Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Are ‘Jews for Jesus’ Jewish?

Vice President Mike Pence, right, prays with Rabbi Loren Jacobs, of Bloomfield Hills' Congregation Shema Yisrael, for the victims and families of those killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, at a rally for Republicans in Oakland County, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, at the Oakland County Airport in Waterford, Mich. (Tanya Moutzalias/Ann Arbor News-MLive.com via AP)
Tanya Moutzalias/Ann Arbor News-MLive.com via AP
Rabbi Loren Jacobs prays with Vice President Mike Pence for victims and families of those killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, at a rally in Waterford, Mich., on Oct. 29.

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

Campaigning in Grand Rapids, Mich., two days after the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Vice President Mike Pence forcefully condemned the atrocity (“what happened in Pittsburgh was not just criminal, it was evil”) and promised that justice would be “swift and severe.” His words were not only appropriate to the moment, but also in keeping with Pence’s record: He has strongly condemned previous anti-Semitic outrages, such as the vandalizing of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis in 2017, and the spray-painting of Nazi symbols on a synagogue in his home state of Indiana this past July.

But then Pence committed a cringe-inducing gaffe. He invited “a leader in the Jewish community” to take the microphone and offer a prayer for the victims in Pittsburgh and for the nation. The clergyman who came to the dais, however, was Loren Jacobs, a “rabbi” in a local Messianic congregation. And as soon as Jacobs began his invocation, it was clear to any Jew within earshot that he could not possibly be Jewish.

“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” he intoned, “God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and Father, too.”

Advertisement

That is not how Jews pray. It is how Christians pray. In particular, it is how proselytizing Christians in sects such as Jews for Jesus pray as they seek to convert ill-informed Jews to Christianity by persuading them that they can remain Jewish while nevertheless embracing Jesus as their savior and worshipping him as God.

Like just about every Jew I know, I regard Jews for Jesus and their ilk not as Jews but as Christians, and the Messianic movement not as a legitimate denomination within Jewish life but as a fifth column seeking to undermine Judaism. Considering how disputatious we Jews can be among ourselves — “Ask two Jews, get three opinions,” runs an old quip — their unanimity on the subject of Jews for Jesus is remarkable, as I noted on Twitter:

I assume that Pence, or whichever of his aides arranged for Loren Jacobs to deliver a prayer, was unaware that Messianic Jews are largely shunned by the Jewish community. To many American Christians with a strong evangelical commitment, it may seem wholly admirable to want to encourage Jews to become “completed” by accepting Jesus. The backlash against Pence’s invitation to Jacobs may even strike them as anti-Christian animus — if Jews are so intolerant of an invocation from someone who believes in Jesus, they may think, doesn’t that amount to bigotry against Christians?

The answer is: No, it doesn’t. And as a believing Jew who has publicly expressed appreciation for evangelical Christians, and acknowledged the goodwill of those who pray for the conversion of the Jewish people, I want to explain why Jews for Jesus and similar groups of “messianic Jews” are different.

Jews for Jesus was launched in 1973 at the behest of the Southern Baptist Convention as a missionary organization meant to recruit Jews to Christianity. The essence of its message is that Jewish identity is compatible with belief in Jesus. In other words, Jews for Jesus preach, you don’t have to be Christian to accept Christ.

Advertisement

But that is logically incoherent and theologically false. Christianity is by definition the belief that Jesus was the messiah and the son of God. Judaism unequivocally rejects that claim and always has. Even Jews who know nothing else about their religious heritage know that they aren’t Christians. Messianic Jews, on the other hand, believe in Christ. They’re Christians. In calling themselves Jews they are sailing under a false flag. However friendly and devout and “Jew-ish” they may be, they are not part of the Jewish community.

In the nine days since the Pittsburgh atrocity, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have joined in mutual support at interfaith vigils and community assemblies nationwide. Prayers have been offered, scripture has been quoted, arms have been linked. The outpouring of solidarity has been beautiful to behold — a wonderful illustration of American religious pluralism at its finest.

No one denies the right of any Messianic congregation, including the one led by Loren Jacobs, to promulgate its religious views. No one challenges Jacobs’s freedom to express his beliefs — even his conviction that Jews who deny Jesus are destined for Hell. But Jews across the spectrum — Orthodox to Reform, Hasidic to secular — do deny that Jacobs, or anyone under the Jews for Jesus-style tent, is Jewish. At the core of “Jewish messianism” is the assertion that Jews should abandon some of the most fundamental and normative Jewish doctrines — that God is singular and incorporeal, that it is absolutely prohibited to worship any person, and that the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) is immutable and cannot be superseded by a “new” testament.

Christians have never believed those doctrines, which is why Christians are not Jewish. Jews for Jesus don’t believe them either, because Messianic “Judaism” is a Christian denomination. Its adherents may be the nicest people in the world, but they aren’t Jews.

When lifers kill

This 1980 black and white surveillance photo released by the U.S. Attorney's Office and presented as evidence during the first day of a trial for James "Whitey" Bulger in U.S. District Court in Boston, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, shows Bulger, right, with another man at a Lancaster Street garage in Boston's North End. Bulger is on trial for a long list of crimes, including extortion and playing a role in 19 killings. (AP PhotoU.S. Attorney's Office)
AP Photo/US Attorney’s Office
James “Whitey” Bulger, pictured in 1980, was killed in federal prison last week.

James “Whitey” Bulger, one of the most evil criminals in Boston’s history, was beaten to death last week shortly after being transferred to Hazelton Penitentiary, a high-security federal prison in West Virginia. His death was bloody and savage — he was bludgeoned to death with a padlock wrapped in a sock, his eyes were gouged, and his tongue mutilated. One source told the New York Times that by the time Bulger’s corpse was found, “he was unrecognizable.”

Advertisement

Not many people shed tears over Bulger’s violent end. At least some said they were glad. In the course of his long criminal career, Bulger had brutally beaten, robbed, maimed, or murdered scores of victims, including innocent bystanders who had done him no harm. His life ended in much the way he had ended the lives of so many others.

“The testimony of human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was at times agonizing to hear and painful to watch,” US District Judge Denise Casper told Bulger at the November 2013 hearing where she sentenced him to two life terms in prison. “The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable.”

Bulger was allegedly dispatched in his cell by two other inmates: Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hitman from West Springfield, Mass., who is serving a life sentence for his role in a pair of 2003 murders; and Paul J. DeCologero, a killer from Lowell who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the sickening 1996 death and dismemberment of 19-year-old Aislin Silva. And while it may be hard to muster up much sorrow for Bulger, the ease with which they were able to murder him even in a high-security federal prison is one more piece of evidence that locking killers up and “throwing away the key” doesn’t mean they’ll never kill again.

This is a notion that comes up regularly during debates about the death penalty.

Supporters of capital punishment point out that one virtue of executing murderers is that it permanently incapacitates them — it guarantees that they will never again take a human life. But opponents commonly respond that the same goal can be achieved by sentencing murderers to life imprisonment without parole. Put them behind bars forever, the argument goes, and they’ll never again be able to kill anyone.

As a candidate for president in the last election, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders insisted that “people who commit terrible murders should spend the rest of their lives in jail.” He was against capital punishment, he said, but “when people commit horrendous crimes — and we see too many of them — we should lock them up and throw away the key.”

The same claim was made by Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, after his state’s legislature voted to abolish the death penalty in 2012:

“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

But Bulger’s murder last week highlights the obvious weakness in that argument: Even behind the bars of high-security federal prisons, people can commit murder. It isn’t even that uncommon: Bulger was the third inmate to be killed in Hazelton Penitentiary just this year.

Locking murderers up and throwing away the key is no guarantee that they won’t continue to murder. In addition to killing a fellow inmate or a prison employee, lifers may also have followers on the outside willing to carry out orders and kill on their behalf. They may convince a governor or president to grant them clemency, and then commit fresh violence.

Or, of course, they may escape.

In 2015, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most notorious mobsters, broke out of Mexico’s Altiplano, a “supermax” prison from which escape was considered impossible. Incredibly, it was the second time that Guzman, a drug trafficker responsible for numerous assassinations and acts of torture, had escaped from a maximum-security prison. Closer to home that same year, David Sweat and Richard Matt, both convicted of hellishly brutal murders, escaped from New York’s biggest maximum-security prison. Just six weeks ago, Arnold Nash escaped from the Mountain View prison in Charleston, Maine, where he was serving a 45-year sentence for murder.

Intense manhunts eventually led to the capture of Guzman and the others. But not all escapees are caught — and some kill again. About 30 inmates currently on death row were prison escapees when they committed capital murder. And at least 1 out of every 11 murderers on death row had already been found guilty of one or more homicides before committing the murder for which they were sentenced to die.

Add it all up, and there is no avoiding the hard fact that caging criminals for life — “throwing away the key” — is not a good replacement for the death penalty. There is no such thing as a prison term that can guarantee the permanent incapacitation of a killer. Only execution can do that. That doesn’t mean that the penalty of death is appropriate for every defendant convicted of murder. But when judge and jury decide that it is appropriate, a life sentence is no substitute.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Site to see

Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.

Soon after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned two US Army officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore and map the vast new American territories west of the Missouri River. The expedition undertaken by the Corps of Discovery, as it was called, lasted nearly 2½ years, and is the topic of this week’s Site to See, Discovering Lewis & Clark[URL: http://www.lewis-clark.org/].

Sponsored in part by the National Park Service, the website is a comprehensive trove of information about every aspect of Lewis & Clark’s famous achievement. It lavishly details the route they took; the Indian tribes they encountered; the supplies, weapons, and scientific equipment they carried; the flora, fauna, and geological discoveries they made; and the biographies of the men under Lewis and Clark’s command. There is a great deal about the intrepid Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied the expedition for 16 months. There are entries on the music the men turned to for recreation, the holidays they observed, and the lingo they spoke and wrote. There are even scores of photographs of the places Lewis and Clark traversed and explored, as seen today from the air.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition was one of the most remarkable excursions in US history. Its members traveled more than 8,000 miles, produced priceless maps and geographical information, identified many previously unknown natural species, and initiated cordial relations with dozens of American Indian tribes. And they did it all with almost no violence and the loss of but a single life.

From the website, here is a discussion of how Lewis and Clark presented flags as gifts to the Native Americans along their route:

“Lewis and Clark usually distributed flags at more or less formal councils with the chiefs and headmen of the tribes they encountered — one flag for each tribe or independent band. The council would open with a speech from one of the captains, delivered with the aid of one or more interpreters who spoke the tribe’s . . . language, or by their ‘sign-talker’ George Drouillard. Afterwards, the Indian leaders discussed among themselves what they understood the white men to have said, then stood one at a time to deliver their individual responses. The captains would wrap up the council with clarifications, reassurances, and gifts.

“Along with a gift flag to the apparent chief went an array of other presents that were more widely distributed among the headmen and major warriors — peace medals, commissions, clothing such as the ‘great Chief’ [President Jefferson] dresses his war chiefs in, and sometimes including tin gorgets.

“The American flag, however, was the principal sign of the expedition’s objectives. Indians as far up the Missouri as the Knife River villages clearly understood that. They had already learned the solemn significance of a flag from commercial representatives of the British and Spanish governments. Lewis and Clark’s presentation speeches emphasized the American point of view. The purpose of the flag was to publicly announce the tribe’s sole allegiance to the ‘great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America,’ and to attest to the tribe’s commitment to the doctrines of peaceful coexistence with other tribes as well as with white traders and settlers.”

Apart from a few congratulatory banquets and toasts following their return from the West, the Lewis & Clark Expedition was scarcely noted or appreciated by most Americans at the time. Two centuries later, its reputation looms far larger. The men of the Corps of Discovery are long gone, but their accomplishments are wreathed with admiration.

Recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short description (jeff.jacoby@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.

ICYMI

My column yesterday offered three reasons to vote No on Question 3, the ballot referendum on whether to retain or repeal a 2016 Massachusetts law adding “gender identity” to the list of protected categories in the state’s anti-discrimination statute. I generally oppose restrictions on freedom of association, but that is only one reason to overturn the law. The law is also unnecessary — it imposes by decree what the great majority of businesses, schools, and offices can do for themselves. Moreover, the law is insensitive. It explicitly includes sex-segregated intimate spaces, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, where women and girls are apt to feel inhibition and uneasiness at the presence of male bodies in a place meant for females.

My previous Globe column, on the massacre in Pittsburgh and the reappearance of anti-Semitism in America, was adapted from last week’s lead essay in Arguable. “The great majority of Americans have no stomach for anti-Semitism,” I wrote. “American Jews continue to benefit from a level of benevolence, respect, and freedom virtually without parallel in Jewish history. But the bigots are no longer inhibited about trumpeting their bigotry.”

The last line

“Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

— John F. Kennedy, “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort” (Sept. 12, 1962)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.