What does it mean to be Jewish?

When it comes to the Jewish people, nothing is simple. The chosen people of God as found in the Tanach (Deuteronomy 7:6-8), are also the targeted people of Satan. We read repeated biblical accounts of how our enemies wanted to destroy us (Pharaoh, Haman or the Amalekites to name just a few) and also how God promised to never allow for the Jewish people to completely be eradicated (Jeremiah 31:35-37.)

As it stands, God’s plan for mankind really revolves around the Jewish people from start to finish. We shouldn’t ignore that when God defined mankind and set the story in motion, we received 11 Genesis chapters on mankind and 39 on the Jewish people. God is certainly not finished with the Jewish people as we see that His program will culminate when Israel calls upon the Messiah (Zechariah 12:10) and usher in His Second Coming.

It is very obvious that from a biblical standpoint, the Jewish people play a very important role, but the question remains, who is a Jew? To answer this, we first have to define two words, Judaism and Jewishness.

Judaism, on one hand, is a belief system and lifestyle that one chooses, based on the Jewish faith established in the Bible, including some adherence to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah and customs derived from that over time by a myriad of Jewish scholars. So, as a practice, Judaism is within reach of anyone in the world who so chooses to place themselves under the authority of the Mosaic law and to an extent–while not inspired like the Tanach–the Talmud. In other words, Judaism is a choice that one makes. Practicing Judaism doesn’t necessarily make you a Jew as we see in the book of Ruth. After Ruth placed herself under the authority of the Commonwealth of Israel, she continued being called a Moabite. She had simply become a proselyte to Judaism ( Ruth 1:22, 2:2, 2:21, 4:5, 4:10.)

Jewishness, on the other hand, is an ethnic state that one is born with depending on their ancestry. One person is said to have Jewish ancestry if one or both of their parents are Jewish. Jewish ancestry or origins is not something that can be acquired after birth or learned and practiced.  So, Jewishness is in the blood so to speak. As a result, and biblically speaking, one does not have to practice Judaism to be Jewish. To be Jewish one doesn’t have to do anything but be born into a Jewish family.

Understanding the difference between Judaism and Jewishness is key to also understanding that a Jewish person is free to believe in anything or nothing at all without fearing the loss of their ethnic Jewish identity. This unfortunately is contrary to popular mainstream Jewish belief, as a Jewish person who puts their faith in Yeshua is almost always no longer considered Jewish.

Jewish identity is one thing, but the dilemma doesn’t stop here. Many people argue that being Jewish is enough to have a proper relationship with God. In other words, Jewish people would be saved by virtue of being descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, requiring no redeemer, savior or Messiah. This erroneous view is known as Dual Covenant Theology and goes directly against what the Bible says.

Considering Rabbi Nicodemus' night meeting with Yeshua, we understand that he thought he was in, or “saved” by virtue of being Jewish, but Yeshua corrected him by saying that to be part of God’s family, one must be born of water AND born of the Spirit (John 3:1-15.)

As much as Jewish people resist the idea of trusting Yeshua for their eternal destiny, there is no way around the idea of a redeemer coming for Israel's salvation and also for the rest of the world. A myriad of prophecies from the Tanach about the Messiah seem to validate that view (Genesis 3:15, 49:10; Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Psalm 16, 22; Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7, 52:13-53-12; Zechariah 12:10; Micah 5:2.)

There is actually nothing more Jewish than trusting in Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. Our people still await the coming of the Mashiach, but as followers of Yeshua, we have the confidence that He first came as the Lamb of God or as Mashiach Ben Yoseph, to die for His own people (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), and He will return one day as the Lion of Judah, to reign from Jerusalem as Mashiach be David (1 Chronicles 17:10-14.)

Some might argue that those who put their faith in Yeshua become “spiritual Jews.” But let us review what the two words mean. Being Jewish is the ethnic state of a person who is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Being spiritual is the state of someone walking in and yielding to the Spirit of God moment by moment each day. Being spiritual requires an intimate steady relationship with the Holy Spirit. A Jewish person who is walking in the Spirit can be called a spiritual Jew, and a Gentile who is walking in the spirit can be called a spiritual gentile. Let's not blur those lines unnecessarily.

Finally, some have also claimed that according to Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua. This interpretation also blurs the lines between Jews and Gentiles claiming that those who believe in Messiah are no longer to be called Jews or Gentiles, as we are all one new man in Messiah.

            Galatians 3:28 speaks of justification, not identity. When Yeshua looks at us all, He doesn’t differentiate between Jew or Gentile, male or female and slave or free. He sees us all as human sinners who fall short of God’s glory and need a redeemer. Once we enter the Body of Messiah through salvation (only by Yeshua’s shed blood on our behalf) we continue to be either Jews or gentiles, males or females. Galatians 3:28 never erases identity or ethnic origins, it simply brings us all on equal footing before a righteous, perfect and just God. Ephesians 2:14-16 further states, 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, which is the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two one new person, in this way establishing peace; 16 and that He might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the hostility. Once in the body of Messiah, we are redeemed and God looks at us differently as far as sin is concerned, yet we continue to be who we are ethnically.

There seems to be a lack of balance when it comes to defining who is Jewish. Some people in the church want to “replace” the Jews as recipients of God’s promises, as taught by Replacement Theology. Incidentally, this would make God a covenant breaker and a liar, but God cannot lie (Numbers 23:19.)

Others choose to leave Jewish people alone and never tell them about the importance of being followers of Yeshua. This as I mentioned earlier, is what Dual Covenant Theology teaches when it claims that being Jewish is enough in God’s eyes, but, Yeshua disagreed with Nicodemus on that point.

Some Gentiles even believe that they become ethnic Israel when they start following Yeshua. They believe that they are incorporated into ethnic Israel when the Bible only says that they are grafted in (Romans 11:17.)

Perhaps the most important notion about Jewish identity is found in Romans 2:28, For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.

            In that verse, we are told who a real Jew is. To be considered a real Jew biblically speaking, a Jewish person must be one inwardly. In other words, being circumcised doesn’t guarantee salvation nor would keeping any or all of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. There needs to be a spiritual rebirth for a Jewish person to be a real Jew from a salvific sense.

The Gospel of Yeshua is the same lifeline for all people, Jews and Gentiles and they remain who they are in Messiah while being together in the Body of Messiah to serve the Master. While being Jewish remain very important, being saved is critical.