This is part of a series of blogs on 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.
Sometimes I know I sound like a broken record, repeating again and again, “Our faith is Jewish . . . Messiah is Jewish . . . God’s covenant is with the Jewish people and through them to the nations . . . Jesus was Jewish . . . Jewish this and Jewish that.”
There surely are many other important things to discuss in theology and biblical studies. And even on this blog we will cover a diversity of topics related to Messianic Jewish theology and the Jewish background of the Bible. But we will come again and again to the topic of Judaism and faith in Messiah Yeshua. It is precious to us and we have a long way to go to get equal time with the history of de-Judaized theological talk amongst the followers of Jesus.
So it is with great joy that I discuss Levine’s first chapter, called “Jesus and Judaism.” For the initiated there is much here that is familiar. Let me briefly summarize many of the connections she finds (not revolutionary, but nice reading):
–“Jesus’ connections to the basic Jewish teachings were right on target” (p.21). He listed the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). He connected the loving neighbor command with the loving God command as some contemporary Jewish literature also did. He taught a golden rule very similar to a maxim of Hillel’s. He wore tzit-tzit, the ritual fringes which are today a part of the tallit (prayer shawl) of Judaism (cf. Mark 6:56 and Num. 15:37-40).
–Against the frequent charge that Jesus opposed the traditions of the teachers (the Oral Law), Levine rightly notes that these traditions were: (a) not fully formed and (b) not of one voice, but held many diverse opinions within them and had room for disagreement.
–Jesus kept the Sabbath (cf. Luke 4:16ff).
–When Jesus met opposition for healing on the Sabbath, the majority of his Jewish onlookers agreed with Jesus and not the strict opponents.
She goes on to speak of the edginess of Jesus’ parable in their original context. Her example is the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Levine rightly catches reverse self-righteousness in the traditional interpretation:
A. The tax collector was a bad sinner, but he repented honestly.
B. The Pharisee was a hyprocrite who in his self-righteousness thanked God for not being like the tax collector.
C. Now we have been caught in a trap because we catch ourselves saying, “Thank you God that I am not like the Pharisee.”
Rightly, Levine challenges the idea that Pharisees were all hypocrites.
Levine adds a juicy possibility that I invite those who have more time and more skill at Greek syntax to check out. She says Luke 18:14 may read, “I tell that this one [tax collector] went down to his house more justified than the other” instead of “rather than the other.” That’s right: Jesus may have said that the Pharisee was also forgiven, but that his prayer was not received as well as the tax collector’s. That should be good news for us, since we have all been in the shoes of that Pharisee and should hope for undeserved favor too.
Levine has a lengthy section examining the Lord’s Prayer and its many connections to Jewish thought. I give her mixed reviews in this section. If you are unfamiliar with Jewish literature, take her comments with a grain of salt, though many of her points are solid. Jesus gave his disciples a prayer that is very Jewish (with possible allusions to prayers from the synagogue in his time).
One of her concluding thoughts is well-phrased: “Jesus of Nazareth dressed like a Jew, prayed like a Jew (and most likely in Aramaic), instructed other Jews on how best to live according to the commandments given by God to Moses, taught like a Jew, argued like a Jew with other Jews, and died like thousands of other Jews on a Roman cross.”
Levine in places has an annoying tendency to reduce things to a liberal notion of utopia. I suppose others might say that traditional interpretations have an annoying tendency to ignore social justice. Nonetheless, I cannot affirm that the primary meaning of God’s kingdom is “a time when all debts are forgiven, when we stop judging others . . .”
But let me close with another strong challenge that springs from Levine’s writing. She notes that, on the one hand, “the fact that Jesus was a Jew has not gone unrecognized”, but on the other, “the claim that ‘Jesus was a Jew’. . . is not central to the teaching of the church” (p.18). Jesus still “remains defined . . . as ‘against’ the Law . . . as ‘against’ the Temple” (p.19). “Christianity follows Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Cleveland or Jesus of Mexico City” (p.20).
I urge followers of Yeshua the Nazarene reading this to take it to heart. The fact that Yeshua wore fringes as commanded in the Law (Num. 15:37-40, cf. Mark 6:56) “mandates that respect for Jewish custom be maintained and that Jesus’ own Jewish practices be honored, even by the Gentile church that does not follow those practices” (p.24). If you are teaching or preaching, do not speak negatively of Jewish things. When Yeshua speaks negatively of his Pharisaic, priestly, and scribal opponents, remember he also found much in common with them and sometimes praised them. Take time to learn what he meant in his criticism and don’t paint Judaism with a broad brush.