Rabbi Seth Gordon of Kneseth Israel in Annapolis sums up Messianic Judaism this way: It isn't.
That is, it isn't Jewish. It may be allsorts of things: An attempt to find deeper spirituality or to avoid ostracism in a predominantly Christian society, perhaps the wish to unite a troubled world by blending two major religions. But those goals don't define the movement as part of Judaism, Gordon says.
"It's just not Jewish. They can use the term Jewish. But anyone who knows Judaism knows where the absolute distinctions are."
From a theological point of view, Judaism parts company with Christianity over whether Jesus was Messiah and God. "Jesus was perhaps a teacher,but nothing more," Gordon says. "We will only have a direct relationship with God."
A second classical division comes over whether thelaw as handed down in the Torah, the five books of Moses, is binding, the rabbi says. "While Jesus himself says, 'I have not come to break the law but to fulfill it,' Paul changed the theology and said since you never can follow the law perfectly, you must only believe in Jesus."
And while Messianic Jews may claim to observe Jewish lifestyles, Gordon says, "they are not practicing Jewish practices with the intention of fulfilling Jewish precepts," so it doesn't count.
Even among the most liberal Jews, says Gordon, "these Messianic Jews or hybrids are completely rejected."
Mark Powers, director of Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary organization, has an even stronger indictment of the movement.
"They're taking Christianity, and they're dressing it up to look Jewish," he says. "It's fraudulent. Yes, they wear (traditional clothing), and yes they have a Torah. But they don't practice Judaism. They have accepted another system."
Powers stops just short of calling Messianic Jews -- whom he prefers to term Hebrew Christians -- a cult, but he says they poses a threat to Judaism as dangerous as intermarriage.
"There is something basically very anti-Semitic about saying I as a Jew am unfulfilled," he explains."(This movement) is going to have a major negative impact on the Jewish community."
Speaking at Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold Thursday night, Powers warned a group of parents and teen-agers about the evangelizing efforts of various Christian groups.
More than 300 different missionary groups spend more than $50 million to convert Jews to Christianity every year, Powers said. He classifies the Messianic movement among them, although many Messianic Jews would object to being called Christians.
What is not disputed is that the Messianic movement has grown from a handful of Hebrew Christian groups about 20 years ago to 150,000 members now in 150 Messianic congregations in the United States and about 40 groups in Israel. By the year 2,000, Powersexpects there to be half a million Messianic Jews.
Opponents of Messianic Judaism argue that maintaining a Jewish identity is what haspreserved Jewish civilization for centuries.
"If we assimilate, we're gone," Gordon says. "If we had not developed a theology that maintained our different culture, we'd have disappeared off the map years ago."
Nowadays, society is replete with attempts to mix cultures, the rabbi adds, such as a thirtysomething episode on television in which Michael and Hope, an interfaith couple, celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.
"But the notion that we're going to meld into onesociety is antithetical to a Jewish religious perspective, and even Jews who are not religious want to maintain a particular Jewish identity," Gordon says.
Jewish religious leaders say Jews are sucked into the Messianic movement for various reasons. Some Jews seek a Christian-Jewish approach because they don't want to be outsiders in a society that is 95 percent Christianized, Gordon speculates.
A secondreason is the emphasis on friendliness in Messianic congregations. Synagogue leaders could learn from the warmth of these groups, Powers says. "We need to reach out to new people, to new faces, and make them feel warm and wanted. I guarantee you that is what the Hebrew Christians do."
Another possible reason for the defections is the lack of a real Jewish education, of Jewish people who growing up are neverpresented with "an authentic Judaism", says Gordon.
"There are not many people in that (messianic) movement who really had a solid Jewish education," the rabbi says.
But Powers warns that everyone in the Jewish community -- regardless of age or background -- is susceptible.
For Powers, who says that Jews who leave the faith to join Hebrew Christian groups are endangering their souls, this is a solemn warning. Jewish people do not believe they have exclusive access to God, Powers says. "We believe everybody has access to God." But for Jews, there is just "one way of connecting with God," Powers believes.
"The essence of Judaism is the Torah, a system codified and presented by God. Acceptance of another God means you've left Judaism."
NOTE: SEE ALSO MAIN STORY (MESSIANIC JEWS TRY TO BRIDGE 2 WORLDS)