Are Messianic Jews Unfairly Shunned by Jews?

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas is out today with a surprisingly sympathetic look (for a Jewish news outlet) at the fallout from George W. Bush’s appearance at the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute last week. (Notably, at the JTA’s website, the headline reads: “For Messianic Jews, Bush speech a coup but acceptance elusive,” but the Jewish Daily Forward ran it under the headline,”George W. Bush Ducks Spotlight at Jews for Jesus Fundraiser.”)

Kampeas quotes some anonymous sources in the Bush camp, who claim that the former president had no idea that raising money for Messianic Jews might play negatively in the Jewish community:

It’s not clear if Bush initially understood what an appearance at a Messianic Jewish event would signify. Sources close to the former president said that an aide recommended accepting the engagement without understanding Jewish sensitivities.

Really?

Bush went ahead, the sources said, not because he favored the movement’s mission of proselytizing but because he thought backing out would be bad form.

Although the piece goes on to quote Rabbi David Wolpe, who called Bush’s appearance at MJBI “infuriating,” the remainder of the piece is devoted to a rather uncritical look at the views of Messianic Jews themselves. 

It’s useful and necessary, of course, to report these views. But a little context is in order.

Rabbi Russ Resnik, the director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, tells Kampeas that “proselytizing should not be the determining factor for mainstream Jews in considering a relationship with Messianic Jews. The Jewish establishment also should take into account the longing for Jewish connection and community among Messianic Jews, he said.” 

In its “core values statement,” UMJC states:

Yeshua, by virtue of His atoning death and bodily resurrection, has provided the atonement for our sins. The congregations of the UMJC are committed to bringing this message to our people so that they too may believe in Yeshua and find the peace with God promised by our prophets for Israel and all humanity.

It’s hard, then, for proselytizing to not be a determining factor when it’s the first thing in your “core values statement.”

One of the chief reasons leaders in the organized Jewish community objected to Bush’s speech to the MJBI was his conferral of legitimacy on the group and the movement, and now Messianic Jews are using Bush to validate their views. As Mitch Glaser of Chosen People’s Ministries (“Chosen People Ministries exists to pray for, evangelize, disciple, and serve Jewish people everywhere and to help fellow believers do the same”) boasted to Kampeas, “We’re a vital community and we are attracting President Bush and others who want to speak to us.”

Glaser cited the recent Pew survey of American Jews, which found that 34% say one can believe Jesus was the messiah and still be Jewish. The question is a bit maddeningly vague (for example, it does not ask: do you believe Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe he is the son of God? Do you believe you must convert to Christianity to be “complete”? Do you believe the Jews have been spiritually “blind” for two thousand years)? 

But Glaser and others who have cited this statistic miss another important point: the Pew survey attempted to identify the number of Messianic Jews answering the survey. And among respondents with a Jewish background (raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent) only two percent identified as Messianic. Many people who identify as Messianic Jews are not Jewish, but have adopted the terminology for the now-discarded term “Hebraic Christian.”

What, then, accounts for the 34% figure? A closer look at the data yields some fascinating details. First, the more educated one is, the less likely one is to believe that one can be Jewish and believe Jesus was the messiah. Only 28% of those with a college education or more answered yes; 48% with a high school education or less did. Second, the group most likely to say that you can believe Jesus was the messiah and still be Jewish was Jews of no denomination (46%). By contrast, only 25% of Reform Jews and 28% of Conservative Jews believe that. Surprisingly, a greater percentage of Orthodox Jews—35%—believe it.

What to make of this? For one thing, Reform and Conservative Jews are far less likely to identify as Republican than Orthodox Jews do (Reform: 17% are Republican, Conservative 27%, Orthodox 57%). In Republican and conservative circles, one is more likely to be exposed to evangelical-Jewish alliances, where there’s a lot of crossover among evangelicals and Messianic Jews, or at least an affinity for them. Case in point: a rabbi from Glaser’s ministry blew a shofar at this year’s National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill. That’s just one example. The appearance of a Messianic Jew at an evangelical event like that is commonplace, and often produces a rapturous reaction from the audience.

Some conservative Jewish figures—while by no means defending Bush’s blunder—nonetheless sought to deflect attention from it by arguing that Judaism is more challenged from within. Tevi Troy, a former Bush liaison to the Jewish community, argued that the Pew survey “suggests that the real problem the American Jewish community faces is the voluntary departure of Jews from Judaism. As Jonathan Tobin recently wrote in Commentary, the key takeaway from the Pew study is the degree to which American Jews are choosing not to live as Jews. The departure of Jews from Judaism via forced conversion pales before the voluntary abandonment of Judaism taking place before our eyes.”

That, though, misses the point. The crux of the criticism of Bush’s fundraising for MJBI was not a sense that Messianic Judaism threatens Judaism’s survival, but rather that Jews find the proselytizing and the claims of Jewish spiritual “blindness” offensive. That’s a view shared by Jews of the many stripes identified in the Pew survey, ranging from Orthodox to secular.

It’s conservatives, not liberals, though, who have endorsed MJBI, and welcome Messianic Jews as partners, for the same reason conservative Jews embrace evangelicals: “love” for the Jews and Israel, as well as shared beliefs on other political and social issues. Past speakers at MJBI before Bush included Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck.

The Pew survey, notably, also showed shifts in American Jewish attitudes towards Israel, a development that must worry the conservative camp, and could lead them to strengthen their bond with evangelicals. 

I wrote several months ago that Judaism isn’t threatened by Messianic Judaism, but that its growth will have a deep impact on Jewish-Christian relations. The uproar over Bush is one of what I suspect will be a growing list of examples. 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email