Right after Israel’s First Gulf War in 1991 our family moved to California for a brief season. Our two oldest kids attended a mostly Black Lutheran primary school in Long Beach. Our sons would bring home Bible-themed drawings from school that they had made. I immediately noticed that the Jesus they drew was Black.
That experience was instructive for me. Every ethnic group develops ways of looking at the Scriptures (and traditions of interpretation and expectation) that may not always exactly reflect Bible days or Bible ways. The blond Jesus on the stained glass windows of the school’s chapel was not an accurate representation of Yeshua’s Middle Eastern context, just as much as the Black Jesus of my kid’s crayon drawings.
So let’s ask the following questions: can we recover a true picture of the Jewish Messiah? Do our eschatological hopes accurately reflect the vision of the Scriptures and the prophetic promises made to the Patriarchs?
Messiah looks like my great-grandfather
My father Zvi Hirsh was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Orthodox Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents from Poland. He was his parents’ second son, the first one born in America. My grandfather Yoisef Arieh Efroyim had been an ‘ilui’ in Łódź, one who had been blessed with greater mental and intellectual capabilities than the average Torah scholar.
But in America his fate was to slave over a sewing machine in a Lower West Side sweat shop. Talmudic visions got blurry in the New York rain.
By the time I was born, my grandfather’s Yiddish world was passing off the scene. Less than a handful of his grandchildren could speak Yiddish, and only one or two remained Orthodox. Long white beards were no longer in vogue, and synagogue attendance became (maybe) a twice a year ritual. After I became a believer in Yeshua, a deep hunger rose within me to re-immerse myself in the Yiddish world of which I had once been a part. I started playing klezmer music again, reconnected with acting in Yiddish theater, studying Yiddish literature and history, and reading the Tenach (the Hebrew Scriptures) in Hebrew and Yiddish. Some of my big questions were, “How is a Messianic Jew to live with passion in this world? Should I adopt an Orthodox lifestyle? And where should I live – in North America or Israel?”
A vanished world
My fellow Messianic Jews were all asking the same questions. How could we reconnect with what had become for us ‘a vanished world?’ Roman Vishniac’s striking photographs of pre-Holocaust Poland conjured up memories of ancestors we had lost touch with. Would our renascent Messianic Jewish identity look something like these forgotten echoes of a destroyed world?
In the social ferment of the late 1960’s, a hippie ‘Bible’ – a guide to all things ‘hip, cool and spiritual’ – came out called the Whole Earth Catalog.
Within a few years, Jewish hippies released a Hebrew-friendly cousin called The First Jewish Catalog. Some Jewish hippies were on a mission to discover the Jewish roots of their identity. And their spiritual trek would carry them across the world from Newport Beach to Nepal looking for answers.
An Orthodox Jewish folk-rock group Megama was involved in ‘kosher outreach’ to searching Jewish youth. Their most popular song was called ‘My Zadie’, a lament for lost grandfathers and vanished traditional lifestyles, and a challenge to step up to the plate and be counted in this generation.
From secular to super-traditional Jew in a New York minute!
Most American Jews in the 1960’s and 1970’s were either secular or only faintly traditional. The Swinging Sixties trumpeted secularism, and most hippies and searchers were decidedly not followers of traditional Judaism. Those who came to faith in Messiah Yeshua slowly stumbled into the realization that the roots of our Messianic faith were genuinely Jewish. As we groped around in the slowly dispersing fog, hoping to touch something Jewish, we heard voices from some in the Orthodox Jewish community trying to draw us into their traditional world. They explained to us that the only reason we believed in Yeshua was because we knew nothing about real Judaism. Our deliverance, they opined, would come when we immersed ourselves in Talmudic study and in a rigorous Orthodox lifestyle. Anything less was not really Jewish, they declared.
This pull and push dynamic raised the painful topic of rejection for Messianic Jews – something which Jewish people have struggled with throughout our long history. Rejected by the nations, by the Church, by Islam, by Western secularism, by Communism, and by PC ‘cancel culture’ – we Jews actually know a fair amount about being rejected. To now be faced with rejection from our beloved Jewish community – that was a hard one. For some of us it took the air right out of our sails.
Some rising leaders in the burgeoning Messianic movement began to advocate for a Messianic Jewish expression resembling the bearded glory of our great-grandparents’ lifestyles. David Rausch ‘puffed’ the option of an Orthodox Messianic lifestyle and theology in his ‘Messianic Judaism: Its History, Theology and Polity’ (1982). Dan Juster, John Fisher and David Stern also championed a Mosaic ‘Torah-positive’ theology and practice in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Others like Mark Kinzer and Stuart Dauermann added their unique perspectives in advocating similar positions. The First Fruits of Zion ministry stressed Mosaic Torah observance for Jewish believers, and in times past even for some Gentile believers as well.
The overwhelming majority of these dear Jewish brothers grew up secular, not actively involved in the Jewish community, and certainly not speaking Yiddish or Hebrew. Today one could easily mistake some of them for Orthodox Jews. At present the vast majority of those attending Messianic congregations are not Jewish, yet some of these at first glance look like Orthodox Jews. It seems as if some in our movement have come full circle and look like our great-grandparents once again.
Messianic Torah from Zion
Most of our great-grandparents were followers of rabbinic Judaism. Every Shabbat they would go to synagogue (shul) and sing the words of Isaiah 2:3 “Ki miTziyon tetzeh Torah, u’devar YHVH mirushalayim! For the teaching will come out from Zion, and the word of YHVH from Jerusalem!” I sang this song every time I went to synagogue. It is the emotional high point of the service, looking forward to Messianic days when the God of Israel will reign in Jerusalem over the entire planet.
When Orthodox Jews sing this verse, they envision a day when the Mosaic teaching (torah literally means teaching in Hebrew, though it usually is used to refer to the Mosaic covenant) will proceed from Jerusalem and be obeyed by all Jews and all Gentiles as well. But the prophet Jeremiah envisioned something a little bit different when he prophesied about Messianic days to come:
- Behold, days are coming, declares YHVH, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah – not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, declares YHVH. But this is the covenant which I will make with the House of Israel after those days, declares YHVH, I will put My teaching (torah) within them and on their heart I will write it. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know YHVH,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, declares YHVH, for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Jeremiah clearly prophesies that when the New Covenant comes to fruition, this New Covenant will “not be like the covenant … of Egypt” – not like the Mosaic covenant. When Messiah Yeshua sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem, the religious matrix will be neither rabbinic nor Mosaic, but instead it will be a New Covenant framework.
Isaiah shed more light on those days:
- And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the Mountain of YHVH, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For the teaching (torah) will go forth from Zion and the word of YHVH from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples (Isaiah 2:3-4)
Messiah Yeshua Himself will be teaching. He will be judging. He will be rendering international decisions for the nations. And He will be the mediator of a more excellent ministry, a better covenant built on better promises (Hebrews 8:6) – the New Covenant (Hebrews 12:24) of which He is the guarantor (Hebrews 7:22). The New Covenant can also be called the New Torah or the New Teaching. We have much to learn about this covenant, but we know for sure based on the more certain prophetic word (2 Peter 1:19) that Yeshua will be teaching us – our Judge, our Lawgiver, our King and our Savior (Isaiah 33:22; see also verses 17-24 which describe the beauty of that canal-filled New Covenant Jerusalem).
Isaiah 33:17, 21 tells us that “your eyes will see the King in His beauty . . . There the majestic One, YHVH, will be for us!”
Our Yiddish Messiah
Years ago, the words ‘Yiddish’ and ‘Jewish’ were interchangeable. My mother Esther of blessed memory would say “I speak Jewish” meaning that she spoke Yiddish. ‘An emeser Yid’ technically mean ‘truly a Jew’ in the Yiddish language, but it has the sense of meaning ‘a worthy or upright man.’ Paul in Romans 2:29 uses a similar figure of speech when he talks about the ideal type of Jewish person that YHVH is looking forward – not only physically circumcised, but also spiritually, one who lives to give glory and worship to the God of Jacob.
Whether or not Yeshua will speak Yiddish (and why not? I also speak Yiddish!), He will be the best Jew who ever lived, the best Son of Adam who ever walked this earth (see the flow of thought in Romans 5-8). And He will be the ultimate “Israelite in Whom there is no guile” (see John 1:47).
Will Yeshua have a long white beard? John the Revelator tells us that “His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14). Let us look forward to seeing His face on that day! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known!” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
How should we then pray?
- Pray for believers to receive divine understanding about the glories of this New Covenant season
- Pray for Jewish believers to receive revelation and security in the gifts and calling YHVH has given us
- Pray for the raising up of the Ezekiel 37 prophetic army among the Jewish people
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
Donations can be sent to:
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