Opinion

Jews Pay the Price When 'Judeo-Christian Values' Are on Sale

Or: What Trump pastor Paula White, Vogue and chocolate eggs have in common

U.S. President Donald Trump seats Pastor Paula White at the Roosevelt room of the White House. February 1, 2017.
CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

Most Jews have resigned themselves to the enduring fig-leaf that is ‘Judeo-Christian values’. Despite the fact that as far back as the post-war era, many have pushed back against the ways that ‘Judeo-Christian’, originally a way of reconceiving Christian-Jewish relations, erased Jewish difference. Nonetheless, the idea of a Jewish-Christian affinity continues to have a multitude of uses, some of which were illustrated by the latest 'Judeo-Christian’ controversy.

Social media erupted in outrage when UKIP provocateur Nigel Farage expressed his anger at the (non)controversy around the British Egg Hunt and its (supposed)  removal of the word ‘Easter' from its promotion. 

”..We must defend our Judeo-Christian culture and that means Easter” Farage tweeted Tuesday. The ‘Judeo-Christian’ nature of Easter struck plenty of Jews as nonsensical, but if you understand Farage’s role as a vocal opponent of Muslim immigration to the UK, his insistence on a unified Christian-Jewish British culture - one with no room for Muslims - makes a lot more sense.

Farage’s rhetorical maneuver is a far cry from genuine cultural diffusion, the kind with bagels in every deli and a wide array of Yiddish words firmly lodged in the English language. It’s part of a larger trend that seizes upon a kind of deracinated Jewishness that is both politically, and commercially, useful.

"We must defend our Judeo-Christian culture and that means Easter": former UKIP leader Nigel Farage at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 5, 2017.
Jean-Francois Badias/AP

Passing over the Jews

Last week we learned that spiritual advisor to the President, ‘prosperity pastor’ Paula White, loves Passover. In a letter to her followers White described the holiday of Passover as part of her “spiritual heritage.” As The Forward’s Sam Kestenbaum noted, this is hardly unusual among Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, both because they see Christian resonances in the Passover story (the saving power of sacrificial blood) and a larger desire to understand the life of Jesus Christ and live, in some way, as he did.

It’s not hard for Paula White to imagine herself into the Exodus story, to see the salvation of the Jews as a precursor to the salvation of all Christians; such a point of view is at the heart of Christian theology. But imagine the inverse: a Jewish leader taking the Easter narrative and its traditions and appropriating them for some Jewish purpose, or claiming that the Easter story was part of her 'heritage'. The idea is frankly laughable.

It brings to mind a story told to me by a Jewish opera singer friend of mine. He had been hired to sing at a Catholic church in a Passion play during Holy Week. At one point the choir was singing the part of ‘the Jews’:

“...which meant that when the question came up as to what to do with Jesus, we had to yell  ‘CRUCIFYHIMCRUCIFYHIMCRUCIFYHIM’ very loudly from the hidden choir loft under the 4/4 time direction of the choirmaster.” 

Even today, in safe, multicultural downtown Manhattan, for a Jew to imagine himself into the Easter story is to strain spiritual and artistic imagination to the edge of (in)sanity.

Unleavened fake news

For hundreds of years European children’s bibles emphasized the Gospel of Matthew and its collective blame of ‘Jews’ for encouraging the crucifixion of Christ, rather than the individuals named in the other gospels, a deliberate editorial choice whose bloody impact needs little explicating here.

Good Friday
Rami Shllush

For Jews in Eastern Europe, rather than being seen as a “supernatural, miraculous season” (as Paula White fondly describes the time of Passover) Easter was a time of dread. Violence against Jews often peaked around religious holidays. The infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 started on Easter Sunday amid ‘fake news’ of the day that two Christian children had been murdered to provide blood for Jewish matzah. In Yiddish, Pentecost, the seventh week after Easter, was known as ‘di grine khoge’, the (non-Jewish) holiday of terror. 

Pastor White can imagine herself into the Exodus narrative, celebrate as many seders as she wants, and for all I know, write new, pro-Trump (kholile) verses of Chad Gadya. She can do this because, not to put too fine a point on it, Passover has never been a symbol of mortal terror for her or her followers.

Indeed, as a white, Evangelical Christian in the United States, White has the privilege of safely moving about every day as merely ‘American’ - no hyphen necessary. The markers of ethnicity and otherness - language, spirituality, folkways and foods - are all there for the taking, at, it goes without saying, no cost to her or her followers. This is the privilege of sitting securely within the dominant culture. 

But lately those outside the mainstream have sought to put a price on these kinds of privileges, hence the rise of the discourse around ‘cultural appropriation.’ When is it OK for someone outside a culture to partake in its signs, symbols and ways? And if it’s OK to enjoy something, is it also OK to promote it? To profit off it? Can only in-group members profit from the commodification of their culture? I’d argue Paula White and her Evangelical seders spectacularly fail a simple ‘flip the script’ test. There'd probably be more of a scandal if those with standing to protest weren’t more concerned with the more consequential actions of White’s most famous follower. 

Selling off Jewish culture, mindfully

Many questions of ‘cultural appropriation’ aren’t so easily resolved, of course. And while these are questions of interest to every marginalized group, they come with special implications for American Jews, some of whom are in the business of marketing Jewishness, to both Jews and non-Jews, sometimes in conflict with both religious law and tradition.

A pair of recent articles point to the possibilities and problems with the commodification (and appropriation) of Jewish practice, ‘How to Host a Shabbat Dinner and Why You Should-- Even If You Aren’t Celebrating’ and  'Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included’

‘Selling Judaism’ is about... well, selling Judaism, or rather, selling Jewish stuff, as well as access to big tent, low commitment Jewish practice.  ‘How to Host a Shabbat Dinner’ author Ariel Feldman argues that the benefits of Shabbat (and its connections to ‘mindfulness’) should be available to everyone; logging off social media “is an ancient antidote to our modern ailments.”

Feldman’s piece isn’t explicitly selling anything. After all, it’s free to turn off your phone for 25 hours and have meals with friends. Nonetheless, by virtue of being the subject of a Vogue article Shabbat is transformed into just another piece of content competing for clicks. Whatever Ariel Feldman does in her home becomes something altogether else when put into a glossy shopping magazine. 

With ‘Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included’ it’s the selling, not the practice, making news. We learn about Meghan Holzhauser, a non-Jewish travel agent who includes Shabbat dinners as part of the travel experiences she sells, and Danya Shults, a Jewish lifestyle entrepreneur whose company, Arq, sells Jewish homeware and events, all with an on point aesthetic aimed explicitly at modern interfaith families.  

‘Selling Judaism’ quotes Rabbi Ari Moffic, Chicago director of the Interfaith Family network: “‘You can do Jewish’,” she says, even if you’re not Jewish.”  Interestingly, Rabbi Moffic’s partner, Rabbi Evan Moffic, is cited in Kestenbaum’s article on Paula White. For Evan Moffic, Christian interest in seders can be a way of finding common ground between Christians and Jews.

Shabbat, not as Jewish as you thought

Both Rabbis Moffic are engaged in interfaith outreach and are representatives of Reform Judaism, a movement which has been at the forefront of embracing non-Jewish partners as equal members of their communities. 

Why is cultural appropriation from Jews different from all others?
Dreamstime

Ariel Feldman also presents an investment in this idea that inclusiveness is a value of Jewish practice. She writes,”...it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, agnostic, atheist. Shabbat—the concept of spending quality time with friends and family while taking a break from scrolling on Instagram—is for everyone.”

Taking an extended break from social media is no doubt a good idea for all of us. But what’s at stake in calling that ‘Shabbat’? The Talmud actually forbids a non-Jew to observe Shabbat and those who are in the process of converting within traditional communities will davka make sure their observance of the many Sabbath prohibitions is less than perfect.

But of course, what Ariel Feldman is selling, what Arq is selling, what Megan Holzhauser is selling, has little relation to what the Rambam and others envisioned when they ruled against non-Jews taking on Jewish obligations. Among the many ironies of 2017 is the selling of a practice which itself is so concerned with cessation from commerce. And while they are still a far cry from the outrageous supercessionist chutzpah of a Paula White, that none of those involved can spot such an irony makes this a trend I’ll happily pass over.

Rokhl Kafrissen is the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. She writes on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life. Follow her on Twitter: @RokhlK