No doubt about it, inviting a pastor from a Messianic Jewish congregation to pray at a GOP campaign event is going to be controversial — under any circumstances.
Extending that invitation in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was an even riskier political move, one that raises all kinds of questions about the Republican leaders who organized a Michigan campaign stop for Vice President Mike Pence.
However, the first wave of coverage and partisan commentary has left me rather confused about some crucial facts in this story.
Let’s start with key sections of the basic Associated Press report — as it appeared online at The New York Times. For starters, I would have used a neutral term in this lede, such as “pastor” or “clergyman.”
WASHINGTON — A rabbi invited to pray at a Michigan campaign stop with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday referenced "Jesus the Messiah" at the event.
Rabbi Loren Jacobs of Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael offered prayers for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Messianic Jews follow Jewish law but believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
The major denominations of Judaism reject Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism, and Jacobs' participation was condemned by Jews on social media.
A Pence aide told The Associated Press that Jacobs was invited to pray at the event in suburban Detroit's Waterford Township by GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein and said Pence did not know who he was when he invited Jacobs back onstage to offer another a prayer for the victims, their families and the nation. As Pence stood next to him, Jacobs ended his prayer by saying, "in the name of Jesus."
"He was not invited by the VP's office to speak on behalf of the Jewish community," the aide said.
OK, let me offer some initial questions and comments.
First, I think that it’s crucial to know who invited Jacobs to offer this prayer. Several news reports have assumed, or implied, that Pence offered this invitation — as opposed to being the headliner who arrived at the last minute after locals had made all the arrangements.
At the same time, it’s crucial to know when Jacobs was invited. Was his appearance set up before or after the Pittsburgh massacre?
Rally organizers were in trouble, either way, of course. Headlines noting that they cancelled a Messianic Jewish leader’s appearance — because of the massacre — would have appeased some religious leaders, while infuriating others.
Here’s another question, based on reading several pieces about this event: Did anyone else offer prayers before or after the rally? At this point, has it become controversial for mainstream clergy — especially rabbis — to accept invitations to share a stage with members of the Donald Trump team?
Why ask these questions? Note the following, in a Washington Post piece that blended reporting with news aggregation.
[Jacob’s] appearance drew outrage on social media. Jason A. Miller, a Detroit-area rabbi, wrote on Facebook that more than 60 rabbis appeared in a directory of the Michigan Board of Rabbis — “and yet the only rabbi they could find to offer a prayer for the 11 Jewish victims in Pittsburgh at the Mike Pence Rally was a local Jew for Jesus rabbi?”
That’s interesting. Were Jewish clergy invited? Did any rabbis decline invitations to pray at this event, perhaps out of fears that they would be linked to Trump in headlines?
Once again, the timing would have been crucial, with many journalists and Democrats offering commentary linking the Pittsburgh massacre (by a man who expressed hatred of Trump, as well as Jews) to rhetoric used by the president.
So, let’s go back to the question of who invited the Messianic Jewish leader. The Post report noted the following, echoing a point made in the AP story:
A Pence aide told The Washington Post that Jacobs had been invited by Lena Epstein, a Republican congressional candidate to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, and said Pence did not know who the religious leader was when he brought him back onstage “to deliver a message of unity.”
Epstein, in a statement posted on Twitter, said her Jewish faith was “beyond question” and accused “any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President” of “religious intolerance.” She said she was a member of Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Bloomfield Hills, yet didn’t explain why she had invited the leader of the Messianic synagogue to the campaign event.
“I am proud of my faith and look forward to serving as the only Jewish Republican woman in Congress,” she concluded.
The candidate confirmed the essential detail.
Now, why would a Jewish woman from a Reform temple invite a Messianic pastor to speak at a rally on her behalf? The Reform movement, after all, is on the left side of the doctrinal and cultural spectrum of American Judaism. Thus, a Reform Jew running as a Republican is an interesting story, in and of itself.
The bottom line: I don’t know the answers to any of these questions and neither do readers of these news reports.
Thinking out loud, it’s possible — as I said before — that traditional rabbis declined to take part. It’s also possible Epstein wanted to reach out to evangelical voters, by including Jacobs.
Once again: Was Jacobs the only clergy person involved in this rally? Who else prayed?
There’s a reason I keep asking this. An NBC News report offers a different take on the Jacobs invitation. Note that this Pence staffer is speaking on the record:
Pence's deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, told NBC News that Pence heard Jacobs give a prayer at the beginning of the event and invited him back to the stage so the entire audience could hear him.
"We often have ecumenical prayers at the beginning of events that aren't an endorsement of any particular faith," Agen said.
OK, I’m even more confused. Is this Pence staffer being quoted accurately?
What does it mean to say that Jacobs spoke at “the beginning of the event,” but that he was then invited — by Pence — to pray on stage, in front of the public?
The implication is that there was an event before the rally that included a small assembly of clergy in various traditions. Did Epstein invite the pastor to the pre-rally event, but then Pence put him in front of the national cameras? It’s hard to tell.
Do we know what churches and other religious groups were represented in that pre-rally event — if NBC News is right about that detail? Were there clergy on the stage who didn’t pray at the main podium, with C-SPAN cameras turned on?
Let me stress, again, that inviting a Messianic pastor would have been controversial under any circumstances. The timing, after the Tree of Life synagogue slaughter, turned up the heat. For many on the religious and secular left, Messianic Jews are kryptonite — period.
Note this tweet by a journalist. It’s important to explore this whole Twitter thread.
Now, is that “journalism,” or “commentary,” or “commentary” by a “journalist”?
There is no question that Messianic Christians are highly evangelistic, which offends many Jews and many liberal Christians. These controversial believers also claim the right — under the First Amendment — to combine Jewish traditions with their own Christian interpretations of Jewish seasons, prayers and symbols. This offends Jews and many liberal Christians.
I have even heard Jews go so far as to question the First Amendment rights of Messianic Christians, arguing that what they consider lies are not protected forms of free speech. At the same time, I have heard Jews — left and right — defend the rights of Messianic Jews to proclaim their faith in the public square, even while stressing fierce objections to that work.
Many Jews fight Christian apologetics with Jewish apologetics, while calling for civility and honesty on both sides. Many traditional Christians and Jewish believers are willing to argue — as friends and even colleagues — about issues in the past, present and eternal future.
Other Jews, secularists and liberal Christians would make the same leap of logic seen in the Weiss tweets, arguing that those who support efforts to convert Jews to Christianity are guilty of anti-Semitism. Some argue that people who believe that salvation is found in Jesus, alone, should be excluded from key posts in political life. Hello, Bernie Sanders?
This is complex, dangerous territory.
A familiar note to people who run newsrooms: This is why you need one or more journalists on your team who have experience covering religion news.
You need professionals with files full of telephone numbers that cover the wide, wide, wide range of believers involved in these debates. They need to be able to grasp the doctrinal and, yes, political views of believers on left and right.
I’ll say it again: Let’s be careful out there.