As 2015 winds down, it seems like it’s been an unusually full, and troubling, year. This blog focuses on 2015 events that are relevant specifically to the Jewish and Messianic Jewish community, so I’ve left out some really major general issues like global climate change, the US presidential race (even though there’s one major Jewish candidate), ISIS, Cuba, police shootings and black protests—and I still had trouble keeping my list to twelve. As I was working on it, it began to feel like the outline for a prayer list, so I’ll keep my opinions to a minimum, and simply try to show why these twelve events of 2015 are vital focal points for prayer in our community.
1. Islamist Terror Attacks in Paris
2015 began with news of a vicious Islamist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that had published numerous outrageous satires on Muhammed and Islam, along with other religions. Gunmen killed nine staff members there. A few days later other Islamist gunmen attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris with no connection to Charlie Hebdo or anti-Muslim activities—but simply because it was a place where Jews gathered. Before the year was out terrorists attacked in Paris again, killing 130.
French and other European Jews felt increasingly unsafe in their home countries, as the specter of antisemitism rose again across the continent. Emigration to Israel increased throughout the year, as Israel remained a beacon of hope amid a darkening global scene. Another note of hope was the publication of Not in God’s Name, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It’s significant that this major book on “confronting religious violence,” as the subtitle puts it, is by a Jew, an Orthodox rabbi no less. One of the ways that people write off the whole issue of God these days is by blaming religion per se for the violence all around us. Rabbi Sacks masterfully shows why that charge is absurd, and at the same time confronts the violence that is fueled by religion—and offers a compelling religious alternative.
2. Borough Park Symposium Discusses Messianic Jewish Perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
In contrast with the Paris attacks, this item was beneath the radar, but its significance for the Messianic Jewish community was substantial. In the face of growing anti-Zionism in the Evangelical world, the Symposium brought together scholars and teachers from the entire Messianic Jewish spectrum to discuss the conflict that underlies the controversies over Israel and Zionism. The Symposium also included Israeli Arab and Palestinian speakers giving their perspective on the issue. It combined a solid, biblically rooted defense of Israel as the Jewish homeland with concern for the Palestinians and for a lasting peace—a positive alternative to growing Christian anti-Zionism. Papers are available at http://www.boroughparksymposium.com/.
3. Netanyahu Addresses Congress
Not long after Borough Park, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to America to address a joint session of Congress, primarily on the dangers of the impending Iran nuclear deal (item 6). For many American Jews, Netanyahu’s visit and his resounding re-election as Prime Minister soon after created tension between their support for the Obama administration and their support for Israel, which seemed to be in open conflict with the White House. For Messianic Jews, who generally favored Netanyahu, his reelection brought the threat of a new governing coalition which would be more hardline in its approach to Messianic Jewish immigration and activities in general.
4. Historic Black Church Targeted in Racist Shooting
Amid increasing racial tensions throughout the US, a vicious attack on June 17 killed nine members of Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church gathered at a Bible study. Soon after, an unusual number of black churches were destroyed by fire, some in suspected acts of arson. A UMJC Executive Committee response touches on the significance of this tragedy for the Jewish community, and Messianic Jews in particular: “We express our solidarity in the spirit of the historic relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities that flourished in the Civil Rights era and must be renewed in each generation. In addition, as members of the body of Messiah, we are proud to stand with our African-American brothers and sisters in prayer and concern, and are prepared to act upon this solidarity as appropriate. The courage, vision, and grace in Messiah Yeshua with which they have met these challenges are a compelling testimony to the reality of their faith and the power of God’s love.”
5. Supreme Court Upholds Same-Sex Marriage
Later in June, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize and license marriages between same-sex partners. Shortly before the ruling, I wrote: “Maybe today’s normalization of homosexual behavior is not a root cause, but an effect of the secularism of our culture. The fact that the Supreme Court may not be able to come up with a reason to justify banning same-sex marriage is a symptom of our loss of a sense of virtue and of relativism gone viral. And of course it’s also a symptom, not a cause, of the erosion of biblical authority.” In addition, the ruling is significant for Messianic Jewish congregations because of concerns that it would increase pressure on them to perform and recognize same-sex marriages. As of the end of 2015, that remains to be seen.
6. US, World Powers Reach Nuclear Agreement with Iran
The agreement that Netanyahu warned about (item 3), was announced as a done deal in July. By the end of the year, it seemed to critics to be more of a victory for Iran (as Iran’s leaders claimed) than a mutually beneficial settlement. Iran tested ballistic missiles, in violation of a UN agreement, with little push-back, and the International Atomic Energy Agency closed its investigation of Iran’s past nuclear development without answering all the questions involved. The deal also threatened to further destabilize the Middle East, with Iran’s revived regional ambitions drawing Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states into conflict. On the other hand, at year’s end, according to the New York Times, “A Russian ship left Iran on Monday [12/28/15] carrying almost all of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, fulfilling a major step in the nuclear deal struck last summer and, for the first time in nearly a decade, apparently leaving Iran with too little fuel to manufacture a nuclear weapon.” Secretary of State John Kerry said that with the removal, Iran’s “breakout time” to produce a weapon had moved from two to three months to six to nine months. Sanctions are set to be lifted in January, and critics are concerned that the economic windfall will help fuel Iran’s drive for regional hegemony.
7. Matisyahu Pushes Back against BDS Pressure
In August, singer Matisyahu, who was scheduled to be part of the Rototom Sunsplash music festival in Spain, was canceled after a nearby chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement described him as a “lover of Israel” who had refused to “clarify” his political views. Matisyahu responded by saying, “My most famous song, called ‘One Day’, is known worldwide as a cry for peace and human understanding.” He went on, “The festival kept insisting that I clarify my personal views, which felt like clear pressure to agree with the BDS political agenda. Honestly it was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements.” One Spanish newspaper, El Pais, agreed, calling the cancellation “a very serious act of political and religious discrimination.” After an international outcry, Matisyahu was reinstated. It was an embarrassment for the BDS movement, and an exposure of its anti-Semitic tendencies, in a year in which BDS experienced other setbacks and some notable successes as well. Of particular concern for Messianic Jews were the participation of Christian denominations like the Presbyterian Church, USA (in 2014), and United Church of Christ, in divestment and boycotts.
8. Syrian Refugees Flood Europe
Just before Rosh Hashanah, media around the world ran a photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after he and two other members of his family drowned trying to reach the shores of Europe in an inflatable raft. Many voices in Europe and around the world called out for more compassion for the refugees. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed,” no doubt mindful of the world’s colossal failure in the Jewish refugee crisis caused by Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Religious leaders cited the biblical command to “Love the stranger because you were once strangers” (Deut. 10:19). Others, particularly in the USA, warned about Islamist infiltration of the refugee population. For Messianic Jews in the USA, concerns for security are balanced by the biblical injunction to love the stranger, and by our own history as a part of a recent immigrant community.
9. San Bernardino Terror Attack Claims a Messianic Believer
In November, a radical Islamist couple in Southern California murdered 14 people attending a Christmas party at a community center. Among the victims was Nicholas Thalasinos, a member of Shiloh Messianic Congregation in Crestline, California. Although Mr. Thalasinos had clearly stated that he wasn’t Jewish, he was identified as a “Messianic Jew” in the media, and his story was picked up by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Israeli press, including the Times of Israel, which ran a story under the heading, “Nicholas Thalasinos was not Jewish, but ‘felt he was put on this earth to follow Hashem and God’s people.’” Stories like this raised the profile of Messianic Judaism, and of Messianic Jewish support for Israel and the Jewish people, but also revealed the ambiguities within our communities regarding Jewish identity.
10. Messianic Judaism on the Radar in Israel
The video series “I Met Messiah,” produced by One for Israel in conjunction with Israel College of the Bible, gained tremendous exposure online throughout 2015. During Hanukkah, Erez Soref, President of Israel College of the Bible, announced that Israeli media giant Walla! had contacted him about producing a series of Hebrew-language interviews with Messianic Jews for their website. “We had a very good time in the studio itself, with in-depth conversations with the interviewer (a well-known Israeli anchor), and the camera crew. We have filmed a total of 5 episodes so far,” reported Dr. Soref.
One for Israel has stirred up controversy within the Messianic Jewish community over allegedly negative portrayals of Judaism and Jewish tradition. On one level this controversy reflects differences between the Israeli and diaspora Messianic communities, with the Israeli community often experiencing harsh conflict and opposition from traditional Jews, and the diaspora community more engaged with traditional Jewish thought and writings. Early in 2015, the UMJC Executive Committee met in Israel with key leaders from across the whole spectrum of Jewish Yeshua-believers in Israel, to discuss differences like this, concerns they might have with the diaspora Messianic Jewish community that we represent, and ways to cooperate in the future. These meetings broke new ground in building personal relationships with key Israeli Messianic leaders and laying a foundation to bridge the differences between us.
11. Orthodox Rabbis Call for Partnership with Christianity
Early in December, 25 prominent rabbis from Israel and abroad, later joined by another group of 25, issued a statement, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians.” The statement included a quote from 18th century Rabbi Jacob Emden: “Jesus brought a double goodness to the world. On the one hand he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically . . . and not one of our Sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. On the other hand, he removed idols from the nations.” Israeli Messianic leader David Lazarus writes, “What we are now witnessing is the undoing of 2,000 years of Jewish rejection and animosity towards Jesus, a miracle by any estimation. For the out-and-out refusal by Jews to accept Jesus is slowly, but surely, coming to an end, as growing numbers of prestigious Orthodox rabbis welcome Jesus back.” Lazarus concludes with another quote from the statement: “After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe . . . seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters.” Messianic Jews are beyond the scope of this statement, but the reassessment of Yeshua of the Gentile community formed around him can create bridges between us and the Jewish world.
12. Vatican Commission Affirms the “Continuing Jewish Covenant”
A couple of weeks after the Orthodox Jewish statement (item 10), the Roman Catholic Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews issued “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable.” This statement affirmed “God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel,” and forcefully repudiated replacement theology. It has stirred up some controversy in the Messianic Jewish world, however, renouncing “any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” and considering the possibility that Jewish people could be saved without explicit faith in Yeshua. The commission also stated, however, that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” and that all salvation comes only through Yeshua.
Earlier in 2015, Messianic Jewish theologian Rabbi Mark Kinzer had published Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015). This book explores some of the same issues as the Catholic Commission statement, but goes far beyond it in exploring the Jewish roots of Christian theology and practice. Its particular significance is that a Messianic Jewish thinker is speaking as a Jew into core issues of the largest of all Christian denominations, and gaining a real hearing. The forward to the book was written by the Cardinal of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn. Combined with the Orthodox Jewish statement, these developments in the Catholic world raise possibilities of tremendous healing between Jews and Christians, and perhaps even between Jews and Messiah Yeshua.