So my extremely brilliant friend Jen wrote a fantastic popular article about her research, published during last year’s US election: Why it’s absurd for a pastor to give Donald Trump a Jewish prayer shawl. You should read it, it’s only tangentially about Trump, it’s about the history of Jewish ritual objects and about Jewish-Christian relations.
I’m not particularly bothered by Trump wearing a tallit. I mean, I barely followed the US election and I can easily think of dozens of more offensive and downright horrifying things Trump has said or done. So I appreciate that Jen leads with calling the act ‘absurd’, not primarily offensive or culturally appropriative or racist, and that she focuses on the actions of the pastor in giving the tallit, not Trump in receiving it. With the caveat that I’m not an American Jew, it feels like cultural appropriation isn’t quite the issue here. Like, it’s not taking a Jewish sacred object and using it as a fashion accessory or a halloween costume or a sexual fetish, all of which happen and generally upset many Jewish people. It’s taking something from Jewish ritual practice and using it in a Christian context, which is… more complicated.
I was a little disturbed when I heard about the Trump-tallit-gate thing. Because to me, a fringed garment is a symbol of acceptance of the mitzvot, the commandments which define Jewish religious practice, so for a Christian to wear it, when most forms of Christianity explicitly reject Torah-based commandments, seems weird. We generally discourage Christians from wearing a tallit in synagogue, for example. But who are these Christians hanging out in synagogues? Well, most of them are perfectly normal visitors who have been invited to join a friend or relative, or are on an interfaith trip to learn more about Judaism. If they’re visitors, it’s fairly obvious that they wouldn’t wear a tallit or otherwise participate directly in our rituals. Though I remember going to a seminar about mixed couples and hearing from a Christian guy who was really upset that his husband’s Jewish community generally welcomed and included him, but (as he saw it) drew the line at “letting” him wear a tallit, so he felt that he wasn’t fully accepted. Whereas I suspect from the synagogue’s perspective, they were trying to demonstrate respect by acknowledging that as a Christian he was not bound by our mitzvot, so they wouldn’t ask him to wear a tallit symbolizing a commitment he had chosen not to make.
But some of the Christians-in-synagogue are people who believe that some Jewish, at least in form, practices, are part of their Christian faith. I usually refer to them as philosemitic Christians, and cautiously welcome them as long as they don’t try to convert anyone. Now, some people might say that they’re being culturally appropriative by coming to synagogues and keeping Jewish-style sabbath and having seder meals and other things that these Christian groups like to do. That’s not my view, because I think Christians do in fact have some entitlement to their Jewish heritage. No, most Christians aren’t ancestrally Jewish, but culture is about more than genetics. Christianity really does have Jewish roots, not just textually, but culturally as well, and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for Christians to take an interest in that. And really, the last thing I want to say to an African-American Christian is that they’re not allowed to celebrate redemption from slavery because the Exodus narrative belongs exclusively to us mostly white Jews.
However, it is also true that Christianity has been the dominant religion for many centuries and Christians have not always treated Jews well, so modern Christians using Jewish symbols, even in a positive way, is not a simple situation. For a very long time, mainstream Christian thought rejected Jesus’ Jewish origins, and saw Jews as only people who betrayed, killed and rejected Jesus. I remember hearing a talk from Géza Vermes shortly before his death, when he discussed just how controversial his work on Jesus the Jew was when he published it in the 70s, even in academic circles, even after the Second Vatican Council. So nowadays most Christians accept that Jesus was himself Jewish and influenced by Jewish thought and ideas, and this is generally a good thing. But as Jen points out in her article, many Christians are really confused by what this means. There is a tendency to conflate the religion of Jesus with contemporary Judaism, and it happens in both directions. People look at modern Jewish practice and assume that this is what Jesus would have done, and also they read the New Testament descriptions and assume this gives a picture of modern day Jews.
When I was 8 or 9 a group of nice ladies from the local church came to visit the synagogue my family belonged to. They made a big fuss over me because I could read Hebrew fairly fluently, and it was “the language of Our Lord”. And then an even bigger fuss because in my tactless precocious child way I corrected them, I think you’ll find that Jesus mostly spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, in day-to-day life. And proceeded to ask me lots of questions about Jesus’ putative practice, to which I gave confident but ill-informed answers. This is something that happens to me quite a lot, though I hope as an adult I answer more tactfully; random Christians see me, a knowledgeable Jew, as a source to find out what rituals Jesus would have participated in. And, well, I know a little bit about first century Judaism because I’m somewhat interested and because I have scholarly friends like Jen and because I have learned a bit precisely in order to answer these questions. But I’m miles away from being an expert, and I have a problem with the assumption that because I’m Jewish I can teach Christians all about the historical Jesus. And I don’t at all mind teaching Christians about contemporary Judaism and inviting them as guests to our rituals, that’s something I hugely enjoy doing, but it is a problem when they go away thinking that what we do gives them insight into Jesus.
I mean, take the tallit, the ritual fringed garment. The pastor who gave one to Trump called it a “prayer shawl”, and yes, that’s one of the purposes we use a tallit for. But as Jen points out, this practice post-dates Jesus’ time, when wearing a (rather different) fringed garment all the time, not just for prayer, was mainly about a certain kind of Jewish identity, which I don’t know if Jesus would have subscribed to. And that aspect of tallit still exists among Jews today, in the form of tallit katan, the lesser tallit, a fringed undergarment, which some people wear indiciating that they identify with certain forms of Judaism. The tzitzit, or ritual fringes, may or may not be worn outside the clothes and therefore may be private or visible, depending on the wearer’s preference. (Personally, I own a tallit katan, with the ritual blue techelet thread, because I was so excited by the collaboration between rabbinic experts and biochemists to rediscover the lost blue dye that I had to have it. But I mostly don’t wear it because at this point in my life I’m not sufficiently observant to feel justified in wearing tzitzit in daily life.) But anyway, Jen does a great job of explaining why this kind of Christian adoption of random, out of context bits of modern Jewish practice is, let’s say uncomfortable and weird, even when it’s well meant.
Partly because Judaism isn’t just a religion. Fania Oz-Salzberger makes some really interesting points in the linked interview about Judaism as identity and culture, and the importance of secular Judaism. She’s a bit clumsy in talking about Christianity and Islam, it’s kind of a ridiculous generalization to say that these religions (really? half the world’s population today, and all the different subgroups over millennia of history?) don’t accept questioning or value free debate, and I think the interview must have been a bit weirdly edited because it’s incoherent to claim that Jewish culture is more in line with secular Enlightenment values when the Enlightenment and Secularism were clearly Christian ideas originally. But if you ignore Oz-Salzberger’s contrast with other religions, what she says about Judaism is I think useful. And it’s something that is often not understood by philosemitic Christians, for example when they see a tallit as only a special holy object that you use for prayer, rather than as part of expressing a complex identity.
That identity was not Jesus’ identity. Partly because he was teaching 2000 years ago and Judaism has experienced a lot of history and development since then. Partly because, well, we don’t exactly know whether Jesus invented his own form of Judaism or belonged to an existing sect, but one thing he certainly wasn’t was a Pharisee and nearly all branches of modern Judaism are rabbinic, which is to say essentially Pharisaic. Partly because the message of the New Testament is not to describe Jesus’ Jewish practice, except where that is relevant to Jesus’ actual Christian teachings, so trying to piece it together from the text available is if not futile, certainly not straightforward. Particularly since the Christian Bible can’t be viewed without all the layers of historical interpretation over the last 20 centuries, and just asking random contemporary Jews how we practise really doesn’t help much.
So I personally am not particularly bothered if Christians find some bits of Jewish ritual meaningful. I mean, I think my religious practices are meaningful and beautiful, so why shouldn’t someone else? And I can see how a lot of them do seem directly relevant to some Christians, they’re not just being syncretist and assuming everybody’s traditions are available for the amusement of anyone who feels like playing with them. In an ideal world, I would like Christians to be aware that Judaism is a separate religion and tradition and culture and not only a way for them to feel closer to Jesus. And perhaps having better information about historical context will help with that awarenes