Why Trump Wearing a Tallit in a Detroit Church Unsettles Many Jews

'This is a totally absurd distortion of the meaning of an important Jewish ritual object, which is used by Jews for prayer all over the world.'

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Donald Trump wearing a Jewish prayer shawl at a Detroit church, September 3, 2016.
Donald Trump wearing a Jewish prayer shawl at a Detroit church, September 3, 2016.

It was an image that made many people - especially Jewish people -  stop in their tracks and ask what the heck was going on. Some Jews took offense, some joked uncomfortably that it looked like the world’s weirdest Bar Mitzvah, but to most, it was unsettling.

African-American pastor Wayne Jackson stood proudly beside the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in his Detroit church, after he had draped Trump in the Jewish prayer shawl known as a tallit, in which Jewish men cloak around them when they pray and completely cover themselves with when they perform the Priestly Blessing.

Dislike of the scene was probably a rare point of agreement between observant Jews, who resent the appropriation of their ritual objects and Trump’s supporters on the Alt-Right, who are most likely neither fans of African American pastors nor of tallit-wearing Jews. Surely the Trump team that set up the Detroit visit, and former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, and Omarosa Manigualt, the alumna of Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” who stood beside him at the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, Michigan with African-American Pastor and televangelist Wayne Jackson, didn’t anticipate the rather awkward photo opportunity that would result from the visit.

The problems with Trump’s gift and the way it was presented for traditional Jews increase if one pays close attention to Jackson’s remarks, which were partially drowned out under the enthusiastic applause of the crowd.

Donald Trump in a talitCredit: Youtube

When Jackson handed the Jewish ritual garment which came “straight from Israel” to Trump, Jackson used a verse from the New Testament describing one of Jesus’ miracles to explain why owning the tallit would be such a “blessing” for the candidate and that placing it on him was a way of “anointing” him to protect and comfort him on his travels.   

“With this prayer shawl, whenever you are flying coast to coast - I know you just got back from Mexico and you are flying from city to city - this is an anointing and the anointing is the power of God. When woman who had the issue of blood said that ‘I only touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and was made whole’ nothing else could help her but the power of God,” said Jackson.

The New Testament verse Jackson cited, involved a miracle that Jesus performed on a woman with a 12-year “bleeding condition” - a continuous menstruation that made her ceremonially unclean. The woman was miraculously healed after touching Jesus’ clothing.  

Jackson said to Trump “There are going to be some times in your life where you feel uncertain you are going to feel down, but the anointing is going to be in your heart. I’ve prayed over this shawl and I’ve fasted over it. And I want to just put this on you.”

Rabbi Ron Kronish, American-Israeli founder and senior advisor for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, said he was appalled by the scene. "This is a totally absurd distortion of the meaning of an important Jewish ritual object, which is used by Jews for prayer all over the world. The tallit has no such miraculous meaning in Judaism. On the contrary, it is a symbol of humility before God. I would hope that Mr. Trump would not misappropriate this ritual object for his travels, but with this megalomania almost anything is possible."

Seth Farber, another American-born rabbi in Israel, said his discomfort stemmed less from the desecration of a Jewish ritual object than a wider issue. “As an American I am very concerned when people in power are seen as relying on miracles ... What bothers me more is the evoking of the supernatural - using religion for its miraculous content, not its moral content.”

“When any religion’s holy objects are mobilized for political purposes - that makes me very uncomfortable,” he said.

The pastor’s veneration of the tallit and his excitement that it came from Israel - was a sign that he is part of the philo-Semitic and ardently Zionist stream of evangelical Christianity, that finds meaning in Old Testament Jewish rituals and objects, from blowing shofars to holding Passover seders to prayer shawls.

The popular, yet controversial Texas evangelist Pastor John Hagee has devoted whole sermons to venerating the Jewish “prayer shawl” and sells them in his online store as does televangelist Benny Hinn promising that “with this inspirational prayer shawl, we honor the Messiah’s fulfillment of prophecies and the depth of His love for us as He chose to come to earth and offer Himself on Calvary for our sins. It is patterned after the four-fringed garment that Jews, including Jesus, were required to wear. The fringes are tied in a specific way to symbolize God’s law and God’s name.”

Despite the affection that such churches have for all things Jewish and Israel, the affinity makes many Jews deeply uncomfortable when they feel their religion is being defined in New Testament terms. As writer Michael Shulson wrote in the Washington Post “at its core, philo-Semitism has much in common with anti-Semitism. Both approaches view Jewishness as an abstract monolith, and both endow Jews with particular historical roles — roles, it seems, that are rarely of the Jews’ own choosing.”

Jackson is the spiritual leader of the Great Faith Ministries whose slogan is “Changing Natural Lives into Supernatural Lives” and a televangelist who heads the Impact Network, which bills itself as the only African American Christian television network in the country. Trump’s visit to Jackson’s church was paired with an interview that Jackson conducted with the GOP candidate.  

After the presentation of the tallit, Jackson handed Trump two copies of the “Jewish Heritage Study Bible” for him and his wife Melania, telling him that in hard times “you can study the word of God. When things seem like it’s almost impossible, you read Mark 9:23, ‘If one canst believe, all things are possible.’”

In an infomercial the publisher of the Jewish Heritage Study Bible said that it was Jackson who teaches “all of his people all of the Jewish traditions” was the man who inspired him to publish the book, which, in detail  “describes the Jewish beliefs regarding the last days and the Messianic age.”

Jewish Heritage Study Bible with Dr. Everette GaddyCredit: Youtube

Philo-Semitic evangelists are often closely tied to Messianic Judaism, which combines Christian belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah with Jewish tradition. Jackson’s Impact Network broadcasts, among other programs, a show called “Discovering the Jewish Jesus” hosted by Messianic Rabbi Kirt Schneider.

Last October, Schneider joined a group of televangelists and visited then-primary contender Trump in his offices and stood in line to deliver him the Priestly Blessing.

Then, with his hand on Trump’s face, fingers spread, Schneider asked God to bless the New York businessman “for the sake of you, your glory, your kingdom, because of your love of Donald Trump.”

Donald Trump Meets with Religious Leaders, Including Robert JeffressCredit: YouTube

(EMBED: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk4c2uoOF3o )

Few observers - Jewish or Christian - took the prayer session seriously at the time, dismissing it as a Trump ploy to grab the support of the Christian Republican base away from his primary rivals. But neither did they believe that Trump would be where he is nearly a year later - the Republican presidential nominee, who, according to the latest polls is still within striking distance despite having made nearly every imaginable campaign misstep.

So maybe we shouldn’t discount the power of evangelical miracles so quickly where Donald Trump is concerned - with or without a Jewish prayer shawl.

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