Are 'Messianic Jews' Jews?

If you really want to be Jews, stop deceiving yourselves and seriously consider returning to the Jewish fold

An illustration by Pepe Fainberg of Messainic Jews (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
An illustration by Pepe Fainberg of Messainic Jews
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
So-called “Messianic Jews” including “Jews for Jesus” have recently become quite vocal, writing letters to newspapers and appearing in public demanding that the State of Israel recognize them as Jews and grant them all the rights that Jews receive here, including especially automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Does this upsurge have anything to do with the way in which Israel has recently aligned itself so closely with Christian evangelical groups such as the “Friends of Zion” and the American evangelicals who played an important role in the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem and were therefore so prominent in the ceremony celebrating that event? Perhaps, but I am not certain since the last thing these “Messianic Jews” want is to be called Christians. Unfortunately for them, according to Jewish Law “Messianic Jews” are actually Christians no matter what they say although they have an entirely different status in Jewish Law from born Christians: they are apostate Jews who have become Christians through adopting a belief in Jesus as the messiah (Christ) and a god.
There is a difference between a born Christian and a Jew who adopts Christianity. At least since the Middle Ages most Jewish authorities have adopted a positive attitude toward both Christians and Muslims. In the terminology created by the Meiri, the great scholar of Provence, (Menahem ben Solomon, 1249-1316), they are "nations governed by religion." Unlike paganism, their religion was recognized as genuine and legitimate (Bet haBehirah to Bava Kamma 37b). In the words of Louis Jacobs, "To all intents and purposes Meiri has created a third category, unknown in the earlier sources, between Jews and pagans. For Meiri, Christians were certainly not Jews, but they were not pagans either" (Judaism and Theology, Louis Jacobs, London 2005, page 105).
As was pointed out in a Responsa on the question that I wrote together with Rabbi Kassel Abelson for the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 2012, Jewish Law makes a distinction between non-Jews who are Christians and born Jews who accept Christianity. Having left Judaism, the latter are Christians who are also apostate Jews. As such Jewish Law cannot grant them the privileges of Jews such as synagogue membership, aliyot to the Torah and Jewish burial. However if they return to Judaism they will be welcomed back. Unlike born Christians, a Jew who has converted to Judaism has demonstrated a negative attitude, not to say contempt, for Judaism.  Judaism recognizes and honors Christians and Christianity and does not seek to convert Christians to Judaism. At the same time, it expects Christianity to respect Judaism and not to seek to convert Jews. Unfortunately Messianic sects do exactly that while contending that they do not.
The contention of these messianic groups is that just as there are groups within Judaism that have differences of belief yet are still Jews, so too they have a difference – namely that they believe that a first century Jewish preacher from the Galilee known in English as Jesus was actually the Messiah. Unfortunately for them, although there may indeed be a wide latitude of belief within Judaism, there are also red lines that once crossed indicate that one has left Judaism and joined another religion. . 'Messianic Jewish' sects, by their belief in Jesus as Messiah, as one of a trinity, as "the son of God," and as the one who leads to salvation, have crossed the red line and have become a Christian sect in everything but name. As such, members of any such group are apostates as surely as are Jews who have openly converted to Christianity or to any other religion but do not pretend that they are still Jews.
It is true that Judaism teaches that one who is born a Jew somehow remains a Jew even when joining another religion, but that is a technical matter, the main consequence of which is that unlike someone not born a Jew, such a person can return to Judaism when renouncing his error without having to undergo a complete conversion. It also means, however, that his/her status is that he/she is now not simply a Jew but “an apostate Jew” and an apostate Jew has lost all rights within Judaism. For all intents and purposes he/she has left Judaism and joined another religion – which entails loosing Jewish status. Our hope for such a persons is that he/she will come to realize the error of what has been done and will return to Judaism.
For the purpose of the Law of Return, the State of Israel recognizes as Jews those born to a Jewish mother or those who have converted to Judaism, but it explicitly excludes those who have converted to another religion. This has been upheld by the courts as well. Messianic Jews contend that they are not members of another religion, but they are. Believers that Jesus was the messiah – i.e. Christ (for that is the meaning of the word) are indeed Christians. And Christians who are dedicated to persuading other Jews to become Christians as well. Calling themselves Jews will not erase the fact that they have actually joined another religion and therefore are not entitled under Israeli civil law to the privileges usually granted to Jews.
It must be remembered that the very origin of these groups is in the missionary activity of Christianity. The first and most well-known of them, ‘Jews for Jesus,’ was a new organization, created in the 1970’s sponsored by Protestant missionaries. Other groups, calling themselves 'Messianic Jews,' followed. 
'Jews for Jesus,' the largest of these groups, is a conservative evangelical organization that focuses on the conversion of Jews to Christianity without using that term. Its members are encouraged to consider themselves to be Jews, 'completed Jews.'  Some members are born Jews who at some point 'accepted Jesus as their Lord,' thereby, they believe, completing the process of being a Jew. Others are Christians who were not born Jewish but call themselves Jews because they are followers of a Jew, Jesus. In some instances Christians have actually falsely converted to Judaism in order to become 'Messianic Jews,' hiding from the rabbinic court the truth about their so-called desire to convert. Such conversions obtained through falsehood are obviously not valid.
In essence 'Jews for Jesus,' is a sophisticated attempt at converting Jews to Christianity, a kind of wolf in sheep's clothing, since its selling point is that one does not have to stop being a Jew in order to accept basic Christian belief. Thus one may continue to call oneself a Jew and justify one's new Christian belief by saying (incorrectly) that this is what Judaism has always taught. One continues to attend services on Saturday in a place called a synagogue, observes Jewish holidays in one form or another, circumcise males and listen to sermons from leaders who call themselves "rabbis." This idea was originally promulgated by Martin Rosen in 1973. Rosen was born a Jew but converted to Christianity and became a Baptist minister. He led a mission to convert other Jews, but when he found that they were not responsive, he came up with the idea that the impediment to Jews accepting Jesus was their reluctance to give up their identity as Jews and become "Christians." Jews for Jesus was his new tactic for converting Jews and it has proven itself a successful if limited one. With a budget of $24,000,000 a year, a staff of 150 in America, 9 branches have been established there as well as branches in many other countries, including Israel where they have been established since the 1980's with headquarters in Tel Aviv and branches throughout the country. They have a sophisticated website, publications in English, Hebrew and other languages, street evangelists, festivals, outreach to Russians in Israel etc.  Unfortunately many Russian immigrants who lack any knowledge of Judaism and are also have a difficult time acclimating to Jewish life in Israel are easily misled by a group that reaches out to them and offers them a warm embrace as well as assistance in settling in.
In our 2013 Responsa clarifying the status of these ‘messianic Jews,’ the Rabbinical Assembly ruled:
If a 'Messianic Jew' has a change of heart and wishes to return to Judaism, he/she should meet with the local Rabbi, and indicate his/her desire to return to Judaism. The Rabbi will determine his/her sincerity and decide what if any period of study, is required. Upon successful completion of that course the individual should appear before a Bet Din. There should be immersion in the Mikveh, a symbolic cleansing of the years of apostasy, brit milah or hatafat dam brit  if necessary, followed by a ceremony of welcome into the Jewish community. 
In view of the fact that in certain matters of personal status many (such as Rashi) have indicated that once a Jew always a Jew, we may consider children of a mother who was born a Jew to have the same status as the mother – i.e. apostate Jews – meshumadim. This status will continue to be passed down through females so that descendants through the female line would be considered apostate Jews and therefore all of the decisions in this teshuvah would apply to them including the method of returning to Judaism.
In view of that, I would like to urge any such people who have joined these so-called messianic groups and read this article to think again. If you really want to be Jews, stop deceiving yourselves and seriously consider returning to the Jewish fold. Perhaps you have been told that only through belief in Jesus can you achieve salvation, but salvation from what? Original sin? Judaism knows no such concept. We are not born in sin and therefore have no need for that kind of ‘salvation.’ We err, everyone does, but Judaism provides a way of earning forgiveness. It is called ‘teshuva’ – repentance – and can be accomplished without supernatural help. No one had to die in order for us to be forgiven for whatever sins we have committed. As a born Jew you need not look outside of Judaism to find the answers to your questions and to know how to live. Great teachers like Hillel and Akiva offer you all way to a good life. You do not need to follow false messiahs for that. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “If you would return – return to Me says the Lord!” Any one of our rabbis will be happy to meet with you and help you to be accepted back. It is never too late.