The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, Harper One, 2006.
This past summer I read this book and found it to be the kind of read that I wanted to discuss with others. Levine is a practicing Jew, who teaches the New Testament (that's right, that's not a typo!) at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I wondered what it might be like to discuss this book with a group of Episcopal clergy and some rabbi friends over lunch, and for the past two weeks we have been doing just that. We have one more week left. Unfortunately, there was only one rabbi who could make it, so she is definitely outnumbered by the dozen or so Episcopal clergy who have been attending, but she is quite capable of holding her own.
Many of us were taught growing up not to talk about politics or religion or anything that might expose difference or prove embarrassing, or worst of all, confrontational. We have paid a price and seem to be losing the art of dialogue and real conversation at a time when we desperately need those skills if we mean to keep the social fabric from completely tearing apart. The truth is that our group has been having a blast, laughing and learning together.
One of the main points of Levine's book (and her life work) is that in order to bridge the gap that has emerged between Christians and Jews over the past two thousand years,we have to re-situate Jesus in his first-century Jewish context, and not as the only "good Jew" against all those legalistic scribes and Pharisees who were taking Leviticus literally as he moved Christians toward the "spirit of the Torah." In fact first-century Jewish theology and practice was probably at least as diverse as twenty-first century Jewish and Christian theologies and practices. Who speaks for the Christian community? The televangelists? The pope? Bishop Spong?
There are clearly differences between what Christians and Jews believe. But one thing I always (re)-discover in conversations like this one is that there are as many differences within religious traditions as there are between them. What I mean is that while our understanding of who Jesus is is a pretty big difference between Christians and Jews, the questions of how we understand God, or read sacred texts, or encourage healthy congregations very often reveal greater differences among Christians and among Jews than necessarily between them. The range of view points within both traditions are remarkably similar. Moreover, the challenges of being people of faith in a culture that doesn't seem to encourage or value this invites us to learn so much from each other.
Levine's own story is that she grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts as an orthodox Jew in a Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood. She tells the story of how her childhood ambition was to grow up and become pope. As we gathered together, each of us shared our own stories of growing up and our exposure to people of other faiths. Some of us grew up in enclaves of people more or less like us - and we therefore assumed this was how the world was. Others of us grew up in the midst of more diversity and, like Levine, becoming aware of our own "otherness" within that larger culture at a fairly early age. In either case, this life experience clearly left a mark on all of us.
Yet the world is definitely becoming smaller. How can rabbis and ordained ministers - and the congregations we serve - become more adept at having conversations that help us all to grow in our faith? It seems to me that we need to find more intentional ways of doing just that. This doesn't make us the same; but it does lead us toward common ground. It's also a lot of fun.