On Monday night, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a campaign rally for Lena Epstein, the Republican nominee for Michigan’s 11th Congressional district seat. There, either oblivious or indifferent to the unprecedented anguish being felt by American Jewry still reeling from the domestic terrorism attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Pence succeeded in making an awful situation much, much worse when he invited “Messianic Rabbi” Loren Jacobs onstage to offer a blessing during the event.
Wearing a tallis, a traditional Jewish prayer shawl, Jacobs looked all the part of a mainstream Jewish leader. He opened his prayer with a fairly traditional Jewish invocation to “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” He then continued, addressing “God and father of my lord and savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and father, too.”
While this may sound relatively benign to some people, let me be clear: short of, I dunno, offering a Nazi salute I guess, it’s probably the most offensive thing Pence could have possibly done in the days following the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history.
First, some background: Jacobs is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shema Yisrael, a Bloomfield Hills, MI community which touts itself as being a congregation that “that fosters the spiritual growth of all Messianic Believers who have asked Messiah Yeshua (the Hebraicized version of “Jesus”) into their hearts.” He and his congregation are self-described “messianic Jews,” but they’re more commonly known as “Jews for Jesus.”
There are zero major denominations of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Ultra-Orthodox—which consider Messianic Judaism Jewish. It is one of the astonishingly few issues on which just about every Jew on Earth can agree. Speak Hebrew? Wear a yarmulke? Keep kosher? None of that matters if you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal messiah. What is the sin qua non for Christianity is absolutely disqualifying for Judaism. Period. The end. Full stop.
But the issue the Jewish community has with “Messianic” Judaism isn’t just that it is a dishonest burlesque of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Judaism’s traditional ritual and prayer. By cloaking itself in familiar pageantry to hide a fundamentally predatory goal, congregations like Jacobs’ actively target Jews for proselytization and ultimately conversion into what is, essentially, Christianity. As Jacobs’ own congregation Shema Yisrael (literally, “Hear, o’Israel”) explains on its website, it is “a congregation that leads others, especially Jewish people, to God and His Messiah Yeshua.”
Inviting a man to ostensibly represent a community that has utterly and unambiguously rejected his sect would be bad enough under normal circumstances. But doing so in the aftermath of a horrific act of expressly anti-Semitic violence is particularly odious.
Tree of Life shooting suspect Robert Bowers’ goal was simple: The eradication of Jews and Judaism. And while Messianic Jews may not believe the same vile anti-Semitic tropes that led Bowers to open fire on a room full of elderly worshipers, their aim to “save” Jews by coercing them into conversion—Jacobs himself wrote that without Jesus, Jews can never enter heaven—would lead to an end point that’s not wholly dissimilar from what Bowers intended: the complete erasure of American Judaism as it exists today.
The message seems clear. To Pence and his ilk, Judaism’s sole value is not in its rich spiritual, social, and philosophical contributions to the fabric of the United States. Instead, it is a stepping stone to Christianity. A means to an end. A fucking layover before their final destination.
Bizarrely, Epstein, the Republican candidate, claimed late Monday evening that it was her campaign which invited Jacobs to the rally to begin with.
According to one Detroit-area rabbi, there are 60 accredited Rabbis in Michigan. That Epstein—who by her own admission is a “proud lifelong 4th generation” member of a local Reform Jewish synagogue—couldn’t invite any of them seems too bizarre to be believable. (Jarrod Agen, Pence’s deputy chief of staff, insisted to NBC that “We often have ecumenical prayers at the beginning of events that aren’t an endorsement of any particular faith.”)
But, OK, let’s assume it’s true that Epstein truly felt inviting Jacobs was an “effort of unity.” Even if that’s the case, according to Agen, Pence—who once described himself as a “born-again, Evangelical Catholic”—had listened to Jacobs earlier in the evening, and then invited him back onstage so the entire campaign rally could hear him as well. Pence made the choice to offer Jacobs a national platform with which he could espouse his anti-Jewish message with the patina of vice-presidential approval.
Maybe Pence didn’t realize how offensive that would be. Perhaps he just didn’t care. Neither is all right, and either way, I’m fucking furious.