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I Didn’t Mean to Sound Anti-Semitic

Amy-Jill LevineFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

The talk proposes that improved relations between Jews and Christians requires mutual knowledge and mutual respect, it corrects several misperceptions that Jews and Christians have of each other, and it provides one answer to Christian missionaries who want to “save” Jews.

I am a Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches New Testament to Christian ministerial candidates in the Buckle of the Bible Belt. More formally, I am University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Good afternoon. I grew up in a neighbourhood in Massachusetts in New England, it was predominantly Roman Catholic and my introduction to Christianity was ethnic Roman Catholicism, and there was everything to love. Wonderful lights, beautiful sounds. I would go to church with my friends on Sunday morning because it got me out of Sunday school, which I was happy to see, and Church reminded me very much of going to Shul. It was a bunch of men wearing long robes, speaking in a language I didn’t understand. It was familiar though in a marvellous and mysterious manner. I was envious of my Christian friends. I am still convinced that ‘Silent Night’ is a much better song than ‘I had a little Dreidl’ – they did music much better than we did, and the food was also quite interesting. So I grew up, from an early childhood moment, with a sense of Christianity as being something really quite lovely and quite beautiful, and since my friends were all Christians and they were my friends and they were nice, I had no sense of any sort of anti-Semitism whatsoever.

Until I was in second grade, I was 7 years old, and a little girl said to me on the school bus, “you killed our Lord.” And I remember saying, with no small degree of indignation, “No, I did not.” Because, if you killed God, you would know, right, that would be palpable. And she responded, “yes you did, our priest said so.”

And this is actually my first lesson in inter-religious education, sometimes we presume we understand what our neighbours are doing, when in fact we have absolutely no clue, we don’t even know what questions to ask. I knew that her priest wore a special collar, a clerical collar, and I knew that my rabbi did not. And I presumed, because I didn’t know any better, that the reason the priest wore this collar is because if he were to tell a lie, the white spot on the collar, which sits on the windpipe, would choke him. I’ve actually suggested this frequently to Christian clergy because I think it’s quite a good idea – put liar detectors on clergy. So I figured that the priest had to be dead, and I said to this little girl, “no I did not.” She said, “yes you did, our priest said so.” I said, “Is the priest dead?” She responded, “No he is not.” So I, being a logical child, presumed the priest said I’m responsible for the death of God, the collar didn’t kill him, therefore he’s right, therefore God must be dead and I killed God.

I got off the school bus – this is the early 1960s – and my mother met me at the bus and I’m crying hysterically, and she said, “what’s wrong” and I said “I killed God”. It took her a while to figure out what actually happened but once she got the story from me, she reassured me that God was doing just fine, which was an enormous relief. And she made a few calls to the local diocesan office, and the priest was actually reprimanded.

Shortly thereafter comes the final document of what’s called Vatican II, a text called Nostra Aetate, Latin for ‘In Our Time’, that says that Jews in all times and all places cannot be held responsible for the death of Jesus. And that actually creates a sea change in Catholic religious education, and a number of protestant groups following have stopped this idea of Jews as Christ-killers.

But I was obsessed by this charge, I could not understand how this religion that had Santa and the bunny and ‘Silent Night’ could have this horrible saying about Jews and Judaism. So I announced to my parents that I was going to go to Catechism class, I was going to go to Religious Education class with my Catholic friends and I was going to find out where this anti-Jewish stuff came from and I am going to stop it. I’m 7 years old and I’m going to end anti-Semitism. And my parents, who were extraordinarily wise, or perhaps not paying much attention that day said, “as long as you remember who you are, go, you might learn something.”

So I would go to Catechism class and to Mass with my friends whenever possible and I never once heard anything that struck me as anti-Jewish. Now I don’t know how secure my radar was, but I didn’t hear anything that was awful, and I don’t think the good Sisters and the good lay teachers who were teaching these classes were thinking, let’s wait for the little Levine girl to go on vacation and then we’ll do all the Bad Jew stuff, I just don’t think they read their texts anti-Semitically, I don’t think they read anti-Jewishly, I think they chose how to read and they read in a positive manner.

When I was in high school, when I was about 14, I sat down and read the New Testament and I got through the Christmas stories OK, but then I began to discover quite painfully where some of this difficult material had come from. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, has “all the people” – the Greek here is ‘paso la os’, but if Matthew had been written in Hebrew it would have been ‘Kol Ha’am’ – “all the people say his blood be on us and on our children.” So I began to get some inkling of the problem. Or the Gospel of John in which the Jews – the Greek here is Yudaio, the Hebrew would be Yehudim – “all the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, and Jesus refers to them as ‘you are of your Father, the Devil.’” The Book of Axe, Luke Volume II in the New Testament, has Peter saying to the crowd in Jerusalem, “Men Israelites,” which in Tennessee where I live would be “Y’all Jews, you killed the author of life.” Or First Thessalonians, the earliest epistle, the earliest letter in the New Testament, where Paul talks about the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and oppose all people.

So I realise that there’s problematic material in the New Testament. At the same time, I realise that Christians choose how to read this text, and I thought, if anybody would ever hire me, what I want to do is get a job teaching Christians how to read the new text in a way that does not harm Jews. And, because God has a wonderful sense of humour, that’s actually what I do for a living. At the same time, I want Jews to become familiar with the New Testament, because ignorance cuts both ways. And just as I have heard horribly anti-Jewish comments from Christians, I have actually heard horribly anti-Christian comments made by Jews. We all have housekeeping to do. Most of these negative comments come about, not because Jews are anti-Christian or Christians are anti-Jewish, they come about because of ignorance, because we haven’t learnt each other’s texts, and we haven’t learnt each other’s traditions.

One of the reasons I became involved in the project to do the Jewish annotated New Testament, which has over 51 Jewish contributors to this, is because I want Christians to become familiar with what’s in the Christian text – and Jews as well. I think Jews need to know this material, first of all, because the New Testament is also part of Jewish history. Jesus was Jewish, Paul was Jewish, Mary Magdalene was Jewish, this is part of our history. I think we also need to know it as a matter of respect. If we want our Christian neighbours to respect our Judaism, which means knowing more about us than Chanukah and the Holocaust, then we also need to know something more about them than Christmas and anti-Semitic comments. And I also think that this is good material for Jews to know in case something anti-Jewish is suggested to us because of the New Testament, we would be able to have the knowledge of that text and of Jewish history at the time to help correct it.

Among the many mistakes that I hear my Christian friends make regarding Judaism, I have been told, for example, that Jews worship a God of wrath whereas Christians worship a God of love, and I have to point out to them, it’s the same God, I am wont here to do things called proof-texting, and I will say to them, look, the Lord is my shepherd, but you, here quoting the New Testament, are condemned to the place of outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – I’ve got a good shepherd, you’ve got a sadistic dentist!

Now, it’s simply taking verses out of context and that’s not helpful. Or I’ve had other Christians suggest that 1st century Judaism was so misogynist, that it made the Taliban look progressive, and that the reason that women followed Jesus was because they were oppressed and suppressed and repressed and depressed by Judaism, but that’s not the case either and, in fact, we can tell even from the New Testament the remarkable social roles that women had at the time, including freedom of travel, access to their own funds, serving as patrons, including patrons of the Jesus movement, showing up in synagogues and showing up in the Jerusalem temple.

I’ve also heard, and you probably have as well, a number of Christians coming to me suggesting that I need to believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour in order to be saved. The reason Christians will come to Jews and tell us this is not because they’re anti-Semitic and not because they hate Jews. They’re actually doing it because they love us and they want us to share in the same good news of salvation that they have. So the response to them is not slamming the door in their face or saying this is verkackt. It’s saying, thank you very much, but I’m completely fulfilled by my own Judaism.

If that doesn’t work, here’s a story you might share with them. If somebody comes up to you and says you must believe in Jesus in order to be saved, tell them the following story. I’m going to tell it about myself, but you can fill in yourself. After a very, very long and happy life, I die. I find myself at the pearly gates – it’s a nice image from the New Testament. Two things about the pearly gates: one, the gates are open, because as far as I’m concerned, Heaven is not a gated community, it’s quite open to everybody. And second, the word for pearl in Greek is ‘margherita’, so I’m thinking maybe there’s some tequila that’s available and that’s not so bad either.

Standing at the pearly gates, is a fellow with a little rock insignia on his jacket, that’s Peter, because the name Peter means rock. And he says to me, “AJ, welcome to Heaven, pick up your harp and halo here, and get your wings and slippers at the next table.” This is fabulous. I’m thinking, wonderful. Standing behind me, and becoming a tad apoplectic, is a man who’s clearly Christian and clearly upset. And he says, “Peter, excuse me, all my life I‘ve told people they needed to believe in Jesus, and now you’re saying that’s not true.” Peter says, “Oy Gevalt, wait here.” And he comes back in a few moments, with a fellow who is maybe 5’5, 5’6, with dark piercing eyes that look right through you – you can tell this is Jesus. And he says, “what is it my son?” And the fellow says, “I’ve told everybody, people need to believe in you, and now you’re saying she gets in, right, this Jew, how did that happen?” And Jesus says, “Well, my son, according to the Gospel of John, I am quoted as saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ But as I make it very clear in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s not those who say Lord Lord, it’s those who do the will of the Father, those who feed people who are hungry, those who do the mitzvot. It seems to me she’s done the best she can with the talents that she’s got.“ And the fellow says, “No, no, no, you’re saying she’s earned her way into Heaven, that’s work’s righteousness.” And Jesus says, “No, frankly, Sir,” he says, “if you believe that I am the way and the truth and the life, then take that seriously. I am the way and the truth and the life, not you. Not your Church, not your narrow theology, I say she gets in.

So if anybody says to you, Jesus wouldn’t let you into Heaven, you might want to say, Jesus was a very good 1st century Jew, who was first of all much more concerned about what people do than what people believe and second, my image of Jesus is one of greater benevolence, and my image of God is one of much greater benevolence, such that everybody is a child of God and it’s nobody’s right to say who’s in and who’s out. Our responsibility is to love God and love neighbour which is what Jesus taught and it’s also what Judaism taught and that would make sense, because Jesus was Jewish and that should not be a surprise.

Thank you very much.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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