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Pence sets off firestorm with campaign prayer by 'Christian rabbi'

"We often have ecumenical prayers at the beginning of events that aren't an endorsement of any particular faith," an aide to the vice president said.
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Vice President Mike Pence was roundly criticized on Monday for appearing at a campaign rally in Michigan at which a "Messianic rabbi" invoked Jesus in mourning the deaths of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Messianic Judaism, which believes that Jesus is the messiah and considers the New Testament to be authentic, is not recognized as Jewish by any mainstream Jewish movement in the United States or by the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel.

Pence, who has often proclaimed himself to be a born-again evangelical Christian, invited Rabbi Loren Jacobs to the stage at a rally in Waterford Township, a suburb of Detroit, for Lena Epstein, a Republican candidate for the open congressional seat in Michigan's 11th District.

Jacobs, the founder and senior rabbi of Congregation Shema Yisrael in nearby Bloomfield Hills, a Messianic congregation, opened by invoking "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and father of my lord and savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and father, too."

("Yeshua" — derived from a Greek spelling that eventually became "Jesus" in English — is the name by which many Messianic Jews refer to Jesus. You can watch C-SPAN's video of Jacobs' prayer here.)

The movement's most visible manifestation in the United States is the organization Jews for Jesus, which was founded in 1970 and declares that "Jesus the Messiah was eternally pre-existent and is co-equal with God the Father." Jacobs has contributed a number of columns to the Jews for Jesus publication Issues.

Many people excoriated Pence for what they said was insensitivity, at best, toward Judaism and, at worst, a deliberate insult. Several characterized Jacobs as a "fake rabbi" and a "Christian rabbi."

Epstein defended the vice president on Monday night, saying in a statement that it was she who invited Jacobs to the event, not Pence, "because we must unite as a nation."

"Any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President is guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed," she said.

Pence's deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, told NBC News that Pence had heard that Jacobs had spoken at 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.

Jacobs couldn't be reached for comment Monday night. Congregation Shema Yisrael didn't answer a call seeking comment.

Jacobs graduated in 1979 from the Jewish studies program at Moody Bible Institute, a leading Christian college in Chicago, and was ordained as a rabbi by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, an association of about 75 Messianic Jewish congregations with headquarters based in Boca Raton, Florida. The organization rescinded Jacobs' ordination in 2003 for what it characterized as libel in a dispute over doctrinal beliefs.

In a first-person essay for Jewish Testimonies, a Messianic Jewish website, Jacobs wrote that "in coming to know the Messiah, I discovered a dimension of Jewish spirituality that I never dreamed possible!"

CLARIFICATION (Oct. 30, 2018, 4:20 p.m. ET): This article has been amended to add an additional detail about Jacobs' religious affiliation: In 2003, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations rescinded his ordination as a rabbi for what it characterized as libel in a dispute over doctrinal beliefs.