Bible quiz brouhaha

An anti-missionary group wants Bat El Levy, shown at a presidential reception in Jerusalem May 4, 2008, disqualified from a Bible competition because she is a messianic Jew. (Brian Hendler)

An anti-missionary group wants Bat El Levy, shown at a presidential reception in Jerusalem May 4, 2008, disqualified from a Bible competition because she is a messianic Jew. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Should Bat El Levy be asked at Israel’s international youth Bible quiz next week about the messiah’s coming, she may find herself in a bind.

The 17-year-old Jerusalem girl is a world-class scriptural scholar who, as it happens, believes in Jesus.

It might never have been an issue were it not for the sleuthing of an Israeli anti-missionary group, Yad LeAhim, which sees Levy’s participation in the annual Jewish Bible contest as a threat to Judaism.

Yad LeAhim director Shlomo Dov Lipschitz circulated a letter to Israel’s top rabbis last week calling for pressure on the Education Ministry to disqualify Levy from the quiz, which takes place annually on Israeli Independence Day. This year it will be held May 8 under the auspices of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Lipschitz argued that Levy, who comes from a family of messianic Jews – who believe Jesus is the messiah – should not be considered Jewish. He also included an apparent appeal to prestige: the fear of traditional Jews being shown up in Bible knowledge by someone who has mastered the New Testament as well.

In his letter, which was leaked to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Lipschitz said Levy “has a chance of becoming the world Bible champion,” and this could “greatly encourage” the spread of Christianity among Jews.

Several leading sages signed on, threatening a boycott of the quiz. Levy is slated to face off against 15 young biblical scholars from Israel and the Diaspora.

“Once they used to wage crusades in order to bring us closer to Christianity,” warned Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leader of the national religious movement. “Now they work by other means.”

But the Education Ministry refused to bar Levy. A ministry spokesman said that issues of personal belief were not the organizers’ concern and that because Levy “is Jewish according to her Israeli identity cards and school registration,” she can take part in the contest.

Levy, the Bible quiz champion for the Jerusalem district, was unavailable for comment. Relatives said she was too busy studying for the competition to deal with the media uproar.

A family confidant, who declined to be identified, confirmed to JTA that the Levys are followers of Jesus – or, as they would put it, “Yeshua Ben-David of Nazareth.” But the confidant denied that Levy or her kin were involved in proselytizing other Jews – a crime in Israel, where many blame church dogma for centuries of European anti-Semitism and persecution.

“This is a matter of private religious beliefs,” the confidant said. “Yad LeAhim and their ilk simply don’t like Jews who practice a different version of Judaism.”

Israel has an estimated 8,000 so-called messianic Jews. In effect they are crypto-Christians, practicing their faith discreetly for fear of stoking hostility among mainstream Jews.

Reprisals can sometimes be violent.

Police suspect that it was anti-missionary vigilantes in March who planted a bomb outside a building in Ariel believed to house messianic Jews. A boy set off the device and suffered serious wounds.

Last October, arsonists attacked a Baptist church in Jerusalem that offers services in Hebrew.

The Levy family confidant gave no indication that Bat El might shy away from the competition. One of her immediate relatives, the confidant said, is a career officer in the Israeli military and is open about the religion issue.

“We trust in God,” the confidant said, “and that those seeking to harm Bat El will get what they deserve.”

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