized (reminiscent of the eras of forced conversions, etc etc).

        Liked by 1 person

        • profjmrood says:

          I also had Protestant black sheep in our extended family so I feel like I’m standing in solidarity with those who were branded as apostates. I’m always for the underdogs! Have you read Avi Snyder’s book “Jews Don’t Need Jesus: And Other Misconeptions?” I highly recommend it! And I’ve got a chapter in Mae Cannon’s anthology “A Land Full of God” entitled “I Am Jewish!” Cascade 2017. I hope we meet one day. I’m on FB if you want to friend me. Judith Mendelsohn Rood.

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  2. Sam Rood says:

    Hi Beth, I wanted to thank you for writing. I identify as an evangelical Christian as well as a Messianic Jew recognizing that both terms are fraught. In the end our story is much more illuminating than any label we can claim for ourselves. (My mom was raised in the Conservative movement before embracing faith in Jesus, I was brought up in Messianic congregations and evangelical churches). The “fetish-like fascination” as well as the triumphalism toward Judaism are very real in these communities, and I can understand how identifying yourself as a “Messianic Jew” would therefore not appeal to you. However, I hope that as believers in Jesus who care so much about our Jewish heritage and people, we can remember that there is far more that unites us then divides us. Getting notches in the belt through conversions isn’t the point of Jewish evangelism: it’s finding Jewish people like you who wanted a relationship with God and helping them discover how that’s possible through Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hannah out loud says:

    Hi Beth,

    Interesting read as ever and I trust things are better for you at present .

    I did try the church of England ( that is Episcopalian or Anglican) and even considered converting to it, but for various reasons I did not. I personally can’t cope with the general dogmatism that I see in Christianity or the answer for everything thing which I perceive from speaking to Christians in their apologetics (i mean the conservative ones) when it comes to creation and the sciences (being an astrophysicist by education).

    My issue with messianic Judaism is , firstly, that it was founded by and is now supported Christians to convert Jews to Christianity by appropriating Jewish culture, parts of Jewish ritual or Torah observance and melding it onto Christianity. This is because I suspect that many Jews simply wouldn’t be interested if the proselytizing was of the ordinary Christian variety.

    Secondly I cannot see precisely how messianic Jews are able to reconcile Torah observance with Paul of Tarsus who tells people that observing Torah is a dead end and worshipping Jesus is what counts . I also think of the cherry picking and the division of Torah into moral and ceremonial to wit Peter’s vision in which suddenly kosher observance is got rid of , so is circumcision, but other bits are cherry picked and still inform Christianity today (e.g. death penalty, sexual morals etc etc)

    But anyways. On conversion to another faith or community.

    I sort of understand the issues around moving from one community to another , in so much as my brother in law converted to Judaism from Christianity and that wasn’t easy. Although I feel more comfortable with conversation in Judaism in that it is more structured & lengthy, so you get support and know what you’re getting into, the holidays and Shabbat, Hebrew, living in a Jewish household. Plus in my bro in law’s case being circumcised.

    Anyway take care and all the best.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Hi Hannah,
      Good point on Paul, re: Torah law. That’s ultimately what lead me to accept that Christianity and Judaism are separate, independent religions – although I do think adherents of both religions will always fall into the habit of cherry-picking, whether they admit it or not!

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      • hannah out loud says:

        Hi Beth

        I agree we all cherry pick . For example my own family has our “mesorah” (the transmission of Jewish tradition from one generation to the next). Now for me this was the tradition of Sephardi / Mesopotamian (Iraq as it is now called) Jewry as I was raised by my grandparents .

        These traditions are very different to that of my Ashkenazi partner, who has bagels , cholent , candles for Shabbat and Yiddish. I have kubba, tbeet , an oil lamp for Shabbat and Juedo Arabic. That’s before we interpret Torah.

        I do like the Yiddish way of reply to these matters , which goes like “Fun a kasha shtorbt man nischt”. “You don’t die from a contradiction” 😉

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  4. Woebegone but Hopeful says:

    Your account was most interesting Beth. Thank you for opening my eyes to your personal journey.
    There does seem to be a degree of effort put into to trying to unsettle folk who have found their own spiritual space.
    My experiences in Life suggest if a person subscribes to Compassion, Respect and Tolerance then it’s not up to me ‘advise’ them that apparently they can do better if they worship as I do.
    All the very best wishes to you in your journey.
    Roger

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Douglas May says:

    Wow Sarahbeth – so powerful! I can confirm so much of what you say as a Jewish man who taught in a messianic congregation for many years as an elder. The one difference is that after leaving the congregation to “become a more authentic Christian” in my mind, I rediscovered wonderful meaning in the Reform Jewish faith of my youth.  There is so much there that I had no idea of in my many years of consecration, bar mitzvah and conformation. I still do turn to Jesus in prayer but there is too much of the New Testament that I reject to call myself a Christian.  But so much less would I identify as a “messianic Jew”.  Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  6. richardsh says:

    Thanks, Sarahbeth – again, you’re never boring – do see the fb chat about your post on my homepage – best regards, Richard Harvey (author, “Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach”)

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  7. bobcabkings says:

    Just yesterday, one of my blog-friends was writing about a conversation in which someone told her that she could not both believe in Jesus and call herself “spiritual”, that the two were mutually exclusive. There didn’t seem to be any clear reason for that other than that person’s rigid categories. I don’t mind someone trying to explain to me their beliefs and theology (or lack of it), but my rather eclectic ways of thinking about such things are my own and I don’t feel any need to be “saved” from them, and attempts to do that, or fit me into some pigeonhole of their imagining, tend to irritate me. Anyway, I think your own evolution to your relationship with divinity may not fit some people’s categories and ambitions, but it has got you to what appears a good place for you and that doesn’t need a label other than what you may give it.

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  8. Jeff Cann says:

    This is fantastically written. As someone who grew up christian and later decided it meant nothing to me, I think I well understand your ability to walk away from Judaism and find some thing that works for you. I also very much respect your desire not to convert others. When Christians try to convert me, I find it insulting. They act like I’m not deep enough to have ever thought about being a Christian. When in truth, I think about it all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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