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For Some Believers Trying To Connect With Jesus, the Answer Is To Live Like a Jew

The Torah-observant gentiles of the Hebrew Roots movement get circumcised, lay tefillin, and grow peyos

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Rico Cortes teaching about the Ancient Near Eastern Context of Oil in the Bible at the Golan Olive Oil Factory on Jan. 22, as part of his 2014 Israel study tour. (Courtesy of Rico Cortes)
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Many of the thousand-plus people who attended Revive 2013, a religious conference held at the Dallas Sheraton last June, wear tzitzit. Many keep kosher and observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Some of the men have beards and peyos. Some have even undergone adult circumcision and/or have circumcised their children. They learn Hebrew, Chumash, even Talmud, and travel whenever they can to Israel. All of them truly, deeply love Hashem.

Yet I’m fairly certain I was the only Jewish person there. Revive is an annual gathering for followers of Hebrew Roots, a movement of—for lack of a better term—Torah-observant gentiles. These are non-Jews who have no intention of converting to Judaism yet follow laws, customs, beliefs, and practices commonly associated with Judaism. And while they do believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the messiah—though in these circles he goes exclusively by his Hebrew name, Yeshua—they are emphatically not Christian. They do not celebrate Christmas or Easter. They do celebrate Passover and Sukkot. They do not display, either in their homes or as jewelry, crosses or other traditional Christian symbols. They do, however, wear Stars of David and post mezuzahs on their doors.

The movement’s central belief is that the Torah is still binding—that God, or Yahweh, or Hashem, did not intend for Yeshua’s appearance to render irrelevant the lessons of the Old Testament, whose rules and instructions remain valid. The Brit Chadasha, or New Testament, which most Christians believe superseded the Torah, is understood as a sort of extension of the Torah. Followers of Hebrew Roots believe that Christian practice has been, over the last two millennia, corrupted by pagan influences and like to say that they’re aiming for a pure, first-century version of their religion. In other words, they want to understand and observe the Torah the way they believe their messiah Yeshua did. Words like “restoration,” “revive,” “roots,” and “renew” are used a lot.

It’s impossible to quantify the number of Hebrew Roots followers worldwide, though I was given a range of estimates that ran from 200,000 to 300,000, most of whom have joined in the past 15 years. But the movement’s theology and praxis vary from ministry to ministry and person to person; what, exactly, Hebrew Roots is is still being worked out. Right now it encompasses a diverse swath of congregations and ministries with diverse beliefs and practices. What you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, what you’re not allowed to do—these are the sorts of issues followers and ministries are beginning to consider. On some level, these questions are about religious identity: How “Jewish” do they want to be? Or, put another way, how un-Christian?

***

Whether believers of Christ must follow Mosaic law is an argument that’s been going on since the Apostles. (It’s what the Council of Jerusalem was about.) In the second chapter of Galatians, Paul rebukes Peter: “Why do you compel the gentiles to live as Jews?” (This the first instance of the term “Judaizers,” which, depending on context, may or may not be a pejorative.) Compare to Matthew 5, which reads: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

While the majority of Christian denominations subscribe to some version of replacement theology—that the church has replaced Israel, that the New Covenant has replaced the Old—a few have embraced certain aspects of the Torah. More than two centuries ago, a group of Russians who came to be known as the Subbotniks began observing the Torah, switching their weekly day of prayer to Saturday and adopting various Jewish practices like circumcision; some members of the group, whose descendants still live in the former Soviet Union, converted. A number of contemporary Christian sects observe the Sabbath, most notably Seventh-day Adventists, who also do not eat pork, shellfish, or other foods proscribed by the Bible, and do not observe Christmas, Easter, or other “pagan” holidays. The Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert Armstrong in 1934, was a radio ministry whose followers observed Saturday Sabbaths, most of the Jewish festivals, and many of the laws of kashrut. (It was later known as Grace Communion International.) Followers of the Sacred Name Movement, a Seventh-day break-off, call God “Yahweh,” and Jesus “Yeshua.”

While some Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus follow Torah or even rabbinic laws, they tend to self-classify as Jews, not Christians: The movement recognizes the halakhic distinction between Jews and gentiles and considers itself part of the wider Jewish community.

Hebrew Roots, then, is arguably the first non-Jewish movement to approach Torah the way contemporary Jews do—or, at least, to view that mode as the most legitimate, as the sort of religious lifestyle to strive for. And many are fulfilling mitzvot that aren’t explicitly stated or detailed in the Torah, such as praying the rabbinic liturgy and observing Hanukkah. Some put on kosher tefillin every morning, and I met a number of Hebrew Roots followers who do not touch money on the Sabbath—which many of them call “Shabbos,” in the style of contemporary ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The unprecedented accessibility of Orthodox texts and ideas online has helped facilitate this appropriation. Even 30 years ago, a non-Jewish non-academic student learning Talmud would have been difficult to fathom. Many followers told me about learning the weekly parsha from popular Web portals devoted to kiruv, or outreach to Jews, like aish.com and chabad.org. Some are already fluent in Hebrew; in Dallas, I spoke to some who are planning on learning Daf Yomi. Danise Peters, from Alabama, told me she studies the Bible commentary Targum Onkelos. As Brad, a teacher from Oklahoma, put it: “I have no doubt that eventually we will produce a bona fide talmid chacham”—literally, a wise student. I asked who’s closest. Without hesitation he replied, “Rico Cortes.”

Denise Peters introduced me to Cortes, and he agreed to meet me in his suite. We wound up speaking for a few hours. With us were his two sons—one of whom works full-time as his manager—and his wife, Yolanda, who brought us matzo and hummus to snack on.

Cortes has a neat goatee and a penchant for wearing the sort of soft-looking casual shirts you see all the time in Florida, always untucked, out of which his tzitzit dangle. Now 47, he was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in a nondenominational Christian community. At 21, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 13th round and spent the next seven years playing for various farm teams, then another decade as a scout for the Chicago White Sox. In the late 1990s, he told me, he discovered that he descended from bnei anusim, or Marranos—medieval Spanish Jews who, out of fear of persecution, kept their religion a secret. (He told me that he also later discovered that he carries the gene commonly associated with kohanim, the Jewish priestly caste.)

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For Some Believers Trying To Connect With Jesus, the Answer Is To Live Like a Jew

The Torah-observant gentiles of the Hebrew Roots movement get circumcised, lay tefillin, and grow peyos