By Wil Gafney
I am writing this response to a YouTube video circulating widely on the internet in which Eddie Long, the troubled pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA is apparently crowned king with the ritual use of a Jewish Torah scroll. (The reader may know him for the recent scandal in which he was accused by five young men of sexual misconduct. After initially denying the allegations, he went into settlement talks with them.) A number of specious claims are made during the ritual which I would like to refute.
In the video we have Ralph Messer who represents himself as a Jew. He may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis)representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta – or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology.
- The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objects d’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
- The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.” Hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization of the Torah reduces the holy Torah to a problematic phallic symbol – God’s? or Long’s? – and categorizes the most destructive behaviors associated with New Birth ministries in recent years. Grammatically and symbolically, the Torah is feminine in Hebrew and is personified as “She,” as in “She is a Tree of Life,” in Prov. 3:18.
- The Temple in Jerusalem was not a synagogue or Beth Midrash, where Torah scrolls were kept and studied.
- The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
- The tree in the vision in the book of Revelation whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations,” (22:2), is a fruit tree – not a Torah scroll – and the text does not say that there are “39 leaves” as claimed in the video.
- The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
- The claim that 90% of the Jews in the world have “never seen, approached or touched” Torah scrolls is utterly without foundation. The Torah is taken out of the Ark during Shabbat and other services; it is processed through the assembly twice where people reverence it (Her!) by touching and kissing it/Her.
- The frequent references to significant numbers may be an attempt to mimic the Jewish mystical tradition of Gematria that elicits meanings from numbers and their contexts. However, the speaker is devising his own system without reference to any of the classical texts in Judaism, frequently by simple free- and word-association.
- There is no verse in the scriptures where Jesus calls himself “the eternal government of God” as claimed by the speaker.
- The point that “these” – presumably Torah scrolls or just Holocaust Torah scrolls are only given to “cities in need of anointing” is false. Individuals, families and religious communities own and commission Torah scrolls and keep or give them as they see fit, to synagogues, Jewish seminaries and other schools and museums.
- Even if the speaker identifies as a Jew and has Israeli citizenship, he does not speak for “the Jewish people,” “the land of Israel” or “the state of Israel.”
- His address of Eddie Long as a biblical or Israelite king is without foundation in the scriptures or in reality.
- The notion that there is such a thing as a “king chromosome” is a fiction, as is the claim that it is kohenic, that is priestly; the Israelite and Judean monarchs – there were queens as well – were not priests.
- The man’s articulation of what “God wants” is, to say the least, unsubstantiated outside that particular setting.
- The man never says how he knows that none of Long’s ancestors or relatives has ever seen a Torah scroll.
- While there are some traditional reflections on the human body – including DNA and chromosomes – in the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, the speaker is crafting a verbal montage without reference to the classical texts or their theologies.
- He attributes a quote to “Jewish doctors” stereotyping an entire community as conflating cellular biology with his Hebrew mysticism without actually naming or quoting any single “Jewish doctor” who holds such an opinion.
- The “crowns” in Torah scrolls stem from a particular – now-normative – calligraphy style, but other types of calligraphy have been used through the ages to produce legitimate Torah scrolls.
- The claim that the kings of Israel were crowned with Torah scrolls wrapping them has no foundation in the biblical text. According to the bible’s own chronology the written Torah did not come into existence until the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE (2 Kgs 22), some four hundred years after the time of David. However, the great second century rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was however wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive in his martyrdom. Perhaps he has confused or conflated the traditions.
- While the Torah poles are called, etzim, “trees,” they are not known as “justice and blessing.”
- The speaker’s claim that his speaking “life” to Eddie Long as a Jew has some meaning, is utterly without meaning.
- The speaker’s prediction that the ritual – his antecedent is unclear – will arouse either “death” or “life” in someone – Long? Or the congregation? – is his own Gnosticism, knowledge that is not shared by those outside that particular setting.
- There is no precedent for presenting anyone, even a fictitious Israelite-ish monarch with the Torah wrapper.
- The donning of the tallit, prayer shawl, is done by those who have completed their bar or bat mitzvah – whatever it was that just occurred, it had none of the requisite elements of a bat or bar mitzvah. In addition, the tallit is donned by pulling it over one’s head and reciting the traditional prayer, which was not done. It is also not draped like a clergy stole.
- The elevation of Long lifted in the chair by four men seems to have been borrowed from Jewish wedding festivities and has noting to do with coronation; there is no evidence of this practice among Israelite or Judean monarchs.
- The Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26) is a blessing for the people and not a putative leader.
It is unfortunate that the speaker chose to plunder the sacred traditions of Judaism as he invented novel interpretations of biblical texts and imagery to affirm and elevate an individual who had admittedly broken the sacred trust between pastor and congregant.
For more on this subject, please also visit Religion Dispatches, where Anthea Butler provides an additional critical gaze.
Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and is an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. She is also a member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia PA. In addition she has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, PA. For more visit Amazon.com and Living in Jerusalem: 40 Days and 40 Nights.