How Some Christians Mistake Honoring Jewish Culture With Appropriating It

Commentary
By Sarahbeth Caplin 8-29-2018

When I was studying biblical counseling at a conservative Baptist seminary five years ago, a student invited me to a Passover Seder on campus. I was reluctant to respond because the student was a Messianic Judaism major and the Seder was being hosted by his department. My relationship with this student was already fraught because we had major theological disagreements — often in the middle of lecture — about whether or not the Messianic movement was a branch of Judaism, or a denomination of Christianity. His position was the former, mine the latter.

Because he already purchased a ticket in my name, I agreed to attend the Seder and tried to keep an open mind about it. But the truth was, despite embracing the Christian faith in college, a sizeable part of me felt defensive about my Jewish traditions. I knew that an event that treated the bowl of salt water as the tears Christ shed on the cross, rather than the tears shed by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt, wasn’t really a Seder in any traditional sense. If it were called a “Last Supper Commemoration Ceremony,” or “Good Friday Service,” I would have felt differently — but words mean things, and a Seder this was not.

This is just one of the ways that many Christian groups think they are honoring Judaism and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. But as someone with one foot in both worlds — a Christian with Jewish identity — honor is not what it feels like. Rather, it comes off as exploitative.

The Christian faith has plenty going for it by its own merit: a personal God who loved his creation so much that he came down to earth in the flesh, offered himself up as a sacrifice for our sins, and promised redemption from a cruel world. There’s no need to denigrate Judaism by manipulating its rituals or presenting caricatures of what they look like in practice.

In seminary, I experienced a phenomenon I refer to as “goy-splaining” — that is, when Christians explain Jewish scriptures to Jews rather than being willing to learn from their perspective. What many Christians don’t realize is that it simply isn’t enough to convince a Jewish person that Jesus is God, even by pointing to perceived “evidence” in the Hebrew text. Treating Christianity as Judaism 2.0 erases the fact that the two religions evolved in opposite directions over the last 2,000 years. When Christians treat Judaism as a broken system rather than a thriving faith with rich history and nuances, something critical is lost.

“But I love the Jewish people!” I’ve heard many Christians protest. “And I’m extremely supportive of Israel!” Even in this, the Jews are treated more like pawns without agency. As author Diana Butler Bass has written, Christian support of Israel has been about fulfilling a prophecy. Returning the Jews to their homeland supposedly hastens Jesus’ second coming; it’s not about Christians acting in concern for Jewish rights or safety.

So now you might be wondering, “What is the best way to build bridges between the two faiths without the risk of offending the Jewish people?” I have a few answers for that. Your church may want to consider coordinating interfaith events with a local synagogue around shared holiday seasons, such as Passover and Easter, or Hanukkah and Christmas. In my experience, Jewish educators and clergy are more than willing to participate.

Your church might also want to consider co-hosting a joint Bible study with a synagogue, one that addresses texts from shared Scriptures and discusses the different ways they are interpreted between the two groups. For any Christian who has struggled with spiritual doubt, engaging Jewish hermeneutics can be a faith-saver – I say this from personal experience.

Consider starting an interfaith book club. One of my go-to book recommendations for interfaith groups is The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jewish woman who also happens to be a New Testament scholar. Another great example is Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney, a book that explores the Jewish tradition of what basically amounts to “biblical fan fiction” in order to come to terms with some of the more challenging stories in Hebrew Scriptures.

In order for these initiatives to be successful, the goal shouldn’t be to change anyone’s mind. For Christians, the focus should be to gain a better understanding of what made Jesus so unique and revolutionary to the community that witnessed his ministry. Reading the Bible like a Jew is the best way to understand Jesus as he was before he became known as the Messiah – he was Jesus the Jew first.

Sarahbeth Caplin has a bachelor’s degree in English from Kent State University, and a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University. Her memoir, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, was an Amazon bestseller in the “personal growth” category.

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