Manoela Carpenedo presents the reader with a fascinating study of a group of Brazilians who have emerged from that country’s burgeoning Charismatic Evangelical Christianity to embrace much of the lifestyle and system of religious obligations of Orthodox Jews. She defines the group as “Judaizing Evangelicals” and attempts to describe and evaluate their path to becoming “Jewish,” their assertion of a suppressed Jewish ancestry, as well as their continuing belief in Jesus. They number in the thousands and are to be found not only in Brazil, but also elsewhere in South America and in Africa.
The Judaizing Evangelicals present the author with a complex theoretical challenge as she attempts to situate their unique cultural hybridization in the context of contemporary Christian philosemitism and Zionism as well as the multiculturalist and racial discourses of contemporary Brazil. She also attempts to situate the ways in which the group’s past Charismatic Evangelical faith contributes to its present Judaic religious practices.
One of the keys to the complexity Carpenedo confronts is Orthodox Judaism. It is not by chance that the Judaism the group seeks to embrace is “Orthodox.” Of all contemporary interpretations of Judaism, Orthodoxy possesses the most developed and sophisticated system of religious outreach [kiruv] to non-Orthodox Jews. The vast array of resources justifying Orthodoxy and teaching Orthodox Jewish practices that has been created on the internet and in social media lend themselves easily to non-Jewish groups seeking to embrace Judaic belief and practice in multiple ways, with or without a goal of formal conversion to Orthodox Judaism.
The author, who lets the reader know that she comes to this study from a “socioeconomically privileged” background and embraces Brazilian “left-wing feminist politics” (x), attempts in this book to understand what she describes as her country’s “religious Other,” stemming from Brazil’s emerging lower middle class. Her study is generally sympathetic to the women of the Judaizing Evangelical group among whom she was a participant observer. However, in her attempt to understand the group’s embrace of Orthodox Judaism, Carpenedo has a weak point. She makes a credible effort to access a variety of sociological and anthropological studies of contemporary Jewish Orthodox groups, but in her approach to Orthodox Judaism and Judaic law, she often utilizes value-laden adjectives for these phenomena, such as “strict,” “rigid,” “exclusivist,” and “austere.” These adjectives contrast with her description of Charismatic Evangelical Christianity as “fluid and flexible” (111). These terms are reminiscent of early to mid-twentieth century approaches to Judaism made by Christian theologians and scholars of Religious Studies whose stance was based on a belief in the superiority of Christianity to Judaism.
Carpenedo’s study places women Judaizing Evangelicals at the center. The voice of the group’s male leadership is certainly heard, but the study is largely based upon the author’s participant observation of the group’s women. Therefore, practice takes center stage and theological issues tend to be treated marginally. It is the women’s struggle with embracing the group’s ongoing adoption of Orthodox Judaic practices, such as modest dress, kosher food, and menstrual practices that the author emphasizes. It is clear that the adoption of Judaic practice within the group has been gradual, individual, and far from total. It is equally clear that the process involves considerable negotiation between male leadership and the women. An important example of this is when the group’s leaders created a synagogue with a balcony for the seating of women. However, as Carpenedo’s informant, Sarah, related to her, “the Judaizing Evangelical women did not approve. They felt excluded on the balcony.…This made the leadership reconsider its decision and move the women back to the main floor of the synagogue” (107).
Women are also central to another crucial development within the movement. In the group’s Charismatic Evangelical past, women were able to take public leadership roles as pastors. The group’s ongoing embrace of Orthodox Judaic practice meant that the official leadership became entirely male and women with previous leadership roles had to formally abandon them. The author is very effective in depicting the result, the varied and nuanced strategies of the Judaizing Evangelical women in reaction to this development, and their active creation of meaning by embracing Judaic religious norms that gave them “the power to participate in the creation of their moral worlds” (247).
This stimulating book should be read by scholars interested in exploring the ways in which different religious traditions, which tend to think of themselves as separate entities, are brought together in the contemporary world. It is equally recommended for scholars who are interested in religious phenomena in the Global South. Finally, it is likely that scholars of women and religion will gain from Carpenedo’s careful depiction of the Judaizing Evangelical women and their complex reactions to their group’s adoption of Orthodox Judaic practices.