The prayer conference began with a trio of men taking center stage and playing shofar (ceremonial ram horns). One shouted, “Our worship is our war!” The crowd erupted into hoarse applause, with shouts of “Yes, Jesus!” exploding like firecrackers across the room. A group of modestly dressed praise dancers came out spinning tallitot (Jewish prayer shawls) over their heads as the worship team played a series of popular Messianic Jewish worship songs.
Most of the attendees at the event hailed this performance as an expression of their own philosemitism. I understood what the conference organizers were trying to communicate with their opening act: they wanted to demonstrate their unwavering support for the modern state of Israel and, at the same time, baptize their event with symbols and rituals drawn from Jewish practice as a visible expression. say their desire for both personal spiritual power and corporate spiritual awakening in America.
All this activity should have made me feel affirmed as I am a Jewish follower of Jesus. But I felt uncomfortable when I saw the shofar and tallitot used as cosplay accessories without any context or explanation. Event planners may have thought of honoring the Jewish people with these performances, but it struck me as a cringe-inducing religious cultural appropriation.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect that culture”. Well-meaning ignorance may underlie some forms of religious cultural appropriation, but in many other cases, such as the lecture I just described, appropriation is rooted in a medley of apocalyptic political and religious triumphalism that captures what it wants. from another tradition and uses it to fulfill their own purposes.
Discussions about cultural appropriation are now mainstream, as evidenced by Asian-American actor / comedian Awkwafina’s recent apology for his past use of African American vernacular English. But while the writers of the Jewish community and some major ecclesiastical circles have turned religious cultural appropriation, this uncomfortable conversation has been painfully slow to take hold in the gospel world. It is time for you to change.
I identify myself as a Jew who loves Jesus, but the appropriation of Jewish symbols and rituals is an issue I have had to struggle with in my own life, in part because most of the Jewish community either call me a “convert” or believe in mine. faith has made me a traitor to my people. I understand (and I regret) that my very existence is seen as an appropriation by many in the Jewish community and as a baffling conundrum by some in the Church.
I often write on Jewish-Christian topics and I have dedicated half of my 2016 book, Moments and days: how our holy celebrations shape our faith, to unpack the meaning, history and practice of the Jewish calendar to educate Christians at the roots of their faith. For years, whenever we had the opportunity, my husband and I have offered educational presentations of the Passover Seder to church groups. In this way we communicate that when he instituted communion, Jesus himself used appropriate family symbols to tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.
There is no single boundary indicator that codifies what religious cultural appropriation is and what it is not. For example, when it comes to Christ-centered Passover Seder, some rabbis support the Seder for Gentile Christians as an educational tool and for building bridges, some choose not to engage directly in the debate, and many others call it appropriation. But even those in the Jewish community who accept Christianized Seders draw the line when it comes to Passover-based outreach and education initiatives such as the Passover presentations offered by the Jewish mission organization for Jesus. Evangelization is seen as a threat. existential and the most harmful form of appropriation by the majority of the Jewish community.
I am grateful that someone contacted me and introduced me to my Messiah over four decades ago. Since Jesus and his first wave of followers were all Jews, I have never considered myself a “convert” in the Church. That said, while the Church has not always been an easy place for me to live my identity as a Jewish follower of Jesus, I believe I have a responsibility to urge my kind brothers and sisters to start with the pages of their Bible and respect the fundamental ways in which the history of the Jewish people has shaped their faith and practice.
This meant entering into sometimes uncomfortable conversations in the Church, while taking every opportunity that presented itself to me to educate. But in recent years I have also had to oppose some (including some Messianic Jews) who have chosen religious cultural appropriation to promote a particular political point of view.
The events of the National Day of Prayer in Washington saw a handful of Messianic Jewish leaders wearing tallit playing shofar, as well as the events of the Jericho March. In fact, on the morning of January 6, 2021, hours before the uprising took place, writer Yonat Shimron wrote a piece on the use of shofars as an appeal to rally the faithful to political action, explaining:
The blowing of the shofar has become commonplace in many evangelical gatherings and political demonstrations far removed from any Jewish or Israeli-related theme. More recently, they have been used in outdoor concerts by cult leader Sean Feucht defying the restrictions of COVID-19, in counter protests against Black Lives Matter, and in various Stop the Steal events, such as the one that took place on the steps of the Supreme Court on Dec. 12 and, of course, the Jericho march this week. In these protests, the shofar is typically covered with images of the American flag or the colors of red, white, and blue.
The presence of some Messianic leaders wearing prayer shawls and blowing shofars at these events may imply for a politically conservative audience that the wider Jewish community is honored by this type of activity. While it may be true that some in the Jewish community have cautiously welcomed support for Israel from zealous Christian Zionists, a precious few rejoice in the appropriation in the name of Christian nationalism.
These demonstrations are not read as pro-Israel by most of the Jewish community. One scholar called it “inverted anti-Semitism,” according to an October 2020 profile of the trend in Forward magazine. Blogger Pesach Lattin took his concerns about appropriation a step further: “Christians are not praising our faith, they are slaughtering it and taking leftover skin to wear in defiance like a Hannibal-inspired villain.” It is important for evangelicals who blow the shofar to know that some in the Jewish community see the whole of Christianity as an appropriation of Jewish faith and practice. And it is even more critical to remember that two millennia of anti-Semitism on the part of those who have carried the “Christian” label is an essential point in any conversation about religious cultural appropriation.
Like the Church, the Jewish community contains a wide range of beliefs among its adherents and a spectrum of views on religious cultural appropriation. Therefore, there are no neat formulas or easy answers. But the questions require serious reflection and a willingness to consider other voices besides those in our own spiritual echo chambers.
I would like to see my brothers in faith in evangelical and charismatic communities honestly fight with why they are doing what they are doing when they grab and use symbols from other faiths and cultures. This means that the churches have to step aside whatever practice tinged with even a hint of appropriation? Frankly, in some cases, the answer will be “Yes”. Point. In other cases, the answer may be a solid “maybe”, with questions leading to a deeper commitment and respectful dialogue with people of those faiths and cultures.
Consequently, some practices may disappear from the platform of public worship and political manifestations, becoming instead part of the educational and formative component of the life of the Church. Some Christians may find that they need to lay down the shofar in their prayer meetings to better hear the concerns of those outside their church circles, precisely because they are the next Jesus asks us to love in the same way we love him. .