Carrie Love is a self-professed “Scripture nerd.” Raised in an evangelical church in Louisiana, she now lives in Manhattan where she works at an educational non-profit and attends Central Presbyterian Church. In 2008, she signed up for Hebrew classes at New York University’s Hillel House. “It makes sense to want to know how the Old Testament was written originally,” Love, 32, says. “For me, it’s the same God who inspired those words and who came incarnated. I want to bring them together in a holistic way.” Last spring, she hosted a Passover Seder for her church friends. She also got a Hebrew tattoo that reads, “You are with me,” a verse from the 23rd Psalm. Getting it inked in Hebrew was particularly meaningful: “It’s all part of this history that I believe is true.”
Love is part of a growing number of American Christians drawn to Jewish learning and to an array of Judaism’s rituals and products. They practice Israeli dancing, wear jewelry with the Star of David, or decorate with objects bearing Hebrew script. In 2011, The New York Times took a lighthearted look at evangelical ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), profiling Sally and Mark Austin, members of a San Antonio megachurch, who “Googled their way to ketubahtree.com.” The ketubah they chose, bearing text from the Reform Jewish movement, now hangs above their bed.
Like Love, more Christians are also celebrating Jewish holidays. Christopher Harrell, the narrator of With God on Our Side, a 2010 documentary about Christian Zionism, begins the film by describing how his family celebrated Hanukkah and held yearly Passover Seders. “Looking back, I’m not sure why we did that,” he says. “We’re not Jewish. We’re just this normal American Midwestern family.”
IN 1880, GERMAN ANTI-SEMITES coined the term “philosemitism”—the affinity for Jews by non-Jews—as a derogatory word to denounce their opponents. Shorn of these associations, it has lately begun to enter the American vocabulary through a growing number of books and articles, many of which discuss U.S. evangelicals. Philosemitism in this form owes much to the nineteenth-century spread of premillennial dispensationalism, a theology that revised the supercessionist belief that God’s covenant with the Jews had ended, replaced by a new covenant with Christians. Dispensationalists began to view Jewish people as integral to Christian sacred history; their return to Jerusalem would presage the Messiah’s second coming. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the city fell under Jewish control, seemed like prophetic affirmation and philosemitic theologies spread quickly, bolstered also by Christian attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and by their growing interest in inter-faith dialogue with Jews. Philosemitism is a major theological building block of Christian Zionism, a Christian movement to support the state of Israel politically, economically, and spiritually.
But philosemitism is not synonymous with Christian Zionism and political support for Israel. Nor is it generally directed towards interfaith dialogue or proselytism, as some Jewish commentators suspect. As historians Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe have shown in their recent edited volume, Philosemitism in History, it is a varied phenomenon with deep historical roots. They, like most scholars and journalists, focus on discourse or theology and its socio-political consequences. But in contemporary American Christianity, philosemitism is also religious practice: the objects Christians use and the rituals they perform.
Christian Seders were one of the first widespread philosemitic rituals. In Judaism, the Seder is the ritual meal during Passover commemorating the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Liberal Unitarian Universalist and mainline Christian congregations adopted the Seder in the early 1960s. American Catholics followed, after the 1969 Working Document on Jewish-Christian Relations affirmed that “it was within Judaism that Christianity was born and wherein it found essential elements of its faith and cult.”
By the mid-1970s, mainline Protestant and Catholic presses had produced a number of haggadot (Seder manuals). Some Passover promoters saw it as an ecumenical opportunity to share a meal with their Jewish neighbors. Most, however, focused entirely on Christian participants’ own spiritual uplift; the Christian seder came to symbolize Jesus’ last supper, equated with a Passover meal he shared with his disciples. The inclusion of Jews was neither assumed nor encouraged. “No attempt,” clarified a 1972 Catholic haggadah, “has been made in this meal formula to reconstruct an authentic Passover ritual of either Christ’s time or of present day Judaism.” Though matzah was recommended, in a pinch white crackers would do—an adjustment that precluded Jewish participation. On other fronts, however, Christians took great pains to recreate a Jewish-like ritual meal. The harder it was the better: the Seder’s major draw was how the symbols and ordered action felt complicated, ancient, and exotic.
By the early 1980s, evangelicals had discovered Seders too. Anne Williman, a Vacation Bible School teacher in Ohio, was an early adopter. In a 1979 article for conservative Christian magazine Moody Monthly—wittily titled “Grape Drink and Matzo Ball Soup”—she counseled her readers to include rousing Israeli folk songs and dances, and instructed them on the meal’s ritual significance: “The three wafers of matzo represent some sort of unity to the Jewish people. But for Jewish Christians, it means the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Her description points to a distinguishing feature of evangelical Seders: Jewish forms and symbols came filtered through Jewish Christianity. Now called Messianic Judaism, this movement developed in the 1960s among people of Jewish parentage who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Altering older patterns of conversion, they saw themselves as fulfilled Jews rather than converts to Christianity. They headed a new generation of evangelical missions—Jews for Jesus is emblematic—and developed their own congregations to incorporate Jewish cultural forms and rituals.
Messianics also pioneered exciting new forms of worship. Early 1970s groups like Lamb and the Liberated Wailing Wall (associated with Jews for Jesus) infused Christian pop with upbeat Israeli folk. Rabbi Scott Sekulow, leader of a Messianic congregation near Atlanta, founded the website Messianic Marketplace in 2002. He notes the continued popularity of Jewish music in the evangelical market. CD compilations and downloads include a hodgepodge of Israeli-style songs and Protestant hymnody, along with Jewish prayers, klezmer, and even the occasional hit from Fiddler on the Roof. Also popular is Messianic (or Davidic) dance, styled on Israeli folk dancing. Today evangelicals produce and buy instructional DVDs—a Messianic Marketplace best-seller—attend Davidic dance classes, and see troupes perform at mega-churches nation-wide. “Over fifteen years, many more Christians have started looking into the Jewishness of their faith,” Sekulow says. “Do a search on Amazon. Now there are hundreds of Messianic products.”
Yet not all pop Judaica appeals. Most Christians avoid New Age forms of Jewish mysticism (think Demi Moore and Madonna’s “kabbalah”). Their focus is squarely on Jesus and the cultural forms they believe he would have known on earth. Last year, Dale,* 64, went on a trip to Israel with her evangelical church from Vermont. She brought back a Star of David pendant and a CD of Messianic Jewish music, which she plays on repeat in the car. “[It’s] very personal,” she says. “It’s just like the whole line of who I am and where I came from as a Christian … I feel like that’s all part of my heritage.”
These Jewish items tap into the theological impulse to recover what is believed to be the pure biblical origins of the faith. They also provide a cultural richness that Dale feels her suburban megachurch lacks. But Dale, like many evangelicals, remains suspicious of Christianity’s own sacramental tradition because of its association with Catholic devotionalism. Jewish symbolism and ritual, of the idealized biblical sort, is much less fraught. “I see [Catholic] shrines as churchianity not Christianity,” Dale says. “I want a Bible-teaching church—that’s my focus.”
CHRISTIANS MAY DESCRIBE PHILOSEMITISM as a natural extension of Christianity’s roots in Judaism, as an expression of personal faith, or as a sign of End Times prophecy. Because of these identifications, the trend is rarely contextualized as part of a wider response to destabilizing shifts within American Christianity over the past 40 years—but it should be. Believers have more choices than ever before thanks to the rise of para- and post-denominationalism, televangelism, the growth of suburban megachurches, and the explosion of online resources. But these changes have also led to the collapse of smaller churches and the breakdown of traditional institutional ties. This sense of rootlessness is likely part of the driving force behind rediscovering old rituals, including Jewish ones.
Christian philosemitism can still pose serious interfaith problems. Philosemites do not produce faithful facsimiles of a far-removed, biblical faith; they absorb hybrid forms from the contemporary Judaism around them. Christian Seders, for instance, superimpose a Christian narrative on sacred Jewish history, an echo of supersessionist theologies. As Karp and Sutcliffe point out, many Jews (and liberal Christians) are deeply suspicious of philosemitism, which they see as sharing with anti-Semitism a distorted, exceptionalist view of Judaism. Whether Jews are viewed as very good or very bad, they nonetheless remain apart, a people marked by difference vis-à-vis an assumed Christian norm.
Evangelicals are not wholly insensible to the problem. Carrie Love, like many younger Christians, sees interfaith dialogue as a good thing, couching her experience at Hillel House as a “really neat sharing and trading of beliefs [that are] so interwoven.” But then there are ministries like that of Ralph Messer, a Christian TV regular who calls himself a rabbi and runs a yeshiva and Torah studies in churches across Colorado. He made national headlines last winter when he wrapped mega-church pastor Eddie Long in a Torah scroll to symbolically elevate him to “a kingship.” There are also online ministries like the Oklahoma-based House of David, which assures its Christian readers that “Judaic roots” are “your rightful inheritance.” Although House of David leaders may wish to draw a subtle distinction between “Jewish” and “Judaic,” the question remains: if Jewish history, culture, and religious rituals are now Christians’ own inheritance, where does that leave contemporary Jews? By (re)claiming their Judaic roots, do Christians in fact strip Jewish people of theirs?
Still glossed as a footnote in the story of political Christian Zionism, philosemitism is an integral and fast-growing component of Christian, and especially evangelical, religious practice. “Christians are now realizing there’s more than just grace, more than saying ‘I’m a believer,’” Sekulow notes. “It is also living the life of a Christian and part of that is doing things to get to know the roots of our faith.”
*Name has been changed.
Hillary Kaell has a PhD from Harvard University in American Studies and is an assistant professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. Her first book, Where Jesus Walked: Contemporary American Christian Holy Land Pilgrimage, is forthcoming with New York University Press.