Book Report: The Misunderstood Jew

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Your Humble Blogger was lucky enough to take four courses from the great Amy-Jill Levine. They were, if I remember correctly, IntroHebScrip, IntroChriScrip, JewChriSelfDef and something I can’t remember the name of about the literature of the intertestamental period. More or less. That one was freshman year, and I remember reading lots of apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. So. She is the biggest influence on my Scripture study, if only because I very likely wouldn’t do any Scripture study if it weren’t for her. Well, or to be fair, I eventually might have come across someone else, but I didn’t. And, I should emphasize, I learned from her not only a way to read my own Scripture, but a way to read other people’s.

So. I have finally finished reading her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Now, as you are aware, Gentle Reader, my policy here on this Tohu Bohu is that when I read a book by a personal friend, a relative or even a close acquaintance, rather than expose you to a conflict of interest, I note the book only in terms of how likely it is to make its author stinking rich, thus putting YHB in line for fabulous dinner invitations, weekends in the country and introductions to famous, interesting and beautiful people. You see, it’s about ethics.

Tragically, this really is an excellent and provocative book, so I am reluctant to follow my usual policy. And, of course, although Ms. Levine is kind enough to remember me (I sent her a fan letter! And she wrote back!), I think that the chances of stinkin’ richosity for her resulting in valuable cash and prizes for YHB is pretty low. So, Gentle Readers, I am going to write a bit about the book itself, and more (in other entries) about some of the ideas in it. So sue me. Nu?

The book, in case the title is not altogether clear, is an attempt to examine some of the roots of current anti-Jewishness in Christian teachings, particularly in what Ms. Levine sees as a lack of contextual understanding of first-century Jewish practices, and interpretations stemming from that misunderstanding. Ms. Levine wants to do two major things, I think: (a) increase the general level of understanding of Jewishness among Christians, so that the accidentally anti-Jewish teachings fall out of use, and (2) foster useful and productive interfaith communication. This is a big deal. Reading it, Your Humble Blogger (who is Jewish, I remind you) was struck by how some of the readings which come off as anti-Jewish really do stem from that lack of contextual understanding. On the other hand, some of the things which come off as anti-Jewish in Ms. Levine’s reading do not offend me, or at least not much.

For instance? Well, there is a sense, in some Christian theology and analysis I’ve read, that the Jesus of the Gospels is fighting a particularly bad institution. That is, Temple Judaism looks very bad in these texts. Patriarchal, corrupt, rigid, oppressive, you name it. Ms. Levine makes an excellent case that these readings are untrue. On the other hand, I don’t feel particularly compelled to defend Temple Judaism; attacks on its probity or inclusivity don’t strike home to me. I will say that many of these readings ignore the Romans altogether, which does make YHB a trifle cranky. But then, it wouldn’t (and didn’t) occur to me that people would assign those views of Temple Judaism to today’s Jews.

Part of it, I suppose, is that my experience with anti-Semitism has been fairly mild, and has been what I suppose I’d think of as 20th Century American Anti-Semitism, a stereotype of Jews as greedy, pushy and coarse. Oh, and a lot of the unthinking majorityism, the sense that any concessions to minority practices or preferences was a gift of some kind. I’ve never been called a Christ-killer, and although I’ve often had conversations with Christians who hadn’t the slightest idea what contemporary Jewish religious practice is like, I’ve never connected any ill feeling with an association in non-Jews’ minds between me and Temple Judaism. Shtetl Judaism, maybe.

Anyway, I’ve got a couple of posts in mind about that issue and a couple of other specific things that Ms. Levine brings up. Any Gentle Reader who is interested in Scriptural Study would do well to read the book, by the way. If I think I detect a serious flaw, it’s that the audience of the book is not well-defined; some of it is clearly directed at upper-level educators in universities and seminaries, but the final recommendations are aimed at the street. It’s not really a minor point; I read some of it with a sense that she was complaining about things that surely nobody actually reads or says, which I suspect means that they are things read by those educators, and passed along in subtle ways in the teaching. But there’s much of interest there, much to chew on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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