Keeping Kosher: Jesus and Judaism at Wheaton
This Saturday, instead of studying or doing homework, senior Yudit Lang will take her Sabbath in her room, listening to sermons from home. Lang is one of the few Messianic Jewish students here at Wheaton College.
“Jews don’t typically believe in Jesus, but we do. So, we do Jewish things like keeping the Sabbath on a Saturday or keeping kosher, but we also believe in Jesus,” Lang said.
Lang’s mom isn’t Jewish — she’s a Christian Syrian from Iran. When her parents met, Lang’s dad attended a Messianic congregation at the time and he brought her along one Sunday. She enjoyed it and decided to raise Lang and her sister under those beliefs. Her family now lives in Skokie, a town located 50 minutes away from Chicago, and Lang goes home once a month to attend the congregation there.
Lang is a quarter Jewish, but her parents raised her and her sister up as Messianic Jews in a Messianic Jewish congregation. This means that she celebrates all the Jewish holidays.
“I celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which is like the New Year, and Yom Kippur. My family keeps kosher, so I only eat kosher meat and things like that. I don’t eat pork,” Lang said.
Lang remembers their holidays vividly, and she laughed, remembering, “There’s always long services the night before, because all holidays start at night … I always remember those — we eat apples and honey to start the new year.” Historically, Jewish people eat apples and honey for Rash Hashanah as part of an age-old tradition to eat sweet things in hopes of a sweet year.
Those who abide by the lifestyle of Messianic Judaism believe in the messiahship of Jesus Christ but adhere to Jewish traditions. Maintaining Jewish customs is not a matter of maintaining salvation, but of maintaining culture. The Record met up with two members of the Messianic Jewish community on campus to hear their stories about being both Jewish and Christian.
A Professor’s Perspective
Assistant Professor of Special Education Thomas Boehm is also one of the few Messianic Jews on campus. However, unlike Lang, he wasn’t always Messianic.
Boehm’s grandparents escaped from Germany in 1938 as refugees — two and a half months before Kristallnacht, a turning point at the start of what became World War II — and resettled in Nashville, Tenn. Boehm is a third-generation Nashvillian with two Jewish parents, and a devoted Jew himself.
Growing up, Boehm’s interaction with Christians was limited to being told that he was going to hell because he practiced the wrong religion. They presented Jesus to him as a man who was elevated to the status of God and worshipped as such, which he saw as idolatry and paganism. He was also viscerally aware of the unpleasant history between Jewish-Christian relations — Jesus simply was not for his people, he thought.
“It was in that name [of Jesus] that my people have been persecuted and killed … people coming to towns with a Bible in one hand and a sword in another, and saying ‘Choose,’ ” Boehm recalled. “So, the message I was going to hell because I had the wrong religion — spoken to me by what seemed like hypocrites — was never really compelling of a witness.”
But something different happened around Easter in 1994, when Boehm was 26. Some Christians shared with him about a Jesus he’d never heard about.
“These Gentile Christians shared with me the Jewishness of Jesus … and he came to fulfill the hopes and the promises and the prophecies to the Jewish people … I had never heard that before,” Boehm said.
This began a journey in which Boehm ultimately came to understand his need for Yeshua and the good news.
Reaching Out to Jews
Lang knows that Jews are an unreached demographic, but she suspects that many Christian communities often don’t see Jews as a group needing evangelism. Jews need to know Jesus, too, Lang insisted.
“People think of Muslims or other communities that need reaching out to, but Jews also need reaching out to and I feel like people overlook that sometimes,” Lang said.
“There’s a lot of Jews out there who don’t know who the Messiah is. They’re still waiting for a Messiah … it’s kind of sad that they’re still waiting for this. And I think it’s important for us to be praying for the Jews and praying that they’ll see who their Messiah is,” Lang said.
‘Play ball, Christian style’
Accepting Jesus as Messiah isn’t as easy for Jews as it sounds, though. As a newer believer, Boehm attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing his Master of Divinity degree. While it was a wonderful experience, he felt like diving headfirst into a brand new culture.
“The implicit message I got, and some of it was from my own immaturity, but basically a lot of the message I felt was ‘Play ball, Christian style, or we’re not going to accept you,’” Boehm said.
As a new believer struggling to understand his Jewish identity, this was difficult for Boehm. He was a Jewish person who identified as a follower of Jesus, and that raised many theological questions that were very complicated and confusing. It took him a long time to heal from the wounds where he had to pretend he was a Gentile to be accepted by his Christian friends.
For Boehm now, as a professor, he is confident in his identity as a Messianic Jew. After citing 1 Corinthians 7, he explained, “The point is not Jewishness, the point is not Gentile-ness and the point is not even Christian-ness … the point is Jesus-ness!”
While Boehm loves Wheaton College’s community, he is continually aware of the history between Jews and Christians. There’s a tension steeped in 2000 years of conflict, and he carries it deeply in his being.
He cites Martin Luther as an example of the conflict: “Martin Luther is one of the best examples of someone who did glorious things by restoring the place of Scripture and grace and faith,” Boehm said, “And yet at the end of his life said some of the most vehemently anti-Semitic things which Hitler used to justify what he did in the Holocaust.”
Boehm is solemn in saying: “In one man’s life you have the extreme glory and the extreme grief; that is what I think we are all capable of.”
A Small Community
Some of the tensions between Judaism and Christianity are still played out on Wheaton’s campus. Lang has been an active member of the Jewish Culture Club for the past three years. In the past they have hosted a Seder dinner in celebration of Passover, which a representative of the Chaplains office said was received well by the student body. The club is currently inactive, however, due to low involvement.
“I don’t know why that’s the case. I don’t know if it’s because there’s not a lot of Jews in this area … I mean, we’ve had one chapel speaker who has come who’s Jewish over the four years I’ve been here,” she said.
Lang chose Wheaton after being homeschooled her whole life because she wanted to be a part of a Christian community. But she has had difficulty finding a community or synagogue here.
There are also tensions between Judaism and the wider Christian culture, especially when it comes to theology.
Lang said, “I think a lot of Christians still don’t understand why I follow some of the laws in the Old Testament like keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath on a Saturday. I think people will say that a lot of that is done away with, and I don’t believe it’s been done away with.”
She clarified that her adherence to Old Testament laws is not to obtain grace, but rather exercising obedience. Nevertheless, she thinks many “Christian communities don’t understand that.”
Boehm relates to the need for increased understanding regarding Judaism and Messianic Judaism at Wheaton and the broader evangelical community. He parallels his professional and vocational platform as a special education and disability professor with his Jewish identity at Wheaton College. In the same way that disability doesn’t become important in one’s life until there’s a family or friend who suffers from it, Messianic Judaism doesn’t enter conversations until there’s a relationship.
“What I’ve found to be the greatest problem isn’t the presence of ill motives, but the lack of sensitivity resulting from a lack of relevancy,” Boehm said.
Judaism is relevant for all followers of Jesus, Boehm said, because Jesus was and is a Jew.
“I think there was an embodied particularity to the person of the Messiah. The second person of the Trinity was embodied with particularism, and he happened to be a Jewish male.”
This is an inconvenient and uncomfortable reality for many, Boehm admitted, but it’s the same sort of wrestling as gender and ethnicity issues. This does not mean, however, that we allow the categories to limit God’s love.
“I think getting that balance is really hard … Somehow, we’ve got to keep the universalism of the love of God with the particularism that he created us male and female, and he creates us Jew and Gentile, and somehow reconcile those two things.”
Loving Unity, Celebrating Individuality
Across generations, both Lang and Boehm agree that there is a gap which needs to be bridged and a history of hurt to be healed.
“You can’t really love me unless you know what hurts me,” Boehm said. For Boehm and Lang, understanding the historical pain and discord between Jews and Christians is one step towards understanding how to love.
Wheaton has been more involved with the broader Jewish community in recent years. After receiving a Torah scroll this past semester, they were contacted by a Jewish Synagogue who wanted to make sure the scroll was not treated as a museum artifact. The College agreed and a dedication of the scroll was hosted at the synagogue, to affirm its place as a holy document.
Likewise, Messianic Jewish students and faculty are an important part of the diversity of Wheaton’s campus. “Wheaton is for all students who affirm the centrality of the Gospel and seek to follow Christ in all arenas of life, whether they are Messianic Jew, Orthodox Christian, Catholic or evangelical. We want to uphold what ties all believers together in Christ as primary while learning to live together in our differences,” noted Ray Chang from the Chaplain’s Office.
Yudit hopes for more people to become interested in Messianic Judaism, and to actively reach out in the same way she has towards the Christian community. By becoming more engaged in conversation with those who practice Messianic Judaism, we can be positively influenced by the grounding in tradition and history that comprise this particular body of believers. The hope is for our categories and identities to lead us closer to communion with God, and to be challenged, as Boehm said, in our identity in the Jewish Messiah.