Amy-Jill Levine

author of The Misunderstood Jew

Caren Goldman talks with Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill LevineAmy-Jill Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion. Her many other books, articles, and essays address topics like Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and women in the Bible.

As a widely sought-after resource for the media and a speaker who describes herself as “a Jewish Yankee feminist teaching in a southern Christian divinity school,” Levine has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to academic and nonacademic audiences—people of all faiths and none whatsoever. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies.

Additionally, she is also a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, one of the organizations at the Center for Inquiry. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

The words religion and spirituality get mixed up and matched up a lot these days. As a member of an Orthodox Synagogue and a biblical scholar, how do you define these two words?

“Spirituality” today tends to be defined as personal if not anti-institutional; conversely, “religion” is associated with a set of practices and beliefs held by a community. The two need not be mutually exclusive. The problem with “spirituality” as currently defined is that it risks devolving into an egocentrism, a “me-ism” devoid of ethics, practice, and community. The problem with “religion” as it is currently defined is that it risks devolving into a system of poorly understood if not ossified or irrelevant doctrines and rites. But in both biblical and twenty-first century settings, religion and spirituality work together: spirituality keeps religion from becoming routine; religion keeps spirituality from becoming self-absorbed.

You often lecture and teach in churches and interfaith settings. From your experience, how do religious versus spiritual perspectives affect the ways in which Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths encounter and understand biblical texts?

Most everyone can understand “spirituality” since it transcends denominational or institutional settings. One can be “spiritual” without having an affiliation with, or even knowledge of, Scripture or tradition. When the conversation turns to spirituality, people share experiences and impressions and can get to know each other as individuals.

Problems arise when people who define themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” have little understanding of the religious traditions. Their view of particular “religions” can be narrow, erroneous, or uninformed. Then again, I encounter even more people who are members of churches, synagogues, and temples who know very little about the distinct teachings of their traditions.

While our culture is filled with appeals to Scriptural authority, too few people have actually read the texts, let alone explored how Christians and Jews over the centuries have understood it. Too few Christians understand the differences among the Four Gospels, or how the various Christian movements came to take shape; too few Jews have read the Rabbinic literature that underlies the traditions, practices, and beliefs of Judaism today. Interfaith conversation thus can serve as an excellent means not only for learning about one’s neighbors, but also learning more about one’s own tradition.

And their understanding of Jesus?

There is no single understanding of Jesus; even the New Testament provides four Gospels, along with distinct views offered by Paul, the catholic epistles, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation. Further, various branches of both Christianity and Islam—along with the individuals in the Church and in the Mosque— have their own understandings of Jesus. An historical approach to Scripture allows individuals to cross denominational and religious lines and see where connections can be made and where we must agree to disagree.

In what ways do the Gospels serve as a lens to help us to understand Jesus as a religious Jew as well as a spiritual human being?

Jesus was a Jew by practice, belief, culture, and ethos, and the Gospels make it abundantly clear how central his Jewish identity was to him: his focus is the G-d of Israel, and how that G-d understands justice, compassion, and the human community. He finds the Torah central enough to argue with fellow Jews about how best to practice it; he honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy; he teaches in the synagogues of Galilee and the Temple in Jerusalem; he keeps the laws of purity and so practices sanctification of the body; his teachings consistently evoke the Scriptures of Israel…. He fits fully within his Jewish tradition and expresses that tradition with his own memorable manner of teaching. Unless we understand Jesus as a Jew, we’ll misunderstand him and we’ll misunderstand the Judaism of his time.

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill LevineWhat effect does not seeing Jesus as a Jew have upon one’s encounter with New Testament texts?

Too often Christian readers divorce Jesus from Judaism: he becomes the only Jew who ever proclaimed love of G-d and love of neighbor, the only Jew ever to show compassion to women, the only Jew ever to counsel non-violent resistance. Yet the love commands, already in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, are at the heart of Judaism; Jesus is no more, and no less, progressive on women’s issues than the vast majority of his contemporaries; Jews in the first century were known for nonviolent protests—actually early versions of “sit-ins”—against various Roman injustices.

At the very least, seeing Jesus as a Jew prevents the creation of anti-Jewish stereotypes. More, recognizing in Jesus’ words the Jewish concerns for the poor, for social justice, for compassion, as already stated in the Torah and the Prophets and as central to Judaism as they are to the Jewish Jesus, helps Christians recover the Scriptures of Israel—what the Church calls the “Old Testament”—as something much more than a collection of “predictions” about the Messiah.

What do Jews lose when they discount Jesus the Jew and fail to explore the Gospels and what those records of his life report about his religious beliefs and practices?

Jews have no more and no less religious reason to attend to Jesus in terms of religious or spiritual concerns than Christians do to attend to the Qu’ran or the teachings of the Buddha. However, at the very minimal level, Jews should find the gospels of interest since, despite their Christian biases, they nevertheless preserve information about Jewish history, practice, and belief. Next, by hearing Jesus as a Jew conveying teachings about Judaism to his fellow Jews, Jews today can hear our own tradition in words that may not be familiar, but are definitely worth hearing. And third, by reading the Gospels, Jews can learn how the words of Jesus the Jew, spoken to his fellow Jews, became placed in a book written for the increasingly Gentile Church and so became misunderstood as words against Judaism. Thus they can see how anti-Jewish teachings developed.

When your students say, “I read the text and the Holy Spirit guides me,” you are wont to respond: “Give the Holy Spirit something to work with.” Between the lines is your belief that the Spirit would probably appreciate a bit of historical investigation. How does such sleuthing and the perspective it brings help one to hear Jesus anew and, in turn, deepen his or her spiritual experience of the text?

Humanity is blessed not only with a heart, but also with a brain, and it would be a shame—indeed it would be sinful—to turn the brain off when the subject is Theology or Biblical studies. Approaching the Gospels from an historical perspective allows us to hear Jesus as his first followers did: we can finally understand what made him compelling enough to prompt his followers to leave their homes and families, and what made him dangerous enough that Pilate had him crucified. To ask how Jesus was understood in his own cultural context should not undermine one’s faith; to the contrary, it should enrich understanding. A faith perspective that refuses to ask questions is a perspective marked by fear and narrowness rather than by openness to the complexity, mystery, and majesty of the divine.

You recently said that to call early Judaism oppressive, repressive and suppressive of women as if it were the Taliban in tallis (prayer shawl) and tzitzit (fringes) is wrong. I hear variations on those labels almost every time I lead a retreat or class in a church. To be honest, as a Jew I hear a pejorative overtone as well. Is that stereotypical view of Judaism a button pusher for you? And whether or not it is, how do you respond?

Stereotypes of any form about any group are “button pushers” for me, whether the subject is Judaism, or women, or the Church. In encountering stereotypes, it is usually insufficient simply to say, “That view is wrong” or “That view is offensive;” more productive is to demonstrate how such views are wrong, and here history is helpful

When I am told, for example, that Jesus “liberated Mary from the women’s quarters where she had been confined” or that “unlike other rabbis, Jesus allowed a woman to sit at his feet and learn from him,” I begin by noting, first, that most houses at the time did not have women’s quarters; only the wealthiest people in the largest cities could afford them. It is our stereotypes about first-century Judaism, and first-century women, that place Mary in the women’s quarters, not the text.

I next note that according to Luke, the house belonged to Martha, and then point out that Martha is one of a number of Jewish women mentioned in the New Testament who owned their own homes and had access to their own funds. Third, I cite numerous Jewish sources demonstrating not only that women received instruction but also served as teachers.

Finally, I suggest a thought-experiment: the story of Mary and Martha can be read as teaching that Jesus only liked women who were silent, servile, and seated at his feet; Martha, distracted by “serving” (the Greek is diakonein, whence the term “deacon”) is silenced. But this uncharitable reading is just as historically inaccurate as the one in which Judaism is seen as marginalizing Mary.

Christians often refer to the G-d of the Jews as a wrathful G-d and the G-d of the New Testament as a loving G-d. The former sounds cold and “religious,” and the latter sounds warm and “spiritual.” I find the G-d of the Psalms and many of the stories in the Jewish Bible to be as loving a G-d as one can find in sacred literature worldwide. Can you say more about this?

This view of different deities is actually a heresy, called “Marcionism.” The G-d of the Scriptures of Israel—what the Church would call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Tanakh—is a loving father, compassionate shepherd, caring friend, and these views carry over into the New Testament. At the same time, the New Testament has its own share of divine anger and judgment, as a look at the Book of Revelation immediately reveals. Jesus himself condemns people to “the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” The New Testament is, moreover, very much about practice and so about rules: as the Epistle of James puts it, “Faith without works is dead.”

Part of the problem is the sense some Christians have that the “Old Testament” is the “Jewish Bible” and therefore not part of the Church’s canon. Another part of the problem is the common Christian view that the Old Testament is about Law and the New Testament is about Grace. The Torah—better translated “Instruction” rather than “Law”—is itself premised on grace. Jews do not follow Torah to earn divine love or a spot in the afterlife: these are already part of the grace G-d gives; we follow the Torah because that is our role under the covenant.

Similarly, the New Testament is not simply about grace: it is also about the ways by which one lives a life marked by grace. Jesus himself notes that he will acknowledge “not those who say ‘lord lord’ but those who do the will of the Father.”

Other than “Son of G-d,” “G-d incarnate,” or “Lamb of G-d,” Jesus goes by many different names – revolutionary, wisdom-keeper, prophet, pacifist, healer, rabbi, mystic, and a long list of others. Clearly, one’s early experiences and current worldview color each individual’s picture of this man before and after his crucifixion. If you could only use one sentence to describe Jesus of Nazareth, who do you say he is?

I don’t think a single sentence sufficiently captures his complexity, or the complexity of anyone else for that matter. I am not inclined to reduce people to sound-bytes or labels.

You have said that studying Jesus, Mary Magdalene, James, Peter and Paul enhance your appreciation of your own Judaism. In what ways does that happen for you?

In a lovely irony, the Church preserves part of my own Jewish history: in understanding the lives of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their associates, I learn much about Jewish life in the first century, synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple, diverse understanding of Scriptures and diverse reactions to Rome, the numerous options open to women and the enormous love parents had for children, the relationships among Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, the rich and the poor, the Pharisees and the tax collectors….

I was moved when I learned that you teach the same class in a maximum security prison that you teach at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Has this class had an affect on the spiritual lives of some of the men who have taken it?

I do not ask my students at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison about their spirituality—I would not intrude on something so personal. On occasion, however, they do share their views with me. For a number of them, perhaps for all, the class creates a setting where, as one student put it, “For two hours a week, we are no longer prisoners.” Another student said: “A.-J., you don’t let people get way with sloppy thinking, and so we know that when you tell us we’ve made a good point, we don’t feel like you’re coddling us” (actually, he used a more colloquial term than “coddling”). He went on: “All my life people have told me that I’m stupid; but when you told me I was smart, I believed you, and so I could finally believe in myself.”

Some of the Riverbend students have been in prison for over 30 years; some will die there; a few were once on Death Row. Many of these men have no family or friends in the free world; they know most free-world people would prefer to ignore them, or execute them. My point is not to overlook the obscene crimes they have committed, or to ignore the tragedy of murder, rape, and child molesting. It is rather to recognize that these men are also human beings, each with his own story, his own hopes and concerns, and his own potential to contribute to the human community.

And you—what dimension has this class added to your spiritual journey that could never have been realized any other way?

On the practical level, by listening to my Riverbend students, I have become increasingly aware both of the failures of the present U.S. penal system and of the possibilities for improving it and so cutting back on recidivism, corruption, and despair.

On the spiritual journey, the following story epitomizes Riverbend’s impact. One evening, discussing the “Lord’s Prayer,” I argued in my best academic manner that Jesus spoke about forgiving “debts” rather than “trespasses.” I mentioned Jesus’ interest in economic reform, the Scriptures of Israel that condemn holding debts, provide for the release of debts in the sabbatical and Jubilee years, and seek to prevent the alienation of land. I finished by noting that I would find it easier to forgive a trespass, a slight against me, than to forgive a loan of several thousand dollars.

One of my students then said, “Lady, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” He then explained how he had participated in a program of restorative justice, and how he felt when the family of the people he killed told him that they forgave him. “Lady, you have no idea what sin is, and therefore you have no idea what forgiveness is.” And he was right.

Moments like this happen each time I go to Riverbend, where, as at Vanderbilt, my students are also my teachers.

The Misunderstood Jew examines what many might call an elephant on the table. What does your truth-telling bring to light that, in turn, enlightens readers in ways that other books talking about Jesus the Jew have not?

Jesus was a first-century Jew who, like a number of his fellow Jews, taught love of G-d and neighbor, non-violent resistance to oppression, an openness to the grandeur and the presence of G-d, and a way of seeing the world as G-d would like it rather than as humanity had made it.

It is, unfortunately, easier to talk about a legalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, elitist Judaism and then divorce Jesus from it than it is to recognize and correct the prejudices that create the stereotypes in the first place. It is easier to talk about how Jesus “frees his followers from the Law,” as if the Law were some sort of straight-jacket rather than the gift of G-d, than it is to proclaim the demands that Jesus placed on his followers: give without expectation of return, love the enemy, visit those in prison, become servant-leaders rather than corporate managers.

The Misunderstood Jew names the stereotypes that both Jews and Christians have of each other—in effect, it fusses at both Church and Synagogue members—explains how the stereotypes developed, and then separates the chaff of prejudice from the wheat of history.

And what do you hope readers will say about your book and Jesus when they read the last page?

If at the end of the journey, readers have a greater understanding of how Jesus fits within his Jewish context, of why some Jews followed him and the majority did not, of how Church and Synagogue became separate institutions that have for far too long been bearing false witness against each other, and of how today Jesus might serve as a bridge between Jews and Christians, rather than a wedge, I’d be more than delighted.

Copyright ©2007 Caren Goldman

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine
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