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Boundaries Blur Between Jews and Christians in Shocking Ways

The Pew survey of Jews estimates that the number of adults with a Jewish background or affinity is 8.9 million — 3.7% of America’s population.

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Are you Jewish or Christian? Increasingly, Americans seem to be checking both boxes, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.

It’s not just that a lot of Jews have Christmas trees, though 32% say they do; it’s that 34% of Jews said that they think being Jewish is compatible with believing that Jesus is the Messiah, a belief that’s theologically anathema to traditional Judaism.

Meanwhile, Pew estimates that there are 1.2 million non-Jewish Americans who identify as sort-of-Jewish, even though they are not Jewish by religion and have no Jewish family background.

Findings like these in the new Pew survey point to the emergence of a hazy category between Judaism and Christianity that’s something between a new syncretic religion and a theological muddle.

“It points to the blurring boundaries between Jews and non-Jews,” said Sara Bunin Benor, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who acted as an adviser to the Pew study. “More people than in the past believe that you can be both Jewish and Christian.” …

Look Who’s Family. Photo from The Jewish Forward.

Look Who’s Family. Photo from The Jewish Forward.

The wedding section of The New York Times, an important barometer of upper middle-class wedding practice, regularly describes nuptials as having “incorporated Jewish and Christian traditions.” …

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.)

…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.) …

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. …

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

Benor credited some of those answers to a key point of Jewish law: that anyone born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish, regardless of what he or she believes. More Orthodox than Conservative and Reform people said that being Jewish is compatible with believing that Jesus was the Messiah, suggesting that many who answered the question in the affirmative were referring to that point of law.

Yet Benor also said that it points to a shift in attitude, and to a growing belief that it’s possible to be both Jewish and Christian.

Eckstein, for his part, downplayed the contradiction between traditional Judaism and the idea of Jesus as the Messiah.

“Jesus as Messiah is not a foreign concept at all,” Eckstein said. Traditional Jews believe in the concept of the Messiah, Eckstein argued, just not in Jesus himself having been the Messiah. After all, Eckstein said, Jews don’t reject as not Jewish members of the Chabad Hasidic sect who believe that their dead rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah.

“We disagree with them fundamentally, but we still incorporate them as part of the Jewish people,” Eckstein said of Chabad messianists.

One side effect of the blurring religious lines is the growth in the number of people who somehow qualify as Jewish. As definitional divisions once firm grow fuzzier, and as increased intermarriage opens Jews to the notion of mixed Jewish and Christian identities, the number of people recognized as having some sort of Jewish identity grows. While the Pew survey estimates that there are 5.3 million Jewish adults the United States, the survey also estimates that the number of adults with a Jewish background or a Jewish affinity is 8.9 million — a full 3.7% of America’s population.

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Excerpt from article by Josh Nathan-Kazis

Read more from The Jewish Forward 

Journey broke the story of the rise of the Messianic Jews and the Messianic Gentiles as shown by the Pew survey. Click here to read Journey's pathbreaking story "National survey shows Jews leaving Judaism, assimilating, becoming Christians or “Nones”"

7 Responses to “Boundaries Blur Between Jews and Christians in Shocking Ways” Leave a reply ›

  • Appreciate this article

  • My husband is Jewish - and a pastor.

  • Hi,I read your "Boundaries Blur Between Jews and Christians in Shocking Ways and the article previous. Interesting.

  • I absolutely love your webzine, awesome site!

  • Thanks! Any time you want to contribute would be great.

  • But do Orthodox and conservative Jews and Christians perceive these lines as blurry? I don't think so.

    Each can disambivuate the different senses of these labels and state clearly in what senses from their doctrines which ones may by truly co-apply to which individuals. The example of Jewish identity according to Jewish law was given.

    From the Christian side, a Jew who accepts Jesus as the Christ, the Greek word for anointed one (Messiah), we believe her to be a fulfilled Jew (Acts 2) one who has realized he message of the Torah and the prophets of Israel, and thus a Jew and a Christian.

    It's only liberalism that rejects the dogma of the traditions and therefore the role it plays in giving identity, and this treats being one or the other or both as vague predicates. Thus confusion is more the result of cultural illiteracy about the two of the most formative traditions of the west.

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