Christian missionary troubled, heartened by Pew Jewish survey

Many Jewish communal observers were troubled by the findings of the recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews showing rising rates of disaffiliation, assimilation and intermarriage. Other Jewish commentators, however, saw reasons for hope.

Meanwhile, a leader of a prominent Christian missionary group also saw in the Pew survey findings reasons for both concern and hope. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, a long-established New York-based group that works to evangelize Jews, weighed in on the survey on his blog.

On the one hand, Glaser was pleased that 34 percent of Jewish survey respondents said that one could believe in Jesus as the messiah and still be Jewish:

As a Messianic Jew and leader of Chosen People Ministries, it is incredible to think that hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the United States are now open to the concept that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. This is a dramatic change from the times when I first became a follower of Jesus in 1970.

Over the years, I and many others in our ministry have labored to challenge the long-held concept that Jewishness and belief in Jesus were incompatible – so I am greatly encouraged by these findings, and I believe that this is just one step closer for many Jewish people to explore and even accept the claims of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

He was also heartened by Pew’s finding that there were 1.7 million adults with “Jewish background” who today identify as Christians. “This is absolutely staggering to me!” he wrote, though he added that it’s not clear how many of these people are “Christians by conviction.” (The finding is shown by this handy Pew calculator; just click on the boxes for “Christian by religion” and “Both Christian and Jewish by religion” under “Jewish background.”)

But for all these Christian wins, Glaser was also saddened by some of the Jewish losses.

He wrote:

At the same time, I am concerned about other aspects of the survey results, because it revealed that many Jewish people are no longer interested in practicing the Jewish religion, or even in being Jewish.

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, and one-fourth does not even believe in God!

This trend seems to be intensifying among members of the younger generation.  According to the survey, 32% of those born after 1980 say they have no religion. Rather, their “Jewish identification” expresses itself culturally and politically – especially in support of Israel.

Clearly, these trends might indicate a greater openness among the Jewish people to consider belief in Jesus as the Messiah, yet as a Messianic Jew I also believe in the importance of sustaining the uniqueness of the Jewish people as described in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Though I am glad to see Jewish people coming to faith, I am also troubled to see that the Jewish community is fragmenting and becoming more secular.

(Emphasis is Glaser’s.)

The statistic of 34 percent of Jews answering that one can be Jewish and still believe in Jesus as messiah has been one of the survey’s most talked-about findings. But it may also be one of the more misinterpreted. While some saw this as a departure by a significant number of Jews from traditional Jewish norms, it isn’t necessarily. (Though it is noteworthy that this answer was more prevalent among Jews who do not identify as Jewish by religion.) After all, someone who is born of a Jewish mother and embraces Christianity does not cease being ethnically or even halachically a Jew. The survey might have yielded a different result if it had instead asked whether belief in Jesus is consistent with the tenets of Judaism. I suspect the proportion of those answering in the affirmative would be lower.

On a related note, my colleague Adam Soclof posted a fascinating blog post yesterday on past controversies over Jewish views of Jesus.

UPDATE: This Forward article points out that a greater proportion of Orthodox Jews than Conservative and Reform Jews say that one can be both Jewish and believe in Jesus as the messiah. This supports my suggestion that this Pew finding is not a sign of burgeoning heresy (though, interestingly, non-denominational Jews and Jews who do not identify as Jewish by religion were both even more likely than Orthodox respondents to say that one can believe Jesus is the messiah and still be Jewish).

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