Social Issues, Theology

How Some Christians Mistake Honoring Jewish Culture With Appropriating It


This week I had an article published on Sojourners:

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.

Photo from The Food Network


Like this post? Please support my writing with a donation via Patreon, leave a tip via Paypal, or check out my books.

Stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter.

9 thoughts on “How Some Christians Mistake Honoring Jewish Culture With Appropriating It”

  1. Perhaps then sometime we’ll get the chance to get together either there or here. It was a good read

    Doc Fisch

  2. Beth,
    I just now encountered your post/article. It was truly well articulated; thank you. Last night I and my family–including grand kids, shared in “tasting the tears our ancestors shed while they/we were slaves in Egypt.”

    If you are ever in the Tampa Bay area, I’d love to get together over coffee. If I’m not mistaken, you went to school in Denver. If you’re still there, I’d love to connect the next time I travel there.

    Chag Pesach Sameach!
    Rabbi Dr. John Fischer

  3. Thank you for your heartfelt text on this emotionally charged yet critically important dilemma facing monotheistic theology as a whole.
    I, too, am a “Christian with Jewish identity,” although from my perspective, these two don’t exist in isolation, but rather are inseparable elements of a unified theology.

    “…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…”
    Could it be that these were the same tears? The tears of martyrdom? The tears of stigmata?

    “…it isn’t enough to convince a Jewish person that Jesus is God…. Treating Christianity as Judaism 2.0 erases the fact that the two religions evolved in opposite directions…”
    I think this is where the trinity comes in. The New Testament, after all, is the one that teaches that God is a trinity. And Jesus is one part of the trinity; blending into the other two, with the Father, who is known, above, and the Holy Spirit, who is not fully revealed but is merely hinted at. Yet, so many Christians don’t move beyond Jesus as God to the conceptualization of a God bigger even than Jesus by two parts!

    I don’t begrudge a person in your position who has had to endure this kind of social awkwardness that difference in religious belief and all that goes with that can incur. I guess it comes down to the way you look at it. After all, is “appropriation” really such a bad thing? I would argue that appropriation is a good thing, and that in fact that’s all a religion really is, at core, is an appropriation of God through a myriad of behaviors and beliefs that feel appropriate to honor Him.

  4. Hi

    I think it is revealing that it is Passover and none of the other Jewish festivals that seem to be a focus for Christians . Tonight is the start of Rosh Hashanah – New Year- and we have a Seder with symbolic foods * for that as well, admittedly shorter than a Passover Seder and a festive meal, but I’m not come across that as having a significance in Christian circles . I think this is because ‘ the high holy days’ : Rosh Hashanah , Yom Kippur and then Sukkot are in part related to the Jewish views on life, forgiveness , redemption etc , so it is practically impossible to co-opt them into a for of Christianity that Christians can understand. Who in western Christianity would celebrate a Jewish New Year or live in a booth for a week and of course I would understand that a Christian would see no spiritual utility whatsoever in Yom Kippur?

    * in Sephardic tradition. My partner is Ashkenazim and the religious symbolism of the festival was/ is limited to dipping apples in honey .

  5. “Goy-splaining”!!! YES!!! One way I help Christians understand what treating Christianity as Judaism 2.0 feels like to Jews is to think about how Christians feel about Mormons telling Christians that their bible is ok, just incomplete. And I feel the same way about Messianic Jewish Seders. I have started hosting Seders in my house. Seders the way I grew up with them, and then I happen to point out, “look, this points to Jesus, isn’t that cool!” 🙂

Comments are closed.