Boundaries Blur Between Jews and Christians in Shocking Ways

Christmas Trees Common — Even Belief in Jesus as 'Messiah'

All I Want for Christmas: Forward editor Abigail Jones grew up celebrating Christmas. The Pew survey says she’s part of an ever-growing segment of Jewish America.
courtesy of abigail jones
All I Want for Christmas: Forward editor Abigail Jones grew up celebrating Christmas. The Pew survey says she’s part of an ever-growing segment of Jewish America.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 07, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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Mixing non-Jewish practice into Jewish religious life doesn’t stop at the wedding, according to the Pew findings. Some 15% of Jews said they attended non-Jewish religious services “at least a few times” in the past year. (Only 23% of Jews said they attend Jewish religious services more than a few times a year.)

While intermarried Jews adopt Christian practice, many Christians appear to be adopting Jewish practice. Pew estimates that 1.2 million Americans have what it calls a “Jewish affinity,” meaning they identify as Jewish despite not being Jewish by religion or having a Jewish family background.

These people are deeply familiar to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises $100 million a year for charity in Israel from non-Jews.

“They see themselves… as part of the Jewish people,” Eckstein said of these Christians, many of them evangelical. “The key term for them would be ‘grafted on,’ grafted on to the rich olive tree of Israel.” The allusion is to a passage in the Book of Romans, part of the New Testament, in which Paul describes the relationship between Jews and Christian gentiles. “This is what makes them feel a part of the Jewish people and Israel without either becoming Jewish or abandoning their belief in Jesus.”

Eckstein said he predicts that within the next dozen years, there will be a recognized religious category between Judaism and Christianity of people who feel Jewish but accept Christian doctrines regarding Jesus’ status as the Messiah and the concept of the holy trinity, among other Christian ideas.

Even today, people who Pew identified as having Jewish affinity act a lot like Jews. Roughly one-quarter fasted on Yom Kippur in 2012; 23% attended a Seder. (By comparison, 53% of Jews fasted on Yom Kippur, 70% attended a Seder.)

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, isn’t enthused about these non-Jews’ self-identification as Jews. “What does this have to do with Judaism? I can’t understand that,” Wertheimer said. “If you’re going to say that this blurring of boundaries is occurring, is that really good news for a very small minority religion?”

The melding raises certain theological contradictions. Take, for example, the status of Jesus as the Messiah.

The question of whether Jesus was the Messiah was a fault line along which Jews and Christians separated roughly 1,500 years ago. A series of polemics flung between Jewish and Christian theologians over the course of the Middle Ages served to define Judaism in contradiction to an acceptance of the messiahship of Jesus.

“The theological issues are, most fundamentally, the Christian belief that Jesus was the messiah and would come back again despite the fact that he died in an unredeemed world,” said David Berger, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, of the medieval polemics. Such a belief was considered antithetical to Jewish religious thought, according to Berger, and was a key dividing line between Judaism and Christianity, along with the notion of the trinity.

Yet when Pew researchers asked Jews if believing that Jesus was the Messiah was compatible with being Jewish, 34% answered yes.


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