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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 The Brit Chadasha, or New Testament, which most Christians believe superseded the Torah, is understood as a sort of extension of the Torah.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.)

He began intensely studying the Torah and, in 2001, founded the Wisdom in Torah ministry in Orlando, Fla. Today, it’s one of the most popular ministries in the movement. (Like most of the ministries, its presence is mainly online.) Cortes is reluctant to provide specific numbers, but he says that the site attracts visitors from more than 140 countries. He travels nearly every week to teach—over the last few months he’s visited Israel, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Canada, Guatemala, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, South Africa, and Colombia. He showed me a video of a prayer session he had recently led in mainland China: 500 Chinese illegally gathered in a school gymnasium, saying the Shema prayer.

Cortes’ Torah observance isn’t quite what a Jew would recognize as Orthodox, but it’s close. He occasionally prays at traditional synagogues. On Shabbat he performs kiddush, havdalah, and all of the prayers. His head is always covered. His wife covers her hair “about 50 percent of the time, and always if any Torah is going on,” Cortes said. The meat in his house is glatt kosher. He observes, to some degree, the laws of niddah—the prohibition of intimate relations with a menstruating woman. At some point he had himself circumcised, and his teenage stepson was circumcised last year—otherwise, as Cortes explained to him, he would not be allowed to participate in the Passover Seder. At one point during our interview, Cortes handed me an unopened bottle of wine. “Would you give me the honor of opening the wine?” he asked, referring to the Jewish law that states that wine touched by non-Jews is impure.

Cortes has an impressive, nuanced grasp of the mechanics of traditional Torah study. Even his inflection and pronunciation are solid. He does not call himself a rabbi because he did not study in yeshiva—though he told me that in 2004, he studied for two or three weeks at Aish Hatorah, a yeshiva in Jerusalem known for Jewish outreach. (He explained that he did not present himself as Jewish, but as a descendant of Jews; to Cortes this is a significant distinction, though to the rabbis at Aish, however, it’s not.)

We spoke at length about the nature and role of halakha, the codification of religious law in Judaism. Hebrew Roots, Cortes told me, doesn’t have that—there isn’t any sort of legal metastructure, and everyone is doing whatever makes sense to them. But a lot of them, he said, are getting it wrong. “It’s like the Wild West out there,” he said.

***

Registration opened on Friday morning in the lobby of the Sheraton conference center. Vendors were there setting up their booths, arranging their wares. The merchandise on sale included traditional Judaica, Israel-themed paraphernalia, anointing oils, mezuzahs, DVDs of Torah lessons and inspirational speeches, Hebrew language-learning software, Passover Seder guides, shatnez-free clothing, watercolors of a yarmulke- and tallis-clad Yeshua and his apostles at the Last Supper, survival kits, and long spirally shofars. Attendees, most of whom traveled from out of state, patiently lined up to receive their ID cards and welcome packets. The atmosphere was that of a well-scheduled vacation: They’re here to have an exciting, fulfilling, productive time. I overheard a bearded man wearing tzitzit say, “It’s nice to see so many beards and tzitzit.” Popular among the Hebrew Roots crowd was a miniature version of tzitzit—a woolen square the size of a post-it note, and worn as a key chain.

There were banners everywhere for Hebraic Roots Network, the organization behind Revive. HRN, an online media hub that streams videos of classes, seminars, prayer sessions, etc., as well as original programming—including a children’s show called Torah Puppets—is one of the movement’s few umbrella organizations. Hebrew Roots has no central leadership, no ecclesiastical superstructure; there is no person, committee, or organization making decisions at the top. The tone is set, instead, by the ministries, of which there are about 10 to 15 major ones and hundreds of smaller ones. They are anchored by personalities who have become celebrities in their world. Unlike Cortes, some of them do call themselves, or have come to be called, rabbis. Virtually all the major leaders of the movement were at Revive to pray, teach, and inspire—and to sell videos of themselves praying, teaching, and inspiring.

Tony Robinson, the founder of Restoration of Torah Ministries, read passages from Tanakh, threading a Yeshua-centric theme through the Old Testament. He wore a white polo shirt with his ministry’s emblem on the breast; his tzitzit—traditional style and size, with tekhelet—hung neatly at his sides. With a pastor’s enthusiasm, Robinson, who is black, offered an interpretation of Mordecai and Samson as symbols of resurrection, as examples of victory through death. Ed Harris, who heads the ministry Beit Yashua, gave what he described as a d’var torah in which he spoke about Midrash, Breslov hasidism, and tzedakah. A soft-spoken, professorial woman named Anna talked about something called Refinement Theory. She projected a diagram shaped like an hourglass. The top was marked “All the Children of Israel,” and the bottom, “All with faith in Christ.” Yeshua was at the midpoint. Her class included a linguistic analysis of the root—which she correctly referred to as the shoresh—of the biblical word bekhor, the first-born son.

I spent a number of years studying in Orthodox day schools and yeshivas. It was a little weird listening to all these yeshiva-style techniques and phrases employed in a decidedly non-yeshivish context; in many ways, the classes were not unlike the sort of traditional Torah classes I was familiar with, if a lot more Yeshua-friendly, and with many more instances of people in the audience indiscriminately shouting, “Amen!”

There were exceptions. Victor Schlatter, author of Genetically Modified Prophecies and the founder of a ministry in the South Pacific, opened with Jeremiah 39—Nebuchadnezzar’s siege on Jerusalem, which, as the verse details, continued for 11 years, four months, and nine days. Using a PowerPoint presentation, Schlatter posited that if you count 11 years, four months and nine days from Sept. 11, 2001, you’d end up on either Jan. 20 or 21, 2013, depending if you count 9/11 as day 1 or day 0. (I didn’t check this; it doesn’t really seem worth it.) The next slide read (emphasis Schlatter’s):

“And that just happens to be Barack Obama’s Inauguration for his second term. The irony is that Inauguration Day is always January 20 but in 2013 it was a Sunday so the Inauguration was not held until January 21—either way it works—the ninth day of the fourth month of the eleventh year! Just how accurate is the Almighty!”

Schlatter then claimed that Obama’s name in Hebrew gematria is equal to 501. Which, Schlatter claimed, is equal to “the 1st letter of the 1st word of Egypt’s 10 plagues of Egypt.” Disaster, judgment, doom, et cetera. Schlatter’s last slide announced, “It’s time American Believers Begin to Connect the Dots.” We used to do gematria all the time in yeshiva; once you get the hang of it, you can prove pretty much anything. I did some quick calculations in my notebook. “Barack Hussein Obama” is not, at least not the way it’s usually spelled in Hebrew, equal to 501. (The first letter of the 10 plagues are, however.) I raised my hand and asked Schlatter about the discrepancy; he could not provide a clear response.

Between classes I visited a small conference room on the second floor that acted as a makeshift day care. Most of the 20 or so children were wearing tzitzit, and some had yarmulkes—which are a rabbinic, not a biblical, precept. They listened as the counselors spoke about Hashem, forefathers, prayers, and Israel. When the children would get a little rowdy, the counselor would say a Hebrew prayer call-and-response: “Barchu es Adonai hamevorach!” And the kids would shout back, “Baruch Adonai hamevorach l’olam va’ed!” (Because many followers of Hebrew Roots learn their prayers from Jewish websites operated by ultra-Orthodox groups that still use traditional Ashkenazic transliterations, it’s not unusual to hear these non-Jews using pronunciations many Jews associate with their grandparents’ generation.) In another room about 50 people were practicing Israeli folk dance, though here it was called Davidic Dance, and it was regarded as a form of prayer.

***

I skipped the afternoon classes and wandered around the marketplace, inspecting shofars and shatnez-free pajamas, and ran into Caleb Camero, a 20-year-old from Poteet, a small city right outside San Antonio. Camero is tall, thin, and dark and has an unfilled, wispy beard and dreadlocked peyos that reach well past his shoulders. Everything he was wearing was white, aside from a large, colorful scarf and a large, colorful yarmulke. His tzitzit were traditional and regular-sized, though with very dark, almost black, strings. He looked a lot like a religious Israeli settler. On Shabbat he wears a dark suit, a black fedora, and a tallis.

Camero explained to me that he strives to practice and live “like an Orthodox,” and it’s apparent in his speech, dress, affectations, and even taste in music. “I love Mordechai ben David and Avraham Fried,” he told me, referring to the genre-defining icons of contemporary Jewish music. I expressed surprise that someone from a small city in Texas would be into, or even know about, Mordechai ben David and Avraham Fried. “Of course,” he said, surprised at my surprise. “I also liked Matisyahu before he cut off his peyos.” He started dancing and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” He mentioned, again and again, how much he loves Hashem. He told me about his rabbi-mentor Bill, whom he calls “roeh,” or shepherd; Bill is a firefighter, as well as the head of a three-man religious committee that his community, Shearit Yisrael Qahal Yehoshua, refers to as a beit din. For safety reasons, Bill has to stuff his peyos under his helmet while fighting fires.

I asked Camero, as I asked everyone else I met, why he doesn’t simply convert to Judaism. His answer was characteristically straightforward: “Because I don’t want to be Jewish.” The way the followers see it, Hebrew Roots is not about being Jewish; it’s about obeying the Torah. I got various explanations as to what that means exactly. Some believe you must follow the Torah’s rules; others believe you should; and others are of the more didactic opinion that if you’re not naturally drawn to the Torah lifestyle, then, spiritually speaking, you’re not where you need to be. The Jews, as Camero and others explained to me, have guarded and maintained “the Torah way of life.” In other words, what the Jews practice is the most authentic version of proper Torah observance—the closest approximation of how Yeshua himself would have lived. Many followers of Hebrew Roots consider themselves to be Children of Israel or members of the 10 lost tribes, but they do not consider themselves to be Jewish. Indeed, when a follower of Hebrew Roots converts to Judaism—thereby rejecting Yeshua as the messiah—it’s considered a tragedy for the community. Several teachers at Revive told me about a recent spate of conversions, which they uniformly condemned and described as a “crisis.”

But then Camero mentioned that he might actually be Jewish—he has reason to believe that one of his grandparents was Jewish. “I’m probably Sephardic,” he told me. Camero was not the only one to do this. Like Rico Cortes, more than a few of the attendees I spoke to—none of whom claimed outright to be Jewish, or even suggested that they wanted to become Jewish—nevertheless insinuated that they might, in fact, technically be Jewish. The origins of their claims ranged from their looks to strange, un-Christian customs practiced by their parents or grandparents. When I asked Ephraim Judah, a 27-year-old who is a member of the first generation to have been raised entirely within the movement—his father heads the Oklahoma-based Lion and Lamb Ministries—if he’s Jewish, he offered the cryptic reply, “I am but I don’t.” Being Jewish, it seemed, was something to brag about, a mark of authenticity of something that, at least overtly, wasn’t supposed to matter.

Virtually everyone I spoke to at Revive had similar stories about how they originally got involved with Hebrew Roots. They had been raised Baptist, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventist—one or another Christian denomination that takes the Bible very seriously. At some point, so the origin story goes, they asked themselves, “It says in the Bible that God wants us to keep the Sabbath, or not eat certain foods, or celebrate the Holiday of Tabernacles, or whatever—so why aren’t we doing it?” Then—“with the help of Hashem,” as Camero put it when he told me his story—they found Hebrew Roots. Some were cut off from their families, others brought their family along with them.

***

The Shabbat prayer service was held on Saturday at noon. (I was not in attendance; I watched a video of the service later in the week.) Rico Cortes, in tallis and cap, approached the microphone. “Who’s got shofars?” he called. Three or four dozen people blew their shofars. Cortes spoke briefly about kavanah, the notion of intention during prayer, then began the service.

There aren’t usually shofars at an Orthodox service, and very rarely is there a microphone. That aside, the service was, to a remarkable degree, Orthodox. Cortes, who led the service, wore a traditional tallis—black-and-white, wool, without other colors or add-ons—and he wore it properly: over the shoulders, like a cape; and, when leading the prayers, draped over his head. The liturgy was essentially Orthodox, if truncated, and the tunes Cortes used were traditional—the same tunes I grew up with. After Cortes finished the Amidah prayer—where he dutifully shuckled—he took out the sefer Torah and carried it over his right shoulder, like you’re supposed to, through the crowd. Men and women, many wearing tallit, danced in front of the Torah. They kissed its velvet cover. Then the Torah was brought to the front of the room, laid upon a makeshift bimah, and read aloud in more or less the correct cantillation, preceded and followed by the traditional blessings, plus a blessing for the messiah. There was a traditionally flavored sermon about the Torah portion, Balak, which features an evil prophet and a talking donkey. There was a Haftorah reading. But there was no kiddush afterward. When I joked to one of the teachers later that you could tell the participants weren’t Jews because there wasn’t terrible food, and no one complaining that there wasn’t enough of it, he gave me a quizzical look.

Revive closed out that night with a general assembly, a sort of combination prayer session/gala/class/fundraiser. The event opened with a long, complicated, and technical teaching about the mark of Esau. There was a musical performance by talented, hip-looking young people. One of the songs was called “Sabbath Time.” The Chaya Praise Dance Ministry did some Davidic dances. Then the stage filled with smoke and Brad Scott, founder of Wildbranch Ministry, entered wearing a devil costume. In a vaguely French accent, Scott—who isn’t French—delivered a monologue, in character, about Satan’s recent successes. “I feel gay,” he said, then cackled. “I feel sooo gay. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments.” The crowd compliantly jeered and laughed. Eventually Scott doffed the costume and gave a long, technical sermon about redemption. I started packing up when one of the volunteers approached me. “Don’t leave,” he said. “You’ll miss the best part.”

Within a few minutes, the stage cleared, and a recording of a song called “Song of Ezekiel” began. A half-dozen girls in burgundy skirts entered and danced in a loose circle. Then a man, wearing a head covering and a earth-colored cloak with tzitzit strings at the bottom, slowly walked through. He held an enormous shofar. He approached the front of the stage and lightly placed a hand on four lumpy black mounds. The lyrics began, “I hear the sound of the prophet,” and the man in the cloak mimed blowing his shofar. “Live again, live again,” and those mounds, which turned out to be girls crouching beneath black cloth, stood up and danced. Then out marched a platoon of women in makeshift Israel Defense Forces uniforms—tourist T-shirts, combat boots, berets, and rifles. “I hear the sounds of an army/ A nation preparing for war.” The soldiers danced, formed into two columns. They grasped their rifles. From the barrels they extracted palm branches, which they began to wave in sync. Then they marched off, replaced by dancers holding billowing gold sheets, under which passed a man, barefoot, wearing a white robe and a blue-and-white tallis. His eyes were shut and his arms raised as he approached the front of the stage. “Arise/ Arise/ Arise, here and now.” He lifted his arms and two more mounds arose and danced. The IDF platoon returned, holding only palm branches, and danced. Guitar solo. Series of dance solos. Three of four girls ran to the front of the stage and twirled what looked to be satin flags.

The crowd stood, clapped, began to dance. Caleb Camero grabbed me and pulled me into a circle. The music crescendoed. The dancers, IDF soldiers, sheet billowers, and various men in robes gathered on stage for the song’s final chords. “L’shana habah b’yerushalayim!” Camero shouted as the song ended. “Next year in Jerusalem!”

***

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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