Many thanks to Steve for sharing the link to this interesting article which appeared in a recent New York Times.
Of all the surprises promised by the recent TLC reality show “The Sisterhood,” which followed the lives of five Atlanta preachers’ wives, the only one that truly amazed me was the Christian bar mitzvah, an event organized by Pastor Tara Lewis and her husband, Pastor Brian, for their son, Trevor. Brian was born to Jewish parents; Tara was not. Both are born-again Christians, and they’re of one mind about their son’s bar mitzvah as a Christ-centered take on the traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.
In one episode of “The Sisterhood,” Brian and Tara plan the theme of the bar mitzvah cake. “How about Christ in the Torah?” Brian asks. “Amen,” Tara answers.
Their Jesus-fied version of the Jewish ritual is intended to celebrate both Trevor’s ethnic heritage through his father and, even more important, his spiritual identity through salvation. For, in the eyes of the Lewises and many fundamentalists like them, born-again Christians are in some sense more truly Jewish than actual Jews are.
I grew up in a Charismatic church and later went to public high school in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Miami, yet I was unfamiliar with a trend of bar mitzvahs among Christians. So I decided to e-mail the Lewises for details. Brian Lewis identifies as a Charismatic Christian (tongues-speaking, faith-healing, demon-exorcising), and in our correspondence, he conceded that “there is a biological basis for Jewishness and Jewish genetics” but pointed out that there has often been intermarriage; consider the biblical Ruth, a Moabite “who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David.” Quoting Galatians 3:28-29, Brian says, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew,” but all are equally Abraham’s descendants and “heirs according to the covenant promises.”
Obviously a reality show is no metric by which to judge the reality of anything, but when I dug into the concept of a Christian bar mitzvah — or a bar barakah, meaning “son of the blessing,” as Craig Hill calls it in his 1998 book on the subject — I discovered that the ritual is gaining traction among some evangelicals.
It’s an outgrowth of the fundamentalist fascination with Judaism that has emerged and intensified since the publication of Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970.
Lindsey’s book — a huge best seller — described an Armageddon theology in which the modern state of Israel stands as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, setting in motion a series of events that will culminate with the second coming of Christ. Essentially Lindsey advocated a respect not just for Israel but also for the Jewish people, who were, after all, chosen of God.
For many old-guard Protestants, who grew up hearing Jews described as “Christ-killers,” this shift was disorienting. It’s hard to overstate the traditional distrust, separatism and anti-Semitism that marked American fundamentalism until then. According to Robert Michael’s “Concise History of American Antisemitism,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Wright were just three prominent 20th-century anti-Semites who later renounced their bigotry. Many others did not, even after the atrocities of World War II. Following a 1972 prayer breakfast, Richard Nixon concluded a conversation with Billy Graham by calling Jews an “irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards.” Graham, a mainline evangelical leader widely considered to be reasonable and moderate, spoke of a “synagogue of Satan” and denounced the Jewish “stranglehold” on the media.
These days, though, mainline Protestants are borrowing from Jewish tradition.
For example, Kevin Ibanez, a pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, Calif., started wondering along with his wife why there was no male equivalent to the quincineras thrown for girls in Hispanic families for their 15th birthdays. So they decided to give their son, Joshua, a Christian-inflected version of the bar mitzvah to help prepare him for adulthood. In the lead-up, Joshua studied Hebrew and the Scripture with a Messianic friend of the family’s. At the event, he wore a prayer shawl and sang the Sh’ma Yisrael.
Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Temple Menorah, a traditional conservative synagogue in Miami Beach, tells me that he began to notice non-Jews borrowing the traditions and trappings of his faith roughly 20 years ago. He has encountered Christians holding seders, being married under chuppahs and wearing prayer shawls over their clothes. He says some Christians wear zizit with red thread rather than blue to symbolize the blood of Christ. And a growing number of evangelicals travel to Israel partly to obtain Jewish ritual objects like skullcaps and rams’ horns.
If anyone can serve as a weather vane for this phenomenon, it’s John Hagee, an influential Charismatic preacher and the inspiration to Brian and Tara Lewis. His sermon “The Mystery of the Prayer Shawl” is available on CD. “The tallit, or prayer shawl, designed by God, has been worn by devout Jews for centuries,” his Web site explains. “Its legacy is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. It still carries the power to energize your prayer life.” For $49, believers can also buy a blue-and-gold tallit made in the Holy Land.
Hagee fervently supports Israel, believes that the Jews must return there before Jesus will come again and claimed in a 1999 sermon that prophesies in the Old Testament proved that God enabled the Holocaust.
“God allowed it to happen,” Hagee said. “God said, ‘My top priority to the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.’ ”
Personally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the role assigned to Jews in the end-times pageant of Hagee and his ilk. So I was surprised to learn that Rabbi Pearlson knows and seemingly respects Hagee. A few years ago both men attended a rally of what Pearlson calls “pro-Israel Zionist Christians” at Miami’s Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús. The Christians, Pearlson recalls, were “folk-dancing and singing songs in Hebrew — correctly.”
Firing up the crowd, Hagee urged the Christians not to proselytize to the Jews in attendance because of the Jews’ “unique relationship to God.” The event raised $250,000 for Israeli bomb shelters. By the rabbi’s recollection, some of the things Hagee said that night “made the Jewish people there cry,” they were so touched.
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.
Rabbi Jason Miller, a member of Rabbis Without Borders, takes an attitude of tolerance toward Christian bar mitzvahs. As a practitioner of the Torah, he is interested in sharing “Jewish wisdom with the entire community.” When I mentioned the TLC reality show to him, Rabbi Miller said Brian and Tara Lewis have “the right to their belief” that their son “is more authentically Jewish” because of Christ. Then he continued: “Is it insulting? Yeah. It bothers me in my gut. But I have to take a step back.”
His colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who debated the Lewises in a fascinating (and cringe-inducing) conversation on Huffington Post Live, takes a different view.
“Bar mitzvah, by its very language, indicates that the honoree is a Jew,” she tells me. “Belief in Jesus as a deity or savior is incompatible with Judaism. It takes a special kind of presumption to declare oneself a more authentic version of a religion other than one’s own.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Looking for deep background on the Lewises’ and many fundamentalists’ view of themselves as “true Jews,” I consulted James McGrath, a progressive Christian and the author of “The One True God.” “The idea of Christians as ‘true Israel’ goes back earlier than even the term ‘Christian’ does,” he told me. As Christianity began to separate from Judaism, this conviction was accompanied by a view that the Jews erred not merely in failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah but also in interpreting their Scripture too literally. So the literal approach of contemporary fundamentalists like John Hagee “is a relative latecomer in the long history of Christianity,” even though it sells itself as “the one authentic form of Christianity.”
The real problem is that, fundamentally, 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.
As Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater wrote a year and a half ago in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, the real-world trouble with “the messianic vision of the ‘end times’ ” is that it “actually involves the destruction of Jerusalem, which paves the way for the second coming.” He was responding to comments made by Glenn Beck — another proponent of this apocalyptic vision — but when I asked Grater about it, he agreed that this applies equally to a person like Hagee, who offers “a false front of ‘support for Israel,’ which, sadly, many Jews have bought into as true support.”
I asked Rabbi Miller about John Hagee’s end-times machinations. (Here’s Hagee paraphrasing biblical Scripture: “When they, the Jewish people, see him whom they have pierced — and the word ‘pierced’ there actually refers to his rib and side — when they see him whom they have pierced, they will weep as one weeps for his only son for a period of one week.”) In this case, Rabbi Miller takes an attitude of tolerance. Like Pearlson, Miller knows Hagee personally and, having carved out some common ground, offers no harsh words. Instead, he appreciates Hagee’s “love for the Jewish State of Israel,” even if he disagrees “with certain aspects of his post-apocalyptic theology.”
Pressed on the subject, Pearlson recalled the night of the bomb-shelter fund-raiser and called the Christians who sang there in Hebrew “true Zionists.” “You know what?” he said finally. “I wish some Jewish people were as Zionistic as they are.”