Category Archives: Marginal Notes

Weeping for Moses

SimchatTorah47                           Temple Shir Tikva, Winchester, MA–Photo: Steven L. Alexander

I have a friend who is a practicing Jew, although not a person of conventionally devout temperament. She is a tenacious, full-hearted Jew, but you won’t hear her spouting pieties. Nevertheless, on the morning of Simchat Torah, when the last Torah portion of the annual cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses is read in her synagogue, she always finds herself weeping. It never fails, she says; she is inexplicably overcome at the death of Moses every year, downright inconsolable in fact—until she remembers that ‘he comes around again’ in the liturgy of the following year.

To her on this morning Moses is no distant hero, and his story—and the story of the Hebrew children he liberates and leads and begs God to spare when they get up to unforgivable mischief in the wilderness—no mere ‘bible story.” He is her liberator and leader, the story of the people her story. Her memory is so collective it’s personal, like the pre-teen Jewish kid in a New Jersey middle school class about culture who, when asked to summon up his very first childhood memory, declared without missing a beat, “I remember Abraham.”

And so my friend weeps on Simchat Torah, overwhelmed with sadness that Moses has died. She doesn’t get that weepy over all the weekly parshas, to be sure; but there’s something about finishing the story, coming to the end, that affects her deeply. The gift of the liturgy, however, is that the very next week, it starts all over again with the reading from Genesis—“In the beginning…”

When we Christian lectionary preachers complain about getting bored when this story or that one comes up again in the 3-year cycle and we have to preach on it again, I think about my friend weeping over the death of Moses. When we chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary to begin with, or we wish we could tell some other story because we don’t resonate with a particular text—it just doesn’t speak to me, we say— I think of her sadness. Her sadness because it is ending, and her joy when it all begins again. And when we are bent over our commentaries or searching the internet looking for a new angle to preach, something relevant to say, something  ‘creative’ we can do with these texts, I think of the festival of Simchat Torah, when the scrolls are taken out and handed ‘round to be kissed and danced and acclaimed, the festival when critical questions cease for just a little while so that love can take over the room.

Chaim Potok writes about the experience of a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie in a scene from his novel, In the Beginning. There’s a question for us gentiles at the end of the scene that I am trying to hear. That I am trying to answer. Maybe you want to think about it too.

“I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning. The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember one white-bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my scroll to someone in the crowd and went out  the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face. The noise and the dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating swelling and receding, thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very word of God. And I wondered if gentiles ever danced with their Bible. Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?”

But Is It True?

ImageBefore we Christian preachers climb into our pulpits and confidently tell our listeners that Jews in Jesus’ time thought A, or believed B, or that the Law required X, or prohibited Y, it would be good to ask ourselves a few questions:

How do I know this?

Where did I learn it?

Is it really true?

What would a good Jewish scholar have to say about it?

How would this look through Jewish eyes?

Do I actually know what I’m talking about?

I’m guessing that maybe seven times out of ten the assertions we make about the beliefs and practices of first century Jews and about the character of first-century Judaism—especially the things we say that make Jesus look by contrast way more magnanimous, merciful, and just plain better than his coreligionists—are unexamined canards.

Sometimes things we say are simply false. Sometimes they need greater nuance in order to be fair. Sometimes the things we comment on from our Christian perspective  would look completely different if seen through Jewish eyes. But we rarely ask ourselves, “Am I telling the truth when I assert this? Do I know what I’m talking about when I explain this?” We just repeat stuff we think we know, or something a commentary said, never thinking to probe further, because what we think we know  fits so well with our picture of Jesus as a good liberal fellow. Jews and Judaism become little more than foils, straw men we knock down to demonstrate the superiority of our guy and our faith.

We may think we’re avoiding anti-Judaism and supersessionism in our preaching because we keep reminding people that Jesus was a Jew, or insisting that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus, or informing our listeners that the Pharisees were not as bad as the New Testaments makes them out to be. But that barely scratches the surface, and we easily undo it  the minute we start talking about Jesus as if he were the only Jew in his day who ever welcomed an outcast or talked to a woman or ate with Gentiles; or revel in the idea that he was a notorious Sabbath-breaker who came to free everyone from the oppressive Jewish purity system, or put forward some other unexamined notion that, intended or not, makes Jews look bad or benighted, legalistic, oppressive, or simply outmoded–superfluous in a way, now that we have Jesus.

Whenever we notice that we’re preaching a biblical text in a way that ‘exceptionalizes’ Jesus at the expense of Jews, writes Jews out of their own story, or makes Christianity look like a really no-brainer superior option (geez, who wouldn’t want mercy instead of judgment? Just those awful judgmental Jews, I guess, with their mean judgmental God)—we need to stop and reflect on the questions posed above:

How do I know this?

Where did I learn it?

Is it really true?

What would a good Jewish scholar have to say about it?

How would this look through Jewish eyes?

Do I actually know what I’m talking about?

After serious examination, it may turn out that we have not been bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors in our preaching, that we have gotten it right, that we have nothing to rectify. But we’ll never know if we don’t ask. And the price for never asking—for our willful unknowing— is to make the ancient fratricidal stain on the Church’s heart much harder to remove.

It’s stubborn enough as it is. Let’s not make it worse.

A Beginning Bibliography

The Jewish Annotated New Testament eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z Brettler
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewishness of Jesus, Amy Jill Levine

The Historical Jesus in Context, Amy Jill Levine

Irreconcilable Differences?: A Learning Resource for Jews and Christians, David Sandmel, Rosann M. Catalano, Christopher M. Leighton

Christianity In Jewish Terms, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, et al.

Has God Only One Blessings? Judaism As a Source of Christian Self-Understanding, Mary C. Boys

Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. Mary C. Boys

Christian and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other, Mary C. Boys

Preaching without Contempt, Marilyn Salmon

Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, Ronald J. Allen

On Jewish purity laws: “Jesus, Purity, and the Christian Study of Judaism,” Paula Fredriksen http://www.bc.edu/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/CBA_members_only/Fredrickson.pdfhttp://www.bu.edu/religion/files/pdf/Did-Jesus-Oppose-the-Purity-Laws.pdf

Preaching issues and Dramatizations of the Passionhttp://old.usccb.org/liturgy/godsmercy.shtml; http://old.usccb.org/seia/passion_criteria.pdf

Liturgical Readings of the Passion Project  http://www.bc.edu/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/PNproject.htm

About “Christian Seders”– No Christian Seders, Please!  And Christian Seders, Part 2, FB Notes by Mary Luti (available from the author)

http://www.bc.edu/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/education/interfaith_seder_info.htm

A website under construction to explore the issue of anti-Judaism in the NT and Christian teaching and preaching   http://www.faithnotfault.org

A site for preachers committed to wrestling with the issues of anti-Judaism in the NT and Christian teaching and preaching   http://www.sermonswithoutprejudice.org

Please feel free to add to this list sources and resources that can help us learn….

Photo: West stucco wall and cedar ceiling, Synagogue (commonly referred to as the Tránsito), Toledo, Spain (1357)

An Affirmation of Faith (Trinitarian)

We believe in God,

maker and re-maker of everything that is,

in whom there is always more,

and more to come;

and by whose wonder, work, and will,

even the dead find life.

We believe in God.

 

We believe in Jesus Christ,

maker and re-maker of tables and tales,

in whom the welcome is wide,

the feasting free;

and by whose weeping, words, and wounds,

even the lost are found.

We believe in Jesus Christ.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

maker and re-maker of imagination,

whose eyes see over the horizon,

beyond the end;

and by whose urgency and fire,

even the truth gets told.

We believe in the Holy Spirit.

 

Therefore, we also believe

that everything that lives can be reborn,

all hidden things can come to light,

all broken things can be remade,

the empty larder can be filled,

and promises gone stale and hard

can taste like bread again.

 

And we believe the old, old Story can be told again

to thrill sad hearts like rediscovered love;

that even lost and frightened lambs like us

can be retrieved, restored to courage,

and declare the Truth

that makes the tyrants tumble

and the captives free.

Why I Teach

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I teach for selfish reasons. Maybe all teachers do, but I speak only for myself. These reasons are uncomplicated: to share the joy of what I have learned that I love; to have a chance to express and pass on my ideas about what I have learned that I love; and to keep learning about what I love, stimulated by the people who are learning to love it also, in part because of me.

I don’t have a ‘philosophy of education’: I have things I love and a joy in them that I hope is communicative. And because I love what I teach, I want other people to see what is so great about it too, so that they can feel the joy that abides in important things and that can shape a life with a surplus of meaning. So teaching becomes for me a form of testimony, a kind of patterned awe in the presence of wonderful things. I try to take people on tours of the wonderful, and if all we do in its presence is drop our jaws and say, ‘Ah…’,  I’m content.

I don’t hesitate to share what I think about what I love either—how and why I came to think it, and what I have discarded along the way. Sometimes I tell students flat out that I am right in my opinion about something (and they are not, or not yet quite as right as I am). I want them to know that some ways of thinking about things are better others. I believe that if students want to think for themselves, which is one goal of all education, they have to do that on the basis of something other than untested gut feelings or wishful thinking. They have to build a foundation, and that ‘thinking for oneself’ without such grounding is, for the most part, unreliable, not very valuable, and probably not going to lead them to anything true.

In other words, I want students to take someone else’s wisdom for a serious test drive. I want them to rent with an option to buy; to suspend suspicion and develop a bias toward faith in the considered opinions of others; to respect the authority of authorities instead of keeping up the fiction that all ideas have equal value and that all opinions count the same. In the classroom. I have, gratefully, learned more than I can say from students over the years, and I hope always to be open to their teaching of me; but I don’t understand myself primarily as a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘co-learner.”  There is nothing egalitarian about my classes.

My way is old-fashioned, I’m told. I see that it is. But I think it is also a way to treat things that matter seriously. I feel like I made a pact with important things once upon a time, and I should keep it. Besides, I don’t think there’s a teacher alive who doesn’t want to have students on a similar page: when we’re being honest about it, I think we all hope to form disciples. Not ‘clones’, although if the original is worthy, a few copies would not do the world any harm. And definitely not ‘groupies.’ No good and much harm come from personality cults. Why some teachers do not actively discourage them is beyond me. No, we don’t want groupies or clones, we want disciples. And I think if we are doing a good job, we will have them—people who end up with deeper lives because they have found a new love, the one we showed them, and been changed by its attendant joy. They may, almost surely will, end up thinking thoughts different from ours, but they learned to love good things sitting figuratively at our feet.

Teaching is the impetus I need to keep learning. As some of the people I am teaching begin to grasp the importance of what’s on offer, they want more, and I have to help them find it. Because I am a little lazy, it is a great gift to me to be urged on like this by the nascent joy of others. I also try to be open to their discovery of things I don’t know yet about all the things I love, although not merely open: in addition to gladness in new ideas or new approaches, I also have to model a critical eye, a sifting skill, so that treasures can be authenticated before they go into the treasure house. This function also keeps me on my toes, learning.

I teach for selfish reasons. But not for that is it ‘all about me.’ It is about the subject matter, it is about the love, it is about the joy that grounds and changes everything. Not all students are interested in this sort of thing; not all are capable of it; but I still try hard to give these things away anyway, and hope for the best.

 

 

Minefield in the Manger: Dissing ‘the Jews’ in Advent and Christmas

Advent and Christmas are the seasons many Christians love best, yet they are shot through with an almost intractable challenge—and no, I’m not talking about the pressures of consumerism and secularism during the run-up to Christmas. In a way, that’s the least of the church’s problems in these seasons. I’m talking about our age-old reliance on a simplistic, often erroneous, and even disdainful view of ‘the Jews’ to make the seasons bright.

The problem is acute during Lent and Holy Week too. It always has been (it was the season of pogroms in the Middle Ages); but these days we are more sensitive to the issue of anti-Judaism in that solemn season, most of us having rejected by now the old libel that ‘the Jews’ killed Jesus, and many of us having started to speak more precisely about of the meaning of Jesus’ death so that we don’t claim the triumph of church over synagogue and the replacing of the ‘old covenant’ with ‘the new.’

But Advent, being a gentler and more subtle season, is also a sneakier one when it comes to this nasty business. Our Christian sentimentality is loathe to police our biblical texts, prayers, and hymns, and more reluctant to rework our assumptions about what is happening theologically in Advent and Christmas in order to redress the ancient wrongs of Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.

We may be aware of the issue in Advent and Christmas, but only in general terms, and we might therefore miss the telling details that add up to the ‘contempt’ we say we want to avoid so as not to add anything more, however small, to the historically violent mess we’ve already made of our relations with Jews.

And so we still rely, for example, on a few culled verses from the prophets, mostly Isaiah, to support our case for Jesus as the foretold messiah. For Christian purposes, of course, there is nothing wrong with this kind of fulfillment theology (fulfilling is not the same as superseding). It’s okay for us to read the Hebrew scriptures through a christological lens, as long as it’s not the only lens we ever bring to them, and as long as we fully appreciate that those texts remain the Testament of an ongoing tradition not our own, and that therefore they are not ours alone to interpret–i. e., we can’t monopolize their meanings. But there is plenty wrong when we then proceed subtly (and not so subtly) to blame ‘the Jews’ for not agreeing with us that those texts point clearly to ‘the’ Messiah, while we ignore a zillion others that do not point to Jesus as the one God chooses to redeem Israel, but to someone or something else.

We sing without a second thought about this (Christian) Messiah who comes to ransom ‘captive Israel,’ leaving the impression that without him, ‘Israel’ will be left to its captivity and perhaps be lost—as if God were not faithful forever, as if God has changed allegiances, switching to Christians and forgetting ‘the Jews.’

We proclaim that the Christ Child ‘came to his own, but they knew him not,’ and congratulate ourselves on having the perspicacity to see what ‘they’ could or would not, being a stubborn people; or because they are always looking for the wrong kind of Messiah in all the wrong places, being also an obtuse people.

We contrast Christ’s coming as a shivering child, hidden, humble, and poor, with the supposedly militaristic and monarchical messianic aspirations of ‘the Jews of Jesus’ time.’ We preach that they expected someone powerful in worldly terms, but God had a surprise up the divine sleeve. They got it wrong, but we out-Israeled Israel and got it right.

We say and sing and pray these things without once pausing to ask whether this contrast is actually true, or whether perhaps it is a libel against Jesus’ first century co-religionists, whose views of the Messiah and the messianic age were in fact rich and varied and often mutually contradictory and cannot be reduced to a few verses from prophets we find sympathetic to our cause.

We preach about the Gentiles coming into God’s embrace in the symbolic personages of the wise men from the East; and we give thanks that, in the person of our Messiah, God has overcome the supposed particularism and clannishness of ‘the Jews’ to open the gift of salvation to all. We particularly relish this idea in the progressive church, for we are exceedingly partial to inclusion and ‘extravagant welcome,’ and thus also much inclined to read Christian history as God’s rebuke of Israel’s supposed narrowness and exclusivity in favor of  Christianity’s ‘universality’ and openness—another assumption we must somehow bring ourselves at least to question, even if the answer ruins our neat paradigms.

We also speak of God’s wondrous breakthrough into human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as if this were the first time God had ever made God’s person and presence known in human affairs, effectively reducing Israel’s long history of down and dirty dealings with God to insignificance, at most a pale preamble to Jesus’ appearance in the womb of Mary. We sing of the birth of Love among us, as if that love were a new thing, unheard of before the manger and stable, replacing ‘the God of the Old Testament’ who is so angry and mean.

I could go on. I won’t, because the question already rises—so if what I’m saying is in any way valid, what are we supposed to do, junk all our Advent songs and Christmas carols, our  songs, liturgies, and texts?

All of them, no, but some of them, yes–and why not?  Is it better to hold on to them and perpetuate the problem? Or is it a worthy aspiration to heal the season that intends to heal us? Why couldn’t we call upon Christian artists and liturgists and singers and poets and theologians to take this challenge seriously and reconstruct Advent and Christmas along different and more fruitful lines, maybe working with Jews to do it—wouldn’t that be something?

But first Christians need to get real about the problem, confess it as such, and resolve to do better. This means taking our Jewish critics seriously, setting ourselves a program of assiduous study, and working patiently, day by day, year by year, to overcome our nostalgic reluctance, review our assumptions, and skillfully revise our  liturgical ways and means to more fully reflect the wondrous particularity of our Christian hope without falling into contempt, triumphalism, or bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors.

What’s In It For Me?

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I always get impatient during my local public radio station’s on-air fund drives. I turn on to hear “Fresh Air” or “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and all I get is breathless program hosts oozing about how great the station is, how lucky I am to have it, and how crucial it is to support it—in any amount, nothing’s too small. I know they have to do it, but it drives me wild when they do.

Now, here comes another unedifying confession— I’m what’s known as a free-rider. It’s been a very long while since I “picked up that phone to make a pledge.” I listen all the time, but contribute nothing. I should be embarrassed. I am.

But as I drove to a meeting the other day and was listening to ‘BUR go on and on about money, I wasn’t thinking about how embarrassed I should be. I was thinking, “This is really irritating”—right up, that is, until the moment when one of the announcers said that for a donation of just a few dollars per month, they would thank me with a hefty gift certificate to a restaurant that just happens to be my favorite tapas place in the Boston area.

I pulled over, fished out my phone, and dialed 800-909-whatever that number is. Seriously. Right then and there on the shoulder of Route 128. And I doubled the amount they were suggesting, because I could, and because I wanted to, and because I’d also get a limited edition mug along with the restaurant gift certificate.

I suppose I should now also feel embarrassed that it was not some noble appeal to my better angels that finally moved me to give, but the simple prospect of a desirable reward. And yet I don’t feel embarrassed at all. In fact, upon whimsical reflection, I feel rather biblical about it!

After all, even God was not above luring people into the divine plan by holding out promises of reward. And some of the greatest figures of our tradition were not above jumping at them . They pulled right over and fished out their phones.

Abraham gave more than a few dollars a month—he gave up everything— to obtain God’s thank-you gifts: a land of his own, offspring as numerous as the stars, and the rights to divine protection.

Paul left everything behind so that he could obtain a prize, a crown, the glory of a race well run—and the surpassing gift of knowing Christ.

And after that rich young man in the gospels refused Jesus’ invitation to sell off his wealth and follow, it dawns on Peter that the disciples had done what that rich man would not. “We have left everything. So what’s in it for us?

We tend to find it an embarrassing question. Unworthy of a disciple. But Jesus doesn’t bat an eye. He lays it out for Peter and the others–you’re going to get houses and lands and family and friends and….

No, I don’t find it embarrassing that Peter asked. I find it amazing that the rich young man didn’t, and that mostly we don’t either. I guess we’ve been schooled to think only about the size of the surrender we need to make to follow Jesus, not what we might be passing up by not giving in.  Maybe we should ask more often.

Like a lot of church people I was brought up to believe that I should never ask, “What’s in it for me?” You do good because good is what you’re supposed to do, and virtue will be its own reward. I think instead that it might be a great exercise to ponder the rewards of our surrender. To try to imagine what is coming our way. To rejoice in God’s thank-you gifts and yearn to attain them. To pinch ourselves and shout the spiritual equivalent of, “A generous gift certificate to all that luscious food, and all you want, dear God, is a few dollars a month? I can do that! I can do that!”

It isn’t wrong to be moved by reward. Even people who claim they want nothing in return for their love and service to others always get something out of it, regardless (don’t we say things like—‘Oh, it was nothing—really, I got a lot more than I gave…’?). So why not just step up, be transparent, and want it? Like Paul, why not reach for it? Like Peter, why not expect it? Like Abraham, why not get up and go into the unknown, spurred on into the night of unknowing by the sights and sounds of all the wonders that are in it for you?

Direct Address

Sometimes the pastoral prayers we ministers offer in church sound more like essays about the sorry state of the world, or commercials for the great things our church is up to, or great long laundry lists of needs, or sneaky sideways sermons disguised as prayers. It’s not often that they sound as if we’re engaged in authentic direct address, that we’re actually talking to God. We just talk away, inserting God’s name into these disquisitions every five or six sentences to remind ourselves and the congregation that all the stuff we’re saying is a prayer, or maybe to justify it as one.

It’s no wonder that people in the pews have a hard time when it’s their turn to pray aloud. Most of the time, people who are invited to offer prayers during the set-aside time in Sunday services don’t even start out by addressing God, but say indirect things like, “A prayer for my friend, Jim, who’s being operated on today,” or “ A thanksgiving for my niece who made the swim team last week,” or “That there might be peace in the world.” Hardly anyone says, “Thank you, dear God, for the great joy my niece feels after making the team,” or “Gracious God, I’m worried about my friend, Jim. Please be with him,” or “God of Love, make us stop warring and learn to make peace.” It’s hard enough to talk in public, let alone really pray in front of everyone; harder still if you don’t have the proverbial role model to give you a sense of what prayer could be like, if only.

Of course, there are, or I hope there are, many exceptions to my observation—pastors and worship leaders and basic regular people in the pews who have a talent for praying deeply and openly to a God they love and trust, who enter the mystery of prayer with a kind of anticipatory awe; and who don’t really care all that much if their prayer—even the prayer they may have written out ahead of time—is syntactically all put together or even all that intelligible or lovely or meaningful or earnest, just as long as it is really prayer, really a conversation with the Holy about the deepest things the people have on their hearts; a prayer that the whole assembly will, of course, overhear, but one that they don’t necessarily have to grasp fully with their brains in order to know that prayer is happening, that God is the addressee and the interlocutor, that the conversation is real, and that it matters.

A great mystic of our day, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, was once asked to offer prayer at the start of a big anti-apartheid event. And so he raised his hands and prayed. Then he did a little dance and prayed some more. When he was done, he grinned and sat back down. Afterwards, a woman in the receiving line said to him, a little annoyed, “I didn’t understand a word you said!” Tutu shot back, “Of course not, ma’am. I wasn’t talking to you.”

Ah.