*The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to Jewish leaders who are highly offended and speaking out against a ceremony held Sunday at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in which Bishop Eddie Long was wrapped in a sacred Torah scroll and carried upon a throne.
“He’s a king. God has blessed him,” said Rabbi Ralph Messer before covering Long in a scroll “[that] may still have the dust of Auschwitz and Birkenau.” Messer referred to the Nazi extermination camps in Poland where millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
A Torah’s use in a ceremony ordaining Long as “a king” is offensive to many Jews, said Bill Nigut, Southeast Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The ceremony at Long’s Lithonia church, viewed more than 139,000 times on YouTube, “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with,” Nigut tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”
Messer said his parchment, a handwritten copy of the holiest book within Judaism, was 312 years old. His mention of Auschwitz-Birkenau implied the scroll was one of those recovered from the death camps when they were liberated by the Allies toward the end of World War II.
It’s impossible to authenticate Messer’s claim without examining the texts up close, said Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs. While rare, Torahs can be easily purchased, even on eBay, he said.
“There are a fair number of Torah scrolls that survived the war,” said Heller, adding roughly 1,500 were rescued from Czechoslovakia alone.
“The connection of the Torah scroll to the Holocaust and then to Eddie Long is incomprehensible to me,” said David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. Gushee is a scholar of the Holocaust and has visited Auschwitz several times.
“What was the point? Was it to signal that Eddie Long was suffering persecution like the Jews at Auschwitz?” Gushee asked.
Messer’s son, Minister Russell Messer of Simchat Torah Beit Midrash in Parker, Colo., said his father purchased the parchment and relied on the word of its seller regarding its provenance. “It came through that generation of Europe,” the younger Messer said.
Russell Messer said that in the next two days, his father — who has no formal rabbinical training — plans to post on his organization’s website the full video of his sermon along with additional comments regarding Sunday’s service.
When asked for comment about the event, New Birth emailed a statement Thursday in which Ralph Messer said critics misunderstood his intent.
“My message was about restoring a man and to encourage his walk in the Lord,” Messer said. “It was not to make Bishop Eddie L. Long a king.”
The YouTube video indicates otherwise, Heller told the AJC.
“We wouldn’t wrap a Jewish person in a Torah scroll and declare him king,” he said. “As a Jew, I find that use of symbols very off-putting.”
The messenger is as controversial as the message, Jewish leaders say.
Ralph Messer, according to a biography on his organization’s website, is “pioneering a work to bring the ‘Good News’ of Yeshua (Jesus Christ) in the Torah to the ends of the Earth.” He is active in the Messianic Judaism movement, which fuses evangelical Christian beliefs with elements of Jewish tradition.
“The Jewish community does not associate itself with the Messianic congregations,” Heller said. “We don’t feel like this does due justice to either the Jewish or Christian community.”
Messer’s biography says he has ties with prominent evangelicals including the Rev. Kenneth Copeland of Lubbock, Texas, and Paula White, pastor of a charismatic mega-church based in Florida. It says he has made frequent appearances on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
In his statement Thursday, Ralph Messer said Sunday’s presentation “was simply a way of bringing honor to a man who had given his life to the Lord and had given so much to his church, the Atlanta metro area and throughout the world.”
“Lifting him on the chair was to acknowledge and honor him,” he said, adding it is consistent with rituals performed at Jewish weddings and Bar mitzvahs.
Russell Messer said that his father and Long “just got to know each other in the last six months.”
Long was appointed New Birth’s pastor in 1987 when the church had only 300 members. By its 10th anniversary, New Birth reported a membership of roughly 18,000, peaking at 25,000.
But in September 2010, Long was sued by four former church members who alleged he used his influence, trips, gifts and jobs to coerce them into sexual relationships. The suit was settled in May. The church’s attendance has declined since the sexual coercion lawsuit was filed.
The bishop may have taken comfort in Messer’s message.
“You can’t attack [Long],” Messer said Sunday. “He’s sealed. Wherever he turns, the power of God is there. … It’s not him, it’s the king in him.”
As Long sat behind him, perched on a throne under a spotlight, Messer chanted repeatedly, “It’s a new birth,” eliciting cheers from the congregation.
“A lot of things could have been done to shore that up, but this particularly bizarre ritual was deeply disturbing,” Gushee said. “One problem with Messianic Judaism, in which leaders attempt to fuse Jewish and Christian traditions and symbols, is that it can easily stray into profound insensitivity.”
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, associate professor of Biblical studies at Interdenominational Theological Center, said that on viewing the video, “My first impression was, ‘Who is this individual who has the authority to make Bishop Long a king?’
“It’s something I’ve never seen or read within the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Hopkins said. “There’s nothing within Scripture that supports such a practice of this ceremony. It really just stands outside of the Christian faith.”