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Why Christians keep appropriating Jewish ritual symbols

The difference between religious exchange and appropriation, according to a rabbi.

A woman in a car blowing a shofar.
A woman blows into a shofar during an Easter drive-in service at Glasgow Farm in Virginia due to the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On the day of the insurrection at the US Capitol, a group of Christians were in DC taking part in the “Jericho March.” It wasn’t the first such event; others had taken place in late 2020 both in DC and at state capitals, inviting participants to sing, pray, listen to speakers, and march around Capitol buildings with the aim of calling for “election integrity.”

(The Jericho March website has been updated with a statement from its organizers denouncing violence in general and the January 6 insurrection in particular. But a cached version with a schedule of events that took place in DC from January 2 through 6, in concert with organizations and movements such as Stop the Steal and Wild Protest, is visible via the Wayback Machine.)

The “Jericho” in the March’s name refers to a Biblical story recounted in Joshua 6, in which the Israelites were told by God to capture the city of Jericho, which had thick, fortified walls around it. They were instructed to spend a week marching around the city, carrying the Ark of the Covenant (which contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed) and blowing shofars (trumpets made of hollowed-out rams’ horns). Once a day, for six days, they would march around the city.

Then, on the seventh day, they’d march seven times, then stand still, then sound a loud blast on the shofars, and the whole army would shout. The walls would fall down, and they could rush in, slaughter everyone in the city, burn it to the ground, and pronounce a curse upon it. And, according to the Biblical account, that’s what they did.

There were shofars present at the Capitol, too, and all over DC, often wielded by Christian groups that have grown fond in recent decades of using the historically Jewish instrument as a call to action. But the shofar has a particular meaning and association in Judaism — it is tightly associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the major fall holidays and a time for reflection and atonement.

To understand more about this interaction between Judaism and certain Christian groups, I spoke with Rabbi Stacy Petersohn, who works as a community educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She explained the importance of hearing the shofar in Jewish life, the connotations of the story of Jericho when brought into a contemporary context, and why we need to be better about learning and understanding our history — no matter what religion we practice.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with the idea of a “Jericho March.” I was raised an evangelical Christian. That story was a big part of my life when I was a kid in Sunday School, so it wasn’t surprising to me to see it crop up here. But when you look at that name or idea, what do you see?

Judaism is filled with holidays that take inspiration from the stories that we retell all the time. Jericho is not one of them. We don’t really focus on that one a lot. And for me, that story makes me very uncomfortable. Up to the point when the walls come down, it’s actually very inspirational: Go, use the horns — don’t attack, but let the walls come down, just based on this magnificent sound. Okay, that sounds great! But then what happens after is very disturbing.

We have stories that we uplift that have that dynamic. On the one hand, they’re very inspirational. On the other hand, they’re very problematic and uncomfortable.

But when I see them play out outside of a religious setting, or when people take them too far, I wonder what’s going on in their communities and how they talk about it. At least in my experience in the Jewish community, we are comfortable saying, “This story makes me uncomfortable,” and really addressing that. Allowing for framing and educational models helps us understand, “What’s the historical context? What’s the religious context? How do we take lessons from this and apply them to today?” But none of us ever think we’re actually going to do exactly what the text says. There’s interpretation that goes into what we do and how we do it.

Trump supporters pray and sing during a Jericho March outside the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on December 14, 2020. A small group circled the Capitol during the Electoral College vote.
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

So to see something like this is concerning. I don’t know what’s happening in communities where things are taken much more literally than in my own. The Judaism that is practiced today is very much based on an interpretive understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

And I guess there’s interpretation at play no matter who’s reading the Bible story — that interpretation just has different implications. My main memory of learning about the story of Jericho is of being a kid in a Sunday School classroom, building up a “wall of Jericho” with lightweight blocks, and marching around it pretending we were blowing a horn, then knocking the walls down. It was playful.

You know, from a teaching perspective — how do you get kids to remember the story? — that performative act is very effective. It’s when that story is taken out [of context] in this aggressive manner; I’m sure not everyone sees it as aggressive, but I do.

This brings me to my broader question: When you see Christians co-opting aspects of Judaism for their own purposes — blowing shofars, for instance — what do you think?

A lot of what I have experienced — professionally, or just as an observation — is that there is this desire to get back to “the religion that Jesus practiced.” My initial gut response, and what I tell people, is that he made sacrifices. In his day, you sacrificed animals, and bread, and vegetables, and fruits. That’s what happened. That was the religion at the time. It didn’t matter what your philosophical thought was. That was it.

I know many people are acting in very good faith, wanting to understand the history and the culture. So, people will come to come to me and say, “We want to host a Seder at our church, and we want to make sure it was done in the same way as Jesus would have done it.” And I’m thinking, “Jesus didn’t have a Seder.” It didn’t exist at that point. There was a Passover meal, but the Seder we use today in modern Judaism took 2,000 years to develop into what it is today. So, you’re asking us to replicate something for you that we have no clue how to replicate.

I find there’s a lot of misunderstanding [among Christians] about what modern Judaism is. There’s this thought that the Hebrew Bible closed, and that was it. That’s where Judaism froze. But Judaism kept growing and changing and adapting for another 2,000 years after the Second Temple was destroyed. [The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE; this coincides with the rise of the new sect of Christianity.] That’s how we got to where we are today. That’s why I’m able to be a rabbi. That’s why you have rabbis in the first place — we kept evolving. We remember where our history came from. And we learn about the First and Second Temple period. We learn about those things. But that’s not where Judaism is today. We also learn how Judaism has morphed over time.

I find that is generally the lesson that needs to come out of those moments when people say, “We want to do things how Jesus did them,” and I think, “Well, good luck figuring that out, because I don’t know how it happened.”

I have run into some amazing groups of Christians who’ve said, “We want to learn more about Judaism because we care about being good neighbors.” I used to live and work in Pennsylvania, before I came to the Bay. I had different church groups come into the synagogue. They would observe our service. And then afterwards, I would do Q&A time with them — really give them a chance to ask, “How did what we just observe come out of what we’ve learned from the Bible?”

In my experience, there’s a broad spectrum. Some people have very good-faith reasons for asking the questions that they do. As long as you’re willing to ask the question, you’re already on the right foot. You’re asking a question, not making an assumption. You’re not trying to reconstitute a religion that hasn’t existed in 2,000 years. I’ve also experienced people who really do want me to reconstruct that religion for them, and I have to figure out a way to say, “I can’t do that for you.” I can come to your church and teach about Passover, or why Hanukkah is not such a big holiday as you might think it is. I’m happy to come in and teach all of those things, or to have you come to me and learn all those things, to visit and experience our rituals.

An Evangelical Christian pilgrim blows on a Shofar, a ram’s horn, as a boy heads for the chemical toilets during prayers before being baptized in the waters of the Jordan River January 11, 2007, near Jericho in the West Bank. About 100 pilgrims, mainly from the US, participated in a ceremony at the place where Christians believes that Jesus was baptized by John.
David Silverman/Getty Images

It seems like there’s a danger that can come with ripping these symbols away from what they signify and turning them into symbols of something else — when we get really engrossed in the trappings of someone else’s religion or culture but don’t learn what those things mean, and then turn them into something else entirely. That seems to be a problem here.

Right. Certainly, exchanges between religions happen. But there’s a big difference between honest, authentic exchanges between religions and cultural appropriation. We can look at all sorts of different religions and pinpoint where certain things came from. If you look at the rosary in the Catholic Church, most likely it came from the Catholic church’s encounters with either Hindu or Buddhist monks.

They learned about it, and they thought, “This is really interesting. How do we incorporate that and make it our own?” That’s fine. Look at the main Catholic mass — not the words, but the actions. They’re very similar to the temple service in Jerusalem, down to the fact that they have bread and wine. But they’re doing it with their own words, in their own authentic way. Great. That’s how they started from this tiny little group and built their own religion out of it.

They weren’t trying to take from something that really didn’t belong to them anymore. That’s kind of what it feels like when I see evangelical people, or really any kind of Christian group, or any group taking from one religion and not doing the due diligence and trying to learn about it.

Taking the time to learn, and morph it so that it feels authentic to you, I think is really important, and is the big distinction between cultural homage and cultural appropriation.

So I think that brings me to the shofar question. I’ve seen pictures of shofars wrapped in the American flag, or of people blowing them at the Capitol last week. When you see these things, what do you think? And what is a shofar to you?

I have my shofar sitting right here!

The shofar is one of the main symbols of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Passover, which is the major spring holiday, but Yom Kippur, and to a slightly lesser degree Rosh Hashanah, is the pivotal point of the whole season. They’re the holidays that introduce fall. Several times in the Torah, different books talk about the basic calendar. The Torah always mentions Rosh Hashanah, though not by that name, and it mentions Yom Kippur. It mentions Rosh Hashanah as the “Day of Blasting.” Yom T’ruah, that’s the phrase it uses.

And the shofar gets attached. There’s something about the sound of the shofar, and hearing that sound to ring in the new year, because that’s what it’s doing. It is calling you to get ready for the new year. It’s calling you to account for everything that’s happened in the past year. That’s the main theme of those fall holidays, a phrase we call heshbon hanefesh, or “checking in of your soul.”

You’re supposed to hear the blast of the shofar 100 times in a single day. By the time you get to the 100th one, a really long blast, you’re so overwhelmed with emotion, because the sound is vibrating in your chest. I cry when I hear it. I have friends who get giant grins on their faces, because they love the sound of it so much. Physical manifestations of emotion just happen when you hear it, when you know the connotation of it and what it’s trying to do.

Members of the City Shul congregation and guests sit in their cars as they watch the shofar being played on a screen during a socially distanced Rosh Hashanah celebration at a drive-in on September 20, 2020, in Toronto, Canada.
Cole Burston/Getty Images

If you live in a traditional community, you hear it every day for a month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, once a day. And then, on Rosh Hashanah, you hear it 100 times in one day. You continue to hear it throughout the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then you end Yom Kippur, which is the end of this 40-day season of personal accounting and reflection, with one really long blast. It is the culmination of a very emotional time period.

So for me, the shofar, while it is not necessarily the most visual symbol — I don’t expect to see the shofar on flags, I don’t expect to see it in printing unless it’s something for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur — but the auditory sound and the vibration is its impact. In fact, in terms of what we would call a mitzvah, or the commandment, for Rosh Hashanah, it’s not blowing the shofar — it’s hearing it. When we say the blessing over it, we’re blessing the hearing of the shofar, rather than blessing the playing of it.

For me, that’s the major lesson of the shofar: That the things we hear, and that we internalize through sound, can actually have a massive impact on us as humans. Whether that’s words, whether that’s sound, whether it’s music — all of those things have an impact on who we are as human beings.

I see groups of people who are trying to use it militarily — because that’s what they’re doing with this idea of the Jericho March — who don’t understand its current position in the Jewish world. Other than the modern state of Israel, the Jewish people haven’t had an army in 2,000 years. We have no reason to use it militarily anymore. And I don’t need us to have a reason to use it militarily! So when I see it used that way, and there’s no accounting for how this symbol has evolved over this time, it feels like [long pause] someone is trying to corrupt something that’s special to me and my people. I know that’s something they wouldn’t want done to them. So why are they doing it to me?

In your previous article, the interviewee mentioned his Jewish friends being like, “Just leave us alone.” I feel that sometimes too. It’s my job as a rabbi to teach people, whether they’re Jews or not, about Judaism, to make the world more educated. But there are times where I just want to say, “You can come in and appreciate. But there needs to be some boundaries here.” I have a feeling people aren’t noticing that there’s a need for boundaries.

I think a lot of Christians have a pretty short memory about Christian-Jewish relations, and that we haven’t always been on great terms, even very recently — and still aren’t, in some places.

No matter which group had more power! I have had a lot of professors who are historians. We talked about the Second Temple period, and the period immediately following it. Some of them might say, “With everything going on politically at the time among the Jews, do you really think they cared about the Christians? This tiny little group — do you think they cared? No. They let them do their own thing.”

Others say, “They really did see the threat of the Christians, and we can see that in the way some of their prayers are written.”

But then a shift in power happened, and all of a sudden Christians had all this power. And then, for 1,500 years, life under Christian rule goes on a roller coaster for Jews.

And not that long ago, in America, anti-Semitism wasn’t a hidden thing — it was right out in the open, among people who would have called themselves very devoted Christians. But somehow, I’ve found, that’s just slipped out of memory. Which makes the co-opting of Jewish symbols by conservative Christians even more fraught, especially when they’re used in service of politics.

Right. So one of the questions I would ask someone who is participating in this is, “What do you think you’re doing when you do this?” I honestly want to know. Do you think you’re paying an homage to a tradition by doing this? Or are you paying homage to that Jericho story? Or are you really actually trying to threaten someone, threaten the government? That’s another piece of the Jericho story, too — Joshua was trying to retake the land of Israel because the people of Israel had been gone for so long. But these [people in DC] were people in their own country, threatening their own country, in a very ancient manner of threatening people. It’s not the same thing.

Your point about not understanding the full weight of the history, I think, is also very striking. For some Christians, growing up in church, history basically [starts with] Jesus. Then there was Martin Luther. Then there was American Christianity. Nothing in between. I’ll grant that this does also often happen in Jewish education: There was the Bible. There were the rabbis at the very beginning when the temple is destroyed. There was 1492 [when the Catholic monarchs of Spain expelled all Jews from the country]. And then there was the Holocaust. Again, lots of gaps.

I know our education system can’t teach everything. But I think when it comes to what are we teaching in order to get at the values that we want to teach for our society, we need to rethink some of the things we’re teaching. In public education, private education, church, religious education, there’s a lot of rethinking to be done to how we acknowledge that history. How do we reconcile that history with the world we want to see?

It feels like the same problem we’re facing everywhere now: That we can’t do the right thing in the world if we refuse to face up to the past, to understand why the world is the way it is.

Think about the first thing that humans started doing when they started to develop language, even before they had a writing system. They told stories. And those stories were meant to teach us something. You look at the stories of Gilgamesh. You look at Celtic stories. You look at stories from the Bible. You look at stories that come out of Africa or Asia or South America, where those stories are meant to teach ideas and values.

The Torah opens up with this: The world started in chaos. God then starts to organize the world. And the first way that God does that is through speech. That’s not to tell us that God actually created the world with speech. That’s to tell us that speech has power, that our speech, as storytellers, has power.

That’s what that story is doing. It’s not telling us the world was created in six days. It’s saying that language has the power to bring light into chaos.