On Oct. 29, two days after the breathtakingly tragic terrorist attack against Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a campaign rally for several Republican candidates in Michigan. At the speech, a religious leader gave a prayer for the victims of the attack and prayed for the Republican candidates.
This gesture should have been taken as a kindness and show of respect. Outrage, however, centered around the fact that the religious leader, Rabbi Loren Jacobs of Shema Israel temple in Detroit, Michigan, is a Messianic Jew (a Jew who believes Jesus is the Messiah, so a Jew who is a Christian).
ThinkProgress quoted Daily Kos’ David Nir as saying, “Pence could not possibly have done something more offensive to Jews.” The article cited the progressive website Eclecta Blog, which, after incorrectly stating in its title that Pence had invited the rabbi, began its commentary by saying: “I don’t know how to describe this exactly. It may be the most insulting thing anyone in the Trump administration or campaign has done to Jewish Americans.”
Bend the Arc — a self-proclaimed progressive Jewish organization that stated in an open letter to President Trump he was unwelcome in Pittsburgh until he “denounced” white supremacy — responded by saying, “11 Jews were killed while praying, and this is how the Vice President responds??? Another attack on us from this administration.”
A local rabbi stated, “The only rabbi they could find to offer a prayer for the 11 Jewish victims in Pittsburgh at the Mike Pence rally was a local Jews for Jesus rabbi? … That’s pathetic!” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted, “Dear Pence, please give up the pretense of Jewish presence. You are a Christian supremacist. We know that, you know that. Also we will defeat you. But in the meantime, just stop pretending and appropriating my people.”
When the controversy was brought to the attention of Pence’s team, they confirmed he had been there to support the Republican candidates, and did not know Jacobs. The rabbi had been invited by congressional candidate Lena Epstein, who is Jewish, as a show of interfaith unity in the face of hatred and terrorism. Epstein said in a statement:
I invited the prayer because we must unite as a nation — while embracing our religious differences — in the aftermath of Pennsylvania. Any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President is guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed. Now is the time for people of all faiths, of all religions, to come together as one and reject hate and religious divisions … That means Christians, Jews, Muslims, and everyone else who will stand together, hold hands in unity against evil, and speak from our individual hearts with one voice.
Rabbi Marla Hornsten, past president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, when asked why Epstein invited Jacobs said: “She didn’t reach out to any of us. That being said, none of us would have done it. Rabbis who are members of the Michigan Board of Rabbis are not participating in political campaigns.”
Jacobs describes himself on his synagogue’s website as growing up in a Jewish home with Jewish ancestry, where he became a Messianic Jew in 1975, while his wife was raised in a Messianic home of several generations. He shares a story with many who come from a Jewish background and have embraced Christianity.
Messianic Judaism is sometimes referred to as “Jews for Jesus,” a movement that aggressively seeks out Jews for conversion to Christianity. While the religion has ordaining bodies such as the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, Messianics hold varying degrees of Jewish observation and Christian theology. They tend to reject what is considered to be the pagan elements of Catholicism and the rejection of Jewish principles in modern Protestant denominations. Their views are distinguishably Christian, but their practice, dress, synagogues, titles, and other religious expression are culturally or traditionally Jewish.
Messianic Jews are a highly controversial topic of rare agreement by the majority of Jewish branches. The faith is viewed as predatory and deceptive, convincing vulnerable Jewish people to abandon Judaism for Christianity under the guise of Jewish practice. It is usually understood that, regardless of one’s efforts, one cannot cease being Jewish. Hasidic Jews devote themselves to bringing nonobservant Jews back into the fold, and some Jewish leaders, like a personal hero of mine, Rabbi Tovia Singer, actively seek out Jewish converts to Christianity in an attempt to return them to Jewish practice and belief.
Yet many Jews are perfectly content and happy as Messianic Jews. I encountered this fact when I worked with a large evangelical church in my area when my synagogue aligned with them to celebrate Israel Independence Day in our town. I worked closely with a man raised as an Orthodox Jew who later became a Messianic Jew and leader in the evangelical church teaching Torah, Talmud, and Hebrew.
While I understand the suspicion (I am not overly fond of Messianic Judaism myself), the anger in this situation is misplaced. Congressional hopeful Epstein is correct that these devastating times call for interfaith alliance and unity among faith communities, and religious intolerance should not be welcome.
Furthermore, just as it is inappropriate to dismiss a female Reform rabbi because many Orthodox Jews do not believe she is a valid rabbi, it is equally wrong to dismiss Jacob’s position as a leader in his congregation. Although modern branches of Judaism have their own ordaining practices, many in the Hasidic community are simply ordained by other rabbis. It is not an absolute system of qualifications.
It is, however, understandable that many Jews would feel offended by a Messianic rabbi representing the Jewish voice in this tragedy, considering many Jews around the world feel Messianic Judaism is a form of anti-Semitic eradication of Jewish identity. Many have expressed anger that Pence referred to him as a “leader in the Jewish community.”
But I surmise that, as Pence did not know the man, saw him dressed as a rabbi, and had been given his title, he would have no reason not to believe he was a Jewish leader. In truth, it really would not have been his place to make that judgment. He was, after all, lending support for local Republican leaders, one of which invited the man as a speaker. To look too deeply into his motivations in this scenario is to simply try to find something to be outraged over.
This experience demonstrates a significant bias in much of the media and progressive world, as their deep hatred of this administration, and too often, Christianity as a whole, blinds them to reason or compassion for the kindness of individuals doing nothing more than honoring victims of a devastating tragedy. It seems anything Pence would have said, neglected to say, or the way he would have said something was likely to trigger judgment and outrage.
In this time of genuine community coming together across the country to mourn and stand in solidarity against a recognized and opposed hatred, more hatred and division are simply unwelcome. I would hope that despite the way a person feels about any religious movement, he or she could recognize genuine intention and kindness when they see it.
In this case, I did not see a Messianic Jew pretending to be Jewish or appropriating my culture or mocking who I am or my people. I saw a compassionate man providing his voice to the chorus of prayers, hope, and humanity we all share. As for Pence, I saw a man deeply moved by tragedy taking a powerful moment to lend his own thoughts and kindness to that choir.