Friday, April 3, 2015

routing antisemitism redux...

About three years ago a local rabbi gently called me out for my narrow and sometimes lazy
thinking re: Jesus and Judaism. I had unknowingly slipped back into the tried and true binary analysis so popular among liberals:  Jesus challenged the religious status quo of his day because they remained entrenched in works righteousness and he was all about grace. The rabbi said with respect and tenderness:  don't you know that Judaism is not a static tradition and that our theology is always changing? Always has - and always will. (Note: we are sharing Passover at this synagogue tomorrow. What grace and openness!)

Like the wisdom of Amy-Jill Levine in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, my rabbinic colleague's comments shed light - again - upon my own deeply ingrained antisemitism. And as much as I hate it and challenge it, like racism and sexism, it will remain a part of my being until I pass from this realm. Knowing and owning this truth is humbling - and for Christians humility is a blessing. (Well, humility is a good thing for all of us, but especially Christians engaged in the work of routing antisemitism from our tradition.)

In the first essay in the appendix of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Dr. Levine's essay, "Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism," warrants regular review by any of us speaking publicly about Jesus. She begins, " out of ignorance many pastors and religious educators strip Jesus from his Jewish context and depict that context in false and noxious stereotypes." Kind and honest without pulling her punches, Levine lists five reasons for this problem and ten areas where such lies continue to show up in 21st century messages. They are:
+ The five reasons:  a) Most Christian seminaries and divinity schools do not offer detailed education about Judaism; further, candidates studying for the Christian ministry receive no formal instruction in how to avoid anti-Jewish preaching and teaching.  b) Too few churches encourage their clergy to refresh their training re: Jewish-Christian relations or correcting historic anti-Jewish themes within their tradition.  c) Given the demographic shift in Christianity to both Asia and Africa, new anti-Jewish interpretations are developing without correction. d) Many liberation theologians perusing social justice themes in the Bible, too often depict the old Jewish realities as analogous to contemporary social ills; this consequence is unintentional but nevertheless anti-Jewish. d) Because most pastors and preachers do not know Jewish history, we regularly share the troubling passages from our tradition - and the wisdom of Jesus - in ways that pit Jesus against his tradition rather than a part of a big tent Judaism.

+ The ten current anti-Jewish stereotypes that continue to cause wounds:  1) The Christian theology the separates grace from law - with grace celebrated as the better way - because Torah is too burdensome. In reality, not only is the way of the law a joy and delight, but Jesus himself "was halakhically obedient" in his dress, in  prayer, in observances. And, of course, the Great Commandment of Matthew 22: 36-40 - love of God and love of neighbor -is taken directly from Torah (Deuteronomy 6: 5 and Leviticus 18: 19)

2) Following Torah is NOT about earning a place in heaven in opposition to Christ's way of grace. Israel's "election" has nothing to do with earning God's favor and Jews do not follow Torah to earn divine salvation. Rather, from the beginning, God loves - and liberates - and creates and the law follows as a way to organize acts of gratitude.  3) Too often the way of purification is painted as too burdensome for real people; in reality, the purity codes were and are a way of maintaining Jewish identity.  4) Many Christians teach that early Judaism was so misogynistic "that it made the Taliban look progressive by comparison." Where did the impulse in Jesus come from to welcome and embrace women - and elevate them to roles of honor and leadership - if not from his own tradition? As in all religious tradition, certain "proof texts" can be found to advance any perspective, and such texts exist that describe women as oppressed, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

5) Related to the last, is the belief that Jesus forbids divorce in order to protect women. The regular Christian interpretation of this pits Jesus against the rabbis. The truth, however, is that Judaism holds very liberal rules for divorce while also mandate marriage contracts that protect the rights and well-being of women and children.  6) The often stated but obscure belief that Jesus welcomes "outcasts" in contrast to Judaic favoritism: cast out by whom? cast out for what? marginal and set apart to what? This stereotype is historically inaccurate:  the Gospels themselves show tax collectors at worship in the Temple, for example, and those with disease in communities specifically addressed for their care and well-being. "Judaism at this time was not egalitarian or universalist utopia, but nor was it a system that cast out women, children, the poor and sick."

7) All Jews did NOT want a military Messiah. 8) God was not a distant deity while the Lord of Jesus was  the intimate "Abba:" of the Lord's Prayer. The Psalter and other texts speak of God as a tender father, too as well as a loving mother. 9) (I wrote about this yesterday) the supposed challenge Jesus brought to "the temple domination system." Not only is this anachronistic, it is an ideological projection backwards into history of the worst intellectual type. Simple put: Jesus loved the Temple and worshiped within it. And 10) more often than not Judaism is seen as narrow by Christians while Jesus is converted into a modern universalist; the Hebrew texts also contain elements of God's universal love and need to be reclaimed and celebrated.

Spending time with Dr. Levine's essay - and commentary on the Christian scriptures - is both eye-opening and useful if you are committed to living into the shalom of Christ's way. It shoulld be required reading for all of us who want to live as good neighbors.  In an article from this morning's NY Times, David Brooks offers a beautiful Passover corrective to the way many Christians understand the feast: it is a celebration of story telling and music making as an antidote to fear. (check it out here:

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

Tonight, we Christians will tell part of our story, too. While my sisters and brothers in Judaism
celebrate Peseach, we will confront Good Friday and the Cross. Our retelling, however, is not about what was DONE to Jesus by the Jews. Rather, we will tell stories about how the love of God made flesh in Jesus is offered to his people - all his people - just as God offered us all the beauty of the Earth in the beginning. Brooks offers other commentary - how Jewish women revitalized themselves and their families by encouraging love-making even in the worst of the Egyptian oppression - and also singing within the community when everyone's hearts needed fortification.  I love the way he closes his column:

The normal version of this episode is that God parts the Dead Sea, the Israelites cross, the Egyptians are engulfed and then the Israelites sing in celebration. But the alternate version is that the Israelites are singing at the moment of crossing. They are not singing in celebration. They are singing in defiance of terror. The climactic break from bondage is thus done in a mood of enchantment. The women, who have experienced the worst suffering, take out their timbrels and become joyful and buoyant. According to some rabbis, Miriam, who leads the singing, has a higher spiritual consciousness than even Moses because, with all the bitterness behind her, she can leap into song. The song produces energy and spiritual generosity. Borrowing from Oliver Sacks, Zornberg writes that the people have become “unmusicked” by fear and pain. They have to become “remusicked.”

Eventually, the Israelites are able to cope with fear. This makes them capable of loving and being loved. The image of fire plays a role in this transformation. At first, fire — even in the burning bush — is just scary. But eventually fire is semicontrolled as candlelight at the center of the meal, intimacy and home. Zornberg’s emphasis on the role women play brings out the hidden, unconscious layer of the Exodus story. But it also illustrates an important element in the struggle against fear. We’re always told to confront our fears. Take them head-on. But, in the sophisticated psychology of Exodus, fears are confronted obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.

Lord, may our story-telling and singing be equally liberating, honest and real.


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