If you visit my office in St James’ House – next door to Liverpool Cathedral – you will see two prayer shawls, one in luscious pink drawn silk hangs on one side of a bookcase and the second, with magnificent flames shooting up, it is on the other. The pink garment is the most traditional – a Jewish garment with the usual Hebrew on the crown. Many contemporary Jews wear beautiful tallitot in rich colours and designs (see, for example here). The more unusual garment is a pictured below.
I was given it at a Pentecostal Church in Lewisham.
As well as the flames rising up towards the wearer’s head it is also unusual in bearing verses from the New Testament on the ‘crown’, the collar area.
Having spent the latter part of my teenage years partly in Leeds with many Jewish friends and more synagogues in walking distance than churches. And having made the South Hampshire Reform Jewish Community a major study while an undergraduate, I was familiar with tallitot (sing. tallit), or prayer shawls. I have a very large wool one given me by a Jewish friend many years ago and which has a wonderful embrace; a real sense of being sheltered under God’s wings; and a faint aroma of moth balls (nothing to do with me).
During a year between school and college (I don’t think anyone called it a ‘gap year’), after I had done my A’ level re-sits, I spent some time working at a warehouse in Leeds and used to seek culture and solace at lunchtimes in Leeds City Art Gallery. I fell in love with the work of Jacob Kramer and especially the magnificent ‘Jews at Prayer‘. I can still smell the aroma of the gallery just looking at it, and sense the quiet and see the Henry Moore sculptures that were also part of my daily diet and that surrounded me as I prayed Mid-Day prayer here or came from doing so in the Catholic cathedral just round the corner.
In my first year or so at Trinity (called Northbrook then), the school where I was Head, in Lewisham, I invested time and energy into getting to know, understand and appreciate some of the Pentecostal churches which so many of our children attended.
I found this a fascinating and exhilarating experience. A whole world that I had not known anything about was there to be discovered. I was amazed at the warmth of the welcome I received. Often I would be one of only very few white people at the church. I would always wear clericals and introduce myself as Headmaster of Trinity. I would often be invited on to the platform, with the pastor, to pray and speak a word or two. Once – in advance! – I was invited to preach, and managed 45 minutes out of the up to 90 the pastor had suggested I speak for.
On several occasions I saw the use of Prayer Shawls, not always Christianised ones like the one pictured; sometimes large woollen ones like my Jewish Tallit. I often commented on them but received little explanation. They were only ever worn by the minister or pastor and never worn for the whole worship time but only at particular moments when a ‘word of power or truth’ or a particularly important prayer was given. In one church men and women were asked to process around the building in criss-crossing lines, and the pastor donned the shawl as he touched the heads of the people passing him.
You can see from the picture below that the verses chosen are Acts 1:8 and John 15:16, in the Authorised Version – the one, in my experience, mainly used.
As well as my visits to churches I read as widely as I could on Pentecostal theology and practice. There is a good literature available tracing the roots of Pentecostalism through the Holiness movement to Methodism. I especially found the work of Robert Beckford helpful.
I learnt a great deal from my visits and was struck by the formality of the churches; the smartness and sense of authority. All of this helped us at Trinity and partly accounted, I think, for the acceptance of what we tried to do by our families. As soon as I saw the Pentecostal churches I knew that graded and coloured academic gowns would be a great success, as they in fact proved.
I think I also felt instinctively that Pentecostalism is a religion of the heart just as Anglo-Catholicism is; and also a religion of ordinary people searching for justice in an unjust world, for points of stability in a very volatile sea.
The Christianised prayer shawls are no doubt made for messianic groups. Generally, congregations that have adopted Jewish ritual practices. Many of the practices they adopt are those of rabbinic Judaism and would have been unfamiliar to Jesus. There are, I believe, many issues to think about when Christians seek to adopt elements of Judaism. In the new monastic communities in France that began in the 1960’s and 70’s although there was no attempt to Judaise Christianity to the extent that messianic groups do there was certainly a nod to Jewish forms: use of the menorah, acknowledgment of the Saturday Sabbath, greater emphasis on Jerusalem as the model for the heavenly city, use of Jewish music. In the UK and USA, and probably elsewhere, there were attempts at ‘Christian Passover seders’ often in Holy Week. I remember this as an annual event in the parish I attended as a teenager.
I think acknowdgement of the Saturday sabbath adds to an understanding of Sunday as the eighth day, the new day of Resurrcetion. Use of Jewish melodies can be lovely. I am a little less comfortable with Christian seders, but recognise that it is not possible for every Christian to experience the power of a seder meal with Jews. (I also think the Christian liturgies of Holy Week are a quite rich enough diet for one week without any extras being added).
However, there is something lovely about being embraced by a prayer shawl, wrapping it round, hiding ‘under the shelter of your wings’.
“To wrap myself
in kindness like a woollen tallit.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Although I don’t use these tallitot in prayer I am very glad to have received them as gifts and recognise the ecumenical kindness intended by Jewish and Pentecostal friends, I am grateful.
Perhaps the loveliest poem I know about the tallit (called in Ashkenazic pronunciation tallis) is this by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon
of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.
Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44
A very different version of this post appeared on my Company of Voices blog in September 2012.