Religion Dispatches has moved back home to religiondispatches.org. You can also find Rewire News Group’ religion coverage here.
UPDATE, October 31, 11:15 a.m: According to reporting by NBC News, Messianic “rabbi” Loren Jacobs was stripped of his ordination over a decade ago.
On Monday night, Vice President Mike Pence opened a campaign rally for Michigan congressional candidate Lena Epstein by inviting Loren Jacobs, a “Messianic Jewish rabbi,” to deliver an opening prayer in memory of the victims of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. Except Jacobs isn’t a rabbi, and he didn’t pray for the dead by name, as Jewish custom would dictate. He did find time to pray for several Republican candidates, though.
The more I think about this story, the less sense it makes. Ordinarily, I’d follow my own advice: Don’t think about it. But you know what happens when people stop thinking. The fascists win.
But perhaps we should back up a step. What’s a “Messianic Jew“? It’s an oxymoron, that’s what it is. There are some Christians (born evangelicals and Jewish converts to the cause) who appropriate elements of Jewish life, and then there are Jews. Never say “all,” but for the vast majority of Jews, belief in Jesus as messiah defines you right out of the tribe. Israel’s Supreme Court certainly agrees with that assessment, refusing Israeli citizenship to Messianic Jews.
More to the point, most Jews find Messianic Jews—the best known of which are Jews for Jesus—highly offensive. After centuries of supersessionism and oppression for not converting to Christianity, Messianic Judaism seems like the perfect way to negate the entirety of Jewish identity. Lumping that on top of the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history is like sprinkling bacon bits on an eff-you sandwich. Which raises the question, who would be dumb enough to do something so offensive, and why?
First off, let’s dispose of the fiction put out by the VP’s office that Epstein was responsible for the invitation. Readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that not even Jewish candidates for federal office are in the habit of keeping Messianic leaders in their Rolodexes. But the infamously evangelical Vice President sure is. Accepting Josh Marshall’s principle that in the Trump world, the stupidest explanation is probably the correct one, it’s entirely possible that Pence’s office decided to invite a rabbi and either didn’t know or didn’t care what the difference was.
It is, of course, also possible that the invitation was extended deliberately. The activist Rafael Shimunov advanced a popular theory on Twitter that it was done as a naked assertion of Christian supremacy, a nod and a wink to the neo-fascist and not-quite-as-bad evangelical bases that this regime is committed if not to outright violence, then at least to keeping Jesus people on top of the pile, even after one of them went too far.
It’s easy to believe Trumpists are capable of all manner of evil, but I find it hard to believe even they would go that far. Even if they did, it’s difficult to imagine that a Jewish candidate like Epstein would allow it. Again, never say never, but it seems unlikely.
Jeet Heer had a more plausible explanation: that this was part of a bid to erase the specifically Jewish character of the tragedy in favor of a more universal “attack on religion.” After all, that’s what Trump flack Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News—and Jeff Sessions repeated a variation on the same line. In Heer’s estimation, this is the administration’s strategy to downplay the horror of an anti-Semitic attack carried out by one of its supporters, and to limit the potential damage ahead of the midterm elections next week. If so, it’s not a very good one, but it could be all they’ve got.
I’m inclined to think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, this is a bunch of evil sons-of-bitches. They’re also halfwits. This whole thing seems almost more instinctual than plotted out, and the Christian supremacism is there mostly because that’s just who they are. They can’t help themselves.
To be clear, that doesn’t make it any better. This was still a supremely insulting maneuver. But as usual with this gang, it just winds up making things worse for themselves, except with their all-precious base. The rest of the nation sees through this. If there is any justice in the world, they will reject it.
And even if they did have a well thought-out plan to insult or distract from the particularities of the victims, Trump himself will be along before long to screw it up. He can’t help himself. It’s just who he is.