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Posts Tagged ‘Judaism

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, 2006, 250 pp.

Misunderstood JewI had several seminary students and colleagues who raved about this book and the unique voice Dr. Amy-Jill Levine brought to Jesus scholarship as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. I was surprised by how much of the book felt like old and familiar information, but also by the parts that felt new and intriguing. I found the first half of the book a bit boring, because it felt like something I have read many times in many places. However, the second half of the book covered new and interesting territory for me.

The introduction outlines Levine’s personal journey toward becoming Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and the unique project of this book to simultaneously illuminate the Jewishness of Jesus in the New Testament and the ways Christian interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish context continue to jeopardize interfaith relationships.

The first section of the book covers familiar territory recognizing that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish practices. While he occasionally broke the rules, he did not set up his ministry as a counter to the prevailing Jewish practices of the day. He wore tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl), kept kosher and Sabbath, drew on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) for the Golden Rule. His parables and conversations over the meaning of the law follow Jewish rabbinical practices. In a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Levine makes an excellent case that Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” for God is not unique either, undoing an oft-repeated sermon topic. Her second chapter examines the unfolding division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the missionary controversies between Peter, Paul and James, and why Jews did not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah.

The midpoint of the third chapter, for me, marked an entrance into newer and more interesting material. After a basic discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and a recounting of the most famous anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, Levine begins to explore the separation between Judaism and Christianity. She undercuts theories that Christians were thrown out of synagogues beginning at the end of the first century, naming the Council of Jamnia as a historical fiction and arguing that, if Christians were ejected, it is because they were no longer Jews in any sense of the word, replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Jesus.

The fourth chapter, entitled “Stereotyping Judaism,” was the most new and insightful for me, because Levine levels a stark criticism of liberal Christian interpretations of Jesus.

Christian skeptics thus have an enormous problem. Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus does what no one else ever did or could do; he is distinct, special, better. This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting the Jewish context in noxious colors. (120)

Those of us who wish to paint Jesus as a social justice leader tend to portray his Jewish context as the exemplar of injustice. Levine deconstructs misunderstandings about the harshness or impossibility of following Jewish law and the perception that all Jews anticipated a warrior Messiah. She then goes on to issue a strong critique, on both historic and anti-Jewish grounds, against the claim that Jesus was a feminist, based on biblical stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman and his teachings on divorce. As one who has admired Jesus as a feminist based on these arguments, I took Levine’s critique to heart. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t good to women, it’s that our arguments to make that case rely on shaky stereotypes and exaggerations.

She proceeds to offer a similar deconstruction of liberal interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that rely on negative stereotypes of the Pharisee and Sadducee, instead seeing the “punch” of the parable in the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent of the Samaritan. (149)

These deconstructions persist in Levine’s questioning of the characterization of the temple as a “domination system”(154) or “ethnocentric system”(159)  in the analysis of the widow with the two coins and the Syrophoenician woman.

The remainder of the book combs through volumes of contemporary liberation theology for examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric or New Testament interpretation. She indicts everyone from liberation icons Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff to multiple publications from the World Council of Churches. Some of those WCC authors have not taken Levine’s critiques seriously, others have revised their arguments accordingly. The final chapters discuss contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, including perspectives on the use of “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” the prevalence of Christian seders, and the conflicts around the plight of the Palestinian people.

My overall assessment of the book is that, while the first half was slow, the second half of The Misunderstood Jew was rich and thought-provoking, especially since Levine took aim at some familiar (and even beloved) interpretations of Jesus as feminist and exemplar of social justice. Her critiques of anti-Judaism will impact how I view and preach those stories in the future.

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Rachel S. Mikva, ed. Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, 148 pp.

This is the third in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Broken TabletsThis anthology of reflections by some of the leading rabbis and Jewish scholars offered me a rich added perspective in my sermon series. It was compiled as a festschrift for Arnold Jacob Wolf, a leading Reform rabbi noted for his emphasis on peace and justice. However, the essays do not revolve around Wolf’s work, but around practical, justice-minded reflections on the Decalogue. Remember, the Jewish tradition divides the commandments differently from the Protestants (like Hauerwase & Willimon) and the Catholics (like Chittister)

Rabbi Mikva commences the reflection on each commandment with a few pages of commentary of her own, followed by a longer essay by another rabbi. All of the essays share a common attention to stories and rabbinic tales that shed light on interpretation, along with the Jewish scholarly pursuit of unanswered questions. It is always fascinating to me how different Jewish approaches, questions and even answers are from those methods used by Christian scholars.

For example, in her essay on the second commandment, Rabbi Mikva asks, “Is Judaism asserting itself as the one ‘true’ religion?” She answers thus:

It would be idolatrous to assert any human creation is the ‘one true religion.’ Judaism simply insists on faithfulness. A parable: A man who has to believe that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world has no wife, for he is constantly looking at other women to be sure that none may be more beautiful. … The purpose of religion is not to learn what is good, but to learn to do what is good, not to disclose secrets but to achieve persons. This is the discipline of living in faithfulness. (19)

One of my favorite essays was by Rabbi Leonard Fein, and focused on the fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother. He raises the question of whether all parents deserve to be honored. We all know their flaws, and some parents can be quite terrible. He then posits not unconditional love for parents, but unconditional honor.

We honor our parents because it is they who gave us life. If they are loveable, we may love them. But whether or not they are loveable, we must honor them. (70)

I also appreciated the reflection by Rabbi Richard M. Levy on not stealing. He extends the prohibition against theft into a mandate for generosity.

Stealing is a serious crime in Jewish tradition. So is the sin of encouraging stealing by refusing to share the bounty God has temporarily entrusted to us. (108)

Because each essay was so tightly crafted and each argument so bound together, I found it difficult to pull excerpts or insights that directly informed my preaching, or to quote the rabbis, even at length. However, I know my thinking was deeply enriched and I found great joy in reading this volume.

Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner, Paraclete Press, 2003, 161 pp.

Last week, a high school friend who I had not seen in nearly 20 years contacted me on Facebook to let me know he was passing through my town, and invited me out for coffee. It was a delight to catch up, and the conversation flowed free and easy even after so many years. For me, it was a special treat to talk to someone who knew me before marriage, motherhood and pastoral life—as if he could unlock a more primitive version of myself, one that I have already unearthed a bit during this sabbatical time.

As it always seems to with me, conversation turned toward the realm of the spiritual and the religious. (I realized in this reunion that this sort of thing always happened way back in high school too, not just with him but with all my friends. I guess my calling was inevitable.)  My friend described himself just like he did in high school—not a believer, but someone with a deep fascination and appreciation for the spiritual realm and the mythos of religion. He expressed a sentiment like, “I wish I could believe, but no one has been able to show me more than the man behind the curtain.” At the time I responded somewhat pathetically with a torrent about liberal Christianity, welcoming doubts, honoring questions and joining as Jesus-followers even if we weren’t sure what we believed.

What I really should have said, and what I am coming to believe ever more deeply, is the premise of Mudhouse Sabbath: that religious life (aka spiritual life) is not about belief, it’s about practice. Following a religious tradition is not about conforming your mind, it is about cultivating a way of life. Religious life is about taking on habits of living that have led seekers to God and transformed wayward souls into faithful followers for millenia. Whether we believe or do not believe, whether we “feel it” or not, religious practitioners continue to follow these ways of life—not because we have a blind allegiance to tradition, but because the practice of spiritual discipline shapes us in ways that make belief possible and mystical experiences knowable.

Lauren F. Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath is a unique approach to this ongoing conversation about practices of faith. Winner was raised in an observant Jewish household, but converted to Christianity as an adult. She loves her Episcopalian church life, but misses the disciplines of her Jewish roots. This book, then, takes a look at a host of Jewish spiritual disciplines, compares Jewish and Christian practices, and imagines how Jewish ideas and habits might shape a Christian spiritual life as well.

It is important to note that Winner begins the book by refuting my claim about belief versus practice.

Action sits at the center of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity… for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (ix)

For Christians, however:

Spiritual practices don’t justify us. They don’t save us. Rather, they refine our Christianity; they make the inheritance Christ gives us on the cross more fully our own. … Practicing the disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. … The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith. (xii-xiii)

I am no longer convinced of Winner’s claim that the practices do not make us Christians. I do agree that our spiritual practices do not justify us—God’s grace does that. However, I question how we can call someone a Christian when they believe all orthodox doctrine, but do not let it influence their life decisions in any way by practicing love, generosity, prayer and compassion. The same is true in reverse: if you follow Jesus as the shaping influence of your life through acts of love, generosity, prayer, compassion and worship, but you are not sure what you believe, I think you are still a Christian. In this light, I doubt Winner would disagree, but it is something I continue to wrestle with, as someone whose life often has more doubt, more practice, and less confident belief.

None of that is the heart of the book, however. Winner’s book is primarily a description of the Jewish spiritual disciplines, a comparison to Christianity, and an invitation to Christians to make these practices a part of our lives. She describes eleven different practices: Sabbath, fitting food (keeping kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings and doorposts (hanging mezuzot on doorposts).

What drew me to her book was what has always drawn me to Jewish spirituality—its embodiedness. So many traditional Christian spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, lectio divina, silence) focus on the mind and spirit. The practices Winner describes are much more physical—stopping work on Shabbat, caring about the kinds of food we eat and how they are prepared, placing physical markers in our homes and on our bodies to remind us of our faith. I have always been cautious about adapting any of these practices as my own, since I am not grounded in the community that shapes them. Winner has opened the door for me to imagine ways to incorporate these kinds of practices into my Christian life, with an appreciation for their Jewish origin and not a presumptuous attempt to imitate Judaism. I wrote recently about the spirituality of housework, which works for me in the same way as the practices Winner describes and reminds me of the Shabbat preparations she discusses.

This is a great introduction to spiritual disciplines  that is accessible to everyone. It is a short book that would make a great subject for a church book discussion group or Sunday school class. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding by Mary C. Boys, A Stimulus Book by Paulist Press, 2000, 393 pp.

This is another book I am reading in preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Macedonian Ministries program.

Has God Only One Blessing? begins with the metaphor of Jacob and Esau. In the original story, their father Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau, in spite of birth order, and then there is no blessing left for Esau. Mary C. Boys uses this story as a metaphor for much that has gone awry in Christian self-understanding about our relationship with Judaism. The book makes a case that is simultaneously biblical, historical and practical in its critique of Christian concepts of supersessionism. The book carefully argues against the idea that Christianity fulfilled or transcended Judaism to become God’s favorite faith, that Judaism is part of an “old” covenant that has been superceded.

Boys begins with a series of short parables that show how harmful these ideas are to contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. These parables serve to make the reader uncomfortable with the idea of supersessionism in the context of real relationships with partners in the Jewish faith. The parables win the argument that supersessionist theology is arrogant, inappropriate and not an accurate reflection of most Christians desired relationship to Jews and Judaism.

Boys then proceeds to outline a new understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. She begins where the idea began: with the origins of Christianity. Boys outlines a detailed picture of life in first-century Palestine, and contextualizes the Gospel arguments against Pharisees, temple authorities and “the Jews” as an internal struggle within various Jewish renewal movements. After tracing this history of separation, the theology clung to Christianity and became part of the culture of the early church. What began as a means of self-definition apart from a historic, well-established tradition turned into a dogmatic prejudice and justification for violence as Christianity grew into an empire. The history of anti-Semitism that allowed for the Shoah had its roots in centuries of violence against Jews, and in this ugly theology.

Deconstruction is insufficient. It is not enough to elucidate the anti-Jewish and supersessionist theology that still clings to Christianity. We must also offer a new narrative to replace it. Boys does just that—beginning with a brief retelling of Christian origins, and continuing on throughout the various chapters. She shows the reader all the ways in which supersessionist ideas haunt the scriptures, theology, liturgy, and then offers alternative understandings for use in teaching, preaching, worship and theology.

I especially appreciated Boys’ attention to “Re-Educating Ecclesia” (the title of the final chapter), understanding that scholarship and dialogue must move into the words and practices of the church in order to overcome the dangers of supersessionism. It is not enough to enter into interfaith conversation and partnership with Judaism. We as Christians must recognize and repent for the harmful effects of our theological misunderstandings, and change our thinking and our acting.

The harmful history of supersessionist theology is not new to me, but I have never read such a concise, directed, theological and practical assessment of it. Boys’ book lays out, in brief, both the harmful history and the way forward. Clearly, the God who created all the universe has more than one blessing to give, more than one path to worship the Spirit, more than one faith to recognize.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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