As part of our ongoing interview series, you guys asked some really tough questions of Rabbi Crystal Lutton, a Messianic Jew of the Shema Congregation in Goodyear, Arizona. Truth be told, the initial exchange revealed how little I actually knew about Messianic Judaism, and I am grateful for the learning experience.
Crystal is the author of Biblical Parenting and Grace Based Living. The mother of five, she is the founder of the Arms of Love Family Fellowship, a ministry devoted to mentoring moms and dads in a positive discipline approach called Grace Based Discipline. After earning her Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2000, Crystal went on to become the Senior Pastor at Shema Congregation, a Messianic Church of the Nazarene congregational plant that strives to understand and embrace the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith.
Today Crystal responds to your questions about what it means to identify as a Messianic Jew. Enjoy!
From RHE: Why don’t you tell us a little about your background and how you came to embrace Messianic Judaism. I was always under the impression that Messianic Jews were people of Jewish descent and Jewish faith who came to embrace Jesus as Messiah, but this is often not the case,
as your story illustrates. Tell us about that.
I am glad that I’m getting the chance to respond to this outside of the blog format. It seems that many have summarized my initial response to this question as saying that I do not identify as Jewish.
What I was attempting to explain, clearly in a way that needed the help of my editor, is that I was not raised Jewish and did not come out of a Jewish community. I know that the assumption of many is that Messianic Jews are those who are raised Jewish and then come to Messiah. That is not my story. I do, however, identify as Jewish in my personal life, in my faith, and in my community.
I did spend some time researching my mother’s family history many years ago, out of personal interest and frustration that I knew so little about our family, and I was surprised to find so many connections to her being of Jewish descent. I was already participating fully in a Messianic Jewish community and running a Messianic Jewish home, and the knowledge didn’t change my circumstances, but it did a lot to change my understanding of myself.
What I was already embracing in my life took on a deeper meaning and I felt I finally understood what I was missing. It was around this time that I Bat Mitzvah’d, to reflect who I am. Some Messianic Jews start with an awareness of their Jewish identity and must learn what it means to embrace Messiah; some of us go at it from the other direction.
From Kelly: I have a number of Jewish friends, and they often find it to be "lying" or "manipulative" when Christians who are not halachically Jewish (born to a Jewish mother in an unbroken line of Jewish mothers) call themselves Jewish. While I love the Jewish roots of Christianity and participating in some of them now and then, I would feel uncomfortable calling myself a Jew for the reason stated above. Why is it that you choose to identify as a "Messianic Jew" and how would you respond to a born Jew if he or she told you that you are NOT Jewish? [I should also add that it is my understanding that most Messianic Jews are not halachically Jewish; most are Christians who want to embrace a Jewish way of life and that understanding influences why I asked the question in the way that I did.]
For me this is where humility comes into play. I choose not to debate issues with people, especially not issues that are personal to my identity. I do love to engage in dialogue with anyone, so long as we both are able to listen to and learn from the other person - whether we ultimately agree or not!
When anyone categorically makes a judgment about another person based on their own opinion or stereotypes, that generally shuts down communication.
When that happens, I try to bring our dialogue back to a true relational discussion, but if they are unable to move beyond judgment, I respect that, wish them well, and continue on with life. This used to be something that was very hard for me to do, until I realized that when I'm not being antagonistic or judgmental, and people react to me as if I am, the reality is that their reaction says more about them than about me. They are reacting to what they perceive I am, not who I really am - and so I live my life in an open fashion, and hope that one day we will reach a place of understanding and fellowship.
As to the personal aspect of your question, I hope that my response to the previous question clarifies why I identify as a Messianic Jew. In one-on-one communication it is my person interacting with their person, and if someone takes issue with my calling myself a Messianic Jew (or anything I might call myself regardless of the issue) then out of respect for their place in their journey and their struggle in that area, I would opt for a different thing to call myself. In most situations in life, I try to avoid labels as I find them to be a landmine of assumptions and (often inaccurate) connotations. When a label is required I've referred to myself as a Christian, as a believer, as Torah-observant, as a follower of the Way - as Rabbi Shaul/Paul says, becoming all things to all people.
I thought carefully about using "Messianic Jew" as a descriptor for this series, but ultimately, if I had to assign one label that captures who I am, it's that. While I would avoid that term when it truly causes offense to people I'm in relationship with, I do feel it's important for the Church as a whole to aware of the term "Messianic Jew" and what it means once you dig beneath the assumptions about the title.
As to my experience with this issue, most of the non-Messianic Jewish people I encounter are very open to the idea of live and let live. When my greetings to them do not move immediately into an evangelistic stance, they are not defensive.
When something about our life and how we walk out our faith comes up, they are sometimes curious as to why we do things, or how. As I read Rabbi Shaul’s/Paul’s instructions, in the letter to the church in Rome, about how to live out life, I see him encouraging believers to provoke others, especially the Jewish people we encounter, to envy--to live a life that challenges them to desire a closer walk with the Lord, to live a life of more faithful obedience to His Word. If there is any offense my life brings to others I pray it would only be in the area of my declarations of Messiah--not in how I declare him, or in how I live out a life obedient to him.
From Hillary: If you believe in Christ as the Messiah, why not just call yourself Christian? A Christian who approaches Christ in a very Jewish manner, viewing him from his own Israelite background?
I want to say that I think this is a very valid question--but the answer to the issue is not so simple as you might think.
For one thing, whatever one labels oneself there is going to be someone offended by that label, and the potential for controversy. When stepping into the gap between two major religions, the potential for fireworks is multiplied.
I honestly have looked at any number of labels that might better express who I am and what I believe, and might avoid offense to anyone. My personality is one that would never intentionally seek out controversy or conflict. When I encounter a group specifically embracing a new label, I watch for awhile. Sometimes it turns out it was not at all expressing what I believe. Sometimes it turns out the offense to various groups was even greater! I know many Messianic believers, regardless of background, find the label “Christian” offensive. I don’t happen to feel that way. I believe in most cases it means to those who use it, “Follower of Christ.” The reason I prefer Messianic Judaism is to be very clear that the way I understand Yeshua is from a Jewish perspective, not a Greek one.
For me it’s less about rejecting one title, and more about embracing another that is more accurately expressive of who I am and what I believe.
Yeshua came to the Jewish community, and he explained to his disciples that they would take the message out to the ends of the earth. Rabbi Shaul/Paul was adamant to his death that he was a Pharisee of Pharisees and obedient to the Law. He was one of the main teachers sent to take the Good News about Messiah and his love for mankind out to the world.
For many Messianic believers it comes down to learning that so much currently understood about Jesus is rooted in pagan teachings.
• When I hear doctrines that sound like there are multiple gods sitting on Mt. Olympus I can’t continue down that road.
• When Adonai is viewed as Zeus looking for opportunities to throw lightening bolts, I can’t continue down that road.
• When it is taught that Jesus taught against Torah, that makes him the anti-christ, not the Christ.
When I really read the Scriptures I find a Jewish man who upheld Torah, is insistent that he did not come to abolish it, and whose followers were members of a Jewish sect called The Way. It is this understanding I am trying to study and gain. It is this path I am seeking to walk.
From Maddie: What are the most important things you think that other believers in Jesus as the Saviour are missing out on by not embracing the Jewish origins of Christianity? Are there any glaring misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the bible that are only possible because Christians have become so detached from the Jewish understanding of the Bible?
The most amazing thing that I have gained from studying Scripture with a Hebraic perspective is a depth of wisdom that I would never have been able to tap into without the shift in my thinking. The Word of God stayed the same, but the reader was changed. For instance, when Yeshua is speaking to the people and says, “You have heard it said . . . , but I say unto you . . . ,” I had always been told that he was, “quoting the Law and then saying that it doesn’t apply anymore.”
Now I understand that he is distinguishing between the halachic teachings of his day and his corrections to them that go to the heart of Scripture. Reading the commentary in the Chumash (the Torah--first five books of the Bible--and the Prophets divided into weekly portions, with added commentary) reveals many similar statements to Yeshua’s.
I remember the first time I read in the Chumash that if a person fulfilled every command in Torah but neglected to love, it was as though they had done none of the commands. Nuggets of wisdom like this were not even things I knew existed before I began studying in this new way. Recently I prepared what I call a Right Brained outline of Paul’s journey in the book of Acts . So many people would argue that Paul declares the Torah done away with in his letters, but it is at the end of Paul’s story in Acts that he is insisting that he is blameless in matters of the Law. He has lived a righteous life; he has kept himself sanctified, clean, righteous. I read his letters with his proclamations in Acts in mind. I do not believe he wrote in contradiction to what he was declaring.
As another example, Ramchal writes very much like Paul--often using almost identical teachings. I really appreciated reading his writings about those in each generation whose righteousness was so great that they are so emptied of themselves and so full of Hashem that they are able to endure greater hardships than others without cursing God. By enduring these hardships they lay down their lives for their neighbors and through them their generation is blessed. They endure more because they can carry more. Ramchal went on to explain that there could be one who is so righteous, and so emptied of themselves and filled with the Lord that they could take upon themselves the suffering and pain and sin of every generation and remain righteous. I agree with Ramchal that this is possible. I believe it has happened.
From Anita: I am always very interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity and have been to Israel two times. As a family we began doing a modified, Christian version of Passover several years ago and that tradition has become the highlight of our year. My questions to you is this; How much Jewish tradition, feasts, festivals, etc, if any, do you think Christians should continue to celebrate? Thanks so much.
I believe that all of the Biblical Feasts and Festivals were intended to teach us things about God, Messiah, ourselves, and living in community. There is so much wisdom that has been lost to the Church at large because of the separation between Jewish and non-Jewish worshippers of God. Passover in the context of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits is full of so much that is relevant to those who believe Yeshua is Messiah. I'm encouraged that more and more churches are stepping out to learn about Passover each year.
All of the other Feasts and Festivals have equally amazing things to teach us, though I do not believe that the study has been as comprehensive in these areas within Christian or Messianic groups. I am amazed at what I learn each year as I study, prepare, and celebrate these appointed times.
I think that it's important to approach all of these things with great humility, though. I think it's important to not tread rudely on sacred soil and I have found that the best understandings of the lessons in the Feasts and Festivals start with a traditional understanding, and then look at Yeshua's teachings or actions to gain further wisdom. When the Feasts and Festivals are approached as being only prophetic, I have seen some strange doctrines develop. By starting with the original understanding and traditions, then looking to see what Yeshua did and taught regarding each Feast and Festival, I believe a more grounded understanding can develop.
From Katherine: How are Messianic Jews viewed by the Jewish community at large? Do you feel like you are fully able to engage in Jewish culture while still worshiping Jesus?
There are mixed reactions from people. Many reactions are to the “movement” in general, though, and not to individuals within the movement unless and until there is personal contact. At that point I find that the reactions are more about the attitudes and personalities of the individuals who are actually having the encounter. Those who make assumptions or are looking for a fight will have a negative experience; those who assign a positive intent to people in general and are seeking to be peacemakers will have a positive encounter.
Our current congregation is in an area of town that is not heavily populated with a Jewish community. I knew that when the Lord called me out of the congregation, where I was serving as Associate Rabbi, to start Shema, that we would, at least initially, be ministering to primarily non-Jews who were wanting to learn about the Hebraic roots.
I accepted that willingly because, growing up in the church, but always studying from a Hebraic perspective to the extent that I could, I have spent many decades frustrated at the (lack of) answers for so many things in Scripture that I was able to receive from pastors. It wasn’t until I began speaking with a Messianic Rabbi and asking him some of these same questions that I would hear, “In Yeshua’s time that phrase meant . . . .” I began getting answers! It all began to fit together. I want to make that experience common.
My style of teaching is very study focused and the burden of my heart is to help people connect the Tanakh and the Brit Hadashah--whether they are coming from the church, the synagogue, or the world. It is because of the makeup of our current congregation that I use both the titles of Pastor and Rabbi.
From Lucy: I personally find the deep connections between Christianity and Judaism very beautiful, but most Jewish people find Messianic Judaism (and its self-identification as a branch of Judaism) offensive - both the idea of Jews embracing Christianity and calling it Judaism and Christians embracing Judaism and calling it their own. Public perception of the MJ movement has also been scarred by a heavy emphasis on evangelism and widespread conversion of Jews with groups like Jews for Jesus - a sensitive subject in the Jewish community and fair enough given the history involved here. As believers, we're called to be peacemakers and also to form relationships where we can share our faith. Are you able to have close personal relationships with Jewish people who are not Messianic? What are those like? Are you ever concerned that self-identifying as a Messianic Jew versus just as a Christian that is invested in Jewish tradition and history is antagonistic and a barrier to sharing your faith?
I have found the vast majority of Jewish people I have engaged with over my life to be amazing and gracious people. It might help that I am not heavily focused on ideas like conversion and evangelism.
This isn’t to say that I reject these ideas in the way that some do (suggesting God has different ways to have relationship with different groups, or holding to some Universalist notion that none of it matters anyhow and everyone will end up with God) but rather to say that I see my role in a more boundaried and limited capacity.
I am commanded to love God and love others as myself--on these two commands, Yeshua said, hang all Torah and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40). It is the Lord who draws and changes individuals.
I believe we are held accountable for what we know, rather than what we don’t, and I trust that the Lord knows who is inclined towards Him and who is inclined towards idolatry of anything else, including the self. I believe this is true whether the person worships each week in a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue, or abandons all organized religion. I do not judge others because I cannot see into their souls.
Because I believe that Yeshua is the Anointed One who was sent to teach us how to properly interpret Torah, I follow his teachings in this matter. Because I believe that Yeshua brought salvation, I believe that all those who are saved are saved through him.
I don’t, however, believe there is any one act, or level of understanding everyone who is saved must agree upon. Many Christians pray a sanctioned prayer of salvation in their Christian denomination, many faithful Jewish people cry out for Mashiach to come on Yom Kippur. I do not believe there are different paths, but I do believe we may be seeing the same path from different perspectives.
From Anja: Which seminaries or graduate schools would you recommend to a Christian who wants to learn more about the Jewish background of the Bible? I'm thinking of doing an MA in biblical studies and would like to learn as much about the ancient Near East, and specifically Jewish culture, as possible, but there are so many different programs out there... I'm a bit at loss as to where to look. Do you have any advice?
The one thing to keep in mind about Seminaries and/or graduate schools is that they all have their particular bent or goal. The thing I loved about Fuller Theological Seminary was that it was an inter-denominational training ground invested in educating and equipping students to move into the areas of ministry where the Lord called them.
The focus was on learning how to study, how to exegete, how to put it all together and present yourself, and how to have the humility to listen to someone else’s understanding even when it’s different from your own. It doesn’t specifically teach from a Hebraic roots perspective, but I felt validated in my studies and my understanding of things. Fuller definitely offers a quality and well-respected education.
I cannot really speak to any other program as I’m not familiar with all of what is out there. There are certainly Messianic training programs, some of which are open to women. Programs of study that focus on Jewish history and culture, as well as other aspects of Judaism, are available from many venues.
I think my advice would be to keep in mind your goals for the education you are wanting to pursue. Even as you are being evaluated for entering a program, evaluate the program to make sure it is what you want to invest in--that what you can get from it will be worth your time and financial investment. I would look at who is teaching key courses and research them. Make sure that they are coming from a perspective that you respect and want to learn.
I would encourage you to hold out Scripture as the final authority. It is by holding out God’s Word as the final authority that I have been able to challenge what I was taught about different things without feeling unstable in my faith. Some people hear challenges to their understanding and it leads them to abandon faith completely, but there is no reason to resort to this. Until you understand something more it’s okay to set it aside and study other things.