Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Understanding Jews for Jesus After the Mike Pence Rally

When a member of the Jews for Jesus messianic movement who refers to himself as a "rabbi" was asked to give a prayer in memory of the eleven Jews who were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, there were a lot of questions about this group and why this was offensive to the Jewish community. The event was a rally for Republican candidates in Michigan and featured Vice President Mike Pence. A Jewish woman running for Congress, Lena Epstein, claimed responsibility for inviting the Messianic "Rabbi" to the event in the name of unity and claimed that if people are critical of her invitation, then they are religiously intolerant.

Loren Jacobs, a Messianic Christian, delivers a prayer at a rally in Michigan with VP Mike Pence

After I heard the Messianic "Rabbi" speaking at the event on C-Span, I tweeted that it was pathetic that a mainstream rabbi wasn't asked to offer a blessing (NY Times, USA Today, AP). The issue wasn't that a non-Jew offered a prayer for the Jewish men and women who were murdered, but that a Christian was being referred to as a rabbi. It would have been more acceptable had there been several faith leaders including a rabbi.

The Detroit Jewish News asked me to explain to its readers why there was such an uproar over a Messianic “Rabbi” delivering a prayer at a political rally. What follows is what I wrote in the Detroit Jewish News:

Trying to Make Sense of Messianic “Judaism”

With the recent controversy of Loren Jacobs, a leader of a Bloomfield Hills church who calls himself a “rabbi,” delivering a politically-charged invocation at a Republican party rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence, there has been a lot of questions regarding the messianic “Judaism” movement.

The first time I had ever heard of messianic Jews or the group called “Jews for Jesus” was as a high school student. Preparing us for the college campus, teachers at my synagogue’s Hebrew High School informed us that there are proselytizing Christians who claim to be Jewish and seek to convert Jewish students to Christianity. Some of these “Jews for Jesus” adherents, we were taught, were in fact apostate Jews who had left our faith and believe Jesus is the messiah.

While I don’t recall any direct encounters with any proselytizing Christians during my four years at Michigan State University, I did have an unusual experience in a course called “The Foundations of Judaism.” The course was part of the Religious Studies Department and the teacher, Mark Kinzer, did a wonderful job teaching a wealth of material in the course. At that time, I was already planning to apply to rabbinical school and the lectures and reading material helped prepare me. My eight years at Hillel Day School were good for a foundational understanding, but Prof. Kinzer went much deeper into the history of Judaism. I presumed the instructor was Jewish, but I was not certain. On the final day of class, I asked him which denomination of Judaism he affiliated, and he simply stated, “it’s complicated.” I didn’t pry.

Several years later, after I had become a rabbi, I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation. I encountered Prof. Kinzer at a meeting for campus religious leaders. It was there that he explained he was a Messianic “rabbi.” I felt duped and confused at that moment. (He never alluded to his own theology during the class and never mentioned Christian messianism.) He explained that he was not part of the “Jews for Jesus” group and didn’t seek to convert anyone. While I appreciated Prof. Kinzer’s academic integrity and I learned from him, had he been introduced as a rabbi at an event, I would feel just as insulted as I felt after watching Loren Jacobs’ prayer.

So, how do we understand messianic “Judaism” and Jews for Jesus? And, why has the Jewish community been so upset that a so-called messianic “rabbi” offered a prayer at a recent political rally in Michigan?

Throughout the centuries, Jewish people were subject to intense missionary activity by the Catholic Church and various Protestant groups. Many Jews left Judaism and converted to Christianity, either by force or voluntarily. In early twentieth century America, attempts to convert Jews to Christianity were common, but often unsuccessful. In the 1970's, a new organization sponsored by Protestants was formed called “Jews for Jesus.” Other smaller groups, calling themselves “Messianic Jews,” followed.

Members of “Jews for Jesus” are encouraged to consider themselves to be “Completed Jews.” Some members are born Jews who accepted Jesus as their Lord, while others were not born Jewish, but consider themselves to now be Jewish. Essentially, this group’s mission is to convert Jews to Christianity.

Historically, Jews who converted to Christianity were often interested in staying far away from being identified with Judaism. However, “Messianic Jews” stress their Jewishness and demand to be recognized as Jews by the Jewish community. The members of “Jews for Jesus” or any other messianic “Jewish” group who were legitimately Jewish at first would now be considered apostate Jews, the term used for one who has taken the definitive step of professing and joining another religion.

An apostate is the term the Jewish community would apply to Loren Jacobs, the individual who delivered the prayer at the rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence (it was originally an invocation and then he was called back on stage to offer a memorial prayer for the victims of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh). Some have questioned why the Jewish community was so offended by Jacobs being asked to offer a prayer. Some in the Christian community were confused as to why the Jewish community couldn’t treat Jacobs’ words in an ecumenical fashion.

The issue for many in the Jewish community is that Jacobs self-identifies as a Jewish rabbi, which is offensive to Jews because he has chosen to become an apostate, recognizing Jesus as his Lord and savior. The fact that Loren Jacobs was introduced as a rabbi and Jewish leader was an affront to the Jewish community. It was unacceptable and insensitive. Had a non-Jewish faith leader been asked to deliver a memorial prayer for the Jewish victims who were murdered while in prayer, that would be have acceptable. Although, the ideal situation would have been to have a rabbi deliver the prayer or a variety of faith leaders offer prayer as has been the case in many of the memorial vigils around the world.

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