Mapping the Messianic Torah Movement: A Summary of My ThesisSeptember 16, 2020
I recently finalized (and made available online) my thesis for TorahResource Institute, titled “Jews, Gentiles, and Torah: Exploring the Contours of the Messianic Torah Spectrum.” This is the culmination of a research project I began in the fall of 2016 on the topic of mapping out the history and contours of the Messianic Torah movement. My project included an online survey (The Messianic Survey), interviews with various leaders across the spectrum of positions, and extensive reading of both primary and secondary sources. The project quickly ballooned to far more than I had anticipated, and life did not stop and wait for me to complete it, which accounts for the more-than-three-year gap from start to finish. Regardless, it is a topic that I feel passionate about, and I hope it will be of interest to others as well.
My interest in this topic started when I was in my early teens. Our family had recently come to the conviction that the commandments of the Torah remain relevant for followers of Yeshua (Jesus) today. We began observing a seventh-day Sabbath, avoiding the consumption of unclean animals, and celebrating the appointed times of Leviticus 23. It was a delightful, exhilarating journey. The most exciting part was connecting with other believers who were on the same journey. We devoured any Messianic teachings we could get our hands on and attended Messianic conferences and gatherings that aided our pursuit of the Hebrew roots of our faith. Being in large gatherings of like-minded believers felt like a little taste of heaven.
It was not long, however, before we began to encounter divisions and deficiencies among Messianic believers. After the initial “honeymoon period,” theological differences became more pronounced. In some cases, the dysfunction that certain Messianic believers carried with them from their past began to re-emerge. We also heard rumours of Messianic Jewish organizations that believed the Torah was just for Jews; non-Jews (like my family and I) should go back to Sunday-keeping churches. Some congregations that we knew of went through heart-rending divisions that left people wounded on both sides. Others delved into weird ideas and strange doctrines. These issues and more led many Messianic believers to a state of disillusionment, and some abandoned the movement as a result. For me, however, it sparked a desire to do my part to help make our movement a better place. I began to see that there were a lot of critical issues facing the Messianic movement, and God gave me a growing desire to address those issues somehow.
This burden eventually led me to pursue formal biblical training. In 2011, roughly a decade after my family joined the Messianic movement, I began a certificate program in Advanced Biblical and Religious Studies at TorahResource Institute. (Since then, I have been pursuing an MA in Biblical Languages at Briercrest Seminary.) As the time drew near for me to select a thesis topic for my certificate program, I initially felt that I wanted a project that would address some of these critical issues head-on. I soon began to realize, however, that a prerequisite to this was to simply understand ourselves and one another better. As Messianic believers, we are often caught up in whatever debates or hurts that loom large in our immediate context, but few of us have a birds-eye view of the movement as a whole. What is more, I began to feel that there are common misconceptions that dictate the way we view other positions on issues that divide us, and that a general lack of understanding the other side prevails. Before we can truly address the critical issues that affect Messianic believers, we have to take an honest look at ourselves.
Most of the time, when we attempt to define or describe ourselves, we do so in idealistic ways. For example, when Messianic believers try to define the Messianic movement, they typically state what they think the Messianic movement should be like. This is what Michael Satlow calls a “first-order definition” (see p. 5 of my thesis). Such a definition certainly has value and is an important component of a healthy vision. But my goal in this project was to describe the Messianic movement as it is. I wanted a “second-order” description, an external perspective. This is not always a comfortable task; a frank look in the mirror is not always what we want to see. This is especially true because such an approach involves temporarily suspending judgment while examining aspects of the Messianic movement that some (including myself) may find distasteful. Making judgment calls on critical issues can come later, but that is a secondary step to identifying and accurately describing those issues. On any given issue of disagreement, I wanted the various sides to feel understood. I wanted people within the phenomenon I was studying (including myself) to feel represented. (Whether I succeeded in this or not is up to the reader to decide.)
One of the first things I encountered in this project is the difficulty in getting a handle on the subject. Within the Messianic Torah phenomenon, there are scores of opinions about what we should call ourselves, and even more opinions about how to define each of those various labels. Some call themselves Messianic, others Hebrew Roots, others Messianic Jewish or Messianic Judaism, alongside a host of other options. A large percentage of Torah believers refuse to use any label to describe themselves. While that may be a legitimate position to adhere to personally, it makes it difficult to have a coherent conversation about ourselves. As I quickly discovered, even the term “movement” proved controversial. In the eyes of some, calling it the Messianic movement implies that it is merely a human fad and not a work of God’s Spirit (see pp. 8–11; I use the term “movement” in this post without intending any such negative connotations). This is but one example of the ways that we as humans can be extremely sensitive to terminology. This sensitivity complicates any attempt to define and describe a phenomenon such as exists among Messianic Torah believers.
Another complication is in how we ought to categorize this Messianic Torah phenomenon. Is it one large “movement” with various submovements, or is it two (or more) completely separate yet overlapping movements? This question is closely tied to the labels one uses for the various flavours of “Messianic.” Again, a host of (emotionally-charged) opinions exists among Messianic Torah believers. Even in my attempt to frame the conversation in useful terms, I was treading on sensitive ground.
I quickly realised that it was impossible to please everybody. But at the same time, I wanted to avoid using terms with too much baggage. In the end I settled on a set of labels and definitions that would give me some handles on the topic. For the purpose of my thesis, I chose to label the phenomenon under discussion as the “Messianic Torah movement.” My attempt at a second-order definition for this movement is:
The Messianic Torah movement is a modern, diverse movement or spectrum of movements of individuals and congregations that (1) believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah; (2) observe the commandments of the Torah, specifically a seventh-day sabbath, the biblical festivals, and the dietary laws of Leviticus 11; and (3) self-identify as Jewish and/or Hebraic through customs, language, and worldview.
As my fictitious portraits in chapter 1 illustrate, this definition (and the label “Messianic”) includes substantial diversity. I suggest there are two primary movements (or submovements) that comprise the Messianic Torah movement:
- The Messianic Jewish movement: the movement of Jewish believers in Yeshua toward embracing and maintaining their Jewish identity.
- The Torah movement: the movement of (primarily non-Jewish) believers in Yeshua toward Torah observance.
As I argue in my thesis, however, the dividing lines between these two movements are blurred. Given the extensive overlap between them, I argue for viewing these two as constituting a spectrum rather than discrete entities. Nonetheless, at least in theory, the distinction in trajectory between these two movements is clear, and it is precisely that distinction that accounts for much of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation that exists between the two sides.
This theme is developed further in chapter 2. The Messianic Jewish movement embraces Torah indirectly. Torah observance (or at least aspects of such observance) is not an end unto itself, but is a means of maintaining one’s Jewish identity. Torah believers, on the other hand, approach Torah directly. Keeping Torah—a seventh-day Sabbath, the biblical festivals, and the dietary laws—is simply a matter of fidelity to Scripture that has nothing to do with ethnicity. Messianic Jews who see non-Jewish believers embracing Torah often perceive it as an attempt to pretend to be Jewish. Non-Jewish Torah believers who see Messianic Jews treat Torah as a marker of Jewish identity often feel slighted or relegated to a second class of citizenship for lacking Jewish ancestry. This tension over the roles of Jews and Gentiles, I argue, constitutes the single biggest issue facing the Messianic Torah spectrum. Almost all the other issues we face are related somehow to that central and sensitive controversy. Emotions run high on both sides, with the result that many fail to truly understand the other side. The difference in motivation between the Messianic Jewish movement and the Torah movement often results in a fundamental misunderstanding of the words and actions of the other side.
This dichotomy plays out vividly in the various theologies of Torah observance attested in the movement. In chapter 3 of my thesis, I analyse five major positions (or clusters of positions) on the role of Torah in relation to Jewish and non-Jewish believers:
- Missionary Messianic Judaism: believers (especially Jewish believers) have the freedom to keep Torah if they so choose.
- Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Torah observance is a covenantal imperative for Jewish believers and represents Jewish identity markers that should be reserved for Jews alone.
- One Torah Theology: non-Jewish believers are grafted into Israel; therefore, both Jewish and non-Jewish believers have equal obligation (or freedom) to embrace Torah observance.
- Two House Theology: non-Jewish believers constitute the Lost Ten Tribes, and a significant part of Israel alongside Judah (Jews); therefore, both Jewish and non-Jewish believers have equal obligation (or freedom) to embrace Torah observance.
- Divine Invitation Theology: Jewish believers have an obligation to embrace Torah observance, while non-Jewish believers are merely invited to do so.
Of course, there are many nuances of these various positions that I cannot capture in this brief description, and so the reader is encouraged to peruse the full description in my thesis. Issues of identity are central, and each of these paradigms represents an attempt to navigate the role of Torah and the nature of the unity between Jews and non-Jews in Messiah (see chapter 4).
There are many pertinent issues my thesis does not address. While I offer a cursory history of the Messianic Jewish and Torah movements in chapter 2, the need for relating a full history remains. Not only is it important to identify the key individuals and organizations that have shaped the movement in the last four decades, but there are also numerous streams of influence from both Hebrew Christianity and Christian Sabbatarian movements that stretch back for centuries. In addition, there are numerous other critical theological issues—attitudes toward the Trinity, the deity of Yeshua, soteriology, the canon of Scripture, to name a few—that deserve to be addressed. Just as divisive are various “halakhic” issues, such as attitudes toward Jewish tradition and rabbinic authority, details of Sabbath observance, kashrut (dietary standards), calendar debates, and use of the Sacred Name. In all these issues, the influence of the Messianic Torah spectrum’s various predecessors is keenly felt, despite the fact that many in the movement are unaware of these influences. My initial overly-ambitious plan for my research project included these and other topics, but the unrealistic size of my project soon became apparent, and I was forced to excise several chapters to keep it to a reasonable length. These additional chapters remain yet to be written, although the issues they might address are also highly relevant.
In the conclusion to my thesis, I argue that the Messianic Torah movement currently sits at a crossroads. The present situation is analogous to that which prevailed in the early second century between what later became Christianity and Judaism. The parting of the ways between these two religions was a long and painful process, involving both the Christian rejection of Torah and the Jewish rejection of Yeshua. Today, the Messianic Torah movement represents the reversal of that trend, as Jewish and non-Jewish believers return to a pro-Torah expression of faith in Yeshua. I believe this movement has the potential to be both the catalyst for repairing the breach between Christianity and Judaism, as well as a microcosm of that reparation. Yet, ironically, it is at the same time recreating that schism within itself. The conflict between the Messianic Jewish movement and the Torah movement is re-enacting the parting of the ways, as the division between Jewish and non-Jewish expressions of Torah and Messianic identity grows further apart. It remains to be seen whether we will simply repeat history by continuing to fragment, or if we will somehow find a way to work together. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I hope that by understanding ourselves better we can at least begin to ask the right questions.