Hillary Kaell, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Moshe Zilverberg’s YouTube videos caught my eye. A burly man in jeans, sunglasses, and a kippa standing on a bucolic hilltop and hoisting a massive shofar aloft to punctuate his prayers. The sign beside him read, “A Torah for All Nations.”
Moshe is 59 years old and has lived in Oregon nearly all his life. He is a former military man who served 20 years in the navy and National Guard. Today, he is a busy grandfather who works for the public school system and also runs Shuvu LaTorah, a new Messianic congregation in Klamath Falls. Like most Messianic believers I have met, Moshe’s story of faith has lots of twists and turns. He spent his childhood attending a Catholic Church in Minnesota but, at age 12, his parents divorced and his mother moved the kids to be with her parents in Grants Pass, Oregon, where they joined their Lutheran church. His grandfather was of Jewish heritage, and Moshe grew close to him as a teen. Years later, when God called Moshe to his Jewish roots, he took his grandfather’s name—Moses Zilverberg.
In his testimony of faith, Moshe recounts how he dabbled in Druidism and other “occult” practices. By age 35, he was drinking too much and felt spiritually attacked. God led him to a Pentecostal church in Grants Pass, where he had four demons cast out and was born again. He became a pastor in an independent Pentecostal church and then a Wesleyan one. In 2010, he heard God call again, this time telling him to live more Jewishly. He began to learn about Messianic Judaism online and from a small local fellowship, and then transitioned his Wesleyan congregation to a Sabbath-keeping one, changed his name, and received Messianic training in Spokane. After returning to Oregon, he experimented with living off the grid, but came “off the mountain” a couple years ago because of ill health. He is now building up Shuvu LaTorah, as he works towards rabbinic ordination with the United Messianic Jewish Assembly (UMJA). The congregation draws about fifteen people each week. On feast days, like Sukkot, it can draw many more, from as far as 300 miles away.
As I note in the Introduction, the term “nation” is laden with theological and prophetic meaning for Messianic believers. Moshe’s home on the California-Oregon border adds another layer, since it is a place marked by the multiple nations that inhabit North America. The region is home to the Klamath nation, descendants of local indigenous tribes, along with white settlers with U.S. citizenship.
The area’s history is textbook. White men with English names cut trails during the California Gold Rush, provoking a costly war with indigenous residents who were then forcibly removed. More settlers arrived in the early twentieth century, with the railway and timber industry. There is a legacy of fierce (white) independence in Klamath Falls; it’s a home rule municipality where homesteads still dot the hills. It nurtures a conservative-style patriotism and has gone Republican in the last five Presidential elections. In speaking with Moshe, I could feel the ethos of Messianic Judaism woven into the ethos of Oregon borderlands—the independence, creativity, and self-assured sense of ownership. It’s a God thing, Moshe would certainly remind me.
In what follows, I reproduce parts of our discussion, focusing on how Moshe understands his connection to ‘nations’ of various sorts. Originally, I was going to post the transcript without comment, but I decided to include a few bracketed comments to clarify certain ideas and signal to readers why I chose that section. This is not an exhaustive commentary by any means and I hope readers will make their own connections between this material, Moshe’s videos, and their own research or experiences.
I. Covenant Nation: Being Israel
HK: Do you think of the Jewish people as a “nation”? If so, can you give me a sense of how you might explain that to, say, a Gentile outside of your congregation?
MZ: Since God made a covenant with Abraham, Israel has been a nation. But God said he would become the father of many nations so Israel is just the first [nation]… If you read the Torah, it says the nations join in with [Israel]. There’s one law, one Torah, one nation for the Jew and the foreigner who joins in with them. I’ve heard people say, Oh I wish I was Jewish. And I say, No you don’t! (laughing) Because there’s a lot of pressure in being in that nation.
HK: Did that affect you when you embraced a connection to this nation as an adult? Did it change your sense of responsibility?
MZ: It changed me a lot. When I got saved 23 years ago, I felt—not more important—but that I had a more important role as an example [to others]. And then when I started practicing Messianic Judaism I really felt the change..[to] set an example for what God wants us to do and how we’re supposed to be. So it changes a lot and there’s a sacrifice that comes with that.
[When I asked Moshe for an example of sacrifice, he discussed keeping Shabbat when most people in his family and community do not. Most Messianic Jews come to the movement as adults and it can cause minor social discomfort or major interpersonal rifts, which believers sometimes relish as sacrifices for the Lord. I have often heard believers, including Moshe, draw a connection between the responsibility and sacrifice imposed upon Israel as Covenant nation and the one imposed upon them, as individuals who are alert to God’s call. At a theological level, it feels to me like one of the most significant ways Messianic believers braid the Jewish idea of nation into an evangelical ethos of individual spiritual seeking.]
II. The State: National & Personal Independence
HK: Of course, we use the word “nation” as a political term for contemporary nation-states…So thinking about the nation-state of Israel, how would you characterize its in light of God’s work in the world?
MZ: At this point right now, I know that Israel is still a state so they do not have, you know, full independence. As far as being a nation under God, there’s a transition that’s trying to happen right now under the Jewish leadership. They are trying to [and] they do have a Sanhedrin. So I believe that as a nation, they are going to be different than the actual state of Israel.
HK: I’m not sure I followed you about independence….
MZ: So there’s a difference between [the prophetic nation] Israel and the state of Israel right now, which is more or less under world control. So the UN and under Rome. The reason I say that is when I was on the Israeli-Egyptian border [with the army] and we were observing the treaty between Egypt and Israel, we would do all our reporting to Rome. I don’t know all that connection but I do know that the high leaders of the Jewish people have been meeting with the Pope lately. So the difference is that the covenanted people of Israel are the people who are following the Torah and more specifically following Messiah. Once [Jewish Israelis…make that connection [to Yeshua] that will restore the land to full independence under God.
[Moshe dreams of doing ministry and missions in Israel to help Jewish Israelis make the connection to Yeshua. As he spoke, the full weight of it became clear to me at a legal/political level too: his mission could help propel Israel to ‘full independence’ under God’s rule. No other Messianics have told me that Israel is actually controlled by the UN or Rome but, more generally, the charge echoes evangelical concerns and conspiracy theories about world governance. His note about the Sanhedrin likely refers to the Temple Institute, which is well known in Messianic circles.]
HK: Another important nation-state in your life—and in my life, I guess!—is the one in which you have citizenship: the United States. Would you characterize yourself as a patriotic citizen of the United States? And I’m curious whether your journey into Messianic Judaism changed the way you thought about the United States.
MZ: I’m very patriotic. I did 20 years in the service, in the military. And I love the opportunity in America, even though I know America’s changed a lot. So I support the United States, as long as they support God’s law, God’s Torah. That’s what our Constitution is founded on…[but it] has been suffering [since], morally speaking, America has really changed a lot. There’s lot of political correctness that you have to deal with immoralities and different lifestyles. The government supports a lot of that…[But] I’m excited that Trump is supporting Israel. Because God’s word promises that if we bless Israel, we’ll be blessed.
HK: I noticed you forwarded a petition for the Convention of States Project—I told you I stalked you online! (laughs). I saw it’s an effort to limit the US federal government’s power and jurisdiction. Does that political aspiration fit into your biblical view of the world?
MZ: I think it’s in the same ballpark about what God wants, because there’s a lot of freedoms we don’t have because of the way the corporation works. So I’d hope the federal government would be less involved, and the state governments too…And so what I did, during about a two-year process, I filed to become a private citizen…It’s basically going back to the original intent of the Constitution…[before] the changes after the Civil War and [when] the government [wanted] more control and started giving birth certificates [and] caused people to have to pay taxes and sign papers, basically signing their lives away as a corporate entity.
HK: …How does [being a private citizen] square with the fact that Judaism definitely views people in relation to other people, as “corporate” entities, as you put it? The idea of a covenant for a whole people, for example.
MZ: Yeah, but [being a private citizen] gives me more freedom to move into that [Jewish] covenant. More freedom without the government restrictions. So I’ve helped about 10 other people in Grants Pass [Oregon] go through the process too. I haven’t brought it up yet [in Klamath Falls], but there’s that option to be more free. Because if you incorporate yourself with the [U.S.] government, it separates us from God. There’s this other ruling that’s not of God. I’m free to be the person God’s calling me to be.
[Studies associate this movement, usually called “sovereign citizens,” with conspiracy theories rooted in white nationalism, though the latter no longer defines the movement today. Sovereign citizens often sacralize the U.S. Constitution as divinely ordained, interpret law in accordance with evangelical biblical exegesis, and espouse a “bible-based Christian Patriotism.” Though other Messianic believers have not told me about private citizenship, it converges with their strong propensity for online research and spiritual seeking. As spiritual seekers, Messianics extend the evangelical quest to be set free in the Lord. Moshe overlays a legal-political framework on the spiritual one, seeking “freedom” on multiple fronts at once.]
III. The Land: Border Lines & Spirits
HK: You and your wife lived off the grid for two years [2015-2017]. Now that you’ve explained your ethos about being a private citizen I’m thinking there’s maybe a connection there, you know, that self-sufficiently.
MZ: Yes, but the problem is, even if you’re off the grid, if you don’t go far enough out you still have county rules and laws that say you have to give the government money—or else they’ll kick you off your land. So the land is important to me because I know even in the [U.S.] Constitution you couldn’t even vote unless you were a landowner. I still have a heart desire to move off the grid and pretty much start up a commune type-thing that would expand into a larger group.
HK: The idea with the commune is [with] a Messianic Jewish intent or—?
MZ: Yes, I was going to build a synagogue up there and there were lots of other people I was meeting living off the grid and started, kind of, gathered them. So we can actually follow God’s law and what He’s called us to do, and follow it freely without fear of persecution or retribution.
HK: So it’s a much bigger project! I was picturing just you and your wife in a little cabin, but that wasn’t what you had in mind in being off the grid!
[I’ve never heard of other Messianic believers trying to start a commune. It does, however, speak to a long tradition in U.S. religion of being called to the ‘wilderness’ to create a more perfect society, or nation, under godly rule.]
HK: You post a lot of videos and photos where you are outside, especially blowing the shofar. Or with a sign for your future congregation, which I now realize isn’t actually located on that site, since the [building] is actually in town…Did you choose outdoor sites for those videos for a particular reason?
MZ: That’s a great question….It’s basically the promise God gave to Moses and to Joshua: wherever your foot has trod, I’ll give you this land. So I’ve stepped on different places. I’ve actually been to five states, up to high points, in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Washington [and Oregon]. Specifically, here in Klamath Falls [I am asking] God to establish His presence here. And to bring healing to the sins committed against the Native Americans when the settlers came in and then for the Native Americans who retaliated and did their part. So I’m asking for a healing between those nations.
HK: In the videos, you said you’re “giving notice to the principalities” so they no longer “wreak havoc” and “will be removed.” Could you explain?
MZ: My understanding is every area has principalities, which could be controlled for good or evil depending on what’s going on in that land area. Even border lines, like county lines or city lines. There are these lines that have different controlling powers in them. And one of my best pictures I have for how principalities work [is when] I went to Israel. I’d been in Egypt [with the army] and…we had to cross a line [the national border]. One side is Egypt and one side is Israel. And as soon as I stepped over the line I took a deep breath and a sigh of relief and I was, like, “What’s this, Lord? It feels like America!” And I remember the Lord said to me, “Freedom, freedom!” [But for] removing the principalities, I know it’s not time yet because there aren’t enough people who would back it up.
HK: You mean removing the principalities, like the actual counties around Klamath Falls with legal jurisdictions?
MZ: Yes. The principalities that have controls over different parts of the area here and even some of the Native curses that were put out [against the settlers]…If you go beyond this physical realm into the spiritual realm, you can begin to pray in a direction that will bring real change. That’s just one of the gifts God’s given me to be able to sense those, feel those spirits. And to do things that bring change to that.
[Charismatic ministries focused on spiritual warfare have popularized the phrase “principalities and powers,” from KJV translations of Ephesians. As biblical scholars note, Paul uses “principalities” for both spiritual and temporal governance, which is reflected in Moshe’s use of the term. The impact of spiritual warfare is evident in how Moshe talks about territories of influence, his gift to discern spirits, and the shofar’s battle call.]
Rereading the transcript of our conversation, I began to see the logic connecting Moshe’s spiritual, social, and political outlook. At its heart is his commitment to covenant/constitution—an agreement between God and a people that ultimately makes a nation. For Moshe, Israel’s covenant and the U.S. Constitution are agreements of this sort and both are under threat, or at least unfulfilled. Moshe calls out for moral change from the nation’s margins—the Yeshua-believer in Israel (one day, perhaps) and the private citizen in the United States. Another key to Moshe’s thought concerns the overlap between spiritual jurisdictions and geographic-legal ones, such as national borders and county lines. Moshe’s gift is a capacity to discern “good” and “bad” governance in these spaces. The good feels like freedom; Egypt versus Israel, for example, or getting so far off–the-grid that county rules no longer apply. This freedom needs high points: the mountain where he plans a commune or the vistas where he blows the shofar. It also implies a responsibility to bring others into the truth, as a guide towards emancipation from the U.S. government and as a Christian pastor and, soon, a Messianic rabbi. Thus stands Moshe—a free believer with a direct line to God.