What the Pence & Jacobs Religious Comedy Hour Means for American Jews
When Vice President Mike Pence brought Loren Jacobs onstage during a Michigan rally for Republican Congressional candidates he ignited a firestorm of protest from Jews all over the world. Rather than recite the ancient and traditional prayer said over the dead, Kaddish, “Rabbi” Loren, in full tallit, recited a homemade prayer that offered generous reference to “my lord and savior, Yeshua, Jesus, the Messiah…”. Loren Jacobs went on to name Republican candidates in his prayer while mentioning none of the Pittsburgh shooting victims.
The Vice President’s office has distanced Pence from the actual decision to bring Jacobs to the rally. According to Pence’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Jarrod Agen, Pence heard Jacobs praying behind the scenes and offered to bring him on stage so everyone might hear. An e-mail from Pence’s office to Vox claims he did not hear the prayer prior to inviting Jacobs onstage.
Certainly Pence isn’t guilty of arranging for Jacobs’s presence at the rally to start with. That honor would appear to belong to Republican Congressional candidate Lena Epstein, who, by all accounts, follows normative Judaism at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Epstein defended her choice on Twitter, claiming: “Any media or political commentator who is attacking me or the Vice President is guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed. This was an effort at unity, yet some are trying to create needless division to suit their political goals.”
In this instance to a reductio ad absurdam, because Jacobs’s appearance in that particular context suggests that Jews are really people who accept Jesus Christ as our personal messiah, creator of the universe and whose grace is the only path to everlasting salvation. In short, Christians.
This is certainly how Messianics view those of us who have not accepted Jesus as our personal savior — we are “incomplete” Jews. Given that Jesus himself was a Jew, what could make more sense than for modern Jews to get on board, grok what millennia of Christians already know?
Better late than never.
Messianic “Judaism” is an offshoot of the Jews For Jesus movement, which was founded in 1970s by a Jewish-born, but later ordained Baptist minister, Moishe Rosen. With branches in most major cities, including NYC, Los Angeles and London, membership has grown as the group found fertile pickings among newly immigrated Russian Jews, who had experienced little in the way of religious education during their youth. Using the trappings of normative Judaism (e.g. Jacobs’s tallit, and generous applications of the Star of David, phrases in Hebrew), proselytizers target Jews (and gentiles as well) with friendly, non-threatening offers of bible study and community support. Often their conversation begins with: “Can a Jew believe in Jesus?”
In 1989 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Messianic Judaism to be a form of Christianity, thus not eligible for return under the Israeli constitution.
Of course, one issue that complicates return is Jewish law, or Halacha, which holds that a person is defined as a Jew by either being born of a Jewish mother, or undergoing a Halachic conversion. Thus, many Messianic Jews who accept Christ as their savior, are also eligible for return if they were born Jewish. Halacha holds them as legitimate Jews who happen to be practicing apostasy. Because I don’t know the circumstances of his birth, it’s possible that Loren Jacobs is really Jewish. Yet there’s no question that the faith he espouses is Christianity, or that he does so without even having been ordained by the leaders of that faith — according to the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, Jacobs was stripped of his ordination for “libel” fifteen years ago.
That leaves one to wonder what he tells congregants of his Bloomfield, Michigan “temple”, Shma Yisroel should they ask him to preside over their weddings, for, unless he picked up an online ordination from the Universal Life Church or similar, he has no authority to conduct marriages, or any other state-sanctioned clerical role.
Ironically, and perhaps adding even more to the confusion, there do exist true, Messianic Jews. Members of Chabad Lubavitch, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect, were exhorted for many years by their great Grand Rabbi, Menachem Schneerson, to seek out Mosiach in present times. Until his death in 1993, many Chabadniks thought Schneerson himself might be Mosiach, a role he never actually claimed for himself. Chabad Lubavitch is also superficially similar to Jews For Jesus in its efforts to perform outreach. Like Christian missionaries, they stand on street corners during Jewish holidays, offering the Four Species during Sukkot, simple menorahs for Chanukah, or ask male passersby to put on the tefilin. “Are you a Jew?” is the first thing they ask. Their outreach is to Jews only, as the Grand Rebbe commanded. Every year hundreds of “mitzvah tanks” emerge from the vicinity of Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Chabad headquarters, to scour the US and beyond for unaffiliated or non-observant Jews, bringing education, prayer and mitzvah beyond the borders of Brooklyn.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the average Chabadnik has no idea who Jesus Christ is, much less any inclination to worship him as Mosiach.
Judaism’s premier Medieval philosophizer and codifier of the law, Maimonides set forth practical requirements for Mosiach, the first of which is that he is human, not divine. He must accomplish certain specific tasks, such as rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing all Jews to Israel and ensuring that all Jews follow the 513 mitzvos, while gentiles adhere to the 7 Noachide laws.
Jesus, of course, fits none of these criteria.
Back to Pence and Jacobs. However much the VP continues to distance himself from Jacobs and his ill-timed appearance, and however much the choice of Jacobs was someone else’s fault, the damage is done. Gentiles in NYC, LA, Chicago and other large US cities might join their Jewish brethren in looking askance at his presence, but in large portions of the country, people have very little idea of what separates Judaism from Christianity. During the run of the TV show “Wife Swap” a most ill-conceived exchange was made, when a wife from a Midwestern family, devoutly Christian, traded with an Orthodox Jewish wife from the east coast. The latter participated to earn funds for her children’s education. Upon being introduced to her Orthodox Jewish “husband” the Midwestern wife was shocked and appalled to learn that Jews don’t accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior. Evidently she had never known that.
“Well, maybe as a historic figure,” the payos-adorned husband offered in slight reassurance.
Okay, so if you live a town, population 6132 and there are no Jews there, does it matter whether you have a handle on Jewish theology?
But now MAGAniks have grabbed the football, so to speak, and are running hard with it. When I tried to explain why Jacobs’s appearance was wrong and offensive to a group of Trump supporters, I was attacked as a “self-hating” Jew, utterly unqualified to declare invalid what they are now calling another “branch” of Judaism. I was called a hypocrite for undermining someone else’s freedom of religion.
Of course you’re allowed to follow your own religion, whatever it might be. But you’re not allowed to your own facts about someone else’s religion.
In order to protect their belief that Trump & Co can do no wrong, followers who might, under other circumstances, have listened sympathetically to why the choice of Jacobs was wrong, instead fight tooth and nail to affirm Messianics as perhaps a slightly eccentric, but ultimately normative branch of Judaism.
Because Mike said they are.
Avoiding the slightest effort at confirmation for themselves, they simply attack individual critics as politicized hypocrites and self-haters.
Now that Trump and his followers have declared language invalid — “you have to take him seriously, not literally”; history as entirely subjective — “Democrats stand for open borders” despite the previous administration having put more resources into border interdiction than any previous one, and decreed an end to politics once and for all — Trump is a businessman who will “drain the swamp” and run the country like a business, which, to a democracy is like filling your car’s tank with seawater to make it ride better, we might as well just get it over with and declare an end to object reality altogether.
The world is what Trump and his apostles say it is.
So now that Jews are Christians, what next?
The ADL has cited a 57% rise in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016–2017. The mass murder, by a man obsessed with “Hebriac conspiracies”, that prompted the very Pence-Jacobs foot-in-mouth moment under consideration here, is the worst such attack targeted against Jews in US history.
Is there any chance the neo-brown shirts will suddenly take pause.
Hey, maybe they’re not so bad, after all, if they accept Jesus into their home and hearts?
No. Not a chance. Because stupid as they are, they know better. They’re already committed. Reality, even Trumpian Alternate Reality™ owns no real estate in their minds. They’re all about pretext, and pathology and just letting loose.
Dramatic as white power violence is, and disheartening as some leftist anti-Zionism has become, the real danger to Jews in the US and Diaspora remains the plodding, unsexy process of assimilation into the gentile majority. What Alan Dershowitz wrote in The Vanishing American Jew twenty years ago still applies today:
American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as “the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,” the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end. Although Jews make up just over 2 percent of the population of the United States — approximately 5.5 million out of 262 million — many Americans mistakenly believe that we constitute a full 20 percent of the American people, because of our disproportionate visibility, influence, and accomplishments. But our numbers may soon be reduced to the point where our impact on American life will necessarily become marginalized. One Harvard study predicts that if current demographic trends continue, the American Jewish community is likely to number less than 1 million and conceivably as few as 10,000 by the time the United States celebrates its tricentennial in 2076. Other projections suggest that early in the next century, American Jewish life as we know it will be a shadow of its current, vibrant self — consisting primarily of isolated pockets of ultra-Orthodox Hasidim.
Though messianics might deny it, and might even believe their own denials, there’s no doubt that calling a branch of Christian worship “Judaism” while luring secular Jews into the practice contributes to a trend already powered by the unstoppable tsunami of human demographics.
The crest of that wave is now the whole mass in the middle: those who voted Trump and continue to support him because they know Obama didn’t try to protect the border, and, look at how Mr. Trump has single-handedly brought down unemployment, and pretty soon both Iran and North Korea will happily re-apply for vassal-state status, and mining coal is a vast improvement over silly, liberal fossil fuel alternative proposals anyway!
However innocent Pence’s intentions were — in fairness he was blindsided every bit as much as the rest of us — this kind of gaff seems to be a guiding characteristic of Mr. Trump’s inept administration. One that takes please with increasing frequency. The imagery of the two of them, standing together while Jacobs exhorts “Yeshua, my lord and creator,” will carry far and wide. It’s yet another step into the fantasy realm of Trump, consequences be damned, because the alternative is just so unthinkable.