Did Mike Pence Ask a ‘Fake Rabbi’ to Pray for the Synagogue Victims?
Did Vice President Pence make a serious error in judgment by asking a Messianic Jewish rabbi to pray for the victims of the synagogue massacre at a Detroit political rally? Did he pour salt in the wounds of an already-traumatized community?
Headlines across the nation answered with a resounding Yes.
- “Mike Pence Is Under Fire for Appearing with a Fake Rabbi to Commemorate the Pittsburgh Shooting” (GQ)
- “Mike Pence Causes Outrage With ‘Christian Rabbi’ (ATT)
- “Pence sets off firestorm with campaign prayer by ‘Christian rabbi’” (NBC)
- “Honoring Pittsburgh synagogue victims, Pence appears with ‘rabbi’ who preaches ‘Jesus is the Messiah’” (Washington Post)
- “Rabbi With ‘Jews for Jesus’ Gives Prayer at Pence Rally, Causing Backlash” (New York Times)
- “Outrage as Pence brings out Messianic ‘rabbi’ to pray for synagogue victims” (Times of Israel)
To sort this out, let’s meet the main players in the latest (certainly unintended) drama involving the Trump administration and the tragic synagogue shooting.
The Main Players
We all know Mike Pence, a committed and unashamed evangelical Christian.
Then, there’s Lena Epstein, a Reform (= liberal) Jew and a Republican candidate in Michigan.
Then there is the rabbi (or do we say “rabbi”?), Loren Jacobs, leader of the Messianic Jewish Congregation Shema Yisrael.
It turns out that Epstein had invited Jacobs to offer a prayer earlier in the rally, part of her desire to be ecumenical in her outreach.
Pence, for his part, heard Jacobs pray and asked him to come out later in the night and offer a prayer for the families of the Pittsburgh massacre.
And Jacobs, for his part, prayed openly in “Yeshua’s name” – also invoking “Jesus the Messiah.” (Yeshua is the original, Hebrew pronunciation of the name Jesus. It is widely used by Messianic Jews, who often refer to him by his Hebrew name.)
Finally, there is the wider Jewish community, which expressed surprise, disappointment, and outrage over the choice to have Jacobs pray. In their eyes, while he may still be Jewish (some would dispute that), he does not practice Judaism and he is not a valid rabbi. And as a Messianic Jew, he also believes that Jews need Jesus to be “saved.” Why on earth choose him to lead a prayer for the Jewish community?
As a Messianic Jew myself, I think I can offer some helpful insights.
An Error in Judgement
First, it was definitely a mistake for Vice President Pence to ask Jacobs to pray for the Pittsburgh Jewish community. My assumption is that it was an innocent error on his part.
Given his love for Israel and the Jewish people, I can’t imagine that he would intentionally offend American Jews. (Actually, he offended Jews around the world.)
This was confirmed by a Pence spokesperson, who stated that “he did not know Rabbi Loren Jacobs of the Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael, when he called him onto the stage to offer a prayer for the victims. … ”
Either way, I fully understand the reaction of the wider Jewish community. In their eyes, this was beyond insensitive. All clear.
Second, it was commendable, albeit unwise, for Lena Epstein to invite Jacobs to play a public role in the event.
I say it was commendable because she and Jacobs are both Jews, and she did not let their very real faith differences divide them.
In response to the backlash against her, she said, according to the Washington Post, that “her Jewish faith was ‘beyond question’ and accused ‘any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President’ of ‘religious intolerance.’” But the post added: “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.”
She also said: “I am proud of my faith and look forward to serving as the only Jewish Republican woman in Congress.”
Still, if she wanted to be ecumenical, it would have been better for her to invite a Christian clergyman to pray rather than a Messianic Jewish rabbi.
Again, this was an error on her part. But since she herself is Jewish, here too, I cannot imagine she intended to provoke or offend.
Displays of Arrogance and of Authenticity
Third, some of the Jewish reaction to Pence’s actions was over the top, ugly, and uncalled for. This tweet from a liberal female rabbi, Danya Ruttenberg, said it all: “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.”
This is disrespectful, false, and even arrogant.
Fourth, Loren Jacobs did exactly what you would expect a Messianic Jewish rabbi to do in a public setting: He was himself. He prayed openly in the name of Yeshua-Jesus. There was no duplicity and no effort to hide his identity.
Like it or not, that’s called being transparent. He’s not a traditional rabbi and he did not allow anyone to mistake him for one. Nor was he ashamed to let everyone know that he believes that Jesus-Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.
A Sect of Judaism
Fifth, Messianic Jews are Jews.
The New York Times actually stated that “the sect of Judaism [Jacobs] represents, Messianic Judaism, is viewed by some critics as a threat to the religion.” But note: The Times referred to Messianic Judaism as a “sect” of Judaism, which is how things started in the beginning.
In other words, the first followers of Jesus were all Jews, and they believed that he was the promised Messiah of Israel. Their fellow-Jews recognized them as Jews, followers of a new sect of Judaism (see Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22).
It was only later, when most of Jesus’ followers were Gentiles, when Easter had taken the place of Passover, and when Trinitarian beliefs were considered heretical, that these Jewish followers of Jesus were largely excluded from their Jewish communities.
But, to repeat: The first followers of Jesus-Yeshua, all of them Jews, were fully accepted as Jews by their contemporaries.
As for today, to be totally candid, there was a lot of superficiality in the early days of the modern Messianic Jewish movement (dating back to 40-50 years ago)
It was led by born-again Christians of Jewish extract who wanted to recover their Jewish roots and tell their people, “You can be Jewish and believe in Jesus!” And in some ways, it simply added Jewish traditions and practices to traditional Christian beliefs.
But over the years, the movement has demonstrated its commitment to preserving Jewish identity, to the point that: 1) many Messianic Jews have made aliyah to Israel; 2) the children of these Israeli Messianic Jews serve in the IDF; 3) they are often more observant than the bulk of the Israeli population, which is predominantly secular.
On True Jewishness and True Judaism
This holds true in the United States as well, where members of Messianic Jewish congregations are often more observant than their liberal Jewish friends and families. (By “more observant,” I refer to things like Sabbath observance and following the Torah calendar.) And their Jewishness is very important to them.
As noted by Prof. David J. Rudolph, “The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) interviewed a broad spectrum of the American Jewish community, including Messianic Jews. One survey question asked: ‘Is being Jewish very important in your life?’ According to the findings, 100% of all Messianic Jews interviewed said ‘Yes’ to the survey question. This was higher than any other Jewish group interviewed, including Orthodox (77%), Conservative (58%), Reform (40%), and Reconstructionist (49%).”
In contrast with this, NBC News noted that “Messianic Judaism, which believes that Jesus is the messiah and considers the New Testament to be authentic, is not recognized as Jewish by any mainstream Jewish movement in the United States or by the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel.”
Ironically, it appears that Alex Johnson, who wrote the NBC article, was unaware that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is ultra-Orthodox, does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism as authentic Judaism. In fact, as reported by the Jewish Forward, “Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi came under fire on Sunday for refusing to acknowledge in a newspaper interview that the massacre in Pittsburgh was carried out in a synagogue.”
Rather, he referred to the synagogue as “a place with a profound Jewish flavor.” But to him, it was not a synagogue because it was not Orthodox.
Standing With Fellow Jews
Not only so, but many rabbis do recognize Messianic Jews as Jews. They simply do not recognize Messianic Judaism as an authentic branch of Judaism, nor do they see faith in Jesus in keeping with authentic Jewish faith.
For those wishing to delve further into these subjects, please allow me to recommend my book The Real Kosher Jesus as well as this 5-minute video which answers the question, “How Did the Church Get Cut Off from Its Jewish Roots?”
In sum, while inviting a Messianic Jewish rabbi to pray for the Pittsburgh victims at a major political rally was certainly an error in judgment, something positive can come out of it. Specifically, as fellow-Jews, we can sit down and discuss our differences, but we will do so as fellow-Jews.
After all, the same demented murderer who shouted, “All Jews must die!” at the Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh would have the same vitriolic hatred for people like Jacobs and me. Our faith in Jesus-Yeshua has only deepened our solidarity with our people.