This is the seventh part in a series of posts about Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, by HarperSanFrancisco. Levine is an Orthodox Jewish New Testament scholar.
In her fifth chapter, Levine takes on various radical liberal theologies, such as liberation theology, the World Council of Churches, feminist theology, multiculturalism, and pro-Palestinian theologies. It would be so easy for me to just be an amen corner to what she says here. I have no patience with religion devoid of truth, which is what these approaches to theology generally signify to me.
I was a conservative, though open-minded, student in a liberal Western academy, Emory University, where I got my Masters in Hebrew Bible. One of my professors, very well-known, had me in his office one day for a talk. “I was just like you once,” he began. “I was a student at a conservative seminary and I believed the Bible was literally God’s Word. Don’t worry, over time you will adjust to new ways of thinking,” he assured me. He wanted to see me have a similar transformation to the one he had as a way of justifying his loss of faith. If there was one thing people respected in the theology program at Emory, it was loss of faith.
Don’t worry–this will all relate to Levine’s fifth chapter. I know you didn’t sign up for an autobiographical sketch.
The professors at Emory were tolerant of my conservative faith in the Bible as long as I was a tolerant member of the classroom community. But the students were not so nice as the professors. I remember heated arguments in class over abortion and liberation theology. My classmates were a mixed bag. One was an atheist and communist who wanted to be a UMC pastor (I am not lying). He actually got a student pastorate though the board new he was an atheist! I had feminist theologians in my classes who felt that men were unnecessary. I had liberation theologians who saw the Bible as a book about civil rights, but certainly not about sold-out faith.
Once a student, a middle-aged white male, got the sympathy of the class by describing how a misogynist passage in Isaiah caused him to be disgusted and he threw his Bible across the room. He said this was the first time he had read Isaiah and he never wanted to read it again. He was a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church.
I had little patience with these intelligent people who read the Bible as a book of hate, patriarchalism, and oppression and could not see the power of God, the sheer beauty of the Bible, the overwhelming weight of truth pressing down and calling for humble submission and enlightenment. I was upset that they read the Bible and missed God. Levine is upset that people from these ideological groups tend to become anti-Jewish.
Her chapter is title, “With Friends Like These . . .” which kind of says it all. I love the sentence: In these settings, the bad scholarship has mutated into a particularly vicious disease (p.167). You go, girl!
Levine is sympathetic with the political and social ideas of these groups, as she herself is feminist and resonates with liberal politics. She is not sympathetic to their readings of the Bible and especially of the Jewish people.
In liberation theology, which reads the Bible as a book about saving people not from sin and death, but from oppression in this life, the oppressor must be present in the reading. Liberation theology must find an oppressor to make their narrative of the liberator Jesus who sets people free from rightist domination. Guess who the oppressor becomes: the Jews. She quotes Gutierrez, a founding father of liberation theology, as saying, “infidelities of the Jewish people made the Old Covenant invalid” (p.169). Interesting, I have heard similar lines from evangelicals!
Levine recounts an opportunity she had to speak at the World Council of Churches, an organization studiously avoided by churches who think the Bible is about God’s power to save and perfect this world. She looked through WCC documents and found a pervasive theme of presenting Judaism as a religion of taboos that was harmful to the human spirit. Taboos about sexuality and diet and holiness issues made Judaism a foil for liberal theologies everywhere. People spoke of the “heavy yoke of Jewish culture” (p.172) and Judaism was seen as an oppressor of women.
The story of the woman who had been bleeding for years and who touched the fringes of Yeshua’s garment to find healing becomes a feminist parable. It is about her willingness to overcome taboos (an unclean woman must not touch a man) to find the healing she needs. A Christian feminist used this story to condemn all churches which do not allow women to be ordained as ministers: “To continue to exclude women from certain Christian ministries on the basis of outmoded Jewish taboos is to render null and void the liberation that Jesus won for us” (p.173).
Levine is rightly disgusted with this rhetoric and proves this whole interpretation is wrong-headed (see page 174). I can’t help but cheer as Levine exposes liberal anti-Judaism.
But then, I am really someone trying to expose conservative anti-Judaism. I see it all the time and in similar ways to what Levine found in the WCC and feminist and liberation writers. It is long overdue for the churches to affirm:
1. God is working in this world through Israel, not only in the past, but in the present, to bring about the World to Come, which comes in and through Israel.
2. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are a unified corpus exhibiting progression, not obsolescence. (i.e., the New Testament is in harmony with and builds onto the Old, rather than nullifying or even modifying it).
3. The Jews are not the bad guys, but the people of God through whom the nations are very fortunate to have received God’s covenant love.
I could go on and on. I just hope that Levine’s book is widely read in liberal Christian circles and that it makes a difference. Her voice is articulate and I rejoice to find agreement with her in this chapter (even though we disagree on so many other things).