How do you feel about this?

We received an email from a company that is selling Hebrew prayer flags. I’ve seen prayer flags in my neighborhood–they are a Buddhist spiritual practice that originated in Tibetan culture.

One reason I feel uncomfortable about this tradition is that I think it’s cultural appropriation. How is it that we have the right to take for ourselves, out of context, another culture’s spiritual practice? Like all examples of cultural appropriation, you could see this in a positive or a negative light. Is it an expression of our shrinking world, that we know and love each other’s cultures and feel connected to one another? Or is this just more of the culturally (and economically, and every other way) hegemonic West grabbing up and using other people’s things for their “authenticity”?

I mean, I guess I’m happy that we can use Jewish texts to display proudly in the yard, if we’re noshing at the smorgasbord of world spirituality. There is another problem, though. In Tibetan culture, the flags are supposed to deteriorate, in order to allow the prayers to distribute the blessing of the words to the world. (Wow, I find that image compelling and beautiful.)

In Jewish tradition, we treat the physical words of Torah with respect. Like Muslims, Jews kiss holy books that fall to the ground. We bury books in which God’s name is written when they deteriorate–is that consonant with prayer flags that are intentionally ephermal?

What do you think about this kind of thing? Are you more open than I am to syncretistic expressions of spirituality? Would you like brachot, blessings, from Jewish tradition to extend to all sentient beings? Would you put a sutra in a mezuzah?  I’m interested in your point of view.

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3 thoughts on “How do you feel about this?

  1. You raise some interesting and thought-provoking points.

    From the standpoint of Reconstructionist Judaism, I would imagine that this is another example of how Judaism is adapting and expanding to meet the needs of an evolving population, though the juxtaposition of prayer flags being intentionally ephemeral and disintegrating texts being treated as deceased loved ones may not be as contradictory as one might think.

    Bodies are rarely embalmed prior to Jewish burial. The body is considered a sacred vessel, and (near) immediate burial is seen as a way to return the body to its creator as quickly as possible.

    A prayer flag serves a similar function, by spreading sacred words on the air.

    Yes, this is an appropriation of another tradition’s practice. But in an increasingly diverse (religious and otherwise) world, if the intention behind a practice is the same or complementary between traditions, then I don’t think I’d personally have a problem with this kind of “borrowing,” assuming its done in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

    I realize I may find myself in the minority of my fellow Jews on this issue….

    What I do find distasteful is the commercialization of religion. If the makers of the Hebrew Prayer Flags are honestly seeking to provide a means of deeper expression of religious belief and personal spirituality, then I’m all for that. However, if this is instead another attempt at capitalizing on religion, then I’m not such a fan — though the end product may still bring meaning and joy to the person who uses it.

  2. What would it look like if another way to describe “cultural appropriation” is cultural blending? When we live in proximity to those of other cultures, there can be an interesting, natural give and take, sharing, and mutual enrichment. New perspectives can even help us see our own traditions in a fresh light. That being said, we should respect the traditions of other cultures by taking the time to become informed about what those traditions mean to them. I think Jennifer makes excellent points. At the end of the day, symbols are tools to support awareness of God. Whether you choose a mezuzah or a prayer flag, what matters most is the intention behind it, and what it does for you.

  3. i don’t agree with blending of traditions in this form.
    to me it is the same as putting Jewish symbols on Xmas ornaments, which i also disagree with. 

    There are Jewish traditions and there are jewish laws.  A very specific Jewish law is not to worship idols.  When blending other religious practices into Jewish religious practice, one must take a serious look at the elements that are being blended.  If the original element from the other religion has anything to do with worshipping other gods, then it makes no sense to blend it into Jewish practice.  Other gods includes – worshipping idols, nature, the starts, the moon etc etc.  So a lot is covered there. 

    There are plenty of beautiful Jewish laws and traditions that need no adaptation, they simply need to be appreciated. 

    Placing a simple stone on the gravesite of a Jewish family member is a simple practice that speaks volumes. 

    my two cents. 

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