I want my prayer shawl back!

When Bishop Jackson gave Trump a tallit, it was not an innocent gesture.

Donald Trump receives a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) from Bishop Wayne Jackson. Image via Apostle Wayne T. Jackson Facebook post.

Did you hear the one about how Donald Trump visited Great Faith Ministries, an African-American nondenominational church in Detroit — and at the end of his speech, the minister gave him a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) to wear?

Except, it is not a joke. It happened yesterday, when Bishop Wayne Jackson, the pastor of the church, wrapped the tallit around Trump’s shoulders as both men grinned broadly.

Jackson then presented Trump with the Jewish Heritage Study Bible.

I will leave it to religious scholars to go through the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and find all of the intersections between those religions and their practices.

The three faiths have been borrowing from each other — and others — since antiquity.

Some examples:

  • Judaism borrowed some ancient Canaanite practices — except the really terrible ones, like child sacrifice.
  • Christianity borrowed the Jewish Bible, especially the Psalms.
  • Judaism borrowed erotic love poetry from medieval Islam and turned it into Jewish sacred poetry (piyyut).
  • Judaism borrowed the idea of confirmation and turned it into an educational rite of passage for teenagers.
  • Some Episcopalian churches have borrowed the idea of bar and bat mitzvah and create Rite13 for their own emerging teens.

Some African-American churches have borrowed the idea of bar mitzvah as well. Some call it a “bro mitzvah.”

With the echoes of African drumming still reverberating through the Baltimore schoolroom, 13-year-old Jaden Derry, wearing slacks and a colorful dashiki, stood to take the pledge: “Today, I cross this line from childhood into manhood. … Today, I take responsibility for all I do
 and promise to use what I know and do to be productive, and not destructive.”

Very cool. I am glad that we could offer this wonderful gift to those who could use it — to teach young boys about responsibility.

So, then, what is the problem with Bishop Jackson’s “borrowing” of the tallit?

Most of the things I listed above are customs.

But, the tallit is a core, central expression of the Jewish faith — more so, in fact, than the kippah or yarmulke (a relative of which, by the way, is worn by the Pope).

The tallit goes back to biblical times. The tzitzit, the ritual fringes on the four corners of the garment, symbolize the mitzvot — sacred Jewish obligations.

Let us remember the other gift that Bishop Jackson gave Donald Trump — that Jewish Heritage Bible.

Messianic Jews and other conversionary groups use this text to try to convert Jews to Christianity.

So, why would the Bishop have presented Donald Trump — who is not Jewish — with a tallit?

Just google “Messianic Jewish tallit,” and you will discover that Messianic Jews, and Jews for Jesus, and other syncretistic Jewish-Christian groups (which all responsible Jews and Christians reject) have “borrowed” that Jewish sacred symbol for their own conversionary uses.

I have seen Christians — presumably, Messianic Jews — wearing that symbol at various rallies. And the use of Jewish symbols by conversionary Christian groups is both well-established and widespread.

The “Donald Trump wearing tallit” thing is certainly bizarre. It is the functional equivalent of a rabbi inviting another Jew to speak from his or her pulpit, and then presenting the Jew with a crucifix. Remember “One of These Things is Not Like The Other” from Sesame Street?

Because, let the record note: the tallit is not Bishop Wayne Jackson’s religious symbol to share.

There is a term for this — cultural appropriation:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects. [My emphasis — JS]

Years ago, I was in the home of a liberal Christian clergyman. He showed me the Hanukah menorah that adorned his living room bookshelf.

“I think it’s neat,” he said.

I didn’t.

The menorah is mine.

Wait, you are saying — the Jews are a “minority group?”

Well, yes. Despite all the talk of white privilege (which is about economics and power, and which includes many Jews), let’s face it, folks: Judaism, as a religious culture, is a minority culture — and therefore, exploitable. 

And, yes — even by other exploited groups.

Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Others would say that Bishop Jackson certainly meant no offense in giving Donald Trump a tallit and that Bible.

But, we Jews still don’t have to like it.

This is our religious culture.

Not yours.

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