Two days after the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, Vice President Pence bowed his head at a rally on Monday in Michigan as a religious leader who casts himself as a “rabbi” offered a prayer for the victims in Pittsburgh.
But the man who shared a stage with Pence, Loren Jacobs, preaches Messianic Judaism, a tradition central to Jews for Jesus, a group condemned by Jewish leaders as faux Judaism that seeks to promote Christian evangelism. The major Jewish denominations join the state of Israel in viewing followers of Messianic Judaism as Christian, not Jewish.
His appearance drew outrage on social media. Jason A. Miller, a Detroit-area rabbi, wrote on Facebook that more than 60 rabbis appeared in a directory of the Michigan Board of Rabbis — “and yet 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 Jew for Jesus rabbi?”
Jacobs is the “senior rabbi” and founder of Congregation Shema Yisrael, a religious organization in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit, that describes itself as a “Messianic synagogue.” In a video on the congregation’s website — titled “Kosher” because it aims to demonstrate that following Jesus satisfies Jewish law — Jacobs explained that he grew up in a Jewish household in the Chicago area but sensed that Judaism was “spiritually missing something.”
"The truth is that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and he can fulfill us and complete us in our Jewish identity,” he said, describing how he became attracted to the figure of Jesus while reading philosophy texts in college.
Appearing with the vice president on Monday, Jacobs invoked “Jesus the Messiah” and “Savior Yeshua” — another name for Jesus — as he offered a prayer for the dead and wounded in Pittsburgh. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and Father, too,” he intoned.
While the synagogue led by Jacobs does not appear to style itself explicitly as part of Jews for Jesus, it promotes the organization’s events and shares its essential creeds, such as the coming of a millennial kingdom under Jesus, centered in Jerusalem. And in an essay on the Jews for Jesus website, Jacobs wrote that he was grateful to the organization for giving him a scholarship that allowed him to attend the Moody Bible Institute, a conservative Christian institute in Chicago.
A group, Jews for Judaism, was founded in 1985 to counteract Jews for Jesus, which was formed more than a decade earlier and reports that it draws the majority of its funds from individual donations and spends most of its money on “Evangelism and other activities.”
A Pence aide told The Washington Post that Jacobs had been invited by Lena Epstein, a Republican congressional candidate to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, and said Pence did not know who the religious leader was when he brought him on stage “to deliver a message of unity.”
Epstein, in a statement posted on Twitter, said her Jewish faith was “beyond question” and accused “any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President” of “religious intolerance.” She said she was a member of Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Bloomfield Hills, yet didn’t explain why she had invited the leader of the Messianic synagogue to the campaign event.
“I am proud of my faith and look forward to serving as the only Jewish Republican woman in Congress,” she concluded.
Jacobs’s remarks weren’t limited to the theme of religious solidarity, however. In addition to denouncing the “hate-inspired shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh” and asking God to “comfort all those who are mourning,” Jacobs appealed to the Almighty to favor the Republican Party in the midterm elections next month.
He did not name the individual victims of the Pittsburgh massacre, but named four Republican candidates, including Epstein. “I pray for them and for the Republican Party and its candidates so that they would honor you and your ways, that you might grant them victory in this election,” he said from the stage.
Devotees of Messianic Judaism date their movement to the time of Jesus, while most scholars treat the religious tradition as a creature of 20th-century America. “Messianic Judaism is a Protestant movement that emerged in the last half of the 20th century among believers who were ethnically Jewish but had adopted an Evangelical Christian faith,” observed J. Gordon Melton, a professor of American religious history at Baylor University.
Jews do not see Jesus as the messiah, and, in fact, Jewish law proscribes as idolatry the worship of a person, which runs counter to the central Jewish tenet that God is singular and absolute. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote in an essay, published in 1988, that proponents of Messianic Judaism, among them the well-known Jews for Jesus, “exploit weakness, ignorance, and unhappiness.”
“But I feel less revulsion for Christian missionaries than for their Jewish accomplices,” he added. “The missionaries are at least honest. They proclaim openly that their aim is to absorb as many Jews as possible into their church. They aim to kill their victims’ Jewishness by assimilating it.”
In 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a Messianic Jewish couple’s application for citizenship, finding that belief in Jesus made the applicants Christians and thus ineligible for automatic citizenship. Still, there are outstanding questions about eligibility based on Jewish forebears. Meanwhile, most Jewish Israelis disagree with the court’s finding, reasoning that believing in Jesus as the messiah is not incompatible with being a Jew, according to Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of “Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities.” About a third of Jewish Americans similarly see the two as reconcilable.
A doctrinal statement on the synagogue’s website states that Jews who place their faith in Jesus “continue to be Jewish according to the Scriptures.” On a page called “What I Believe and What I Reject,” Jacobs explains his vision for Messianic Judaism, emphasizing the importance of “bringing the Gospel of salvation to others.”
“I want to see Messianic Jews taking more of a leadership role in the Christian Church,” he writes. “I want to see us committed to world evangelism, fulfilling our calling to be a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations. I especially want to see our synagogues committed to bold evangelism among our own people (including partnering with Jewish missions organizations).”
Others see Jewish messianism as invidiously aligned with Christian proselytizing, which claims to speak in Israel’s interests. “To ‘support Israel’ while actively seeking to convert the Jews is, in Jewish eyes, to couple a caress with a stab in the back,” Gershom Gorenberg, the American-born Israeli journalist and historian, wrote in his 2000 book, “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount.” It’s impossible, he maintained, to remain a Jew while accepting the precepts of Christianity. And he warned of the appropriation of Jews by the Christian right.
"We are merely actors in their dreams,” he told Vanity Fair in 2005.
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