Since its modern renaissance in the mid-1970s, the Messianic Jewish movement in America has grown from a handful of house churches to a network of hundreds of synagogues and congregations. Mainline American Judaism has unanimously rejected the argument that Jews who believe in Jesus continue to be members of the Jewish community or that their religion is a form of contemporary Judaism. Scholars have accounted for Messianic Judaism as a new religious movement but no consensus has formed on whether to classify Messianic Jewish religion as a sectarian form of Protestant Christianity or American Judaism.
This dissertation uses a polythetic approach to defining Judaism and a comparative approach to studying religions in order to make sense of Hashivenu, a newly emergent community of Messianic Jews, and the claim that their religion is “truly” Judaism and not Christianity. It addresses the question of how scholars of religion can account for Messianic Judaism in the mapping of American religion without succumbing to essentialist definitions of Judaism that religious communities use to set boundaries and differentiate themselves from competing groups.
Following the lead set by Bruce Lincoln on defining religion in four domains and Michael Satlow on defining Judaism through the use of conceptual maps, research on Messianic Judaism suggests that individual beliefs about whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah or part of a Trinitarian theology are less important to the academic classificatory project than is the authorizing religious discourse of the New Testament to which all Messianic Jews, including the Hashivenu group, appeal for creating community, legitimating practice, and constructing a Messianic Jewish worldview. Since Messianic Judaism properly contributes simultaneously to maps of both Judaism and Christianity, Hashivenu’s prescriptive approach to creating Judaism out of characteristics from two historically competitive, even antithetical religious traditions challenges scholars to contend with the limitations of defining Judaism and Christianity within the parameters of an unpopular but still regnant World Religions discourse predicated on the presumption that the two religions have long ago permanently parted ways.