Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land

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Inside the small community of Christ-following Jews who've allied with American evangelicals to redeem Israel ... from its Jewishness.

RTXH6Z5-615.jpg.jpgRegis Duvignau/Reuters

Asher Intrater is playing Jewish geography with me. "Are you related to Max Posner of the delicatessen business?" he asks, referring to a long-defunct establishment in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live and where Intrater grew up and lived until he moved to Israel with his wife and four children 20 years ago. (My grandfather's name actually was Max Posner, but he didn't live in Maryland or own a delicatessen.)

"Our family was friends with his family," Intrater adds, in a moment of nostalgia for his Jewish childhood on a blazing hot July day in Yad Hashmonah, a commune about 20 minutes northwest of Jerusalem. We've just crossed a stone path outside the building where the staff of his organization, Revive Israel, has held its daily morning prayer service.

After New Testament readings, and as the band plays songs about Jesus's return, Intrater stepped across the circle of worshippers to tell me of a "miracle:" that everyone on his ministry team, save one, was an Israeli citizen. He seems to want to convince me -- not just as a reporter, but as a Jewish one -- that Messianic Jews like him represents the genuine Judaism, an authentic Israeli-ness that must be recaptured in order for Israel to be "restored." For that to happen, its wayward people must literally come to Jesus, a process he and his followers believe will lay the groundwork for the Messiah -- the one Israel, he insists, failed to recognize the first time -- to return.

Though there are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the U.S. and 350,000 worldwide, according to various counts, they are a tiny minority in Israel -- just 10,000-20,000 people by some estimates -- but growing, according to both its proponents and critics. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and that the Bible prophesizes that God's plan is for him to return to Jerusalem, prevail in an apocalyptic battle with the Antichrist, and rule the world from the Temple Mount. Unlike Jews for Jesus, which focuses on bringing Jews into churches, Messianic Jews seek to make Jews believers in Jesus while still maintaining congregations that identify as Jewish and observe Jewish customs and holidays.

While these Messianic Jews are derisive of Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism (particularly what they call its "legalism"), they pick and choose some of the practices of traditional Judaism, such as weekly Torah readings -- although they add New Testament verses to it.

They import to Israel many of the worship practices and the political agenda of the American Christian right. They are tightly knit with an American-born global revival movement that holds that modern-day prophets and apostles receive direct revelations from God, forming an elite army of prayer warriors on a mission to carry out God's plans to purify Christianity, "restore" Israel, and bring the Messiah back. Following their American example, they have brought with them the religious right's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and Islam.

The haredi opposition to Messianic Judaism only feeds Messianic Jews' contention that they (and Christians) are being persecuted.

Most Messianic Jews who are Israeli citizens serve in the army, bitterly contrasting their devotion to Israel with ultra-Orthodox haredim who have been exempt from military service. Messianic Jews support the occupation, not because they support the nationalistic policies of the Israeli government, but because of the role of re-gathering Jews to Israel plays in their end-times scenario. "What the whole world is angry with what they call occupation," said Intrater, "we don't see it that way. We see it as being regathered, repossessing the land that is ours. We're not occupying somebody else's land, we're coming to take back the land that belongs to us." During Israel's Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza, Intrater wrote in his weekly newsletter, "we are reminded that spiritual warfare is sometimes expressed on the battlefields of this world. That warfare is likely to become increasingly intense as we progress into the end times."

At Intrater's 200-member congregation, Ahavat Yeshua (Love of Jesus) that met in a reception hall in a nondescript office building in downtown Jerusalem, most of the congregants are young couples with young children, Israelis singing and praying on Friday afternoon with a copy of the King James Bible in their hands. Jewish prayers are said, including the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, but the congregational leader adds a blessing for "Yeshua HaMoshiach" (Hebrew for Jesus the Messiah), "who is our high priest."

It's difficult to count Messianic Jewish congregations in Israel or to know how many members congregations have. Ellen Horowitz, Content and Research Director for the Israel-based group Jewish Israel, which says it is educating Israelis about the "spiritual destruction" caused by evangelizing, estimates the total between 120 and 150 congregations. They are located all over the country, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the Galilee. Some people will mention -- but will not detail -- missionaries working underground in both Israeli settlements and Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

* * *

I met two 23 year-old Messianic Jews at a café in Tel Aviv while they were attending a conference hosted by an American evangelical group. People "still think," one said, "that accepting Yeshua [Jesus] is not kosher, but I don't know what you ought to tell them, because I am a Jew, I was born a Jew, I am still a Jew. ... It doesn't make me less of a Jew. ... I believe in the God of the Tanakh [Old Testament] and of the New Testament."

Like other Messianic Jews, these two young men were reluctant to reveal their identity -- an indication of the significant controversy that surrounds the group in Israel. Proselytizing isn't illegal in Israel, except when offered with a material enticement or directed at a minor without their parents' consent. Still, there's intense social pressure against it. While Christian Zionists like megachurch pastor and Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee have pledged to Israeli leaders that they will not try to convert Jews, Messianic Jews, along with their evangelical counterparts, have made no such promises. Messianic Jews do evangelize to Jews in Israel, but it is far less aggressive and overt than their evangelizing in the United States, for example.

Their missionary efforts place them in an antagonistic position with Israel's government, and in particular the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by a member of the far-right religious Shas party. Under Israel's immigration laws, Jews who are considered to have abandoned their Judaism are not permitted to obtain citizenship, even if they otherwise qualify under the Law of Return.

Although they operate under the radar of most Israelis, Messianic Jews face intense opposition from haredi groups who portray Messianic Judaism as a cult endangering Israel's Jewish identity. They accuse Messianic Jews of preying on unsuspecting secular Israeli youth, immigrants, and others insufficiently in touch with their Judaism.

Messianic Jews frequently suggest that Jews refuse to accept Jesus as the messiah because of perceived Christian anti-Semitism, or because they don't realize that Jesus himself was a Jew. (Intrater calls Jesus "the greatest Jew in history, the greatest Israeli, the greatest rabbi that ever lived.") But Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the director of Jews for Judaism, a North American group opposed to Messianic Judaism, said the reason why Jews "denied [Jesus] was because he failed to be the messiah and his followers started saying he was God." In Judaism, said Kravitz, the messiah will be human and cannot be God or God "in a body;" to claim the messiah is divine is "idolatry."

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Sarah Posner is a senior editor at the online magazine Religion Dispatches. Her reporting on religion and politics has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Salon, The American Prospect, and other publications.

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