It was the sort of unforced error that was the last thing the Trump administration needed in a week during which its liberal critics have been trying to place blame for the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue on the president.
Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to appear at Republican campaign rally in Michigan. After Saturday’s horrific attack on the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue that left 11 Jewish worshippers dead, the vice president’s office asked that the local organizers also invite a rabbi to offer a prayer remembering the victims. But while that request showed sensitivity to a national tragedy, what followed came back to bite the veep in a big way.
The problem was that as far as the Jewish community is concerned, Loren Jacobs—the “rabbi” who was asked to speak at the rally—isn’t Jewish.
Jacobs was there representing the very-Jewish sounding Congregation Shema Yisrael in suburban Detroit. But when he spoke in condemnation of the anti-Semitic attack, he did so by invoking the “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.”
Far from being a representative of the Jewish community, Jacobs is a Christian, albeit the pastor of a Messianic Jewish church that bills itself on its website as being “the same thing” as Christianity, but “expressed within the Jewish heritage.”
But while many Christians may see this as somehow being a variant of Judaism, Jews see it very differently. In a world in which Jews are bitterly divided along denominational, ideological and political lines, the one thing almost of them agrees on is that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus is not a Jew.
More to the point, most Jews see “Messianic” sects that bill themselves as being either a form of Judaism or rooted in Jewish traditions as a standing insult, if not a threat, to their faith and identity.
As such, the invitation provoked an understandable barrage of protests against Pence, even if the vice president had no idea what the local Republicans had gotten him into. The situation wasn’t helped by the refusal of Lena Epstein—the candidate Pence was there to endorse, and ironically, herself a Jew—to admit that she had made a colossal error by inviting Jacobs.
Indeed, it turns out Jacobs left the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations—one of the larger such groups—precisely because he disagreed with its doctrine preaching that Jews who didn’t accept Jesus as their savior could still go to Heaven.
Jewish feelings about this subject are deeply rooted as much in history as they are in theology.
The numerous instances in which Christian churches sought to forcibly convert Jews are imprinted in our collective memory. And while those living in a free country like the United States have no need to fear state-backed efforts to intimidate or bribe Jews away from their faith, the idea of Christians seeking to undermine their community in this fashion is still deeply offensive to a community that still lives in the shadow of the Holocaust, in which a third of the Jewish people were slaughtered.
Just as importantly, Messianics are not merely resented for their conversion campaigns, but because they do so in a fraudulent manner. That stems not just from the misleading citation of biblical texts to bolster the notion that Jesus was the fulfillment of divine promises, but because they often seek to represent themselves as merely a different variety of Judaism.
For Jacobs to attempt to represent Jews on a topic as sensitive as the worst instance of anti-Semitic violence in American history is doubly offensive. Not to mention the fact that it provides liberals, who are hostile to Pence because of his stances on social issues that are rooted in his evangelical Christian beliefs, made it even worse. That’s why Epstein should have apologized for her error, as the Republican Jewish Coalition, which was as offended as the rest of the Jewish community, advised her to do.
But even as Jews have a right to fulminate about this gaffe, they should remember a few facts that should mitigate their outrage.
The first is that on the list of problems facing American Jewry, conversion campaigns by Jews for Jesus should rank near the bottom.
The loss of a statistically insignificant number of converts to Jews for Jesus may be regrettable, but the hurt caused by it is out of proportion to the numbers involved. That is especially true when compared to the ongoing losses American Jews face from assimilation. Any blame to be handed out about such conversions belongs to Jewish denominations that have often failed to provide a sense of purpose or religious faith to its members. Still, that doesn’t stop many Jews from viewing the mere existence of Messianics with the kind of alarm they don’t demonstrate about other more serious problems.
The second reason is that while the proselytizing of Jews is offensive—something the Catholic Church has recognized in recent decades—cultivating and welcoming evangelical affection and support for Israel must be considered a higher priority.
Even if their motivation for supporting Zionism is a belief that this will trigger a series of events that will result in the return of Jesus (and not all evangelicals believe this), it doesn’t pose any real threat. Whether they are religious or not, Jews presumably do not think that Jesus is ever coming back. If he does, that would be a conundrum to face in that unlikely circumstance—and not before.
A community that is secure in its faith shouldn’t be threatened by the beliefs of others or by conversion campaigns, even if they come in a form that strikes many of us as illegitimate. That’s a stance Jews have always championed in their quest for better community relations with groups that were in no way as friendly as the evangelicals have been, particularly when it comes to Israel.
In a world where anti-Semitism and BDS are on the rise, the only sensible way to look at this is to be more interested in good relations with Christians than in venting our anger about Messianics.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.