Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute

A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Zealots and Sages

The people are confused and aimless.

Lately they have been attracted to the neighboring Moabites.

The Israelite men have been seen consorting with them — some serious interdating.

Moses and Aaron don’t know what to do; they are old men, out of touch. They seem to enjoy sitting around, saying prayers, making Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays, communing with God — but no action.

Suddenly the community is astir: A young Israelite prince has been seen checking into a motel with a Midianite socialite. The old men do what they do best: They ask God for help, they offer prayers and incense, they call for a commission to study the matter.

Pinchas was your go-to guy for cutting through the red tape. He was not constrained by the inefficiencies of a cumbersome and feckless legal system.

While the old men were wringing their hands over the loose morals of the younger generation and their profligate ways, the young priest seized a spear, burst into the bedroom of the young sybarites and impaled them together. And then, of course, comes the plague. Morality is satisfied, but people die.

I don’t like Pinchas; most of the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t either. His actions, they averred, are not to be emulated or serve as legal precedent. He was intemperate and disrespectful (not like those nice daughters of Zelophehad; the Zelophehad girls also saw injustice in the legal system, but they brought their complaint to Moses and it all worked out peacefully. Why couldn’t he be more like them?)

Pinchas exemplified the apocryphal teaching of another battlefield star, Gen. George Patton: “A violent plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.” Yet what can we do? God apparently approved of Pinchas and granted him a special place in the priesthood. It is noteworthy that he developed his career with a sort of specialty in zealotry. In the Book of Joshua, we learn that when the tribes on the West Bank suspected their brothers across the river of building an altar to a foreign god, they selected Pinchas to lead the delegation to investigate. I have no doubt that he took his spear with him.

But toward the end of our parsha, when Moses anoints his successor, it is Joshua who received the commission, not Pinchas. Perhaps Moses suspected that the meteoric success of the young priest was not a predictor of future performance.

There is a scribal tradition, maintained in every Torah scroll, that testifies to the problematic nature of Pinchas’ reward. “I give him my covenant of peace,” God tells Moses regarding the young priest. But the word for peace, shalom, is defective. The letter vav is inscribed hollow. It is a broken letter, a broken shalom, a peace that can’t endure.

There is more. An ancient tradition identifies Pinchas with the prophet Elijah (never mind that they lived centuries apart). They shared a common soul: Elijah also declared that he alone was an avatar of God’s word, the last of the zealots.

God didn’t think much of Elijah’s zealotry. As a result, Elijah/Pinchas is tasked with appearing at every seder and every brit milah. At the seder he witnesses children turning to their parents with honest, sometimes embarrassing questions about our traditions and the parents’ telling the story, patiently and repetitively, to the children. At the brit milah, Elijah/Pinchas must witness that every generation has its place in the Covenant with God. He must also witness a token drop of blood drawn to perpetuate the covenant, not a murderous act of violent bloodletting — a much better and holier use of sharp objects.

Is there a place for zeal? No doubt. The battlefield needs warriors, not poets. Institutions, including religious ones, often get bogged down in minutiae and forget the mission. It is refreshing when younger eyes and hands can bring new perspectives to old intractables and shake things up. Communities depend on such people; without them, we would drown in process and the weight of precedent. The trick is for the sage and zealot to work together, even — maybe especially — when it is the same person.

Moderation owes a debt to passion, which must be paid without undue deliberation. The Book of Psalms exclaims: “There is a time to act for God! They have violated your Torah!” On this difficult verse, the third-century rabbi Rava explained that it can go in two directions. Sometimes, when people claim “This is a time for acting for God!” the result is a violation of God’s Torah. Sometimes, though, when there is rampant violation of Torah, there is indeed a “time for acting for God” and following the example of the zealot. Yet, I am frightened of my inner Pinchas. Anger and indignation are hard to channel; once unleashed, plagues can follow with celerity.

Religious zealots, whether they are rabbis, preachers, or ayatollahs, will always command a following. They may inspire masses to march, but rarely to think. Next Pesach or bris, let’s welcome the zealot to our home and offer him a glass of wine to sip and a chair to sit down.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz is av bet din of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din and serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.