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The Variables of Jewishness:


Rebecca Davis


  There have always been Jewish communities in Africa, but since the advent of the internet, groups that were quite isolated have become more widely known. These deeply rooted Jewish communities partake in religious practices which were previously outlawed by European colonizers (such as male circumcision, Saturday Sabbath, menstrual seclusion, etc.), as well as customs such as animal sacrifice, which are no longer practiced in Rabbinic Judaism. Many members of these groups have thought themselves to be descendants from the Lost Tribes – the Ten Tribes of Israel which were supposedly exiled from Israel in 722 BCE. European colonizers and missionaries also believed such African groups to be part of these tribes because, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, only Jews would perform such practices. 

Nathan Devir, associate professor of religious studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, has published a new book entitled “First-Century Christians in Twenty-First Century Africa: Between Law and Grace in Gabon and Madagascar” (Brill, 2022). The volume is the second part of a broader project that explores religious groups and identities, such as these, which are associated with Judaism and Old Testamentcentered inclinations within global Christianity.

Born in Oregon, Devir moved to Israel as a teenager, going on to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Haifa. Devir says Haifa is a city with a rich “interfaith and intercommunal coexistence,” and that he loved how it was a “melting pot of different people and ideas.” After completing his army service as an education officer, Devir attended Penn State for his doctorate.


The dead aren't dead; they're among us, but you just can't see them.

His dissertation focused on three different Jewish authors, comparing how their ideas about “Jewishness” greatly differed according to each one’s specific ethnic, racial, or societal setting.

This subject of what “Jewishness” means led him to the subject of his recently-published book, which examines “the cultural variables of Jewishness as they are manifested in individuals and communities that have traditionally been ignored, even in the field of Jewish Studies.” This includes practicing Jews and professing Christians who claim ethnic Jewish heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The latter group, often termed “Messianic Jews”— sometimes equated with charismatic religious groups of the same name from North America— have regularly met with resistance because they consider themselves to be Jewish by ethnicity, but also believe in Jesus, much like the apostles of the first century. Both African and American Messianic Jews have no formal connection to any conventionally recognized Jewish community. Some consider Messianic Jews “fringe” or “not Jewish enough.” Devir says, “In an era in which there is much talk about topics such as representation, inclusion, and cultural appropriation, it’s interesting to see how the identities of people who self-define as Jewish but who reject Rabbinic Judaism are discussed, usually with regard to culturally specific presuppositions or preexisting theological notions.”

While researching these Messianic Jewish groups in Benin (West Africa), Devir encountered multiple emphases on healing, which led him to his manuscript-in-progress on that topic. In Benin, the process of healing is different than what Americans might expect. “In Benin, the state-sponsored religion is Vodoun [Voodoo], but a lot of Christian-professing people—including those with Jewish-leaning affinities—still practice a kind of syncretism, going to Vodoun priests for healing sessions.” Many people in the area still go to Western medical hospitals for serious illnesses such as AIDS or cancer, but for their basic medical needs, they prefer to go to traditional healers who use a combination of plant medicine and spiritual tactics to heal patients.

A black and white image of a black woman wearing traditional headress and beads. She also has what appears to be white paint on her face.

Contrary to the practice of psychiatrists in the Global North, psychiatrists in Benin will often invite the help of traditional healers, exorcists, medicine men and women, Catholic priests, Pentecostal pastors etc., for the treatment of the souls of their patients, not just for the treatment of the body or the mind. “I was really interested in this notion of psychospiritual healing, and how there’s very little demarcation, even in clinical settings, between the idea of healing the body and healing the spirit,” Devir says. This is because philosophical secularism is generally not found in Benin, as it is in the Global North, and because “belief in some kind of a spirit world is ubiquitous: most everyone believes that we all have one foot in this world and one foot in another.” According to Devir, there is a saying in Benin that goes as follows: “The dead aren’t dead; they’re among us, but you just can’t see them.” This belief is forefront in daily life, and it is reflected in how people seek healing.

" Religious studies is an academic study of the diverse expressions of religion, it’s not a devotional way of honoring any particular religious tradition."

One example would be that if a patient claims to be possessed by a demon, various psychiatric illnesses might be considered in the differential diagnosis, but they would not be seen as the only possible explanations. Devir explains that there is always a spiritual part of the diagnosis, and that clinicians might also enlist a spiritual practitioner to help, based on the patient’s religious background. This practice is true to the etymology of psychotherapy, which is “the healing of the soul.” “There is not, like there is in the Global North, a hyper-emphasis on scientific rationalism. Most people [in the case of Benin] would consider imprudent the notion that you might attempt to remove the spiritual from daily life.”

Devir’s passion for exploring cultural and religious expressions is present in his religious studies classes, such as in RELS 3620: Thinking about Religion, a course offered through the Department of World Languages and Cultures. “Religious studies is an academic study of the diverse expressions of religion, it’s not a devotional way of honoring any particular religious tradition,” Devir explains. The class teaches students to look at expressions of different religions through cultural, sociological, anthropological, or other lenses of critical inquiry. Devir says that, as part of the class, he brings in guest speakers to talk about their different religions’ traditions. In the past, he has hosted speakers such as the Buddhist Chaplain from the Huntsman Cancer Institute, a Secular Humanist, an Anglican Priest, Latter-Day Saint colleagues from BYU, and experts to speak on the subject of political Islam.

Nathan Devir headshot

Nathan Devir

Assistant Professor, Department of World Languages & Cultures

The point of the class is not to valorize any one religion, it is to look at case studies of religious phenomena worldwide and think critically about issues, debates, and concepts that are included when studying the topic of religion as an academic subject.

Whether teaching or learning about religion, it can be a challenging subject to approach. Devir says that he enjoys teaching the subject because, in conversation with students, he continues to find new ways to think about issues of major existential importance.

Last Updated: 10/27/23