Messiah Mondays – Amy-Jill Levine's "The Misunderstood Jew" and Christian Stereotyping of Judaism

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 This is the sixth installment of our serialized and interactive review of Amy-Jill Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.” With this installment, we begin a new tradition on the Interfaithfulness blog. Every Mondy we will make sure that our article centers on something about our Messiah, who He is, his credentials, his teachings, scholarly discussion about him, etc. For this reason, we will call these “Messiah Mondays.”  This is not to say that we will discuss our Messiah only on Mondays.  It just means that when you come here on Mondays, you can expect to find us discussing him. But for now, let’s turn again to Dr. Levine’s book.

If this were the only chapter in the book, it would be well worth the price. In this fourth chapter, “Stereotyping Judaism,” Amy-Jill Levine takes the gloves off, and also removes the blinders from the eyes of those who do not see what we Jews see too well and too often.

The chapter is a scathing indictment of cultural and educational superficiality and presumption in portrayals of Judaism. The indictment is more than deserved, and I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps you join with me in being deeply outraged about the negative and at best condescending manner in which many, though thankfully, not all, Christian people and institutions portray Judaism and the rabbinical establishment, not only two thousand years ago, but also today. I am reminded for example, of a missionary to the Jews who said in print that rabbis are not interested in helping their congregants to know God but only in keeping them from believing in Jesus. I call that extremely biased and nasty, don’t you?  It is for this reason that I just do not listen to Christian radio or television, because, almost without exception, whenever preachers on such stations refer to Pharisees, or Jewish religiosity, or rabbis, the comments have at least two of the following characteristics: they are uninformed, they are negative, they are nasty, or they are patronizing. Not needing to elevate my blood pressure, I usually decline.

Levine skillfully outlines the contours of the misrepresentations of Judaism and Jewish leaders which distort Christian thinking and feeling about the Jewish people and their religion. This is a chapter everyone should read.

Many years ago it was Father Edward Flannery in his book “The Anguish of the Jews” who helped me to understand the roots of all this. He explained how, in the second century, the church saw the synagogue as its competition for the souls of the pagan world. By and large, the leadership of the church in the Roman Empire were converted intellectuals who came into the church already disdainful of the Jews and their strange ways. After all, how enlightened could a people be if they resisted the “glories” of the Roman way? It was a simple step for thse church leaders to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots, while discrediting the synagogue as a spiritual force in the world by broadcasting the charge of deicide. The pitch was this: “Why go to the Jews for spiritual nurture? They killed the Son of God!” The charge stuck, and I can remember being beaten up as a child for my “guilt” in Christ’s death. Most Jewish men my age growing up in urban areas can tell similar stories. 

Although many will comfort themselves saying such crude assignations and mob conduct no longer apply, Levine won’t let Christendom off the hook so easily. Her analysis of the ins and outs of “respectable” anti-Judaism is thorough and irrefutable.

Building on factors such as Flannery identified, she goes further.

The Theological Problem

 She sees the church as having needed not only to discredit the synagogue as its competition, but also as needing to bolster Yeshua’s uniqueness in order to exalt the church at the expense of Judaism.

After abandoning a narrative of a supernatural Jesus, wonder-working, and resurrected, the church of thelogical liberalism was left with an a-supernatural Jesus. But if he is not the miracle worker from Galilee, and only a super-ethical and impressive, ultimately martyred rabbi, how could the church mark Yeshua as the Man Apart?

Jesus had to be more than just a Galilean charismatic, cynic sage, clever teacher, or cultural critic. He had to regain his ‘unique’ identity his ‘distinctive’ views.… This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting that Jewish context in noxious colors.… This religious need is what, to a great extent, prompts the current description of first-century Judaism as mired in legal minutiae that trampled on individual needs, promulgating a warlike theology having no place for peace, and obsessed with a purity system that marginalized women and promoted hatred of foreigners. Within this context, Jesus then emerges as a member of the ACLU, Greenpeace, the National Organization for Women, and the United Nations (on a good day).

The liberal church made Jesus over into its own image, and made Judaism and its leaders over into the image of the devil. And all of this toxicity trickled down through the educational organs of Christian society.

 The Educational Problem

As a teacher in a Christian divinity school, Levine is well-qualified when she says that departments of education and seminaries “are substantially to blame….for the perpetuation of anti-Jewish teachings,” in other words, negative stereotypes. She points out how seminarians, pastors, and often professors, lacking any substantial exposure to Jewish primary sources or the capacity to read and analyze them, instead spend their time exchanging with each other hackneyed stereotypes about the Jewish religion, and its people. It is not difficult at all to find Christians ready to state their dismissive opinion of the Babylonian Talmud, while having never read even one of its more than 6200 pages.  It they have an opinion, it is one passed on to them by others whom they trusted, people who either never read a page of the documents they condemn, or by people who sought to denounce the Talmud to justify their own defection from Judaism and the Jewish people. Levine points out how, in such an environment, “scholarship devolves into solipsism, the social location of the interpreter is the only factor for determining the meaning of the text, and history becomes irrelevant.”

Too many Christian scholars and pastors imagine Judaism as a slightly revised Old Testament. Such people imagine Judaism to be merely an extension of their own view of Leviticus, full of strange rules and procedures, lacking any kind of relational warmth. Levine brilliantly states, “Judaism this is the ‘background’ to the New Testament, rather than part of the common ground of Jesus and James.” I must emphasize this as well, that Judaism was the religion of the Jesus and the apostles, and never the former religions of Jesus and the apostles. This is why Jewish New Testament scholar Pamela Marie Eisenbaum could truthfully write a book titled, Paul was not a Christian, meaning not that he did  not believe in Jesus, but rather than neither he, nor Jesus, nor the other apostles “jumped ship” from the Jewish world to another they preferred. Judaism is the context of the New Testament, not its background. Judaism is the rocket in which Jesus, the apostles and the New Testament church orbited around God’s purposes, it was not the launch pad left behind at the start of the journey.

Levine lists seven “overstatements concerning, misperceptions of, and slanders against first-centry Judaism that appear with some consistency in classroom and church.”  I must add, they also appear constantly on Christian radio and Television, both of which I avoid lest I have a blood-pressure episode.  Here are her seven observations:

  1. The view that Jewish law was impossible to follow, a burden no one could bear. A widespread view, this was explicitly stated in the original version of dispensationalism’s Scofield Reference Bible where the Jews’ agreeing at Sinai to obey God’s Torah was viewed as sucker bait,
  2. The thesis that all Jews wanted a warrior Messiah who would defeat Rome; therefore, “the Jews” rejected Jesus because he taught the ways of peace.
  3. The proclamation that Jesus was a feminist in a woman-hating Jewish culture.
  4. The conclusion the Jews were obsessed with keeping themselves pure from the contamination of outsiders, whereas Jesus, especially through his parable of the good Samaritan, broke through purity-based barriers.
  5. The insistence the first-century Judaism was marked by a Temple domination system that oppressed the poor and women promoted social division between insiders and outcasts.
  6. The assertion the Jews are narrow, clannish, particularistic, and xenophobic, wheras Jesus and the church are engaged in universal outreach.
  7. The increasingly popular argument that the New Testament is not talking about Jews all, but about “Judeans.”

In each of these areas, Jesus and Christianity is the preferable and spiritual alternative to a souless, dead, oppressive and formalistic Judaism. “… Jesus is made relevant either by projecting a negative stereotype of Judaism or erasing Judaism entirely. The proclamation of the church can, and should, stand on its own; it does not require an artificial foil, an anti–Jewish basis, or an overstated distinction.” I have long said the same thing as I have observed a tendency among Christians and too many Messianic Jews to exalt Jesus at the expense of an assumedly failed Judaism.

In discussing “The Law as an Unbearable Yoke,” Levine touches upon the pervasive Christian assumption that Jewish efforts toward Torah obedience were burdensome and ultimately frustrating and unsuccessful. Some even state that this was designedly so in order that the Jews might feel their need of a Savior. This is of course to read Christian categories into the Older Testament while ignoring the thousands of years of Jewish experience, Jews who until this day regard receiving God’s Torah as the greatest of privileges. And a certain Jew from Tarsus certainly got it right when he said in the third chapter of his Letter to the Romans that this receiving the Torah was and remains the first Jewish advantage, to which he adds others in the ninth chapter, saying,  “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Here, it is clear that the giving of the law pertains not to having merekt received the narratives of Scripture, as would be covered by his reference to the adoption (think, Exodus), the glory (that is, the manifestation of the Shekhinah in the Mishkan and the Temple), and the covenants. No, this giving of the law is the glorious gift of God’s commandments.  True, the Torah is a yoke, but only because it joins us to God and to our people in his service. And when, in Acts, the apostles speak of “a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear,” we need not think of this as the Law per se but of a certain nattering attitude of obligation, as in the statement about the Gentiles in that chapter: “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” I believe this is the irksome yoke, living under the watchful eye of the mitzvah police.

However, the standard Christian narrative knows nothing of the joy that religious Jews feel in being yoked to God and His commandments. Therefore it is easy for them to project a Jesus who is opposed to all of this, who offers us the easy yoke of subjectivity as opposed to the burdensome yoke of rules, rules, and more rules, or so the story goes.

Following this, Levine considers and ably dismisses the assumed misogyny of Second Temple Judaism, the idea that the Jews of Jesus day were uniformly awaiting a Warrior Messiah, as well as the standard interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story used to illustrate the assumed silliness and spiritual deadness of Jewish bondage to purity laws. Reading this section of the chapter illustrates again why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that if Christian scholars only knew the breadth and nature of Jewish discussion on such matters, they never would have promulgated the prevailing caricature. But there is no ignorance so deep as that which does not recognize itself for what it is.

The chapter ends with a painfully true discussion of the cultural drift toward a Judenrein New Testament, and a world where whoever the Jews are, they have nothing in common with the good guys in that book. So it is that Jesus is not recognized as a Jew, his views not recognized as Jewish, his disciples not recognized as life-long Jews living Jewish lives, and the Jews of today dismissed as not really Jews anyway, but converted Khazars. One need only read Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” to catch up with that argument.  What is the end result? The church kidnaps Jesus, takes off his tallit and puts on him a Roman robe, the Jewishness of the Newer Testament is seen as backdrop for the story of the good guys leaving all of that behind, instead of as the context for everything Christians hold dear, and the Jews of today are left remnants of a once-significant people, now adrift, in bondage to a Law that only oppresses them, in need of the message of the Galilean who came to suffer and die for us all, and to free them from the bondage of their own way of life.

I am reminded of the title of a song for which I wrote the music in the 1970s,  with wonderful lyrics by Steffi Geiser-Rubin. The title says very much what Dr. Levine says in her chapter: “I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Gentile.”   






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