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Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus, explained

Mike Pence brought a controversial Messianic rabbi onstage at a rally to pray for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims.

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Mike Pence found himself the subject of controversy over his platforming of a Messianic Jewish rabbi.
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Vice President Mike Pence commemorated the 11 victims of last Saturday’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting with a self-identified rabbi of a controversial Jewish movement that sees Jesus as the Messiah.

Monday night at a rally in Michigan, Pence brought out a religious leader, Loren Jacobs, to pray for the shooting victims. Jacobs self-identifies as a rabbi, but the movement to which he belongs — Messianic Judaism, which sees Jesus Christ as the promised Old Testament Messiah — is controversial in Jewish circles. The major Jewish traditions and the state of Israel itself treat Messianic Judaism as a form of evangelical Christianity rather than a historical Jewish tradition.

Jacobs did not name any of the Pittsburgh victims directly, nor did he recite the Kaddish, a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He did, however, ask God to bless four Republican candidates up for election in next week’s midterms in the state.

“I pray for them and for the Republican Party and its candidates so that they would honor you and your ways, that you might grant them victory in this election,” Jacobs said. During the rally, he also referred to “Jesus the Messiah,” an idea deeply at odds with the theology of the majority of mainstream Jewish traditions.

Pence’s decision to give Jacobs a platform, Jacobs’s highlighting of Republican Party candidates rather than the dead of the Pittsburgh shooting, and Jacobs’s controversial status within Judaism more broadly all made him a particularly incendiary figure.

In a statement, Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, condemned the decision to have Jacobs speak, saying, “So-called Messianic Jews are not a part of the Jewish community, and espouse views considered deeply offensive.”

Jacobs’s stated views — and the political and theological stance of Messianic Jews more generally — put the group in a unique and often ambiguous position within the American religious landscape. A controversial movement — one variously decried by mainstream Judaism and some Christian groups alike — Messianic Judaism reflects a wider theological alliance between (mostly white) evangelicals and a very particular understanding of Israel and its role in the world and God’s plan.

The Messianic Jewish movement grew out of Christian evangelicalism

The Messianic Jewish movement as we know it today originated in the early 1970s, when Moishe Rosen, an ethnically Jewish man who later converted to Christianity and became a Baptist minister, founded the nonprofit organization Jews for Jesus. The organization claims a registry of about 200,000 “interested” parties, though there is no formal membership. It evangelizes the gospel message to ethnic Jews by stressing the similarities between Christianity and Judaism, and claiming that Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah could still maintain a close connection with their heritage.

While Jews for Jesus is the most prominent outreach ministry for Messianic Jews (and today, Jews for Jesus is at times inaccurately used interchangeably with “Messianic Jews” more broadly), it is in fact one of many groups designed to be, as Mitch Glaser of Chosen People Ministries told the Forward back in 2016, “a bridge between the evangelical church and the Jewish community.”

By and large, Messianic Jewish organizations stress the Jewishness of Jesus and, through it, Christian identity. Messianic Jews are encouraged to retain Jewish traditions and holidays — Rosen’s New York Times obituary in 2010 notes that he celebrated the major Jewish holidays of Passover and Yom Kippur throughout his life, and married couples underneath the traditional Jewish chuppah, or canopy.

However, many Jews from mainstream traditions see in Jews for Jesus, and in Messianic Judaism more broadly, a dangerous theology that borders on anti-Semitism. While on their surface, Jews for Jesus and similar organizations are avowed opponents of anti-Semitism — and many, like Chosen People Ministries, openly decry the practice — the implicit theology of many of these groups ultimately places (non-Messianic) Jews in the position of “rejectors of Christ” who “need saving.” Judaism without Jesus is thus coded as wrong or incomplete.

Jacobs, for example, has spoken publicly many times about his Jewish upbringing and how he felt that it was “missing something” without Jesus.

For many white evangelicals, however, many of whom see the political fate of Israel as inextricably linked to Jesus’s second coming, Messianic Jews represent a powerful instrument: a chance to forge a pro-Israel political alliance and frame the political future of Israel as an issue rooted in white evangelical identity.

Whether Messianic Judaism “counts” as Judaism is an open and in many ways insoluble question. While its adherents very much self-identify as Jews, they remain unrecognized by any mainstream Jewish tradition, and according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, just 34 percent of Jewish Americans think somebody who believes in Jesus as the Messiah can be Jewish.

Jacobs, who currently serves as the self-designated senior rabbi and founder of the Messianic Congregation Shema Yisrael in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, clarified his views to the Washington Post after the rally: “the truth is that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and he can fulfill us and complete us in our Jewish identity.”

Jacobs appears to be a controversial figure even among Messianic Jews. On Tuesday, NBC News reported that he had been stripped of his rabbinical ordination in 2003 by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations over allegations of “libel.” While the organization did not comment specifically on the libel allegations, posts on Jacobs’s website allude to a theological battle over interpretation of biblical texts, and Jacobs appears to have criticized other religious leaders’ willingness to apply academic historical-critical methods to investigating the Bible.

Pence’s choice of Jacobs was a politically loaded act

While Pence did not invite Jacobs to the rally directly — he was invited by state GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein, who is running in Michigan’s 11th District — he nevertheless specifically invited the religious leader to the stage to pray for the Pittsburgh victims.

Because of its controversial status within Judaism, Messianic Judaism remains a politically charged entity. Pence’s choice of a Messianic Jewish rabbi was, within that context, a highly incendiary one.

That Pence — an outspoken evangelical Christian who has frequently spoken publicly on the way he sees the political fate of Israel as inextricably tied to an evangelical understanding of the end times — should welcome a Messianic Jewish rabbi, rather than one of a more mainstream tradition, makes sense.

But for many Jews, Pence’s welcoming of a rabbi who believes in the Messianic nature of Jesus, rather than one of dozens of Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Conservative rabbis in the Michigan area, represented a fundamental erasure of the Jewishness of the Pittsburgh shooting victims.

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