Generally speaking, the Jewish community has had a fairly good relationship with bushes, ever since Moses heard God speaking to him from within a burning bush on Mount Sinai. So how did former President Bush find manage to inadvertently infuriate Jews all across America last month?
The trouble started when the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) in Dallas scheduled former President George Bush as the keynote speaker at its November 14, 2013 fundraiser. Bush is not the first big-name conservative to attend the event. In 2012, the MJBI booked media mogul Glenn Beck to speak at their fundraiser.
Prior to the event this year, a reporter from Mother Jones took advantage of the opportunity to cast Bush in a negative light and published an article criticizing Bush for associating with Messianic Jews. The article titled “George W. Bush to Raise Money for Group That Converts Jews to Bring About Second Coming of Christ” pointed out that “Messianic Jews have long been controversial for Jews of all major denominations, who object to their proselytizing efforts and their message that salvation by Jesus is consistent with Jewish theology.” The Mother Jones article generously included links to the anti-messianic website of Jews for Judaism.
The Mother Jones article got the Anti-Defamation League involved and raised the ire of the broader Jewish community. Suddenly high-profile Jewish leaders around the country were expressing outrage, and the promotional postings for the event abruptly vanished.
Poor President Bush.
He never saw it coming. He probably assumed he was doing something positive for the Jewish community without realizing just how controversial Messianic Judaism still is. Sources close to the former president said that an aide recommended accepting the engagement without understanding Jewish sensitivities. It’s not clear if Bush initially understood what an appearance at a Messianic Jewish event would signify. After facing the wider reaction, former president probably felt something like a man who unexpectedly steps in a fresh cow pie. Nevertheless, to his credit, Bush went ahead with the event, albeit behind closed doors and with no further promotional listings.
The Times of Israel ran a good follow-up story about President Bush’s brush with Messianic Jews, titled “Has the Time Come to Accept Messianic Jews?” The Times piece offered a more balanced look at the story and some thoughtful analysis of the visceral reaction Bush’s appearance evoked from the Jewish world. The Times summed up the 2,000 year-old religious debate in a few words:
Messianic Jews embrace Jesus as the messiah but hew to Jewish traditions, observing Jewish holidays and reciting Hebrew prayers in services. Many, but by no means all, are born Jews who have come to accept Jesus and see their practices as legitimate expressions of Judaism.
Mainstream Jewish groups generally have rejected Messianic Jews, seeing them as luring Jews into Christianity under the pretense that they can maintain their Judaism even while accepting belief in Jesus.
The Times piece also included reaction from Messianic Jewish leaders Jonathan Bernis (Jewish Voice International), Russ Resnik (Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations), and Mitch Glaser (Chosen People Ministries). Moreover, the Times cited a recent Pew Survey which finds that 34 percent of Jewish people polled believe it is possible to believe in Jesus and still be Jewish.
What does the story mean for Messianic Judaism? It means that, despite the opinion of 34 percent of Jewish people, Messianic Judaism is still the most controversial form of Jewish expression. Nevertheless, under the adage that “all press is good press,” we can look at the event a success, forcing the wider Jewish community to at least recognize that we exist. Messianic Jewish synagogues now exist in virtually every major population center in North America, including the Messianic, Sabbath-keeping synagogues in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul area of Minnesota.
Jewish objections to Messianic Judaism need to be understood within the context of the long ugly history between Christianity and the Jewish people. The Messianic Jewish movement was birthed out of missionary efforts to proselytize Jewish people into Christianity. Messianic Judaism is still viewed as a façade intended to lure Jews to abandon Judaism and convert to another religion. The overwhelming negative reaction in the Jewish press should remind us all that we still have a long way to go to repair our reputation and the reputation of the most famous Jew in the world.