It is understandable that religious leaders in Howard County's Jewish community were upset about the Emmanuel Messianic Congregation's decision to move from Baltimore County to Columbia this fall.
The new arrivals preach a doctrine that is decidedly outside the mainstream of Jewish beliefs, namely that Jesus is the messiah.
"I think that Messianic Judaism is a profound distortion of both Judaism and Christianity," says Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation. "Therefore, it represents a threat to both communities."
That is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to animosity toward Messianics. Some rabbis believe they are a Christian fundamentalist group in disguise or a cult that manipulates vulnerable Jews into converting.
David A. Rausch, professor of history and Judaic Studies at Ohio's Ashland University, traces the Messianic tradition to the turn of the century, during a Fundamental Evangelical movement that converted many Jews to Christianity. Some new converts wanted to maintain Jewish traditions and therefore the sect was born.
Today there are close to 200 Messianic congregations and perhaps as many as 160,000 members nationwide. There are also concerns about Messianics receiving financial backing from Christian fundamentalist groups.
Howard County's Jewish community is one of the fastest-growing in the country. Between 8,500 and 10,000 Jews live in the county, with many involved in one of five established congregations. Most worship in one of Columbia's Interfaith Centers. Howard's first synagogue, Beth Shalom Temple, is scheduled to open next August. For a Jewish community so vibrant, the Messianics shouldn't present any real threat.
That people are entitled to believe in what they want is more than a profound ideal, it is protected under the Constitution. It requires, at the least, a respect for the individual's right to choose. Fears and condemnations can be the roots of intolerance and religious discrimination.
Howard's Jewish leaders have a right to warn their flock about a perceived threat. But in doing so they must remain vigilant not to cross the threshold into unacceptable intolerance.