Trump, who had just addressed the Great Faith Ministries, a black church, in an attempt to make inroads with African-American voters, accepted the gift with a smile. Immediately, the Jewish Twittersphere exploded — not just because of the inappropriateness of this appropriation, but probably also because it was especially galling to see Trump, a man who has stoked “alt-right” anti-Semitism in this country, wearing this symbolic Jewish garment.
But what about the pastor — what was he thinking? Does he, like some other Christians, think that adopting elements of Jewish ritual makes their worship more “biblical,” and therefore more authentic? Does he think that Jesus wore this same type of “prayer shawl,” and therefore Christians should wear it to emulate Jesus? If so, the pastor badly needs a history lesson, because this whole business with the tallit is historically ridiculous. Imitating Jesus by wearing a modern Jewish prayer shawl during morning prayers? Just…no.
[photograph shows(left) the development of the pallium and the pope (right) wearing a pallium, not very convincing Forward Magazine!!]
[A priest’s stole (left) is more convincing]
In a sense, this tallit was a bit like a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. For the initiated, it signifies membership in a particular group. For everyone else, it’s just a cap with a slogan. According to Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, the tassels on the religious Jews’ pallia probably stood out to those in the know, but those who weren’t savvy to the significance wouldn’t have cared especially.
Jesus may or may not have worn a tallit, depending on whether he was the type who wore pallium and whether he was inspired to mark himself as part of the rabbinic in-group by attaching tassels to it [be careful here Forward magazine your hatred of things orthodox is showing!]. We might recall that Matthew was not overly keen on that kind of social parading (see chapter 23 of his gospel); quite possibly Jesus, too, thought there were more important issues to focus on.
Some Christians (and some Jews) labor under the impression that Judaism as practiced by Jews today is an exact reproduction of Judaism in all historical periods, going back to Moses. This misconception isn’t new, as Steven Fine points out: a third-century fresco of Moses at Dura Europos anachronistically depicts Moses in Roman pallium with tzitzit. And so some Christians who want to imitate the actions of the historical Jesus suppose that he worshipped exactly as modern Jews do, and thus a mass-market prayer shawl “straight from Israel” somehow, nonsensically, becomes imitatio Dei, behavioral emulation of the Divine.
Jesus didn’t wear a “prayer shawl,” but if you believe he did, you can buy a tallit and put it on and play dress-up-as-Jesus. You can put a tallit on your presidential candidate and pretend that makes him just like Jesus, with all the character traits you want in a leader. Certainly buying a few Jewish ritual items from an online store is a lot easier than persuading Trump to develop the character traits that originally endeared Jesus to his followers[I personally think that Trump is a lot like Jesus: a capricious egotistical megalomaniac but what politician is not?].
Jen Taylor Friedman studies the material culture of ancient Judaism at McGill University.