Fake Rabbi Showdown

A few years back I worked at a Jewish cultural organization, and from time to time we had events that called for the inclusion of a chazan, a cantor, to add a bit of religious yikhes (lineage)to our mostly secular mission. Usually this provided the workday with a pleasant musical interlude, but on one occasion the cantor seemed totally unable to carry a tune.

As we listened to him warble, I was approached by an elderly man who waved me close so he could whisper something in my ear. A Polish-born former chicken farmer from New Jersey, he had been a Nazi-killing partisan in his youth, but now walked with a cane and the stoop of age. He sounded like he’d learned English from gangster movies, which in fact he had. Hooking a thumb in the direction of the tone-deaf cantor, he said, “This guy’s a chazan like I’m a dancer.”

Those were more or less my thoughts while watching the spectacle of Atlanta megachurch pastor Bishop Eddie Long proclaimed king “on behalf of the Jewish people” by a fellow calling himself “Rabbi Ralph Messer.” As seen in a video now going viral (and as noted by my RD colleague Anthea Butler), the crowning ceremony occurred last weekend. It includes such cringe-inducing moments as Messer unrolling a Torah scroll and wrapping Bishop Long in joined sheets of inscribed sheepskin he claims were rescued from Auschwitz. As he removes the cover from the scroll, Rabbi Messer says (really), “I’m gonna pull off the foreskin of this.”

This guy’s a rabbi like I’m the pope, I thought. And the only people he was fooling were the 25,000 members of Bishop Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. When Messer broke into Hebrew song as Long was paraded aloft in a chair, carrying the Torah and draped with a prayer shawl, it was like watching a summer stock revival of Yentl performed by a cast that had never met any actual Jews.

The coronation of a controversial megachurch minister as a Davidic king by a man who claims “dual citizenship with Israel” as sufficient authority to speak “on behalf of the Jewish people” is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable displays of pluralism gone awry in recent memory. But Long is far from the first non-Jew to make use of a so-called rabbi to bolster his spiritual authority.

For years, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, has featured in his elaborate arranged-marriage ceremonies a fellow straight from the pages of an Orthodox Jewish clothing catalogue—black suit, black beard, black fedora, usually wearing a prayer shawl identical to the one draped around Eddie Long.

I had the privilege of meeting Moon’s rabbi a few years ago when covering a Unification Church event, an interreligious “reconciliation ceremony” held at a hotel in New Jersey. After a parade of sketchy ministers representing a handful faiths praised Moon as the unifier of all religious traditions, the man obviously tasked with representing Judaism walked into the room. He was sorry he was late, he said. It was eight o’clock on a Friday night—Shabbat—and he’d just flown in for the occasion.

The next day, he handed me a business card that read, “Rabbi Dr. Mordehi Waldman: Have Shofar Will Travel.” He had enjoyed 15 minutes of fame a few years back, when he appeared at a reception held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and blew his shofar to announce the coming of the messiah just before Moon had himself crowned “humanity’s Savior” and “returning Lord.”

After journalist John Gorenfeld wrote about it in June 2004, the event became a major embarrassment for the congressmen who attended. It had been a big day for Waldman, however. Though blowing the shofar (a curved piece of ram’s horn used like a trumpet) is usually reserved for the Jewish High Holy Days, Waldman now blows his at every opportunity. He has done so for Unification events across Asia and Europe, occasionally referring to his patron as “Rabbi Moon.”

What’s in it for him? As he explained it at the time, he had been single when he first crossed paths with the Unification Church. But then, he said, “Reverend Moon’s people said to me, ‘Rabbi, it’s not good for you to be alone. You should have a wife,’ they said. Then they asked me: ‘What kind of wife would you like?’ So I said, ‘A slender blonde.’”

I wondered if I was hearing a bit of shtick—a Borsht Belt routine about the shiksa-loving rabbi—but then he added, “That’s how I met this lovely lady right here.” Sure enough, he pulled a slender blonde woman to his side. “Look at us, a German Lutheran and a Jewish rabbi!” he said with a grin. “Hello! Reconciliation, right?”

When next I saw the rabbi, he was back in the hotel ballroom, blowing his shofar.

What’s in it for Rabbi Ralph Messer is perhaps not so straightforward. But surely it has something to do with the fact that on the website for his own congregation there is a tab that takes you directly to “Rabbi’s Products,” where Messer hawks everything from books to anointing oils to health and beauty aids and various “made in Israel” tchochkes. From Rabbi Messer, Bishop Long borrows a certain kind of legitimacy or a lineage—yikhes. In return, Messer gets a larger audience than most phony rabbis could ever hope to have.  

Perhaps the most famous use of Jewish religious rituals for decidedly non-Jewish purposes can be found near the end a sacred text far more genuine than the megillah peddled by Messer. In the climactic moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see Indiana Jones’ Nazi-collaborating nemesis dressed up as an Israelite priest, intoning Hebrew prayers as he opens the stolen Ark of the Covenant.    

Those comic-book Nazis, too, were looking to usurp religious legitimacy; through ritual to actualize an imagined connection to the past, which they believed would make them more powerful in the future. In return, of course, they got their faces melted off.  

Bishop Long, Reverend Moon, and fake rabbis everywhere, take note. To paraphrase the sage Toby Ziegler: Don’t bring the Jewish unless you know what you’re doing.

Peter Manseau is the author of five books including the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and the forthcoming One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, from Little, Brown.