Part 3: Joseph Rabinowitz – What Became of the Messianic Jewish Movement of South-Western Russia?

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Marc Chagall’s Green Fidler

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Part 3: Joseph Rabinowitz – What Become of The Messianic Jewish Movement of South-Western Russia?

In modernity we all love a story that ends with the words, “and they all lived happily ever after…” However, that is all too often the stuff of fairy tales, because in real life things do not always work out that way. Post-modernity is often more honest, stripping away romanticism and laying bare the real facts of what happened, and this is also true of what became of the Messianic Jewish Movement of South-Western Russia.

None of us feel comfortable with deconstructionism and watching things fall apart, but it would appear that that is what happened to Rabinowitz’s work after his death. His life was cut short and he died in his late sixties of malaria in 1899. Unlike today, besides quinine there was little else to treat this big killer and it still remains one of the tools in the hands of the grim reaper in the majority world (so called third world), whose population often do not have access to modern drugs. According to the World Health Organization malaria is still the highest killer of human beings.

Having analysed the nature of the work in Kishinev a number of issues come to light that one may be able to view as both its strengths and also great weaknesses. There is no doubt as to the stature of the man – Joseph Rabinowitz was a titan and giant who towered above his fellows. This was due to a number of factors.

Rabinowitz Himself

His personality and charisma enabled him to venture into virgin territory and pioneer an unique expression of faith in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah) in a Jewish context. Though he faced restrictions, limitations and at times severe opposition, he also had many great advantages. To some of these issues we will now turn:

Turning to his strengths, as has been discussed in Part 1 and Part 2, as we reflect upon the man let us seek to elaborate. He was a Jew raised in the Chassidic tradition thoroughly versed in the rich Biblical and Talmudic literature. He was conversant in the Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish languages and was able to write and speak these fluently and was a regular contributor to Hamalitz an Enlightenment Jewish publication. He was well respected and admired in both Jewish and Gentile circles and became actively involved in local social and political affairs and was the first Jew to be elected to local government as a counsellor. He was a regular worshiper in the local synagogue in Kishinev and he took an active part in organised worship.

He admired Czar Alexander II who was well disposed towards the Jews of the realm. Rabinowitz was concerned for the well being of his people and was particularly exercised about the Jewish Question in what could quickly become hostile to Jews as was witnessed following the death of Czar Alexander in 1882 and followed a two year period of anti-Semitic persecution (1882-1883). He travelled to Palestine with the support of the local Jewish community’s interest to consider the possible emigration of Jews to Eretz Israel.

He came under the influence of Jewish Enlightenment/ Haskalah thinking which had the effect of broadening his outlook and began to explore life beyond the strict confines of his Chassidic world. This enlightenment approach led him to pursue enterprise in trade and commerce and also agriculture and even considered the establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements to aid the welfare of poor Jews. He became a merchant and then a successful lawyer.

Following his initial spiritual encounter that he experienced on the Mount of Olives (1882), Jerusalem during his trip to the Holy Land he grew in conviction that the Jewish Questions answer lay in the hands of our brother Jesus.

This conviction grew and led to his establishment of the congregation of Jewish Christians in Kishinev that became known as the Israelites of the New Covenant. Though he never joined a Christian denomination he did receive support and help from the Lutheran missionaries led by Faltin and his colleagues. In addition various Scandinavian Israel Missions took an interest in his work, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian missions.

Interest and support was also shown by the London Society and the Mildmay Mission from the UK. In addition Professor Delitizsch of Leipzig University took a keen interest in the work of Rabinowitz and the professor was not only a great biblical scholar, Hebraist but more importantly a champion of the Jews and his regular intervention on their behalf often helped to stem the tide of European anti-Semitism, particularly when organized by the Church. He spoke out and wrote many words to say that any true Christian could never be party to hatred or persecution of the Jews.

While Faltin’s initial support was strong he later became very critical of Rabinowitz and accused him of heresy and actively criticised the movement and not only spoke out against Rabinowitz by also influenced others to distance themselves from him.

It would appear that Faltin was wedded to his Lutheran theology and wanted the meetings that Rabinowitz led to conform to a Lutheran pattern of worship. An example of this was in the season leading up to Christmas the meeting house where the Messianic meetings were held was decorated just like a Lutheran Christmas gathering. Flatin was also very critical that the Israelites of the New Covenant never joined a recognized Christian denomination and he accused Rabinowitz of being an isolationist.

Why Faltin took this negative approach to Rabinowitz can only be surmised, but it can be conjectured that he was jealous of what Rabinowitz was achieving and also found it difficult for him to think outside the Lutheran box that he was a part of.

This kind of problem that Joseph Rabinowitz encountered was not unique and alas, pioneer work often faces these same kind of problems, with those who initially helped to foster the work, becoming among it biggest critics. John and Charles Wesley, though both Anglican ministers, were ultimately rejected by the very church of which they were apart and this saw the birth of Methodism which became a separate denomination.

From the Jewish side Rabinowitz equally came in for severe criticism and rejection. Like Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein before him, Rabinowitz from being an esteemed member of the Jewish community was confronted with accusations of insanity and deception once he openly professed faith in Yeshua, receiving similar treatment to Lichtenstein before him.

A very positive aspect of Joseph Rabinowitz approach to sharing his faith in Yeshua with his Jewish people was the way he sought to contextualize his message and expression of faith. The use of the languages of the Jews, Hebrew and Yiddish were invaluable, plus his deep understanding of Jewish belief and liturgy also aided both his instruction and worship. He was an eloquent speaker that made his preaching accessible and he made a very direct appeal to his listeners to put their trust in Yeshua for full salvation, that was to be found in him alone who was both Messiah and Lord. To facilitate the work Rabinowitz ran a printing press and this enabled him to produce his own literature, such as a suitable Passover Haggadah for their use.

His love for God’s Word was ceaseless and felt that the Gospels held the key to understanding the work of Messiah. His distribution of the Hebrew New Testament and also the Yiddish New Testament was a consuming passion. Thousands and thousands of copies were distributed to Jews. He also disseminated Russian New Testaments to Gentiles freely, as he desired that all come to a knowledge of the truth.

So why did the work fail?

It would appear that Rabinowitz was at some level an autonomous leader (someone who tightly holds the reigns of power close to his or her chest), the fact is that no apparent successor was mentored or raised up by him. Even though he knew about the critical nature of his illness, it appears that he seemed powerless to organise his succession to another.

He also faced major restrictions from the Russian authorities, and while his meetings were licensed, because he was not an ordained minister, pastor, priest or rabbi, he was never allowed to minister any sacraments. With the social upheavals and constant threats of pogroms, Jewish lives in South-Western Russia, added to the uncertainty of the future of the Jews in that region of Bessarabia Province, this was a an underlying erosive factor that impeded the Messianic work.

A Good Idea – The Palestine Project

Three years before his death, Rabinowitz floated the idea of moving his work from Kishinev to Jerusalem. His plan was to set up a school or centre for young men in Jerusalem, and to establish this as a place of training for those “who through my preaching, became convinced of the Divinity of Christ and his glorious appearing” (p 196). He never shared these ideas with members in Kishinev.

These ideas he shared with his Scottish friends – it was a desperate bid to see the continuation of his work after his death. For just as Moses had handed his leadership to Joshua before he died, so Rabinowitz realized that he must take steps regarding the future. As early as 1892 he had shared similar thoughts with his friends in London, to go to Palestine and make Jerusalem the centre of his activity.

The aim of the school was to equip Messianic Jews so that they could bring the Jews as a nation to faith in Yeshua. The school was not to be under the influence of any church or denomination, the best place being Palestine, even though it was under the Turks.

The intention was to enable the students to be free from the influence of any Church dogma, and learn about Israel’s ancient history and also the glorious future that HaShem intended for the Jewish Nation. After the completion of their studies these Hebrew Christians would be sent throughout the world to Jews wherever they had been scattered, proclaiming Messiah and his glorious return.

It would appear that these ideas that Rabinowitz shared received little enthusiastic response in both Britain and the United States. Alas the project was shelved. One might say, “what a lost opportunity, not only for Rabinowitz, but also for all those who may have been equipped to fulfil his vision in those days.”

However, the seeds that he sowed back in the late 19th century have found fertile soil particularly in modern Israel and the United States. There was such turbulence and instability in Russia and the winds of change were blowing over Europe and the Ottoman Empire, which included Palestine. The First World War and rise of Communism both had the effect of changing the world forever and European Jews were equally caught up in the unfolding of these two powerful forces.

So, did Rabinowitz’s proposed Messianic Training Centre for Messianic Jewish young men in Palestine put forward at the wrong time for starting such a bold project in Jerusalem? And with Joseph Rabinowitz’s health in decline and is impending death in 1899 even if he were able to have made the move from Kishinev to Jerusalem, would there have been others to have seen it through to fruition?

The Work in Kishinev

Following Rabinowitz’s death in 1899 of which he had no foreknowledge, the ministry faltered and almost ceased, while Mr S. H. Wilkinson of the Mildmay Mission from London came forward as Rabinowitz and the work’s main supporter during that period, there was no immediate relief with an appointment of a worker to replace him, though the Averbuchs Mildmay Mission workers, did visit from Odessa and some while later spent up to 10 months in Kishinev. They had come to faith directly under Rabinowitz’s influence. During the intervening year following Rabinowitz’s death, there were a number of attempts to revive the work, but to none avail. This was not only due to the war, the difficultly to find a suitable worker to replace him, but also the increased severity of the governing authorities. The pogrom of 1903 led to severe social upheavals which were inflicted upon the Jews of Kishinev as well.

The Somerville Meeting House that adjoined the Rabinowitz’s residence was used sporadically. This had been purchased with funds raised in Britain particularly, under    S. H. Wilkinson’s leadership. A Russian Baptist group did use the venue for worship services with a few Jews attending their meetings. During WWI a Greek military church used the meeting place. The Jewish ministry virtually collapsed. This was all the more tragic with a Jewish population of around 80,000 Jewish people living in the area of Kishinev.

On special occasions meetings were arranged for visiting Hebrew Christians who testified and preached in Kishinev at the Somerville Meeting House and as many as 300 Jewish people attended. The collapse of the work does not appear to be the lack of interest on the part of Jewish people, but rather the fact of not having anyone suitable to reach out to them and lead them to faith in Yeshua and then to disciple them as Rabinowitz had so faithfully done while still alive.

What May We Learn and Conclude?

Treading lightly and in no way wanting to be disparaging or be disrespectful to Rabinowitz’s memory and those who laboured with him in the work of witness in Kishinev and Bessarabia Province, it is apparent that there were some glaring problems that arose and ultimately led to the collapse and end of the Messianic Jewish Movement of South-Western Russia:

While Rabinowitz was an amazing person, his failure to raise up the next generation of leaders become apparent. Too little, to late! His idea of a Messianic Jewish Training Centre in Jerusalem, was a brilliant idea, however, what a pity that it did not receive the support from those powerful people in the Britain and the United States, who could have helped him realize his dream.

The opposition of Faltin and others to the emergent Messianic Jewish expression, most certainly must have impeded the new movement’s growth and while acknowledging that the Lutherans under Faltin’s leadership did a lot to aid the young ministry, the later resistance proved to be most unhelpful.

Doing It Better and Learning from History

May it not be said that the only thing that we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history! Those of us that do have the influence and position to encourage fresh expressions of faith, should give whatever support that we are able to, and not put stumbling blocks in the way of the things that God may be wanting to see established.

Finally, Messianic Jewish expression has to do with Jewish believers asserting their self-identity and is a desire to be able to give expression to ones faith and practice in an authentically Jewish way. Foundational is a belief in the Sovereignty of God and his covenant relationship with his original chosen people. However, least one gives the impression that one is again erecting the middle wall of partition (dividing wall of hostility) that Messiah broke it down. Messianic Jews as Joseph Rabinowitz affirmed in his Articles of Faith, believe in the unity of the faith in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile for they are all one in Messiah Yeshua, and equally as he called upon the members of the Israelites of the New Covenant to affirm their belief in the one catholic and apostolic church.

This does not nullify a desire on the part of Jews who have come to faith to want to live as Jews, and Messianic Judaism in its many different forms is a form of Jewish auto-emancipation, in which they are no longer bound by the shackles of either the Christian church or Jewish synagogue, but it is uniquely its own expression of personhood.

This we assert was the greatest legacy that Joseph Rabinowitz fought for and has given to the Modern Messianic Jewish movement.

You have been listening to Shalom Radio, UK – an independent internet based radio station that proclaims Good News. This three part series features the Life and Work of Joseph Rabinowitz, pioneer of the Messianic Jewish Movement of South-Western Russia. We hope you enjoyed listening!

Shalom!


Shalom Radio UK is an independent internet based radio programme produced by

Roni* Mechanic & Mike Petty

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Rabinowitz#Biography – click on Roni* to access the Article on Joseph Rabinowitz


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The words of the instrumental piece of music in Hebrew Transliteration & English:

ADON OLAM MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Adon olam, asher malach,
b’terem kol y’tzir nivra.
L’et na’asah v’cheftzo kol,
azai melech sh’mo nikra.V’acharey kichlot hakol,
l’vado yimloch nora.
V’hu haya, v’hu hoveh,
v’hu yih’yeh b’tifara.V’hu echad, v’eyn sheni
l’hamshil lo, l’hachbira.
B’li reishit, b’li tachlit,
v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah.V’hu Eli, v’chai go’ali,
v’tzur chevli b’et tzarah.
V’hu nisi umanos li,
m’nat kosi b’yom ekra.B’yado afkid ruchi
b’et ishan v’a’irah.
V’im ruchi g’viyati,
Adonai li v’lo ira.
The Lord of the Universe who reigned
before anything was created.
When all was made by his will
He was acknowledged as King.And when all shall end
He still all alone shall reign.
He was, He is,
and He shall be in glory.And He is one, and there’s no other,
to compare or join Him.
Without beginning, without end
and to Him belongs dominion and power.And He is my G-d, my living G-d.
to Him I flee in time of grief,
and He is my miracle and my refuge,
who answers the day I shall call.

To Him I commit my spirit,
in the time of sleep and awakening,
even if my spirit leaves,
G-d is with me, I shall not fear.

Adon Olam In The Original Hebrew

אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ, בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא.

לְעֵת נַעֲשָׂה בְחֶפְצוֹ כֹּל, אֲזַי מֶלֶךְ שְׁמוֹ נִקְרָא.

וְאַחֲרֵי כִּכְלוֹת הַכֹּל, לְבַדּוֹ יִמְלוֹךְ נוֹרָא.

וְהוּא הָיָה, וְהוּא הֹוֶה, וְהוּא יִהְיֶה, בְּתִפְאָרָה.

וְהוּא אֶחָד וְאֵין שֵׁנִי, לְהַמְשִׁיל לוֹ לְהַחְבִּירָה.

בְּלִי רֵאשִׁית בְּלִי תַכְלִית, וְלוֹ הָעֹז וְהַמִּשְׂרָה.

וְהוּא אֵלִי וְחַי גֹּאֲלִי, וְצוּר חֶבְלִי בְּעֵת צָרָה.

וְהוּא נִסִּי וּמָנוֹס לִי, מְנָת כּוֹסִי בְּיוֹם אֶקְרָא.

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי, בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָה.

וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, יְיָ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.

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