The Hebraic Style in Christian Nation-Building

Hillary Kaell

Rising numbers of Christians are integrating Jewish-like symbols, aesthetics, and rituals into their lives. This Hebraic style, as we call it here, is found across Christianity, but is most prevalent in evangelical and charismatic Protestantism. Proponents claim aspects of Jewish identity, or strong allyship with ‘the Jewish people,’ as intrinsic to Christian theology. It is often linked to biblical literalism and to the conviction that through biblical-type rituals believers can access the power and closeness to God that defined the earliest churches.

Among others, the Hebraic style appeals to people of Jewish ancestry who retain or reclaim their Jewishness as fulfilled through belief in Jesus; charismatic Christians who view Hebraic rituals as an access point for God’s blessings; biblical literalists who are searching for ‘authentic’ links to Jesus; and Christians who believe they have discovered a crypto or hidden Jewish lineage. The Hebraic style is often braided into local understandings of lineage and already contested identities, as a number of our contributions show.

Mainstream Jews and Christians generally view the Hebraic style as confused and incoherent. At worst, it is seen as politically and religiously suspect. Many Jews fear (not incorrectly) that Hebraic style Christians support evangelization. More subtle, but important, considerations are the damage caused to a minority group by the appropriation of their heritage and the Christian propensity to classify Jews as either “good” or “bad.” Among Hebraic style Christians, good Jews include those who believe in Jesus and support Israeli settlements as an expression of God’s will.

The Hebraic style and Christian Zionism are not synonymous, but they are often intertwined. In that respect, one might say that the Hebraic style dates to the latter half of the nineteenth century when some Protestants began to view the settlement of Jews in Palestine as necessary for bringing about Jesus’s return. Christian Zionism—support for the state of Israel as a facet of this prophetic theology—was popularized after the 1967 unification of Jerusalem. Its impact on the development of the Hebraic style is crucial, particularly as it intersects with nation-building.

In my work with Messianic Jewish believers in the United States, I hear the word “nation” often. Its theological importance derives from how it appears in English translations of the Bible for the Hebrew word goyyim and Greek word ethnesin (“the nations”). Messianic Jews also describe contemporary Jews as a nation—in my experience, they do so much more often than mainstream North American Jews, who opt for other words like ethnicity or religion. Another use of “nation” describes contemporary states. As our contributions show, many Hebraic style believers are concerned about the relationships between nation-states, especially between their country and Israel. In this respect, they ask a number of important questions: Is the nation a biblical category and do Christians have a responsibility to shape the state according to biblical law? What political loyalties are owed to the secular nation and the contemporary nation-state of Israel? What authority does the Hebraic style confer on nation-building projects?

This installation’s cross-cultural approach belies any easy answers to these questions, but it does reveal a few notable patterns:

•  A belief in the binding relevance of the entire Bible (that is, the “Old” and “New” Testaments) often leads to political support for Israel’s national conflict with the Palestinians. Though, as Jackie Feldman notes, Christians (and Muslims) mobilize the symbols of both Palestinian and Israeli nationalism—notably, their respective flags—as metonyms for nation-building in their own countries.

•  Hebraic style Christians often set themselves apart and call for reforms in their former churches, their countries, and even world politics, according to what they (newly) understand to be God’s law. As Manoela Carpenedo demonstrates, adhering to biblical law may produce a self-conscious distancing from cultural norms (making the Hebraic style a ‘counter-cultural’ movement par excellence). And yet, as my and Gideon Elazar’s contributions show, such outsider identities may actually rely on normative mythologies, such as the “pioneer” or “homesteader” ethos embedded in U.S. nation-building, including in white Christian nationalism.

•  The national imaginary associated with the Hebraic style usually calls for top-down political authority that stems directly from God and limits (human) government. Matan Shapiro’s “Brajisalem”—a Brazilian Jerusalem—is a kind of state-within-a-state. In my contribution, believers mark out spiritual geographies that overlap with, but also dissolve, legal territorial ones. Top-down divine authority, though associated with the politics of biblical Israel, is also viewed as fully compatible with an evangelical emphasis on individual expressions of faith, such as being born again.

•  The Hebraic style may appeal to Christians who are marginalized in their own national contexts. As Alison Dundon shows in PNG, it can provide ways to reimagine one’s people as central to biblical history and as future citizens of another nation-state (Israel). Dundon’s piece, along with John Dulin’s, underlines the importance of Israel’s Law of Return in the activism and imagination of Hebraic style Christians who claim Jewish lineages. While this is true in general, people under economic and political duress may feel it with particular urgency.

•  The Hebraic style’s contested middle ground leads to marginalization, but it can also open up increased opportunities to cultivate prosperity and protection. This is especially evident in Dulin’s work on the history of Ethiopia’s Falash Mura, but it resonates across the other contributions too.

Through the Hebraic style, Christians around the world find potent ways to entwine their fate with the biblical nation of Israel. It informs how they reimagine citizenship and the spiritual geography of the nation-states they inhabit. It informs specific political actions related to the state of Israel, including dreams of immigration and support for Israeli nationalism. And, perhaps most importantly, it informs how they reposition their group or nation as central to God’s plan for the nations as a whole.

Hillary Kaell, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Manoela Carpenedo, University of London, UK
John Dulin, Utah Valley University, USA
Alison Dundon, Adelaide University, Australia
Gideon Elazar, Bar Ilan and Ariel University, Israel
Jackie Feldman, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Matan Shapiro, University of Stavanger, Norway