The Cross within the Star

The Use of Jewish Ritual and Symbol by Fundamentalist Christians

NB: This article was originally written for publication in the journal of Toward Tradition, a coalition of Jews and chr*stians. While it did not fit the format of that publication, I still feel its message is an important one.


 
 

Recently, a theme park in Orlando, Florida has come in for some well-publicized criticism. It isn’t Disney World and its controversial pro-homosexual policy but rather a park called The Holy Land Experience, and the criticism is that by mixing Jewish and Christian symbolism it serves as a dishonest tool for the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Indeed, as the founder of the park, Marvin Rosenthal, is himself a "Jewish Christian," such fears appear to be well founded. However, the use of Jewish symbolism and ritual is not limited to these "Hebrew Christians" but in fact is very popular among all traditional, philo-Semitic Fundamentalist Christians. Here again the reason is often assumed by members of the Jewish community to be sinister and missionary in nature.

As I am a Noachide (a non-Jew who believes Orthodox Judaism is the True Religion) from a Fundamentalist Christian background I believe I am in a unique position to shine a light on this emotional topic. It is my belief that the ever more conventional use of such Jewish symbols by traditional Fundamentalist Christians is not in fact primarily proselytary but is in fact an inherent part of that religion. I do not seek to discourage criticism of the practice but rather to clear up misunderstandings as to why it occurs, for these misunderstandings form one more barrier out of what sometimes seems an infinite number between the Orthodox Jewish and Fundamentalist Christian communities. The natural barrier between religions is of course important to maintain, but that barrier should not be based on misunderstandings, and it should not prevent collaboration in those areas where it is in the best interests of both communities. It is in this spirit that this article is offered.

It must first of all be recalled to the reader that Fundamentalist Christianity is a form of Protestantism, and that Protestantism owes its existence to a split from the ancient, historical, liturgical Christian churches. It represents a rupture with the Christian past due to what it believes are corruptions that developed in the historical Christian religion which distorted its meaning. These corruptions are traced to the addition of oral traditions and customs to the written Christian scriptures. Thus, Fundamentalist Christianity, like all forms of classical Protestantism, is what Orthodox Jews would call "Qara’itic"—that is, it rejects oral traditions in favor of positing all authority to written scripture alone. Having established this simple we must now turn our attention to the Christian scriptures.

The Christian Bible is perhaps unique among the world’s sacred texts in acknowledging and incorporating the scriptures of another religion—the one it regards as its predecessor. I am unaware of another religion that does this. Islam, like Christianity, claims to be a successor of the two older religions, but its holy book is its own and contains no scriptures of the religions it supposedly displaces. Thus the Christian Bible is traditionally divided into two main parts: the "Old" and "New Testaments." Of these two the former is by far the larger. In fact, in the liturgical Churches, the "Old Testament" contains many more books than are recognized as canonical by Jews: books such as Tobias, Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees. These books are included because they were included in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Protestants, however, reject these books and their "Old Testament" is identical to the Hebrew Bible, though arranged differently.

Thus Christianity has always and in almost all its forms (one prominent exception being the ancient heresy of Marcion, who rejected the identification of the Christian God with the Jewish God) mixed Moses with Jesus, as one critic has said with regard to the Holy Land Experience. However, historical Christianity retained the Jewish Scriptures primarily for their historical value, in that they (according to Christianity) contained the prophecies of the coming of Jesus and his deeds in founding the new religion. Jewish religious ritual was always discouraged by the developing Gentile Church, because it considered such rituals to be part of what it considered a false religion: the Judaism that rejected Jesus ("Jewish Christians" have always been a special case). While Christians (if they could read and had access to a Bible) could read of Moses and the institution of the Passover or of the building of Solomon’s Temple, they developed their own completely separate ritual, calendar, liturgy, and set of oral traditions. Most of these rituals are not even mentioned in the "NEW" Testament, much less the "Old." The "New Testament" contains nothing analogous to the Torah, in which the Jewish ritual is elucidated in such detail. Instead, it consists entirely of the four Gospels (each giving a version of the story of Jesus), the Book of Acts (containing a snapshot history of the Christian religion at the moment of its birth), several books of theology, and one book of apocalyptic prophecy. The ritual, liturgy, and calendar of Christianity are either mentioned in only the most perfunctory way or not at all. This ritual--and especially the Christian calendar--are adapted not from Judaism but from the Gentile religions of the time. The best-known Christian holiday is in fact an adaptation of the Roman winter solstice celebration, and before that it was celebrated on another date adapted from the ancient Egyptian religion. Thus Christianity has from its beginning been a religion whose holy book contained the instructions and history of the predecessor religion, but none of the details about itself. But this situation was such an inherent part of its worldview that it was never really questioned until the invention of the printing press and the translation of the Christian Bible into the vernacular languages brought ever increasing numbers of Christians in personal contact with their holy book.

This is not to say that the Protestant Reformation was in any sense motivated by philo-Judaism. The issues leading to the Reformation are very complex and cannot be treated in this article. However, an eventual and gradually growing philo-Judaism was an eventual historical byproduct of the Biblicism of the Protestant Reformation. The initial movement was launched by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther in reaction against the fifteen hundred year-old Christian system of works and merit that he felt was illegitimate. While the root of his critique lay in his own personal problems, he certainly was aided in his conclusions by the actual content of the Christian Bible. In his Bible he read of a complex system of "works" and rituals which was indisputably founded and authorized by God. However, the second part of his Bible demolished this very system. It claimed that this system was in fact only a preparation for a coming new order of things in which works, merit, and rituals would not be necessary. In fact, he reasoned, the previous religion served merely to prepare the people for the coming superior revelation. So far this is traditional Christian teaching. But Luther, perhaps using a form of reasoning known to Jews as qal vachomer, drew an additional conclusion. Since the "New Testament" discredits the previously existing—and indisputably Divinely founded—ritual system in the name of a superior revelation of salvation by grace, and contains nowhere within itself an authorization or description of the Christian system that supposedly succeeded it, then obviously Christians had missed the point for fifteen hundred years. In creating this system Christians had unwittingly undone the entire Christian message, in which salvation is achieved vicariously through Christ by grace alone. In other words, Luther took Paul’s polemic against the Law of Moses and applied it even more to Christianity’s "new law." For if the former had no salvific effect, even though authorized by God Himself, then how much the more so must the rituals, traditions, and calendar which Christianity had adopted little by little from the pagan religions, be not only totally vain but displeasing to God. And though classical Protestantism was actually very conservative in its abandonment of the Catholic liturgical tradition, the process had been set in motion.

There were from the beginning more radical elements in the Protestant Reformation. But to arrive at contemporary philo-Semitic Fundamentalism some three centuries of ever greater alienation from the liturgical Christianity had to pass. During this time the apocryphal books accepted by liturgical Christians but rejected by Jews, which had initially been included in the King James translation, were discarded. Also, an ever more radically individualistic interpretation of the Biblical text began to have its effect. One of the claims of radical Protestantism was that since the Biblical text was God’s only revelation to man, its sense must therefore be the simplest and most universally accessible possible. This adaptation of Scottish common sense philosophy to Biblical interpretation resulted in the doctrine of "soul competency," the alleged ability of each individual to interpret the Bible with no external aid whatsoever. Thus commentaries where unnecessary to elucidate the Biblical text, since it was understood to basically interpret itself.

Looked at from this perspective the development of modern philo-Semitic Fundamentalism should be easy to understand. The contemporary Fundamentalist is a product of a culture which for four hundred years has held the Biblical text to be the one authentic message of God to man, that this message of necessity must be clear enough to be understood by the simplest person, and that therefore all commentaries or interpretive authorities are dangerous impostures. This divine book consists of the "Old" and "New Testaments"—the Jewish and Christian scriptures—organically united as a single volume written in a single language (17th Century Jacobaean English), and without commentary or historical notes of any kind. The prophecy of Malachi flows seamlessly into the Gospel of Matthew. It was only natural that with an ever increasing loss of Christian memory and an ever more radical alienation from traditional Christian oral interpretation the tension between "the two testaments" would be resolved in creative ways.

And the tension between the two parts of this supposedly seamless and organic work is indeed quite palpable. The first—and larger—part of the book says one thing, and the second—and supposedly higher—part then contradicts it. With appeals to extra-scriptural sources as interpretive helps ruled out and the Bible held to be its only legitimate interpreter something simply has to be done to resolve this issue. Two extremes will serve to illustrate how this may be done. One, very much in line with traditional Christianity, is simply to assume the New Testament is higher in holiness than the Old and to therefore accept right off the bat its claim to authoritatively interpret the Old. While this eliminates the tension in its own way, it has its problems, especially for the Fundamentalist, as it seems to denigrate part of Scripture—and the larger and more ancient part—and because it involves a logical fallacy known to debaters as "affirmation of the consequent." The other extreme is to take the two Testaments, with their contradictory doctrines, and hold them as simultaneously valid. This view, which has been called the "parallel and equal tracks" theory, is despite its surface resemblance to religious liberalism, actually an ultra-fundamentalist interpretation intended to preserve an absolutely literal interpretation of the entire Bible. This school of thought holds that while the atonement of Christ is indeed the cause of salvation for each individual, it is appropriated in two different ways. For Jews it is appropriated (though faithful Jews don’t realize it) by keeping the Torah as they were enjoined to do by God. For non-Jews the "new birth" as understood by Fundamentalist Protestants is held to be absolutely essential. This latter demand illustrates the vast gulf between this view and the true liberal view, which is relativistic and indifferentist. In this way Christ’s status as sole savior of all mankind is preserved and the literal integrity of both Old and New Testaments are maintained. Let it be noted in passing that the appropriation of the vicarious atonement of Christ by observance of the Torah, while perhaps a strange concept to most people, makes more sense to Biblical Fundamentalists than its appropriation by means of the totally post-Biblical ritual and tradition of liturgical Christianity.

In between these two extremes is the majority position, in which the Old Testament remains valid in that all its promises remain true and valid, but in which all people, Jews and gentiles, must accept Christ or be damned. The apparent contradiction within this position is accepted by Fundamentalists just as Orthodox Jews accept apparent contradictions within their own tradition by saying ‘ellu va’ellu divrei-‘Eloqim Chayyim. That it is politically incorrect, "insensitive," or perhaps irrational does not matter. Who can argue with the word of God? In light of the simple fact that Fundamentalists feel obligated on what they feel is the authority of God to demand Christian conversion of each and every individual (including Jews), it is simply astounding that Orthodox adherents of any other religion would think that Fundamentalists might alter this dogma if appealed to in the name of modern sensibilities. Yet today we see the spectacle of Orthodox Jews, people who believe in an Absolute Unchanging Truth that rests on Divine Authority, demanding internal changes in other people’s religion! Politically incorrect as it may be, only Orthodoxy can argue against Orthodoxy, and ultimately only a missionary argument against Christianity and in favor of Judaism/Noachism is honest and internally consistent, and only such an argument can be respected and given a hearing by Fundamentalists. Any other will be immediately rejected as liberalism.

But there are other than theological reasons for this mixture of Judaism and Christianity in Biblical Fundamentalism. Nature abhors a vacuum, and no people exists in such an ethno-cultural vacuum as Anglo-American Protestants. In a world where, despite an ever increasing radicalism ethno-cultural roots and traditions receive the ultimate lip service, the absolute "blankness" of Anglo-American Protestantism screams for some sort of deeply-rooted ethno-cultural context. Many such Americans are turning to Celtic nationalisms—ironically leftist—in order to find their place in the world. Others have been investigating liturgical Christianity—both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions—for their roots. And for the Anglo-Protestant who wishes to connect there are even more ancient and more colorful alternatives: the Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Indian, and Assyrian Churches. One may trace the Christian tree to its various roots. But there is one problem with all the above alternatives: they are all, to a one, post-Biblical. Only one liturgical tradition, only one people, is truly Biblical. And that people is Israel.

Since Protestantism has historically rejected post-Biblical accretions to Christianity and has blamed these on the influx of gentile converts, it follows that the most sincere Protestants would look upon the ancient Jewish Christians, the very founders of the Christian Religion, long lost to history though they are, as the Perfect Christians Par Excellence. Since radical Protestantism aims to restore a long-lost truth, it is only natural that the restoration of Jewish elements to Christianity would be looked on as integral to that project. In the New Testament itself (the period to which all Protestants want to restore the Church), though the Torah is attacked it is still the only authentically Divine and Biblical liturgical system. And virtually the only Christians in the New Testament—and certainly all those holding authority in the new church—are Jewish Christians. Far from being a sinister or cynical ploy to convert Jews to "another religion" (which it really isn’t according to the organically-Biblical Fundamentalist worldview), the use of Jewish prayers, rituals, symbols, and holidays is a natural result of the Fundamentalist Protestant impulse. More and more Fundamentalists are asking themselves by what authority they observe and celebrate December 25 each year when the only holidays authorized anywhere in the Bible are the Jewish ones. They have always been attracted to the study of the Hebrew language (along with New Testament Greek) rather than to Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, or other ancient Christian liturgical languages. Indeed, one could make the case that to today’s Anglo-American Biblical Fundamentalists the State of Israel serves the same purpose Ethiopia does to the Jamaican Rastafarians. To a new people, a people without roots and continually reminded that they are not "indigenous" but unwelcome conquerors everywhere they find themselves, Israel is quite literally the perfect country. Yet, as is well known, most Jews reject Fundamentalist support for Israel out of hand even as they accept the most questionable support from liberal sources. And in what is the supreme madness, liberal Diaspora Jews pressure Israel to "cherish" the indigenous Christian population of Israel in the name of "diversity." Yet the indigenous Christians of the Middle East are the most unrepentantly anti-Semitic on earth. They openly and blatantly attack Jews, Israel, and Zionism, yet American Jews expend all their anti-Christian prejudices against the one and only segment of Christendom that is genuinely and sincerely friendly to Jews and Israel specifically because of the unique place they hold within the Bible.

Since Toward Tradition is an alliance of Jews and Christians, this is not the appropriate place to engage Jewish-Christian polemics or apologetics. However, I know of no other way to say this: missionary activity by any religion, however politically incorrect it may be, is always more honest and more desirable than the recent phenomenon that has appeared in the Jewish community of being "tolerant" towards another religion while presuming to dictate internal changes to it. And when missionary activity is a genuine component of a religion there is simply no valid argument to make against it other than to proselytize its members to one’s own religion. While Jews have never been charged with the task of converting the entire human race to Judaism (Judaism remains a national covenant between God and Israel), they have always been charged with spreading the Word of God to all mankind. And Judaism has always taught that God does indeed demand of all non-Jewish humanity the observance of the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah. Instead of reacting in fear and hostility to Christian missionary activity aimed at Jews, why not take advantage of the unique freedom Jews have always enjoyed in this country to make their own case? There is indeed a small but growing Noachide community, and this community at the present time consists mostly of Southern whites from Fundamentalist Protestant backgrounds (as big a public relations nightmare as that may provide the ADL and other Jewish liberals). The adoption of Jewish symbols and rituals by this community is most certainly a two way street. It illustrates for all the world to see a deep hunger for things Jewish that is simply not being met or addressed but with hostility and shrill charges. Why do they turn to the Jews rather than to the Catholic Church or some other group to find their identity? It can only be a genuine philo-Semitism. What would be so terrible if more Fundamentalists found what they were looking for in acknowledging Orthodox Judaism as Noachides? If Jews truly fear Fundamentalist Protestants so much it seems that they would jump at this opportunity. Even if no great mass conversion ever occurred at least there would be the possibility that most Fundamentalist Christians would have Noachides as friends, neighbors, and relatives.

Ironically, Jews are not the only ones who loudly object to missionary activity by Fundamentalist Protestants. Despite their own missionary histories, the liturgical churches are also quite hostile to such activity, especially in their own traditional territories, such as Latin America and Russia. It has always astounded me that a religious tradition so derisively dismissed as poor in intellectual content should inspire such fear in its opponents. Most opponents of Fundamentalist Protestant missionary activity never think of fighting back, but act as if only the legal silencing of such activity can prevent the conversion of the entire world to the religion of the "ignorant hillbillies!"

While it is not very charitable, I, as a member of the group in question (white Southerner from a Fundamentalist Protestant background who is now a Noachide), have my own theory as to why my people are mercilessly attacked rather than appealed to on their own terms. Frankly, we are the untouchables of the religious world. The member of even the most politically incorrect religion can always feel less alienated from the liberal general culture by indulging in the most deplorable prejudice and scapegoating against the Southern Anglo Protestant. As one of the victims of this prejudice I can testify that I find it hateful, not the least because the people who engage in it simultaneously drip with self-righteous pride at their own alleged "tolerance." One observer of the scene has noted that America will never be a truly tolerant place until this prejudice is as socially unacceptable as all the others. But this will never happen for the simple reason that without this excluded community there would be no impoverished tradition to show off the riches of all others and no one to accuse of "bigotry." Hypocrisy will continue to reign supreme until this community is absorbed into another that is undeniably ancient and traditional, and that has itself been a prime target of religious prejudice—an absorption that will no longer allow liberal bigots to delude themselves as to what they are doing when they defame the "hate-filled redneck." The religious world needs the "redneck" scapegoat for its own evil and selfish purposes. The world will not help us. We will have to help ourselves.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Just as some Southern Anglo-Fundamentalists are turning to liturgical Christianity many are being seduced by the evil of "Christian Identity," in which "the Christian white race" is identified with Biblical Israel (another attempt to iron out the kink between "the two testaments"). Despite the condemnation such groups receive from liberal Jews, this development is almost certainly more welcome to them than the nascent Noachide movement, since the "anti-Semitic redneck" stereotype so dear to them is confirmed. In fact, I can think of no greater revenge against anti-Fundamentalist liberal Jews than the conversion of that abused community to Noachism! But the "redneck" is "red-lined" by the other religious communities, sentenced to serve as the perpetual fall guy—sort of like the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. I personally feel that many Fundamentalists could be reached successfully but that there is a conscious effort not to reach out to such "undesirables." That community is certainly feeling rootless and restive. And the success of Islam (both the real thing and the ridiculous imitation peddled by Farrakhan) in the other great American Fundamentalist Protestant community illustrates precisely that no one is unreachable. But of course the treatment of that other Fundamentalist Protestant community has always been radically different from that given to their co-religionists.

There is simply no excuse for the prejudice directed against the Anglo-American Fundamentalist Protestant. Were it not for this prejudice it would be the Noachide movement and not "the Nation of Islam" or the much-maligned "Christian right" that was gaining strength and influence. Every Fundamentalist lost to Islam, pseudo-Islam, liturgical Christianity, "Identity," and Celticism is an accusing finger pointed at the Jewish community for its faulty reaction to and policy towards this people.

Jews have always been notorious for punishing their friends and rewarding their enemies. The antipathy of even devout Orthodox Jews towards the Anglo-American Fundamentalist Protestant community is the ultimate illustration of this truth. Every excuse that can be found is seized upon as justification. One of these is the use of that community of Jewish symbols and rituals. What is labeled a cynical missionary policy is, I hope I have shown, instead the natural result of a religion based only on the translated and unelucidated text of a composite Bible. Fundamentalist Protestants have always been attacked by liturgical Christians as "Judaizers" for their Jewish-Christian syncretism, which is especially evident in their messianic doctrines. I hope this article has provided another view of this tendency by this chronically misunderstood people.

But in all honesty I cannot help but be pessimistic about a new attitude towards this sincerely philo-Semitic people. Indeed, the Jewish antipathy against my people sometimes seems so ingrained and unconquerable that I have in moments of despair wondered if we are not ‘Edomites or `Amaleiqites. But perhaps the roots of the antipathy are not so dramatic. For centuries Jews have flattered themselves the super-tolerant victims of European Christianity, a people who certainly have never and would never behave the same way under similar circumstances. Perhaps it is the fact that the Fundamentalist Protestant has only the Bible from which to glean his knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history. And in that book the Jew is not yet so sophisticated (and certainly not so liberal!). In fact, one could make the point that every Cossack, every murderous European peasant, and every Ku-Klux Klansman has been a frustrated aspirant to the heritage of Yehoshua` Bin-Nun. Perhaps it is the fact that Bible-only Fundamentalist Protestantism still sees Judaism in its original Theocratic form, that it steadfastly refuses to play along with the "Judaism is liberal and tolerant" game, that makes so many Jews so implacably hostile to it.

May HaShem open the eyes of us all.

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