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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. 250 pp. $24.95.

Ecumenical dialogue involving Christians and Jews resembles its associated activity, learning the language of ecumenism. Achieving some fluency is manageable, but mastery is almost impossible. The problem really is that we try to reach this goal by reading the thought of others on material of a setting in life beyond the pale of Western categories of thought. The result can be slipshod discussion, misguided and nonproductive.

              Take biblical Christology, for example. The large number of works devoted to this discipline is informed by Christian interpretation, which provides the genre’s narration and justification. However, for me—an Orthoprax Jew, who sees and values the importance of Christian-Jewish dialogue—much of the information offered is cross-disciplinary Christianity that flows osmotically from the New Testament to the Hebrew Scriptures and back to the New Testament, giving the impression that the Scriptures of Jews and Christians are reciprocally closed and dependent. But is this so on a theological front?

              In Christian creedal tradition, Roman Catholicism and other Christian Orthodoxies maintain the belief in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is to say, Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten; Son is Father alone, not made, not created, but begotten; and Holy Spirit is of Father and Son, not made, not created, nor begotten but proceeding. However, from a Jewish viewpoint, the New Testament simply stated (peshat) presents an antithetical understanding. For example, there are passages that speak of the inequality of Father and Son (John 10:30; 14:28); different wills of Father and Son (John 5:28–30); and inferences that God and Jesus are not one and the same (Mark 13; 4, 32: Luke 22: 31–32; John 5: 30–33; 12:49; 14:23–24, etc.). Furthermore, Mark 13:32 speaks of knowledge hidden from Jesus and known to Father and Holy Spirit, and Luke 12:10 speaks of forgiveness of sin by Father and Son but not by the Holy Spirit. If the three are one, why is there a demarcation in knowledge and forgiveness by the persons of the Trinity?

              Mainstream Jewish tradition claims that there is one indivisible God (Deut 6:4); there is no god with Him (Deut 32:39; Isa 44:6-8); nor is likeness of Him possible (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8); He is ultimately responsible for good and evil (thus no Satan, Isa 45:7) and “no man may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Though He is one, He has many titles, but on that day His name will be one (Zech 14:9; and ultimate line in the Aleinu prayer recited thrice daily). This no doubt explains why rabbinic Judaism does not nor cannot embrace emotionally and logically the faith affirmation of Christology and by extension, “Old Testament” theology.

              Thus are we to say that the framework of Jewish-Christian dialogue is theologically off limits and ought to be limited to historical, political, and sociological discussion? For the concerned and involved post-Auschwitz Christian and Jew, who take seriously, “Have we not all one father? Has not God created us?” (Mal 2:11), this will not do. For the religiously involved Christian, “the hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place” (Pope Paul John II, Yad Vashem, March 23, 2000), must be remembered and forever exposed and condemned. Supersessionism and contra Judaeos literature provided the religious agenda for the Nazi Judeocide in the heartland of Christendom. As scholarship exposes these teachings of contempt found at the crossroads of Christian preaching and teaching, can these corrections become a staple in the ecclesia? Is the Church, shackled by the hard sell of Christology, willing to reform revered perceived negative teachings about the Jews in the Christian scriptures? Also, are Jews able to read, engage, and discuss New Testament narrative and Christian theology sans apologetics and polemics? Can Halakhic Judaism engage Christianity on its own turf—theological matters—without fear of compromise, conversion, or capitulation? Finally, how to confront the seemingly irreparable philosophical, theological, and psychological differences between the Church and the Synagogue seethed by centuries of disparity and disputation?

              Confronting these concerns (and other issues) is the purport of Amy-Jill Levine’s important and reader-friendly book on the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Levine has thoroughly immersed herself in what she believes is a skewed portrayal of a scriptural Jesus in the annals of Church history and interpretation. In six chapters she covers adroitly the biblical Jesus, the eclipse of the Jewish believers by the Gentile Church; anti-Judaism in Christian scripture, belief, and deed; subtle bias against Judaism in contemporary Christian teachings; differences between the Jewish and Christian canons; and helpful guidelines to engage Christian and Jewish visions of the other. Throughout Jesus is portrayed as an identifying Jew and a proud practitioner of the Jewish heritage.

              Levine’s clarion voice is reason to the reader who is perplexed from too much banality arising from multiple historical quests that come and go with ideologies and causes. Her read of the New Testament in conjunction with Jewish texts and rabbinic tradition provide a formidable challenge to mainstream Christocentrism that transmutes the Jewish Jesus into the praxis of universal salvation. She addresses adequately the anti-Jewish propensity in feminist theology and responds appropriately to liberation theologians who wonder how all this theologizing about the history, faith, and theology of Jesus’ Judaism helps them. She condemns equally classical Christian teachings and modernist reductive tendencies, which strive to divest Jesus from historical Judaism. Her own wrenching reading of a flesh-and-blood Jesus, which harnesses Christian historicism to the corpus Judicorum, provides important support for a position that sees Christianity as a continuation and outreach of Judaism (to gentiles), not its fulfillment.

              In sum, Levine’s historical-moral-theological assessment of New Testament didache and kerygma curtails triumphalist Christology in favor of scriptural “Judeo-Christianity,” penetrates the hermeneutic cycle of a Christian’s own social and political views of Jesus, and invites the Jew to appreciate the Jesus of history and the emergent Jesus movement intra-Judaism and free of androcentric hierarchialism.

              Finally, a respectful disagreement. Amy-Jill Levine thrice writes that she is a member of an Orthodox synagogue. I too am a traditionalist Jew. And what a fresh, albeit controversial, perspective is brought when two Modern Orthodox Jews express their affinity with the faith and fate of Jesus but not faith in Jesus (see my “The Jewish Jesus: A Partisan’s Imagination,” Shofar 23.3 [Spring 2005], pp. 137–143). Where we differ is our response to, “Who do men/people say that I [Jesus] am?” (Mark 8:27, Luke 9:18). She says, “a Jewish prophet who spoke to Jews” (p. 228); and I say, a pharisaic rabbi-nationalist closely aligned with the anti-Roman zealot insurrection. What would Jesus say?

              Zev Garber
              Los Angeles Valley College and American Jewish University