Donald Trump and the telltale tallit: Jewish media storm offers lots of heat but little light

Picture it: Even though your grasp of the basics of Christianity isn’t the greatest, you’re visiting a church. A black church, at that.

Then the pastor throws a tallit over your shoulders.

Now, what’s a Jewish prayer shawl doing at a black church? And what’s the candidate to do? The only thing he could do: Graciously accept it. What happened next? Go to Twitter and put “Donald Trump tallit” in the search field. You’ll find lots to read.

One is the hot-button phrase “cultural appropriation.” But what was Trump supposed to do? Reject the gift and give it back? Here’s how Jewish Telegraph Agency wrote it up

(JTA) --  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was gifted a traditional Jewish prayer shawl by a pastor during a visit to a black church in Detroit.
Bishop Wayne Jackson of the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit draped the tallit around Trump’s shoulders after the candidate finished addressing the congregation.
“Let me just put this on you,” Jackson said as the congregation burst into applause.
The pastor said he fasted and prayed over the prayer shawl.
“This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel. Whenever you’re flying from coast to coast -- I know you just came back from Mexico and you’ll be flying from city to city -- there is an anointing. And anointing is the power of God,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be sometimes in your life that you’re going to feel forsaken, you’re going to feel down, but the anointing is going to lift you up. I prayed over this personally and I fasted over it, and I wanted to just put this on you.”

Wait, there's more. Clearly there is a theme going on here, in the mind of this pastor.

The pastor also presented Trump with two Jewish Heritage Study Bibles, one for the candidate and one for his wife, Melania.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is a convert to Orthodox Judaism. Jews traditionally wear the tallit for prayer, following a commandment in the book of Deuteronomy. Some Christian churches have adopted the practice, however.

Later, the article added that much of the chatter on social media was negative toward Trump. Just in case readers didn’t get the irony, The Forward (a Jewish daily) ran this editorial about this gift from the pastor and his wife.

“This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel,” Detroit pastor Bishop Wayne Jackson said as he draped a tallit around Donald Trump’s shoulders on Saturday, casually appropriating a Jewish ritual item for Christian purposes.
… 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?

It’s been kind of fun seeing all the reactions. You'd think Trump had disrespected Auschwitz for all the rage. Here's a question: Was the outrage primarily on the Jewish left or across the full spectrum of Jews, both religious and secular?

Meanwhile, The Times of Israel was one of the few media instiutions that saw some humor in it. After running several outraged comments from people in a manner that made fun at their pomposity, the Times added:

But while many plumbed the tallit incident for political significance, some merely poked fun.
Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the British Guardian newspaper, asked, “Wait, did Donald Trump just get bar mitzvahed?” a reference to the fact that the first time many Jews wear a tallit is at the religious ceremony marking their entrance into man -- or womanhood.

Religion News Service didn’t take the same approach with Jeffrey Salkin’s editorial that trashed Trump for, you’ve guessed it, “appropriation.” I found it odd, when he mentioned how Judaism, Christianity and Islam have “borrowed” from one another, he didn’t mention how much of the Quran was lifted from the Old Testament. He did, however, allege that the pastor who gave Trump the tallit was part of a Messianic Jewish scheme.

Now, there is a topic worthy of actual journalism work. What are the facts about that? Clearly, the key to this story is the motivation and Jackson's intent. In other words, the crucial facts here are about religion, not politics. Surprise.

And so here we have a pastiche of news, opinion, Jewish history and Twitter about an incident in a black church last Saturday. I’m intrigued by how most news organizations blogged it and left the subject to analysis by opinion writers, like the writer of this Haaretz piece who explained why Donald donning the prayer shawl stoked so much anger.

At least Haaretz gave some background as to why the pastor may have gifted Trump thus:

The pastor’s veneration of the tallit and his excitement that it came from Israel -- was a sign that he is part of the philo-Semitic and ardently Zionist stream of evangelical Christianity, that finds meaning in Old Testament Jewish rituals and objects, from blowing shofars to holding Passover seders to prayer shawls.
The popular, yet controversial Texas evangelist Pastor John Hagee has devoted whole sermons to venerating the Jewish “prayer shawl” and sells them in his online store as does televangelist Benny Hinn …

That's interesting. But are there any facts about Jackson's beliefs or the practices of his church?

If you watch the video (posted up top) and listen to this pastor, here's a guy who wasn't thinking of the ramifications of his gift, but who wanted to give Trump something to help him pray. It looked like he was trying to cram some Bible verses into the candidate more than anything else.

Once again, none of the pieces I read dealt with this question: What was Trump supposed to do? He did the best possible thing under the circumstances, which was to graciously accept the gift. If he had pushed it away, can you imagine what furor that would have caused?

And why are people screaming "cultural appropriation" about a tallit when much of the world --  including many Jews -- borrows Christian or quasi-Christian symbols like Christmas trees and stars and wise men or Easter eggs without a murmur of protest? Criticize the pastor if you will, but journalists should have given Trump a break. This time, he deserved one.

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