What was supposed to be a touching moment of prayer and remembrance at a Republican campaign rally Monday night for the Jewish victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting turned into an embarrassing and viral moment for Messianic Judaism.
Vice President Mike Pence was in Michigan campaigning for the Republican Party and asked Loren Jacobs, who he identified as a leader in the Michigan Jewish community, on stage to lead the rally in prayer. Loren wore a tallit but no kippah, which is something of a faux pas for Jews, as he began his prayer.
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” Jacobs prayed, “God and father of my lord and savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and father, too."
It didn’t take long for the incongruity of a rabbi invoking Yeshua at a political rally to get noticed. Just hours after the rally, an NBC News headline read “Pence sets off firestorm with campaign prayer by 'Christian rabbi.'"
The contents of the article were predictable. The Jewish community expressed outrage that a Messianic Jew was representing the Jewish community instead of the more than 60 widely accepted Jewish rabbis on the Michigan Board of Rabbis, especially during a time of tragedy and mourning. Some called him a Christian “rabbi” or not a rabbi at all.
The GOP has tried to take a step back from the drama, defending against accusations of anti-Semitism but not explaining why Jacobs was chosen instead of another local Jewish rabbi. "We often have ecumenical prayers at the beginning of events that aren't an endorsement of any particular faith," an aide to the vice president said.
Jacobs is the leader and founder of Congregation Shema Yisrael, a religious organization in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan that describes itself as a “Messianic synagogue.” Jacobs and Shema Yisrael have not responded to requests for comment from media organizations.
“We don’t even recognize him as a rabbi,” Rabbi Marla Hornsten, past president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, told NBC News. “Even to call him a rabbi is offensive.”
The next day the Washington Post picked up the story, diving into the niche rejection of Messianic Judaism by broader Judaism, and as the story unfolded, the even more niche rejection Loren Jacobs by broader Messianic Judaism.
The headline of NBC’s follow up article says it all: “Jews assail 'Christian rabbi' who appeared with Pence, and so does his own movement.
An anonymous source associated with the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), said he was shocked to see Jacobs being used as the face of Messianic Judaism: “In reality, neither Jacobs or his congregation are part of the mainstream Messianic Jewish movement. His thought, theology, and affiliations do not represent the type of Messianic Judaism many of us are associated with. He disparages Jewish tradition and many of his writings are full of vitriol against the Messianic Jewish community and our leaders. Therefore, it's ironic that he should be publicly put forth as a representative of Messianic Judaism.”
The Jewish community’s outrage during this time of tragedy and mourning was expected, but what directly demanded a response from broader Messianic Judaism was a missed fact in the first NBC article. It identified Jacobs as ordained by the UMJC (Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations) but failed to note that his ordination was rescinded in 2003 after what the UMJC characterized as libel in a dispute over doctrinal beliefs. A statement from the UMJC noted the error and said they contacted NBC editors asking for an immediate clarification. The UMJC protested:
Last night, NBC News erroneously reported that Loren Jacobs, who made a recent appearance at a Mike Pence rally, is ordained by the UMJC. In fact, Jacobs was stripped of his ordination in 2003 after our Judicial Board found him guilty of libel. We have contacted NBC news editors to request an immediate retraction.
The clarification is now noted at the foot of the NBC article. This footnote and the peculiar nature of the Messianic Jewish movement fed into the viral moment as reporters tried to learn as much about Messianic Judaism as they could as quick as they could. What has followed is the inevitable mischaracterization of mainstream Messianic Judaism as identical with the missionary organization “Jews for Jesus” and an agenda to evangelize Jews taking them away from Judaism.
Executive Director of the UMJC, Monique Brumbach lamented that the episode further isolates Messianic Jews from the broader Jewish family in what should be a time of solidarity. “We are torn,” she said, but acknowledged that much of that isolation has legitimate roots in the real pain of decades of Christian anti-Semitism, missionary propaganda, and misunderstanding of Messianic Judaism's faith. “We understand that our critics from the mainstream Jewish community are reacting from a place of genuine pain,” Brumbach said. “Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism have contributed to the gaping breach between Judaism and Christianity. And so the sense of revulsion that many Jewish people feel towards the concept of Jewish people following Jesus is perfectly understandable. But we are grieved nonetheless, by the sense of alienation from our people in the midst of our solidarity with them.”
The mainstream Messianic Jewish faith, she pointed out, has far more in common with mainstream Judaism than is acknowledged in the media articles attempting to characterize the faith. For example, Messianic Jews keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and the Jewish festivals, preserving Jewish traditions and institutions are testaments to Messianic Judaism’s commitment to Judaism. Messianic Judaism advocates loyalty to Judaism as a component of discipleship to Yeshua of Nazareth who was, himself, a faithful Jew. But the real point of contention, of course, is acceptance of Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah which has fueled much of the condemnation of the movement. The UMJC Executive Director observed:
It is difficult to weather these mischaracterizations of our community during a time of intense shock, rage, and grief. We are mourning alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters, because this attack (on a Conservative synagogue) was an attack on all Jews everywhere, regardless of denomination or affiliation. People who hate Jews don’t care whether some of them believe in Jesus.
Messianic Synagogues across the country are far from immune to anti-Semitic vitriol and violence. For example, a gunman opened fire on Dallas Messianic Synagogue Baruch Hashem in 1997. Miraculously nobody was hit as the gunmen fired and yelled “Die, Jews, die!” with his fist raised - a call for genocide echoed by the Pittsburgh gunman as he killed 11 worshippers last Shabbat. In December of 2015, a practitioner of Messianic Judaism was among the targets of the San Bernadino terrorist attack.
This isn’t the only time Messianic Judaism has been misconstrued in the media either. Last January Alabama Republican Roy Moore’s controversial campaign shuffled Martin Wishnatsky, a lawyer and self-described Messianic Jew, into the spotlight.
Both the Wishnatsky debacle and the Pence rally prayer have closely associated Messianic Jewish reference in the media to the GOP, another reflection of the faith that is inaccurate of the whole.
“Within the Jewish community, both mainstream and Messianic, there is a very broad range of political opinions. Some are very conservative, some are very liberal, with all shades in between,” the UMJC Executive Director lamented. “All of us have very strong political opinions, but rather than unnecessarily alienating our congregants, we advise our rabbis to be extremely circumspect when they provide commentary on the issues of our times.”
Besides the political affiliation, in that story too, Messianic Judaism was brought into public discourse through the lens of the missionary fringes of the faith. This repeated tragedy of misidentification only further isolates mainstream Messianic Judaism from the broader Jewish world and reinforces the false idea that Messianic Jews are fake Jews guided by a missionary agenda and anti-Semitism. The Washington Post article on the drama described Messianic Judaism as “a tradition central to Jews for Jesus, a group condemned by Jewish leaders as faux Judaism that seeks to promote Christian evangelism.” Within the actual movement, Messianic Judaism is neither a religious expression nor a tradition central to the missionary organization Jews for Jesus which is better described as a missionary arm of Evangelical Christianity. The now-controversial Loren Jacobs is married to the sister of David Brickner, the head of the Jews for Jesus, so the Post’s association between Jacobs and the missionary organization is not without merit. Nevertheless, the broad-stroke brush applied to all of Messianic Judaism mischaracterizes the religious movement’s actual practice and seems to be equally and tragically misunderstood by broader Judaism and the mainstream media.
“What our mainstream Jewish critics tend to misunderstand on a broad level is that Messianic Judaism is actually a very positive phenomenon within the Jewish community,” the UMJC Executive Director said. “For the first time in history, Jewish people who decide to follow Yeshua are continuing to lead Jewish lives rather than assimilating into Gentile Christendom. … We are not stealing Jewish souls. In fact, we are keeping Jews Jewish! This is something to be celebrated, not shunned.”
What doesn’t help the reputation of Messianic Judaism is that every time it hits the media spotlight illuminates it seems to involve a controversy that leads to news media missing the nuance of the faith. The media falls for the usual stereotypes, characterizing the whole movement accordingly. Those stereotypes only further damage the connection between Messianic Jews and the wider Jewish family.
“Messianic Jews rarely make mainstream news. But when we do, the most difficult part to handle is the emotional backlash from within our Jewish community,” the source with the MJRC said. “Although this is not the first time we have been called idiots, at best, or Jewish self-haters, at worst, frankly, this trope is getting tired.”