By RABBI HARRY PELL
In the summer of 2003, I was a chaplain candidate in the U.S. Navy, training to serve the religious needs of the Navy’s fighting men and women. There were about 40 of us in my Chaplains School class, mostly Protestant ministers, a few Catholic priests, myself and a fellow rabbinical student and Jesus. Jesus was a good guy, with a terrific sense of humor and an ever-positive outlook; he was also the first messianic Jew I had ever met.
I had heard about Jews for Jesus growing up but meeting and living with Jesus was a new experience. While I grew to like him personally and respected his right to believe what he believed, his faith was clearly not a branch of my own. And that was troubling, because to all the world, he seemed to be a Jewish chaplain in training.
The situation came to a head when we received our first set of uniforms and pinned on our “devices” — the Navy’s word for the insignia that communicate one’s rank and role in the military. Christian chaplains wear a cross on their collar, Muslim chaplains wear a crescent, and Jewish chaplains wear the tablets of the law surmounted by a Jewish star. Jesus pinned on the tablets of the law with the Jewish star.
It should not have been a surprise to Vice President Mike Pence that inviting a messianic “rabbi” to speak words of comfort to the Jewish community would be seen as offensive.
Fortunately, the senior chaplain of our class, a stoic and war-hardened Catholic priest, approached Jesus and told him that he needed to wear the cross. All rabbis in the U.S. military are endorsed by the Jewish Welfare Board but Jesus had been endorsed by the Coalition of Spirit Filled Churches. He was welcome to self-identify as a messianic Jew, but he was endorsed as a Christian chaplain, and would wear the cross.
This should have come as no surprise to Jesus, just as it should not have been a surprise to Vice President Mike Pence that inviting a messianic “rabbi” to speak words of comfort to the Jewish community in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre would be seen as utterly offensive.
Jews for Jesus was founded in 1973 at the urging of the Southern Baptist Convention as a missionary organization with a very specific purpose: to evangelize to Jews and recruit them to Christianity. Jews for Jesus paved the way for a variety of groups that today identify as messianic Jews, and resist the accusation that they exist to “lure Jews away from Judaism.” Instead, messianic Jews see themselves as offering Jews the opportunity to become “completed” Jews by accepting Jesus, without leaving Judaism.
The problem is that this is theologically impossible. The belief that Jesus was the messiah is the defining core belief of Christianity, and completely outside the realm of Judaism, all of whose mainstream branches believe that the Mashiach has not yet come.
To be clear, a messianic Jew has as much right to her or his beliefs as I have to mine. It is admittedly unsettling to many Jews that the observances of messianic Jews look so, well, Jewish, including Jewish ritual items and Hebrew prominently, while being so based in Christian theology. But unsettling is not in and of itself offensive. It is also worth stating that this discomfort with messianic Judaism is not a discomfort with Christianity. Christianity, which looks like Christianity, is simply a different religion from Judaism and to be respected as a fellow faith tradition. Where messianic Judaism becomes much more troubling is when it seems to pass itself off as authentic Judaism, and especially when this resemblance is used to evangelize to Jews and try to pull them away from Judaism.
In inviting Rabbi Loren Jacobs to the stage to address the crowd at his Michigan rally — and by referring to Jacobs as “a leader in the Jewish community” — Pence erred on many levels. First off, Pence was simply incorrect. Jacobs may (or may not) be a leader in the messianic Jewish community, which most Jews would consider a Christian community, but he is not now and has never been a leader in the Jewish community.
Even more offensive is the fact that Jacobs, like many if not most messianic Jews, believes that Jews who do not accept Jesus are destined for hell. Jews can only be saved by accepting Jesus as their lord and savior, according to Jacobs, and getting them to do so is the central mission of Jews for Jesus. In other words, the “rabbi” Pence asked to share a blessing for unity believes that the only way for Jews to reach heaven is to stop being Jews.
Even more offensive is the fact that Jacobs, like many if not most messianic Jews, believes that Jews who do not accept Jesus are destined for hell.
If all that wasn’t offensive enough, the Michigan rally wasn’t a randomly timed event. It took place on Monday, two days after 11 Jews were murdered in their synagogue simply because they were Jewish. Jacobs’ prayer was meant to be a response to this horrific act. But how can a person comfort Jews in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, when that person’s very theology and practice is designed to undo their Jewishness? Jewish groups on the right and the left are unified in their frustration.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that we so desperately need unity at a time like this, and Pence could have helped bring about that healing. My training in the Navy taught me that when religious leaders come together to represent the best of their faith traditions — without seeking to undermine one another’s beliefs — unity is not only possible; it is beautiful. What happened on that stage in Michigan wasn’t a show of unity, and it certainly wasn’t beautiful.
(Rabbi Harry Pell is a former U.S. Navy Reserve Chaplain and educator.)