Howard rabbis protest Messianic Jews' presence Sect calls Jesus its Messiah

October 31, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

In a traditional Jewish congregation, the ark that holds the scrolls of the Torah is set in a place of honor in the synagogue.

But Emmanuel Messianic Congregation has its ark in the sanctuary of Covenant Baptist Church in Hickory Ridge, signifying the practice of a nontraditional type of Judaism that has other county Jewish leaders upset.

The Messianic group, which follows many Jewish beliefs but also worships Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) as the Messiah, moved to Columbia from Baltimore County last month.

"We help Jewish people understand the New Testament and understand the Messiah from a Jewish perspective, and we also help Christian people understand the Jewish roots of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus," said Barry Rubin of Clarksville, who leads the 40-member Emmanuel Messianic group. "In many ways we bridge gaps."

However, other county rabbis are offended by the group's beliefs and say the congregation came to Columbia to deceive and convert vulnerable Jews.

"I think that Messianic Judaism is a profound distortion of both Judaism and Christianity," said Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia. "Therefore, it represents a threat to the spiritual integrity of both communities."

He added, "We just feel they're trying to invent a religion."

Messianic members insist they are indeed Jewish. They cite the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and say they observe the Jewish holidays and the Shabbat, and follow the Torah.

More Christian than Jewish?

But critics say members of Messianic congregations, which include Jews and gentiles, are more Christian than Jewish, because they believe in the Trinity and other tenets of Christianity.

Mainstream Jews say they are still waiting for the Messiah, the expected king and deliverer of Jews, and don't believe Jesus is the Messiah. They say that Jews who accept Jesus as the savior are no longer Jewish.

The debate about Messianic Judaism is passionate and complicated, said David A. Rausch, professor of history and Judaic Studies at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, who has written several publications on the subject.

Messianic members are criticized not only by traditional Jews but by Christians who accuse them of not fully assimilating, Mr. Rausch said. "They get it from both sides," he said.

Messianic Judaism in the United States dates to the turn of the century, when the Fundamental Evangelical movement swept the country, converting many Jews, Mr. Rausch said.

Jews who had converted to Christianity but wanted to keep their Jewish identities and customs later formed their own group and called themselves "Hebrew-Christians."

Messianic Judaism gained momentum in the 1960s when young American Jews who had converted to Christianity were inspired by the Six-Day War in Israel to go back to their roots, the history professor said.

Up to 200 U.S. congregations

Today, there are between 150 and 200 Messianic congregations in the United States. Some Messianic Jewish sources count the total number of members at about 160,000 in this country, Mr. Rausch said.

Mr. Rubin, who was raised a Reform-Conservative Jew, said he believes critics will change their opinions once they understand Messianic Judaism.

"A lot of people say, 'You're either Jewish or Christian.' We are Jewish people who believe Jesus is the Messiah, call us what you want."

The Emmanuel Messianic Congregation was established in 1915 East Baltimore as the Emmanuel Neighborhood Center and later moved to Baltimore County, Mr. Rubin said. At one time, the group was called the Emmanuel Presbyterian Hebrew-Christian Congregation.

The congregation came to Columbia because it's a central location for members and potential members who live across Maryland and Washington, D.C., Mr. Rubin said. It's unclear how long they'll meet at the Baptist church.

The Baptist church's minister, The Rev. D. Walter Collett, whom Mr. Rubin met a year ago, invited the congregation to use his church for space, Mr. Rubin said.

On Sept. 15, the group held its first Rosh Hashana service at Covenant Baptist.

Ten days later it began holding regular Shabbat services.

For the move, Willard Kauffman, an Ellicott City carpenter, made the 4-foot-high cabinet-like ark, which is topped with a light fixture resembling an eternal flame.

"Jewish people historically are called 'wandering Jews,' " Mr. Rubin said. "Having a portable ark sort of enables us to move around a bit. . . . There's some good symbolism in that."

Criticism continues

The group continues to draw intense criticism from other Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Mark Panoff, a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, said he respects people's rights to religious freedom. But he believes the Messianic Jewish group operates as a Fundamentalist Christian group under the guise of Judaism to try and convert Jews.

"Jews don't accept Jesus as the Messiah," Rabbi Panoff said.

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