Some of my best trends are Jewish?

In some corners of the Evangelical world, hybridizing select bits of Jewish practice with Christian faith is a way to declare that these individuals or churches really take the Bible seriously and/or love Israel. I’ve seen women dancing with tallit (prayer shawls), each woman wielding her tallit as though she were a  matador. I’ve watched a few of my Gentile friends embrace various kosher-style diets. And I’ve been the recipient of awkward verbal bouquets consisting of a gushed “You’re so lucky to be Jewish. I wish I was Jewish, too!”

The Christians-Wishing-To-Be-A-Bissel*-Jewish micro-trend was recently the subject of a great piece in the New York Times Magazine. (Click here to read it.) Author Maud Newton writes,

Most modern-day Protestant fundamentalists believe that the Jews are (at least until Jesus’ return) God’s chosen people. If Christ himself was Jewish, and followed Jewish tradition, the thinking goes, why shouldn’t Christians consider the ways their savior actually lived and practice the rituals he practiced? Many evangelicals have traded contempt of the past for a respectful, almost fetishistic view of Jews and, now, Jewish tradition. What this means in practice is extremely complicated. There’s a big difference between building bridges across cultures to foster understanding and building bridges so you can run across and ransack the other side.

The best lines in the piece came a few paragraphs later: “…this fetishistic view of Judaism and the role of Israel in the advent of the end times sees Jews as a people to be herded together so that another group can achieve its eternal reward. To me that’s a troubling catechism. It’s ultimately not so far from the ‘Christ-killers’ narrative of yore, just with an Israel-friendly varnish.”

I alluded to this in a post I wrote last summer when I reflected briefly about the stories the Church has told me about my identity as a Jewish believer. Though romanticizing the idea of Israel is preferable to Replacement theology**, I have two concerns with the trend toward grabbing bits of Jewish practice as a byproduct of  Dispensational eschatology** as tokens of a professed love for Israel:

    • It marginalizes Jewish people: Newton used the word “fetishistic”, which captures the irrational affection for Jewish certain symbols and practices. Jewish people – particularly those who don’t practice in this way – may be left feeling as though they’ve been hijacked. That’s a sour cousin to Paul’s desire to provoke his Jewish brothers and sisters to healthy jealousy by the demonstration of grafted-in faith of the Gentiles to whom he’d been sent.
    • It lacks an informed filter: There is the Bible, and then there is commentary, tradition and lots and lots of opinion. Sometimes well-meaning and ill-informed Christians haven’t really thought through where the practice or ritual in question has come from. Is it Biblical? Or a cherished tradition?

As a Jewish believer, I most definitely want to see Gentiles respecting and thoughtfully connecting with the roots of their faith. (See Romans 11.) I am happy when I see Christians having a Seder***. (Communion without the context of a Seder makes absolutely no sense. Bonus sermon over.) I’d like to see more Gentiles who observe the liturgical year begin asking questions about how this calendar almost completely overwrote the Holy Days prescribed by God and celebrated by the predominately Jewish early church. Even though there are weird misfires, I am deeply grateful for the Gentiles who’ve become cheerleaders and fans of my people. Even the ones who have Christian Bat Mitzvahs.

Bottom line: We need all the friends we can get. History has proven that to us over and over again.

*Bissel is Yiddish for “a little bit”

**There are no doubt bones to pick with both Wikipedia entries, but in the name of basic overview, they’ll have to do unless someone can shoot me a couple of better links to…for lack of a better word…replace them. 

***And not just a sermon about what a Seder is. No. A real Seder. With food. 

What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss! 

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  • http://Www.sojourningwithjews.com Ruth

    Great post Michelle. As a Gentile married to a Jew, I’m one of those trying to combat RT as well as make as many friends of the Jewsih people as possible.

    But it isn’t an easy endeavor! Watching Gentiles, who are at first saturated in RT and so sure of the diminished or irrelevant status of Jews, suddenly “get it” and see how wrong that paridigm is, will suddenly become very insecure and try to make up for it, many times trying to “out Jew” the Jews.

    I appreciated what you quoted, “There’s a big difference between building bridges across cultures to foster understanding and building bridges so you can run across and ransack the other side.”

    Those bridges can and must be built, however there needs to be respect for the Jewish people, security with our (Gentile) acceptibility to our creator, and trust in Him who will repair and renew all things, for He is faithful indeed.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks, Ruth. Insecurity may well fuel some of these hybridizing acts. After all, no one wants to get wrong the practice of their faith!
      Like you, I believe the most serious threat comes from RT. Someone who believes the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan is far more dangerous to the Jewish people than someone who goes overboard trying to “out Jew” the Jews.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I grew up in a church that laid out a full Seder every year, complete with Scripture readings and dialog. Very illuminating. Then a few years ago I listened to a sermon by an OT scholar who took us step by step through the Last Supper. The Seder significance was electrifying.

    On whether present day gentile Christians should adopt Jewish practices, though, I’d say only if they can do so while following the cautions Paul delivered to the church in Galatia. I recently read a post by someone who said their family was adopting messianic Christianity, and Galatians was the first thing that came to mind.

    Thoughtful consideration of God’s relationship with ancient Israel and present day Jews is a wonderful pursuit. Adopting Jewish practices as a lifestyle raises much concern for me.

    Thanks for helping me think through this today, Michelle.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Michelle Van Loon

      “Messianic Christianity” – I’ve not heard that one before, and I kinda like it. :)
      When Gentiles interested in Jewish practices ask me where to begin, I point them toward Acts 15 to begin the conversation. The Council of Jerusalem gave simple direction for some baseline practices for Gentiles wishing to come into the predominately Jewish community of faith. (It is interesting to me that the Council did not instruct believing Jews to follow those same rules. Nowadays, it is more likely that you’ll hear a Gentile telling a believing Jew who keeps kosher to get over it and have a ham sandwich!)

  • http://connectingdotstogod.com Judy Allen

    Thank you for a very helpful perspective, Michelle. I also appreciated your previous posts on the subject. As I read the Bible, I see that God made unconditional promises to Abraham that preceded the law along with its conditional promises. When I think of the Old Covenant, I think of the Law, but as Paul pointed out in Galatians, the promise to Abraham received by faith came first. So, I understand that Christians are children of that promise by faith and that Jesus has created “one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15) so that we are one in Christ. I get that. How the political nation of Israel and genetic children of Abraham fit into that is where it gets complicated. Any insight you have on that is welcome! Maybe it is just one more example of the tricky tension between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. I agree with Paul’s expression at the end of Romans 11 – Wow God!

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I agree, Judy. It IS complicated when we try to figure out how the modern political nation of Israel and the genetic children of Abraham fit into the kingdom of God “picture”. I know that God isn’t finished with his people even though so many have rejected him – and I know the church (every tongue, tribe and nation that calls on the name of Jesus to be saved) has been grafted in to that unbroken relationship. I have not yet seen a satisfactory theology that deals with this tension. Besides Replacement Theology (supersessionism) and Dispensationalism, I’ve also heard other ways of resolving the tension including “Two House Theology” (http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Two_House/two_house.html), which has all kinds of issues and weirdness embedded in it. I tend to use the categories you do to think through the tension: kingdom of God and kingdoms of this world. I do know that in the last generation, there are more Jewish believers like me than there have been since the beginning of the second century. Not sure what conclusion to draw from that, either – but I do know it means something.

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  • http://www.thegnujgh.wordpress.com John Hartung

    In general, if A says to B “You’re going to Hell!” it’s because A loves B and wants to warn B. But if A says to B “Go to Hell” it means A hates B and wants to see B damned. By the same token one can be a form of supercesdionist without being anti-Semitic. Without dealing with the technicalities of the several alternatives here (except to warn that even the Wikipedia article linked here is too simplistic – that’s not to be blamed on this posts author who usefully linked to it) such a supercesionist view would have to have it’s sources in the OT prior to the NT and maintain Paul’s expressed love for his people. I think that such a view is taught in both testaments. I will admit to being of the Augustinian Reformed “Covenant Theology” Protestant camp.

    But I have said all that out if necessity in order to say this: that this was a very helpful piece and I will share it.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      John, I agree with you about the limitations of the Wikipedia links. They were there to serve as a rudimentary intro to the topics. Thanks, too, for your thoughts and kind words.

      I’ve read the supersessionist explanations of how the various pieces fit together, and have not yet found a person who can maintain Paul’s love for his people in the way Paul expressed it under the RT/supersessionist system. If the church has replaced Israel, then the Jewish people are no longer God’s Chosen People. RT communicates that God switched gears in Jesus and renegotiated his covenant promises in order to apply those promises to the Church. How can this belief have loving consequences for Israel and the Jewish people? And can he be trustworthy if he does this sort of gear-switching?

      If you can point me at some helpful reading that answers these questions from your “camp”, I’d welcome the recommendations. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    Michelle,

    Can you explain to me, perhaps both from your perspective and how Maud Newton views it (if you happen to know) what the difference would be between Christians celebrating a Seder (would it be appropriate to include references to the Messiah in it, beyond the typical Jewish Haggadah?) and Christians observing other Jewish traditions? I agree that a woman wielding a tallit in typical (especially charismatic) “worship dance” fashion would be strange to say the least, but what about, for example , celebrating Sukkot or lighting Sabbath candles? What would be the problem, if one decided to follow Acts 15 and thus would want to rely on kosher meat (how are you going to avoid blood and that which has been strangled if you buy regular meat of unkown provenance?) to then stick to what’s available in kosher butchers and abstain from pork, shellfish, etc?
    Or what other observance of Jewish ritual or dietary law are you referring to?

    To some extent, if we claim the Tanach as part of our Bible, the feasts described and prescribed in there are part of our heritage, and it would be as such that I would be inclined to view Christian celebrations of the feasts — not as something ransacked from contemporary Judaism.

    What I do find problematic is Gentile Christians setting up churches that claim to be Messianic congregations but which have not a single Jew in them.

    Regards from Austria,

    Wolf Paul

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks for writing, Wolf Paul. I can’t speak for Ms. Newton, but your comments pointed out an unanswered question in my own post above. Acts 15 offers a few basic parameters for Gentile believers. In a perfect world, the considerations you list above (koshered meats, a kosher diet, a calendar and celebrations rooted in the Bible’s descriptions rather than an invented one that ignores the cycle that exists there) would not be radical shifts for the Gentile church, but would be standard operating procedure. It sounds like you’ve thought through these considerations. Can you suggest any books or websites that have helped shape your thinking?

      Romans 14 is our guide to “disputable matters”, and it does show that even in the 1st century, there were people who had different convictions about days and foods.

  • BK

    I was looking for an article that would help me capture what inspires the discomfort I feel when non-Jews adopt Jewish customs or affectations. Not so much as part of some kind of Christian religious identity, but in general (hanging mezuzot on door frames, etc.). The word “fetishistic” is *exactly* it. I can understand and tolerate Christian adoption of these practices, because usually it’s accompanied by a sense of “this brings me closer to my Savior.” And given the long history of the Jews and the Church, I will indeed happily indulge the interest, with a caveat.

    From tallitot to the seder, everything that I’ve seen borrowed from our faith by Christians (or the intellectually dishonest/impossible Messianic Jewish movement), generally has its origins *after* Christ would have died (and/or risen, with respect to your point of view), within rabbinical Judaism. All white tzitzit on the tallis is by rabbinical decree. The components of the seder started being codified 300-400 years after Jesus in tractates in the Babylonian Talmud. Wolf Paul below asks other questions, like candles on Shabbat – but that, too, had rabbinic origins, 1100-1200 years after Christ’s time (on earth, from the Christian point of view). Sukkot is perhaps the most “intact” (from Temple times) of our Torah-mandated holidays, interestingly.

    I would argue that Christians adopting Jewish practices should really invest in the research. Unless one determines how these things were observed in antinquity, i.e. at the time of Christ, almost any visceral satisfaction garnered from the borrowing of Jewish practice, from Sukkot to Passover, is going to be as Mr. Paul says, a ransacking of contemporary Judaism, or at best, a ransacking of Judaism’s own evolution across the last two thousand years. And that does generate bad feelings, especially when one watches a Christian take a Passover tradition formed outside of the Judaism of Jesus, and inject trinitarian nonsense into a completely unrelated set of three matzah.

    I’m glad to see there is an internal discussion, and maybe there are merits to having minim amongst the Christians, although I hope, if you are Jewish, that you return to us.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thank you, BK, for you additions to the conversation. As you noted, many Gentiles are quite surprised to find out that many of the various Jewish traditions they believe are straight out of Scripture have been shaped (or developed) by rabbis. I want to help Christians think about why they’re doing what they’re doing re: picking and choosing various Jewish practices. The faddishness of some of these choices comes from the lack of research, yes, but also the fact that these rituals are not part of their own community’s generations’-long tradition.

      (For what its worth, my own Jewish family of origin did a fair measure of picking and choosing from our menu of traditions. It’s not quite the same, I know – but unless we’re in a very tight Orthodox community, it seems many Jewish families take a cafeteria approach to the way we practice our faith.)

      Though I believe Jesus is the Messiah, I am Jewish. I have always been Jewish, and always will be. My belief in Jesus would not have saved me from Auschwitz if I’s been living in Europe in the 1940′s. I have not gone anywhere.


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