I hope Vice President Mike Pence issues an apology, fast. Nerves are raw and his participation at a campaign event in Michigan this week, at which well-intentioned prayers for the victims of the anti-Semitic Pittsburgh massacre were upended by the participation of a messianic rabbi, undermining the good intended.
I have no doubt of the genuine intent of having a prayer at a campaign event to support and comfort the victims and their families. Equally genuinely however is that anything perceived to undermine that is a lightning rod for blowback, criticism, and a visceral response that is no less raw.
Yet, I have a different take on what happened and why.
I don’t believe that Pence had anything to do with inviting the messianic rabbi to the campaign event at which the later prayed on behalf of the Jewish victims in Jesus’ name. I just don’t believe that the vice president of the United States spends lots of time on which clergy delivers prayers at local events that take place regularly, if not daily, throughout the US.
Yet, it appears that the invitation was extended by Republican candidate Lena Epstein, who happens to be Jewish.
Moreoever, years of building bridges between Jews and Christians, and actively engaging Christians of all backgrounds gives me the real life experience that this incident is not unique.
Given that Pence is known to be tremendously pro-Israel and respectful of Jews, I would be surprised, and disappointed, if he did not come out with a statement that is clear, strong, and unambiguous, apologizing for any hurt or offense he may have caused or been part of, in general and especially in the wake and during the mourning of the 11 Jewish victims.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t change my perspective.
Jews look at this and cannot understand how or why such a mistake — an affront — on mainstream Judaism could be possible. We literally just don’t understand. That’s legitimate.
In our world view, albeit through the prism of different denominations and levels of observance, one thing that still unites most of us is that we do not believe Jesus was messiah. At a time where we as Jews find so much to bicker about, making one wonder how, if the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, we might ever merit the rebuilding of the Temple, this is something that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, can pretty much all agree upon.
But, spending much of my time among Christians who genuinely love Israel and the Jewish people, I can vouch for a certainty that many simply do not know or understand why we are different from messianic Jews, or why that would be a problem. Further, many Christians affiliate with messianic congregations so that they can feel a deeper connection to the Jewish roots of Christianity. Indeed, being among people who affirm their belief in Jesus and interweave aspects of Judaism into their lives and worship, is comfortable. For many Christians I know, it feels authentic, and I have had numerous conversations about that with Christian, and even messianic, friends.
Underscoring how even Christians who deeply love Israel and the Jewish people do not understand — recently, I was invited to spend Shabbat in two different messianic congregations by Christian friends who truly did not comprehend the issues that would create for me as an Orthodox Jew, and who sincerely invited me to join them in these services because they wanted me to be comfortable.
These are my friends, devout Christians, who would never do anything to hurt or offend me or make me uncomfortable in any way. They connect with me and my family and other Jews out of love. And still, they just did not know. Fortunately, because we are adults and friends, I was able to explain to them the issues, which created a deeper level of friendship, respect, and awareness.
But these are only two recent incidents, among friends. I could list dozens of such experiences where I have interacted with Christians who know next to nothing about Judaism. Because I am visibly identifiable as an Orthodox Jew with a blue knit kippah always on my head, I am party to lots of interesting conversations and experiences.
I have attended numerous Christian conventions, and even though I am introduced as an Orthodox Jew, many do not know what that means or how we differ from Christians. I get this all the time. I also am mistaken for a messianic Jew as well. Once, I was even approached by someone from a messianic organization who shared with me how he goes about trying to convert Jews. I listened patiently, even interested, and interjected that I am an Orthodox Jew and I believe that Jews should be strengthened and encouraged to be good Jews, and Christians should be strengthened and encouraged to be good Christians.
Then there was the time in an airport when a teenage boy (I later learned he was the son of a pastor) recognized me as a Jew but did not know what that meant, so he asked. We engaged in a wonderful conversation. He asked me what was on my head so I explained, to which he pronounced loudly to his mother as if he had discovered something wonderful, “Look, Mom, he has a Jew-hat.” His mother cringed in embarrassment. In another situation, his comment might have been offensive, but in that context, coming from his interest and curiosity, I certainly didn’t take it as such.
If Pence did not know the person he was introducing, maybe he should have, but he is not at fault. Theologically, as an evangelical Christian, perhaps nothing said in the prayer seemed out of place. Blaming him, however, or expecting him not to be “ignorant” of Jewish sensibilities is out of place.
Still, I hope issues an apology based on the Jewish principle that being in a situation where someone could perceive something other than what is intended is one’s responsibility, and that apologizing for something that truly caused hurt does not make someone less of a man, but more so.
Jews and Christians have so many ways in which we can, should, and really need to get along. We can differ on some big things but share in common so many others. Let’s agree where we can, agree to disagree where we do, respect one another, and not look to make issues out of things that either we do not understand, that others do not understand, or that do not exist.