On 'Perfecting' the Jews

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter were not a grating opportunist who said horrible things on air for her own personal gain. Imagine—and it's a stretch—that she occasionally said something interesting or at least worth considering. Then her recent comments on Donny Deutsch's cable show might have generated a useful conversation instead a lot of name-calling and Scripture quoting. Here is what happened: Coulter and Deutsch were bantering about Israel and Iran, when Coulter used the phrase that has gotten so much attention. Christians, she said, "just want Jews to be perfected."

"Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?" asked Deutsch.

"Yes, that's what Christianity is," Coulter answered. Later in the program, Deutsch called Coulter "anti-Semitic," and in the days that followed, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Coulter's statement and the National Jewish Democratic Council called on news organizations to quit inviting Coulter on their programs. On the blogs, Christians alternately signaled their support of or opposition to Coulter's statement with Bible verses and profanity.

First, some background. "Perfected Jews" may have been Coulter's version of saying "completed Jews," which in some conservative evangelical circles means Jewish converts to Christianity. The phrase came into the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was popularized by groups like Jews for Jesus who claimed they could retain their Jewish identity and practice while at the same time believing in the divinity of Jesus (a claim that most mainstream Jewish theologians find ludicrous). For them, "completed" made better sense than "converted," because in their view they weren't abandoning their Jewishness. Today these same people use terms like "fulfilled Jews" or "believing Jews." "By believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel, we've been completed in our Jewish identity by embracing the hope of our people," says David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus. The term "completed Jews" has filtered into the evangelical world. In 2001, the Christian addiction-treatment group Teen Challenge came under fire when an executive there said in a Senate hearing that some Jewish clients became "completed"—or Christian.

When you take a deep breath, you see that from a Christian perspective, the term "completed Jew" makes a certain kind of sense. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Pentateuch. He is the risen Lord and the way to salvation. For a Christian, the Torah is just half of the story. For a Jew, the Torah is the whole story; the phrase offends some Jews because it implies that without Jesus, they are incomplete or imperfect.

Here, then, is the question that underlies Coulter's mouthing-off: why should I, a Jew, be offended because Coulter or any other Christian believes that her religion is superior to mine? The difference between Jews and Christians is 2,000 years old and rests on this fundamental: Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come. Each group believes at some basic level that theirs is the right, best path, or they would choose a different one. In a nation that protects the religious freedom of all with all its might, at a time in history when Jews in America may proclaim their own religious truth without fearing for their lives, why not imagine a polite way to talk about our differences instead of pasting them over or throwing rhetorical bombs? The problem with Ann Coulter is not, in this particular case, that she thinks her way is more perfect than mine but that she incites and revels in hate talk for profit. Nobody's perfect, least of all Coulter—and I'm not worried about what she thinks about me.