When faith and culture collide

These are some passages pulled from my incubating second memoir and may be slightly scatter-brained.

breadIt’s hard to draw the line between flattering imitation and cultural misappropriation. I have said before that my deep love of Asian food does not make it okay for me, a very obvious Caucasian, to start identifying as Asian. But America’s adoption of so-called Asian cuisine differs from Christianity dabbling in Judaism because the latter has a historical overlap. One might argue that Christians with an interest in incorporating Jewish practice are the ones doing it “right,” because Jesus was intended to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your stance, that is not what happened. Christianity and Judaism evolved in separate directions, and mixing and matching rituals is not as cut-and-dry as many Christians want to think it is.

But who am I to judge? I speak as someone who had a Jew-ish Christian wedding to appease my relatives and my Baptist in-laws. Our “sanctuary” was a party room at a country club, a religiously neutral spot despite being decorated for Christmas (we married in early December). The ceremony was officiated by a friend of mine who grew up Jewish and is interested in the Christian faith, but to my knowledge has never officially converted. He read 1st Corinthians 13 and Joshua crushed a glass at the end of the ceremony. My mother and Josh’s grandfather recited their respective prayers before dinner and together they cut challah bread. There was no chair lifting, but we did make sure to include several rounds of hora dancing to Hava Nagila (which was a challenge explaining to my gentile fiancé: he said it was very hypocritical of me to forbid strippers at his bachelor party if I wanted a “whore dance” at our reception).

I understand potential accusations of hypocrisy – I have been called a hypocrite before for scoffing at Christians playing Jewish while still tightly holding on to my “Jewish Penicillin” soup bowl and blue “Happy Hanukkah” Christmas stocking. My only defense is that Jewish culture was a defining marker of my childhood, and did not disappear when I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. Such accusations are hurtful, but I understand them – how many people might say my brand of Christianity is not True Christianity™? No one’s belief system is universally accepted by anyone, and several Christian denominations have been condemned as unbiblical throughout history. How does anyone know if they’re “doing it” right?

One of my more publically stressful moments of asking this question happened during a lecture in seminary. All students regardless of concentration (mine was faith-based crisis counseling) were required to take biblical history classes, and one of the last ones I took happened to dissect several Old Testament prophecies that are believed to point to Jesus. None of them seem to foreshadow Jesus more than Isaiah 53, better known as the passage of the suffering servant, which quite clearly describes a man being “pierced for our transgressions.” Upon the first reading, it really does seem to be foreshadowing the future, and indeed it is – except my understanding of that passage, per my Hebrew education in synagogue, is that the “suffering servant” is referring to the Jewish people as a whole (historians have commonly used the male pronoun “he” to refer to all Jews as a single unit). Rabbis interpret the passage as prophesizing the future state of Israel, and the necessary suffering required to attain it.

Quite honestly, as a Christian, I sometimes wish I never heard that interpretation, as it can open a very smelly can of worms in bible studies. You can imagine just how unkindly the average Christian will accept that the passage may not be talking about Jesus at all, as that is one of the most compelling verses for the case of Christ. I find myself in a mental tug-of-war, wanting to follow the majority who read it with Christian glasses, because hey, it’s just easier to accept. But then my stubborn inner Jew scoffs at the knowledge of missionaries who have purposely mistranslated passages to confuse and convert Jews, and who understands the Old Testament better than the Jewish scholars, anyway?

I wish I could say I’ve figured this all out, but I haven’t. It is yet another subject that gets filed in the “I Don’t Know” folder of my brain, but since my professor was a Hebrew scholar, I wanted to know his opinion. So either bravely or stupidly, I raised my hand and asked about the possibility that the Christian reading could be wrong, and was promptly called a heretic by the Messianic Jewish major sitting a few rows down from me.

The word slapped, and my face burned. I’d honestly rather have been called a hypocrite, because just about everyone is at some point, but a heretic? As much as I used to dream about following the same path as Joan of Arc, my favorite saint, the heretic label I could certainly live without. Once again, culture and faith collided, and that incident (among others) turned out to be fatal for my career as a seminary student. It was only after I officially resigned that the struggle for reconciliation moved from the backburner of my mind to the very front and center.

Check out my first memoir here.

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9 thoughts on “When faith and culture collide

  1. tkrappwrites says:

    This was very interesting. I went on the link you shared with the reader above and also found it informative, as I have wondered the same thing numerous times. This may be a stupid question, but why is God referred to as G-d in that article?

    Like

  2. DeniseBalog says:

    Beth Caplin…I love your blog and shared views from growing up Jewish. Raised a “Catholic” girl myself to find I really never knew Jesus until I discovered He is Jewish. The tribe of Judah. I LOVE being “grafted” in with you!! Romans 11:17:)

    Like

  3. Lydia Thomas says:

    The thing about prophecy (Old Testament or New) is that it’s so widely interpreted, even in Christian circles. I have seven siblings, and I’m pretty sure we all come down eight different places when it comes to prophecy. “Heretic” is something we jokingly call each other when we disagree (almost a term of endearment, actually), but I’ve seen it thrown at people way too easily in an effort to shut them down.

    I had never heard about Isaiah 53 referring to the Jewish people before, but thinking about it, it makes sense. Then again, I’m completely comfortable with the fat “I don’t know” folder in my own brain, too. Wrestling doesn’t make you a heretic, and neither does not drawing the same conclusions as everyone else … though I’m sure you know that.

    Anyway, really enjoyed this post, and I learned my new thing for the day. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beth Caplin says:

      I’m sure there are plenty of Scripture passages we’ll never understand 100%, but to close the door completely on the possibility of misinterpretation troubles me. Christians wonder all the time why the Jews “rejected” Jesus. To fully understand why, discussions about alternate views of the prophecies need to happen.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lydia Thomas says:

        Forgive me if this is woefully ignorant, but I am curious.

        So, in Christian tradition, there’s the whole concept of Advent, right? (Example: the Christmas carol “O come, O come, Emmanuel). We say (based on the OT prophecies you mention) that the Jews were waiting for a Messiah or some sort of deliverance, and shame on them for not recognizing Him. (I definitely see what you’re saying there).

        Obviously, that gets turned on its head if the Jewish people believed those passages were about them. Do you know if they had any concept of a Messiah or even deliverance from God in general (as opposed to suffering through), or is that something totally superimposed on them by Christian tradition?

        Any resources (that you trust) that you can point me to about this? Would love to dig into it some more and don’t want to pester you with questions.

        Liked by 1 person

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