This is the sixth in a series of posts on Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
Well, I must say I like the fourth chapter much better than the third. She takes on mainly liberal (but also conservative) Christian stereotyping of Judaism in the gospels and in the present day. One of her generalizations intrigued me and seemed true to reality:
Once the church met the Enlightenment and the secular academy, however, Jesus no longer looked quite so original [i.e. because of liberal loss of belief in his deity and messiahship] . . . . Thus, Jesus became seen, at best, as a provocative human being with several splendid ideas [wow, she has a good turn for rhetoric and I strongly resonate with her on this quote]. . . . Why remain Christian is Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? [Good question.] The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus did 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 means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting Judaism in noxious colors. (p.120).
I love it. I have always admired writers like Luke Timothy Johnson and N.T. Wright who can cut through weak readings of Jesus and bring a sense of reality to the task. Levine here approaches them in splendor, if only briefly.
But here is what I want to focus on today: Levine brings up many examples of ways teachers of the Bible stereotype Judaism–conservative or liberal.
I think her best example is the story of the Good Samaritan, so for simplicity I will just use that one. I assume you know the story, from Luke 10:25-37. A good Jew is walking to Jericho when robbers beat him and leave him naked and nearly dead. A priest passes him by and does not help. A Levite passes him by and does not help. Then a Samaritan, a people neither friendly to the Jews nor well-received by the Jews, treats him, takes him to an inn, and gives from his own money to pay for his care.
Rather than quote Levine directly, I will paraphrase and perhaps add a twist of my own. My desire is to see conservative pastors and other teachers as well as all readers of the Bible to quit stereotyping Judaism.
From the Good Samaritan story we can list a host of stereotypes:
1. The Priest and Levite did not touch the injured Jew because they were afraid of becoming unclean in case he was dead. The Jewish Law [never mind that God wrote it!] says that a son of Aaron cannot defile himself by touching a corpse (Lev. 21:1-3; Num. 19:11).
2. Judaism (or Jews in Jesus’ day) were more concerned with ritual purity than love. Their law was more important than loving their neighbor [never mind that the law says to love your neighbor!].
3. Judaism is ceremonialism taking preference over love and morality.
4. Jews have a sort of religiosity in which trivial laws are more important than human beings.
Levine rightly points out that this reading is completely false. Jesus is not critiquing Judaism in this story, but the human heart:
1. Levites were not sons of Aaron and not priests and were under no obligation to keep themselves ritually pure. They could touch a corpse.
2. The man was not dead and so there would not have been contamination.
3. It is a principle of Jewish interpretation that saving a life (or even burying an abandoned corpse) takes precedence over lesser issues of the law.
4. The priest was not headed to Jerusalem, but to Jericho. He was not worried about missing his chance to serve in the temple.
5. If the priest became unclean, water mixed with ashes of a red heifer and a seven-day waiting period would make him clean again (Num. 19).
6. [My thought] When God gives a command, such as forbidding corpse contamination being brought into the temple, we must not question that command or assume it is trivial. If you want to stand before God, who is behind the text of Leviticus and Numbers, and tell him that you think his laws are trivial, be my guest. Please just warn me so I won’t be standing anywhere near you at the time.
7. [My thought] Jesus was not using Jewish examples in order to rile up Gentile Bible teachers to take pot-shots at Judaism. He used Jewish examples because he and his audience were Jewish!
That leads me to a compelling quote from Levine, which I will then adapt for a Christian audience as well (since Jews, Messianic Jews, Gentiles, and Christians may all be reading this blog). Here is Levine’s quote:
[To put this in a modern context] . . . the man in the ditch is an Israeli Jew; a rabbi and a member of the Israeli Knesset fail to help the wounded man, but a member of Hamas shows him compassion. If that scenario could be imagined by anyone in the Middle East, perhaps there might be more hope for peace.
Now, for my Christian pastors and friends, let me put it another way: An evangelical wearing his “WWJD” T-shirt was walking on a suburban street when he was attacked by thugs. A fundamentalist pastor and a mega-church pastor drove by and did not stop to take him to the hospital. Then a Mormon family drove up, took the man in their car, carried him to the hospital, and sat with him all night until they were convinced he would recover.
Here is the principle: don’t stereotype Judaism. Jesus is not speaking against his people, but is speaking to your heart and mine.
Note: There were two new posts today. Don’t miss the one below: “Passover, the Last Supper, and the Calendar, Pt. 1.”