This begins a series musing on and, to some degree, reviewing Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, just released by Harper San Francisco. Amy-Jill Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt and is an Orthodox Jew, though a progressive and a feminist (how’s that for a contradictory list of identifiers!). My musings on her book may range from using her as a springboard for topics to critiquing her work or allowing her work to critique myself and others.
In the introduction Levine tells us a bit of her story, growing up Jewish and fascinated with Christianity. It is a theme familiar to many of us in Messianic Judaism. We hear the stories of our congregants and many of us hear stories of childhood fascination with the “other” religion: Christianity.
Levine was so fascinated that she told her friends she would soon have her first communion. Her Jewish parents, of course, would not allow that to happen. So she dressed a Ken doll like a priest and put Barbie in a new white dress to take her first communion in.
After this brief attraction to Christianity, imagine Levine’s surprise when a Catholic schoolmate said to her, “You killed my Lord.” The local priest had preached an anti-Semitic sermon. Levine’s parents complained to the diocese and the issue was taken seriously. The local church changed its teaching after that.
This too is a theme we often hear in Messianic Judaism. When I explain to a church audience the history of Christian anti-Semitism, most are horrified. They had no idea the depth and pervasive atrocity of the church’s history of insulting, persecuting, and killing Jews. Even now I imagine a reader saying, “But those were Catholics and they aren’t real Christians.”
If you aren’t familiar, I urge you to find out about Luther’s “Treatise Against the Jews and Their Lies” as well as the church’s complicity in the Holocaust.
Levine began attending classes at the local Catholic church, learning the stories of the New Testament. She discovered many connections between the New Testament and her faith. Matthew 2-7 certainly reminded her of Exodus and the story of Israel:
–Jesus survives when babies are being slaughtered
–Jesus went into Egypt and came back
–Jesus crossed a body of water in a divine experience
–Jesus experienced temptation in the wilderness
–Jesus went up a mountain and taught the law.
The suffering and death of Jesus reminded Levine of stories told in synagogue about Jewish martyrs like Rabbi Akiba.
As an adult, Levine read and studied the New Testament, becoming a New Testament scholar. She concluded that the New Testament did have some anti-Jewish parts as well (it is possible to be Jewish and be anti-Jewish). Yet she also decided the New Testament need not be read as an anti-Jewish book.
Levine urges interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews. If Christians will study Judaism and vice-versa, the two will not merge into one religion, but a lot of prejudice may disappear on both sides. To some degree I agree with Levine. Interfaith dialogue has produced some beautiful thoughts. Pinchas Lapide’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective and Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith are wonderful books.
Yet I have one problem with interfaith dialogue: Messianic Jews are never invited to the table. It is fine for a Jew to find connections with Christianity as long as he or she does not decide you can be a Jew and believe in Jesus. On the other side, for Christians it is fine to find beauty in Judaism as long as you don’t think you can believe in Jesus and still be Jewish.
That leads me to a challenge for my Christian readers, especially pastors, teachers, and leaders: You can believe in Jesus and still be Jewish! I mean dietary law and all. There is a quote by Levine I’d like us to ponder together: “Christian teaching from the pulpit continues to present a negative picture of Judaism.” I concur. Well-meaning pastors who love Israel still consider words like Law and Pharisee to be bad words.
Just today I sat across the table from two pastors who argued that when a Jew becomes a Christian it no longer matters to God that they remain Jewish (they are Christians now and that is better!). More than once, these gentle men referred to me as promoting “Pharisaism.” And these are kind, biblically literate leaders who love Israel!
Here is a challenge to pastors and teachers: Do you speak in a negative tone about the Law and the Pharisees? Have you taken time to understand them? Do you know the ways that Jesus agreed with his Pharisee opponents as well as the ways he disagreed? Or do you just repeat what you heard in not-thoroughly-researched classes and sermons?
So far, I think Levine’s book is stimulating. I have been forewarned by a friend that there will be problems with her thought as I keep reading. I will point to her flaws as well as her well-turned phrases. Meanwhile, let’s grasp the basic thrust of her introduction: the New Testament and Judaism are not so far apart as many people think.