The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

A Tempest in the Rabbinate:
An Interview with Carol Harris-Shapiro
By David Reich

November/December 1999

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The magazine cover shows two dark-haired males, one in his 40s, the other in his teens, both wearing prayer shawls and yarmulkes and both poring over a Torah on a lectern. Open the magazine, and Jewish imagery—Kiddush cups, menorahs, Stars of David—jumps out from nearly every page. Only when you read the articles do you notice something out of character for a Jewish publication. The glowing prose about Yeshua the Moshiach (Jesus the Messiah), a.k.a. The Risen One, is the first giveaway, but the magazine also has lots to say about people and things like Rabbi Shaul (the Apostle Paul), Jochanan (the Gospel writer John), the tree of sacrifice (the cross), and the New Covenant (Testament). 

The magazine’s publishers, a national group of self-described Messianic Jews, say their religious expression, which combines Jewish symbols and nomenclature with Protestant theology, rediscovers the true path of Judaism, from which Jews have been straying since just after the time of Jesus. Mainstream Jews, on the other hand, including many rabbis and lay leaders, say the Messianic Jews aren’t Jews at all but Christian missionaries, brainwashers, traitors to the Jewish people.

In her new book Messianic Judaism (Beacon Press), Carol Harris-Shapiro, a Reconstructionist rabbi and Temple University religion professor, evaluates these competing claims by way of an ethnographic study of a Messianic Jewish congregation, one of some 200 in the United States. Harris-Shapiro is quick to say that the religion practiced by Messianic Jews “does not seem like Judaism” to her, and she doesn’t shy away from exposing the movement’s historical roots in Christian missions to the Jews. But she also criticizes her colleagues in the rabbinate for using overheated rhetoric on the subject. Last June, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform Jewish religious movement, shot back by telling a reporter for the Jewish Forward newspaper that Harris-Shapiro’s ideas are “absurd.” Lawrence Schiffman, an Orthodox Jewish professor of Judaic studies at New York University, told the Forward that Harris-Shapiro “has been sucked into the very conception the missionaries wanted to create.” The argument spread to the secular press when the academic journal Lingua Franca reported on it at some length in its September 1999 issue.

The World spoke with Carol Harris-Shapiro last September in her cement-block-walled office at Temple University. Thin and fair-complected with short, light brown hair, Harris-Shapiro sat erect in her desk chair for the full two hours of our conversation, looking poised and alert and answering our questions with forthright good humor. In the course of the discussion, she not only defended her book against its critics but used the subject of the Messianic Jews’ conservative Christian theology as an occasion to examine liberal religionists’ own theological assumptions. 

World: Describe the Christianity practiced by Messianic Jews and in particular their appropriation of Jesus.

CHS: They practice evangelical Christianity. Like evangelical Christians, they believe Jesus was both God and man, came to earth, died for our sins, was resurrected on the third day, performed the miracles, and that the New Testament is literally true. Some also hold some fundamentalist beliefs about exactly how one interprets the New Testament. Some are very interested in the millennium, in prophecy, in when or if the rapture is going to happen. Many congregations, though not all, are Pentecostal—that is, they believe in gifts of the spirit such as speaking in tongues, charismatic healing, exorcising demons, and the real presence of Satan that has to be battled. 

As for how they see Jesus, that’s interesting. Although they accept the theological doctrine that Jesus is both God and human, they don’t pray to him. They don’t feel comfortable with that. Some Messianic rabbis have even had difficulty accepting Yeshua as God and have been kicked out of the movement. 

Also, though much of the music and language in their services deals with Yeshua as moshiach, or messiah—as a sort of doorway or functionary to salvation—you don’t find much emphasis on his life or deeds. You never hear about the loaves and fishes or healing the sick or caring for little children, which I thought fascinating because liberal churches talk a lot about Jesus’ life and how it represents a model. If you hear anything about anyone’s life in Messianic Jewish congregations, it’s Hebrew Bible figures or Paul. There’s quite a bit about Paul as sort of the quintessential Messianic Jew. 

World: What’s the lure of Messianic Judaism? Do people join as a way to blend into a majority Christian nation without betraying, in their own minds, their Jewish background?

CHS: If I wanted to blend into this society as a Christian, I’d become a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a good liberal Christian. I’d celebrate Christmas, I’d celebrate Easter, I’d go to church maybe one Sunday one month. I would not, unless I lived in Texas, become an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian. I don’t think that’s a blend. 

But I do think that if one has a very strong spiritual yearning and one is looking for God to be active in the world, if one is looking for God to be a very large personality to pray to, to interact with, to be a friend, to be a support—if one wants that kind of active God without leaving Judaism, the only place to go is Hasidic Judaism. 

World:  And that’s an even worse blend.

CHS: Well, Hasidic women have to cover their heads, and if they’re married, they have to wear the long clothes. And you have to learn these languages: Hebrew, Aramaic. So, no, that isn’t blending in. It’s a lot to ask of somebody to make that transition. As a Messianic Jew, you can have that same strong, active divine presence in your life, and you don’t have to wear special clothes, and you don’t have to cover your head if you’re a woman, and you can take with you things and cultivate things that are familiar to you from your family background. 

World: What about the question of betraying that background? 

CHS: You mean whether Messianic Jews can rationalize that they are being good Jews? They do that all the time. But the vulnerability is always there because the normative Jewish community says, “You’ve got to be kidding; you’re not real Jews anymore. In fact, you’re the worst kind of betrayers.” 

World: You write that as a graduate student, you found fundamentalist Christian religious expressions much more compelling, at least as an object of study, than liberal Christianity. Why?

CHS: I was involved at the time in lots of interreligious dialogue—good-hearted liberal Christians and good-hearted liberal Jews being liberal together. And after a while, we exhausted all the possibilities of saying, “Let’s be good” and “We believe in being good to one another.” Because that was pretty much all we had to say. Either we were too frightened to get into our particularities, which is possible, or we were not invested enough in those particularities to make them a central point in the dialogue. 

World: Or could it have been that the differences were so small they weren’t worth talking about?

CHS: There’s a quasi-famous quote from a local rabbi to the effect that “we have more in common with liberal Christians than with Orthodox Jews.” So, yes, I felt like I was beginning to talk to myself. But when we finally did begin to get into some particularities, it was fascinating how quickly this veneer of getting along could peel away. Like when the land of Israel came up, and suddenly the Jews’ particularities were touched, and they began to talk about its importance to them, and the liberal Christians were sitting there, going, “What is this? Why do you care about a piece of land?” And all of a sudden, your 20 years of dialogue ended with people shouting at each other. So I think there may have been some repression for the sake of National Brotherhood Week sentimentality. 

What I’ve always liked about talking to fundamentalist Christians is that their particularity is right there on the line. You can deal with it; you can fight it; you can disagree with it; you can be revolted by it.  But because their particularity is right there, your particularity can be right there. You can go toe to toe, and you know what you’re talking about is honest. 

World: Do you know Joseph Conrad’s phrase “the fascination of the abomination”?

CHS: That’s really good. I like that. But I don’t think fundamentalist Christianity is the abomination. American Jews tend to, but like I said, I prefer to know where I stand, and if someone tells me, “You’re going to hell,” it’s like, “Okay, that’s where I stand in your eyes.”

World: Your book is a scholarly, quiet, detailed, and fair-minded study of a new religious movement, yet, as reported in the Jewish press, it’s been received as highly inflammatory by mainstream Jewish leaders. Are you surprised by the controversy you’ve stirred up?

CHS: Somewhat. I knew I was touching on a controversial subject. But part of the reaction had to do with the fact that the people quoted in the Jewish Forward article and the reporter who did the article never read the book. They just simply assumed that “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” and that I’m arguing that Jews can or should be Christian, whereas the book tries to paint not a black and white picture but one with a lot of shades of gray. I was surprised—and I don’t know if I should have been—at Jews’ need to defend the one boundary that I think American Jews have left, which is that we’re not Christian. 

World: How do you evaluate the Messianic Jews’ own argument that if Jews who follow Buddhist practices or don’t believe in God or belong to Unitarian Universalist congregations, sometimes in addition to belonging to a synagogue, qualify as Jewish, why shouldn’t Jews who believe in salvation via Yeshua?

CHS: It’s an interesting argument. Logically it’s very strong. I deal with it in my book by saying, “Look, if it’s a question of idolatry, some Buddhist Jews bow before statues of the Buddha and chant, ‘Oh, Buddha, save me.’ Now, they can say it’s part of meditation practice, but they’re doing things that, according to halakhah, or talmudic law, are problematic—perhaps as problematic as accepting Yeshua as God.”

Of course, you can draw boundaries wherever you want. The Jewish community can say, “Anyone under four foot, nine should not be a Jew.” It doesn’t have to be written in halakhah. It doesn’t even have to be logical. But if you want to be logical and consistent and to explain, for example, why a Messianic Jew can’t belong to a synagogue while your secular Jewish friend or even a gentile, a practicing Christian gentile married to a Jew, can belong to some synagogues, then you’ve got a real problem. 

World: Let me propose a different boundary. Questioning and doubt and disputation and the search for truth play an important if not central role in American Judaism—and that is rooted in Jewish scripture going back to Abraham. Meanwhile, questioning and doubt and the search for truth are right at the center of Unitarian Universalism. Buddhists, like UUs, represent themselves as a community of truth-seekers. 

By contrast with these and other liberal religions, Messianic Jews hold to virtually all the evangelical Christian articles of faith; their authoritarian teaching and religious life discourage questioning; they represent themselves as the sole possessors of the truth. 

So the line I would propose cuts between open and closed religious thought, with liberal, noncreedal religions on one side and creedal, authoritarian religions on the other.

CHS: That’s religion scholar Robert Wuthnow’s description of what’s going on in American religious life, and I think it’s in fact what is going on. But if you’re going to put Messianic Jews on that side, you have to put Hasidic Jews on that side, too. Authoritarian? I mean, if you want to know who to marry or what job to take, you write a letter to the rebbe, and the rebbe will tell you. And in terms of accepting certain creeds, Orthodox Judaism accepts Torah from Sinai that is God’s word. Now you can deal with God’s word differently, you can interpret it differently, but ultimately, that’s an article of faith.

World: But the things in those scriptures are basically ethics and rules for living. They’re not metaphysical propositions like “Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected.”

CHS: So you want to draw the line between ethics and metaphysics?

World: Yes.

CHS: OK, but then Buddhist Jews and Buddhists, who are much more interested in the ultimate nature of reality and spend a whole lot of time talking about metaphysical issues, would be on the metaphysical side of the line. 

World: So you don’t see a distinction between Buddhist speculation about metaphysics and evangelical Christian pronouncements about metaphysics?

CHS: It’s a liberal myth to think that conservative religious people, especially conservative Christians, don’t engage in speculation and interpretation. In fact, they do quite a bit, though they focus on things we liberals may not be that interested in.

World: And they do it within a very narrow framework.

CHS: Well, it may be narrow, but it may also be deep. They speculate, for instance, about the end times. Now, that doesn’t particularly fascinate me. But there’s a tremendous amount of heated debate about it among all fundamentalist Christians and a lot of Messianic Jews. There’s a tremendous amount of debate about the gifts of the spirit—how you really know that God has touched you and in what ways. A great debate that’s going on right now in one wing of Messianic Judaism involves the belief that the lost 10 tribes of Israel are actually most of the non-Jewish world. To get to that belief, they do some scientific analysis, but they also use the Bible, and they do incredible exegesis on that. 

And then liberals take a whole lot on faith, which we don’t always appreciate. If conservatives accept that people are born sinful, most liberals accept that people are born good. So much of our ethics and so many of our actions politically are based on that belief. It’s an article of faith for us.

World: In the course of the book, you repeatedly point to Messianic liturgy and practices and beliefs where you say that the very conspicuous Jewish elements—the Hebrew nomenclature, the Jewish artifacts, and so on—are a superficial overlay on essentially Christian religious content. How do you reconcile that with the conclusion that Messianic Jews’ claim to authenticity as Jews is as good as anybody else’s?

CHS: We’re living in postmodern times where form has superseded content. If you look at premodern Jewish life, what the prayers said was pretty much what they meant, so you had a congruence between content and form. 
 Starting with modern times we’ve maintained the forms but infused them with all kinds of different content. There’s a reason the Reform movement was considered heretical in the beginning. The form is there—the Sh’ma, some of the Hebrew, some of the structure of the service—but the content is all about liberalism and democracy and being nice to your neighbor, which is part of Judaism but certainly not all of it. 

And what about seders where the form is there but the content is liberation of women or Palestinians or African Americans, or the liberation of the earth? The form is the same, but the content is very different. Liberal Judaism has taken on a life of its own, so that people now think the content of Judaism was always liberalism.

World: Can you argue that the content of, let’s say, a feminist seder or a seder about the liberation of people of color has roots in Jewish tradition in a way that a seder about Yeshua might not?

CHS: When you’re drinking one of the cups of wine at the seder and referring to it as the blood of menstruation, I don’t think so. And I consider myself a feminist. These things get pretty far out. In Rabbi Art Waskow’s “Freedom Seder,” which he wrote in 1968, he calls Eldridge Cleaver shofet—that is, judge—and he refers to Thoreau, I think, as a rabbi. I mean, come on, what are you doing with the content here? You’re re-creating it. 

World: As you’ve already pointed out, Messianic Jewish theology, like all evangelical theology, culminates with the end times, the rapture, the second coming, Armageddon, and so forth. But the Messianic Jews put their own spin on the end times, assigning themselves the central role in ushering in the millennium. Is it typical of young theologies to be this self-aggrandizing?

CHS: I think so, because if you’re going to go against the religious economy as it stands, you’ve got to have something unique. The only way to get followers is to get people excited about what you’re doing. And to do that, you’ve got to offer them something special. Every religion, if it doesn’t want to die, has to market successfully. 

World: Do religious liberals, including UUs, have a better record when it comes to avoiding theological self-aggrandizement?

CHS: When comparing themselves to conservative religious groups, religious liberals may say something like “We’re on the right path, and you guys are not just mistaken, but you can be violent. So we don’t like you, and we’re going to fight you.” We can be very self-aggrandizing in saying we’re the true bearers of the religious message. 

World: But as borne by religious liberals the message, or theology, has less prescribed content than conservative theologies.

CHS: Oh, the content’s there. Again, I think it’s just taken for granted—democracy, the innate goodness of people, ideas about which we say, “Of course they’re right.” But not everyone agrees with these ideas. And there are others, too. One of them, free-thinking as a theological tenet, is implied in the question you just asked. 

Of course, the fact that I’m not ultra-Orthodox shows that I also buy into these things. But I know at the same time that they come as much from political liberalism as from religion per se.

World: Why are so many gentile-born people joining Messianic Jewish congregations? I was astonished to read that more than half the members of the movement by your count are Christian-born.

CHS: And the numbers are still growing. The congregation I studied, their biggest growth in the last five years came from this huge influx of gentile Christians. Why? Well, first of all, American Jews right now are not in a seeking mode, the way they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jewish adolescents today are interested in jobs, careers, and college. 

On the other hand, gentile Christians are interested in Messianic Judaism for several reasons. There is more and more material out there from evangelical Christian publishers on Jewish life, how to put that into your evangelical Christian world, how to build a sukkah, how to do a Passover seder. There’s more and more knowledge and more and more acceptance of Judaism. Originally, as I was saying before, interreligious dialogue meant liberal Christians and liberal Jews, and the liberal Christians were quick to say, “Oh yes, we’re very proud of our Jewish roots.” But this kind of thinking spread, and now evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, sometimes the greatest bastions of anti-Jewish feeling, are changing their ways and saying, “Our Jewish roots are tremendous and terrific.” Conversations between evangelical Christians and Messianic Jews originally consisted of evangelical Christians saying, “You’re being too Jewish,” and now it’s changed to, “Well, you could be more Jewish. We like this. This is pretty cool.” 

A lot of it comes from scholarship. Look at all the histories published in the last 40 years, all the new knowledge of first century Judaism. The Dead Sea Scrolls. It has to filter down because many evangelical Christians are quite learned. 

World: You write that the so-called Messianic gentiles have second-class status in the movement and their congregations. How do the Messianic Jews justify this when Paul says in a well-known scripture passage that “there can be neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus”?

CHS: The congregation I studied is not necessarily typical of the movement as a whole, but you’re right, within the whole movement there are subtle hints that “you’re fellow walkers with us, but you’re not really wanted.” And some evangelical Christians point to that verse and tell the Messianic Jews, “What you’re doing is wrong.” And the Messianic Jews say, “Look, it says there’s no more man and woman, but are we all one gender? No. There’s always a distinction. Just so, Jews and non-Jews have a distinction. We’re all spiritually equal before the Lord, but we still have that inborn distinction.” Which I thought was rather clever.

World: Your book treats the Messianic Jews very evenhandedly, even though they sometimes said and did things you must have found offensive. Did you grind your teeth when people prayed over you in a manner that suggested you were possessed by Satan or compared you to “a harmless microbe in the body of the Messiah” or told you that the Holocaust was God’s punishment of the Jews for not accepting Yeshua?

CHS: I’m both a rabbi and a researcher, and I brought both roles with me into the study. The researcher is always delighted by these statements. The more outrageous, the better. So the researcher is jumping up and down. Getting prayed over and told I was Satan-possessed, I thought, “This is great! I can’t believe I got this information! This really helps me understand who they are.” 

And then there’s the part of me that got angry. So I had these weird emotions constantly, somewhere between anger and complete delight. And, of course, not everything they said got me angry. Sometimes I thought what they said was very sensitive and profound. 

World: Did you end up respecting or admiring any of these people personally?

CHS: Oh, yeah. A lot of them were living incredibly productive lives, good lives, with good families. In terms of their spiritual passion, I admired some of that, too, though not all of it. Let me put it this way: I can’t imagine praying for a car repair. Maybe if I did, my car would go better. But some of them prayed for each other, which I found very moving, and they clearly cared about one another. Their spiritual life actually made them better people. I think it must be the hardest thing in the world to kick a drug or alcohol problem. And some of them had done that—not through some sort of psychological program but through faith and the support of community. 

World: You said early in the book that you went into the project hoping to learn more about yourself as a Jew and presumably as a person in the course of your encounter with “the other.” What did you learn?

CHS: My discussions with some of the Messianic Jews made me ask myself, “Where am I with the idea of faith? What are my beliefs about God?” And that was very helpful. 

I also learned to value my own religious community. When I was doing my study, I would spend one night with the Messianic Jews, the next day with my group, and the next night with the Messianic Jews, and I really learned to treasure coming home to my community. And I started thinking about how I could contribute more to that community. 

And it did something else strange. It actually inspired me to become a congregational rabbi. I got enamored with the congregational life I saw and started thinking not that I want to be an authoritarian figure like a Messianic rabbi—nor would I be saying the same things—but that congregational life can be really quite caring and supportive. And suddenly, I said, “Oh, let me just try it.” As you can see, I’ve come running back to academia. I know where my place is. But being out as a congregational rabbi for a few years was incredibly enriching. And that wouldn’t have happened had I not done the study. 

World: I’m told that Messianic Jewish congregations, in spite of their conservative theology and some of their antigay and anti-abortion-rights rhetoric, aren’t very active in conservative religious politics. Was that true of the group you studied?

CHS: The congregation I studied has been involved with things like the Washington for Jesus rallies. They vote antiabortion. But do they actively get involved? No, because they think their calling is reaching out to Jews, so that’s where they put their energy and their money and their time. But I never met so many Jewish-born Republicans under one roof in my life.

David Reich is editor of the World.

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