I haven’t seen any reports on what the former president said last night at the big annual fundraiser thrown by the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute in Irving, Texas, but I figure that as an evangelical Christian he’s entitled to want to bring everybody to Jesus, including us Jews. So why the big tzimmes (that’s Yiddish for commotion) among my coreligionists?
Some of it has to do with the fact that the organization in question is part of the broad Jews for Jesus movement that for the past several decades has staked its identity — and proselytizing appeal — on the claim that you can be a Jew who believes that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. The earliest followers of Jesus were, of course, just such Jews; the term Judeo-Christian was first used by 19th-century Bible scholars to distinguish them from the Pauline Christians who believed that you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Jesus.
So today’s Messianic Jews are considered traif — neither kosher Jews nor kosher Christians — and Jews generally regard them as making the deceptive claim that you can become a Christian without ceasing to be a Jew. That’s why news of Bush’s speech impelled Rabbi David Wolpe to update an article in which he argues that it’s not possible to be Jewish and Christian at the same time. The argument, one might note, runs up against the late economist Kenneth Boulding’s First Law: “If something exists, then it must be possible.”
Be that as it may, the main problem is not that it was before latter-day Judeo-Christians that Bush appeared. Had he spoken before any group dedicated to evangelizing the Jews, the Jews would have been plenty unhappy.
That’s because we have come to think that Christians really are obliged to accept the continued validity of our original deal with God — especially those Christians who are prominent in the American public square. Back in 1980, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bailey Smith, created a major stir when he told the religious right’s first big national meeting that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” — inasmuch as God, in his view, only hears the prayers of those who accept Jesus as the Messiah.
De facto, the American Jewish position is that our legitimacy as members of the community is undermined when someone suggests that the covenant at Sinai has been superseded by the Christian covenant. That’s why, as Cathy Grossman notes, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wanted Bush to tell the assemblage that “the Jews – as a people — already have a relationship with God. I mean, directly.”
Of course, we Jews do not tend to feel similarly compelled to grant the validity of Christianity’s newer deal. “There are many remarkable and wonderful teachings of Jesus in the New Testament,” says Wolpe. “However, they are the teachings of a human being, not a God.” Whether he thinks that means that God doesn’t hear prayers offered to Jesus, he doesn’t say.