Strange Bedfellows, Episode 4: Have Torah, Will Travel

(Be sure to read the earlier episodes before you get to this one: The Black Bapticostal Bishop, Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis, and Have Shofar, Will Travel. )

Back in the 1800s in the US, a number of Christian organizations attempted active evangelism efforts to convert Jews, and to pull together Jewish people who had accepted Jesus Christ as savior into congregations for fellowship and worship. Depending on the theology of the group doing the pulling, these congregations may have been identical to the average non-Jewish churches—meeting on Sundays, observing Christmas and Easter rather than biblical holydays such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and ignoring concern about such matters as eating pork. Or, on the other hand, they may have primarily maintained their Jewish customs and traditions, including meeting on the seventh day Sabbath, avoiding pork and shellfish, celebrating the standard Jewish holydays… and just added belief in Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

Historical records indicate some success for a few of these movements at least for a time during the 19th century. But by the early 20th century there was a very small presence of such congregations in the country.

One of the main groups involved in such evangelism was the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America.

In the 1890s, immigrant Jews who converted to Christianity established the “Hope of Israel” mission on New York’s Lower East Side while retaining Jewish rites and customs.In 1895, Hope of Israel’s Our Hope magazine carried the subtitle “A Monthly Devoted to the Study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism.” Hope of Israel was controversial: other missionary groups accused its members of being Judaizers, and one of the two editors of Our Hope magazine, Arno C. Gaebelein, eventually repudiated his views, and, as a result, was able to become a leader in the mainstream Christian evangelical movement.In 1915, when the Hebrew Christian Alliance of American (HCAA) was founded, it “consistently assuaged the fears of fundamentalist Christians by emphasizing that it is not a separate denomination but only an evangelistic arm of the evangelical church”, and insisted that it would be free of these Judaizing practices “now and forever”.

The HCAA changed its name to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America in 1975. And it seemed to have strayed from being totally free of what had earlier been labeled “Judaizing practices,” as by the 1970s many affiliated congregations were openly retaining their Jewish customs. The MJAA website makes it clear that this is totally acceptable these days:

Should Jews really attempt to assimilate into churches and forego their Jewish identity when they choose to put their faith in the Jewish Messiah? Messianic Judaism answers, “No!”

As Yeshua Himself embraced His Jewishness, Messianic Jews seek to embrace theirs, by meeting in congregational communities with other Jewish believers and by maintaining a Biblically Jewish expression of their faith. Every congregation is different, but this expression often means worshiping in Hebrew, following Mosaic Law, dancing as King David did before the Lord, and keeping Biblical holidays such as Pesach, Sukkot, or Shavuot.

Also important is Messianic Judaism’s ministry to both the Jewish community and the Christian body of believers. Messianic Jews are part of the larger Body of Messiah throughout the world, and Messianic Jews hope to help all believers in Yeshua to better understand the Jewish roots of their faith. Finally, Yeshua declared that no-one can comes to the Father – the God of Israel – except through Him (John 14:6). Messianic Jews seek to share this way, this truth, and this life with their Jewish brothers and sisters.

The HCAA (later MJAA) was for many years the primary organized voice of Messianic Judaism in the US. In 1979 it was joined by another active, organized group, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.

The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) envisions Messianic Judaism as a movement of Jewish congregations and groups committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant. Messianic Jewish groups may also include those from non-Jewish backgrounds who have a confirmed call to participate fully in the life and destiny of the Jewish people. We are committed to embodying this definition in our constituent congregations and in our shared institutions. …

The UMJC is a family of congregations working together to initiate, strengthen, and multiply like-minded groups. For nearly 25 years, we have been instrumental in establishing congregations that honor Yeshua as Messiah and maintain the rich traditions of Jewish worship and family life, in such diverse Jewish communities as Pittsburgh, Hartford, CT, Boca Raton, FL, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. With the help of friends and supporters like you, we are continuing this effort as this grass-roots movement for Jesus as Messiah spreads among the Jewish people throughout the world.

For the purposes of this blog entry, it is useful to know what the UMJC defines as a Messianic Jewish congregation, eligible for affiliation with their organization:

…The applying congregation shall have at least 10 Messianic Jewish members* (By definition, a Messianic Jew is a Jewish person who has repented and received Messiah Yeshua as his or her own personal atonement.)

Note that these congregations are intended to primarily actually BE Messianic JEWISH. That is, made up of people who have a family background in the Jewish culture. It is true that both the MJAA and the UMJC do accept into fellowship people without such a background, non-Jews, who are attracted for whatever reason to want to become immersed in the Jewish-style worship and study found in affiliated congregations.  But the prime directive of both from their inception has been to reach out to Jewish people, bring the knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah to them, and if they accept Him as savior, bring them into the fold of a Messianic Jewish congregation. They hope to convince them that they can become a believer in Jesus the Messiah (Yeshua ha Mashiach) and yet remain truly Jewish.

But something unexpected has happened in the past couple of decades. More and more people who at one time labeled themselves as “Christian” have decided that something was missing in their worship life, and in their Bible study. And many have concluded that what was missing was an understanding and embracing of what is now commonly called the “Hebrew Roots of the Christian Faith.”

In the earliest years of this phenomenon, it would have been typical for such people to seek out Messianic Jewish congregations and rabbis to feed their interest. But once it became obvious that there was a market for such teaching and practice, a whole “cottage industry” has grown up to promote “Hebrew Roots teachings.” And a significant proportion of those offering to feed this interest are now people with no “Jewish roots” in their own lives at all. They are former Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and more who have done their own independent study into these matters and hung out a shingle claiming the title “rabbi.”

The general public, however, is usually oblivious to this distinction. If someone comes to some small town in Alabama to offer a three-day set of seminar sessions on Hebrew Roots, and calls himself Rabbi Yehuda (whose original name was Billy Bob Cracker), the local newspaper will often feature a little write-up about him, dubbing him a “Messianic Jewish Rabbi.” Such teachers seldom bother to set the record straight. Having the exotic aura of a Jewish rabbi, complete with headcovering, prayer shawl, and maybe even blue tassels hanging off his belt loops, affords him greater credibility with the crowds than admitting he is actually just Billy Bob from Biloxi, a former Baptist with a new stage name. You might say this is a bit like the pseudo-Hindu gurus we discussed in an earlier segment of this series…

Frank Jones from Brooklyn is now “god-man Adi Da,” Fred Lenz was called “Zen Master Rama,” a former New York housewife Joyce Green calls herself “Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati,” Mike Shoemaker became “Swami Chetananada” and Donald Waters became “Swami Kriyananda,” just to name a few.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with teaching about the Hebrew Roots of the Christian faith … IF by that one means explaining Jewish customs in the time of Jesus in a way that will make Jesus’ actions and teachings clearer. Or explaining the spiritual significance to Christians of the Holy Days and Feasts that were introduced by God in the Old Testament, such as Passover and Pentecost, and how they clearly point to Jesus.

Then again, one doesn’t need to be a “rabbi,” Messianic or otherwise, to teach about these biblical things. Almost any good Bible commentary will offer extensive insight into such matters. The NIV Study Bible, for instance, includes a chart clearly outlining the significance of the annual biblical Feasts and Holy Days as they relate to Jesus. The chart includes a listing of Old and New Testament scriptures related to these observances. Many reference works on “Bible times and customs” clearly cover such topics as phylacteries and Temple sacrifices and how first century Jews observed the Feast of Tabernacles.

But admitting one got one’s teachings from Today’s Handbook of Bible Times & Customs from the local Christian book store doesn’t build an audience for these pseudo-rabbinical types. It is important to keep that aura of exotic, esoteric knowledge that many naïve Christians assume “only a rabbi could know.” So to make sure they are a viewed as a cut above the rest, many of these fellows tend to, putting it politely, embellish reality a bit. Or maybe a lot more than a bit.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that not ALL speakers/teachers/writers who label their ministries “Hebrew Roots” are guilty of this sort of deception. You can see an extensive overview of this movement on my Field Guide website, that sorts out the various types of leaders and teachings in this movement. I merely suggest here … let the buyer beware.

This is particularly significant because the Hebrew Roots movement has moved from the fringes of Christianity in recent years to a spot center-stage. Particularly in Charismatic circles. Hebrew Roots teachers thrive on Jan and Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network. And around the country, charismatic pastors often invite Hebrew Roots rabbis as guest speakers in their churches. Some authors have even decided that the Hebrew Roots movement is the “Fourth Wave” of the Charismatic movement. (The first wave was the early Pentecostals, the second the “mainstreaming” of Pentecostal ideas becoming the Charismatic movement, the third was the “signs and wonders/power evangelism/modern apostles and prophets” movement.)

And thus we arrive at the focus of this blog entry about Strange Bedfellows: “Rabbi” Ralph Messer.

As with many such teachers, Rabbi Ralph isn’t very forthcoming about how he arrived at the title Rabbi. There is no question that he was not brought up Jewish—best I have been able to track down is he was a Catholic altar boy in his youth. Nor did he study in any sort of Rabbinical School, Messianic or otherwise. He says nothing about his religious background, education, or training on the website of his ministry, “Simchat Torah Beit Midrash.” (Hebrew words Ralph defines as “The Joy of God’s Teaching and Instruction/House of Study.”) The only background on the site is this: “Prior to entering the ministry full-time as a Pastor and Teacher – “Rabbi”, he was a Regional Vice President for a Fortune 500 company, specializing in Accounting, Business Administration, and Finance.”

Regional Vice President/Rabbi Ralph has become a fixture in some Charismatic/evangelical circles, where he travels around at the invitation of pastors of large church congregations to instruct their flock in the topic of Hebrew Roots. I’ve heard some of what Rabbi Ralph says at such meetings. Perhaps sometimes he shares “truth” from the Bible. But from what I’ve heard he seems to dabble a lot in sharing … nonsense, posing as truth. Particularly posing as “Jewish” truth. In so doing, he’s got himself in a lot of hot water with actual Messianic Jews, with Orthodox Jews, and even with some other Hebrew Roots teachers.

RR seems to specialize in indulging in a schtick (a Jewish term for a sort of stage gimmick) that involves bringing a Torah Scroll along with him to Christian meetings and using it as a flashy prop to punctuate his message. Sometimes he claims the scrolls were “rescued from the Holocaust” and/or that they are hundreds of years old.

A Torah Scroll is a handwritten copy in Hebrew of the first five books of the Bible, inscribed on treated animal skins (parchment) that are sewn together and rolled up and covered with a case (mantel) that is usually made of velvet. Producing such a scroll in modern times may cost from $20,000 to $40,000 and take up to a year and a half of work by a trained sofer (scribe.)

In a regular Jewish synagogue, the Torah Scroll is then placed in an “ark” at the front of the synagogue and brought out on worship occasions. Synagogues may have one or more Torah Scrolls in their ark.

At times when the Torah is brought out for reading, it is common for it to be paraded, still in its case, around the room. As it passes, those nearby will touch the case with their hands or perhaps with a prayer book or the corner of their prayer shawl, and then kiss their hand or the object, as a gesture of love and respect. The scroll is then returned to the front of the room, placed on a table, and opened. The ones doing the reading do not touch the scroll with their hands, as the skin oils would eventually deteriorate it. Instead, they use a little hand-shaped pointer called a yad (“hand”) to move across the page as they read. At the end of the reading, the open Torah is lifted and turned toward the congregation, and then rolled up, shrouded in its covering, and returned to the Ark.

I share all that to let you know that the average Jew treats Torah Scrolls with the greatest respect and care.

Rabbi Ralph has a different style, which will be examined in the next episode in this series.

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2 Responses to Strange Bedfellows, Episode 4: Have Torah, Will Travel

  1. Pingback: Currently StaRRing …

  2. Pingback: Strange Bedfellows, Episode 5: Doin’ the “Torah Wave” | Wild World of Religion: Under the Big Top

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