Dear Well-Meaning Christian Pastor:
Your sermon today spoke of the faithlessness of the Jews. Not as the main thrust of your sermon, but as a sidelight, really, a rhetorical stopping-point on the way to your glorious conclusion about the perfection of Jesus Christ. At least, I think that was probably your conclusion: I confess I was really not listening by that point. It was hard for me to hear anything past the hatefulness and ignorance of your statements about Jews.
You say that some thousand years after the time of David, God’s people had stopped listening and obeying, and had shown continual faithlessness to God’s law. You are reading Jewish scriptures, written by Jews for other Jews, to prove the inadequacy of Jews. Anything appear ironic or distasteful in that to you?
You claim that Jewish infidelity led directly to the oppression and slaughter meted out to the Jews first by the Babylonian Empire, and later by the Roman Empire. Good, so just to review: it’s the Jews’ own damn fault. They did it to themselves. In case you haven’t read much patristics, you’re standing in some pretty august company by making those claims. John Chrysostom, whose nickname means “golden-mouthed” but whose more accurate name might be “potty-mouthed,” literally invented the genre of anti-Jewish diatribe in his many sermons and speeches excoriating the Jews of his own time for their imagined faithlessness both to Christ and to their own law. He launched, or rather gave shape and body to, an anti-Semitic tradition that Christianity spread everywhere it went like a noxious virus, and that infected Christian thought at every level.
Before I forget, please remember to be a complete dick to everyone related to me for the next two thousand years.
That tradition bore tragic fruit in the innocent bodies of millions of Jews long before the twentieth century and its concentration camps even happened. Pogrom after pogrom, senseless slaughter after senseless slaughter, from the Rhineland to the shores of Spain. Jews were the first victims of the Crusades, the first to be tossed from their homelands, the first to be blamed for plagues, the first to suffer and starve and die. Children were butchered, along with men and women whose only crime was in fact their faithfulness to their understanding of God. The Holocaust, or what Jews refer to as the Shoah, was not carried out for explicitly religious reasons, but the foundation on which it stood, the cultural ground that watered it, was the centuries of marginalization and hatred that Christianity wrought for the Jews. The name of Jesus made life a bitter hell for the Jews, so before you piously sermonize about anything to do with the Jews, before you dare to speak of their faithlessness, learn more about their history and the faithfulness they paid for with their bodies and their children’s lives.
The Jews of Barcelona forced to answer Christian arguments about Jesus and the claims of Christianity, overseen by the Christian King of Spain. Hey, guess who won? Also, guess which group had to wear the stupid hats.
Yes, Jewish scriptures are full of prophetic calls to greater fidelity to Torah. The very fact that these records, these prophecies and exhortations, have been so lovingly and carefully preserved for you to read from is evidence of the faithfulness of Jews. They literally gave their lives to preserve the words of Torah and Tanakh, just so you can have a weapon to smugly beat them with all these centuries later. You are reading the spiritual diary of a people not your own, and it’s a document intended to be read within the Jewish community, and meant for Jewish ears. We all say things to our own that we wouldn’t say to those outside our community. How bitter then to hear the devoutly preserved words of the prophets, constantly exhorting their people to do better, and better, and better, turned against those same people as evidence of their inadequacy and faithlessness.
It occurs to me that Jesus himself, that pre-eminent Pharisaical rabbi, rejected the facile causality of sin and catastrophe. Who sinned? the disciples want to know, hearing of nearby death and destruction. It’s a question we might want answered today, reading our own headlines of violence and gunfire. Who sinned? And Jesus tells them: nobody. Nobody sinned, morons. People don’t die because God is raining destruction on them, he tries to tell his disciples. Stop thinking like children. Stop being children, and stop turning God into a mirror of your own petty vengefulness.
You might not know it, but there is a substantial segment of the Orthodox Jewish community that applies that theology of vengefulness to the Shoah itself. By their twisted reasoning, God allowed six million of his people to be slaughtered because of the “faithlessness” of Reform Judaism. You know, it was the liberals who did it. Kind of like when Pat Robertson said that God visited Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans because of gay people, or that the Twin Towers fell because of abortion. There’s no difference between that, and saying that the Roman oppression or Babylonian Exile happened because of the sins of the Jews.
But wait! you might say. The Jews themselves often interpreted those events (and all others that befell them) as the action of God, so why can’t I? Simple. It’s because when they do that, it’s a people wrestling with their identity and their relationship with God. When you do it, it’s some douchebag telling a minority group what to think. It’s Romney speaking at the NAACP and telling them not to expect free stuff. When you do it, it’s antisemitism. Assuming the right to speak as a member of a minority group whose experiences and history you have not participated in, and whose identity you cannot share, is inappropriate behavior – or more colloquially, being an asshole. It’s the same reason you can’t use the n-word, in case that one is news to you too.
One final point, and this is about your idea of history, because yeah, that is messed-up too. Christians often have the idea that the Judaism of the first century CE was in “turmoil,” or “crisis,” or something like that. But then, Jesus! And boom, everything is fine. These people are right to the extent that Judaism is always in turmoil. You can know this by discovering that Judaism is made up of Jews. “Ten Jews, eleven opinions,” is not just a saying, it’s a spiritual truth, and it applies to the first century as well as our own. Judaism is a religion of dialogue and intellectual debate, of the push-and-tug of fierce questioning. After the Torah, the Talmud is Judaism’s great holy text, and that’s nothing but volume upon volume of debate. Rav Pinchas says this, but Rav Nechemya says this, and Rav Shmuel resolves this by. . . and so on, and so on, for the next sixty-odd volumes, depending on your edition and your patience. That same sort of debate characterized the Judaism of the first century, and was not a sign of its weakness, but of its strength. Yes, first-century Judaism was a rich ferment of differing ideas about God, emergent ways of approaching God and leading his people, and conflicting ways of dealing with authority. Kind of like twenty-first century Judaism, or twenty-first century Christianity. Here’s a good rule of thumb: before speaking of another religion, do it the courtesy of assuming it is at least as multivalent and complex as your own. Especially when it’s, you know, thousands of years older than your own.
I write all this as someone whose love of both Judaism and Christianity is profound, and who thinks that both religions are breathtakingly beautiful. I write as someone who has laid tefillin and said her rosary (though not at the same time), as someone who has chanted Torah and lit candles to the Virgin, and as someone who has invoked the prayers of Rabbi Akiva and Mother Teresa. I will feel torn between the two halves of myself my life long, and finally I can’t do any better than to say, I love here, and I love here, and I cannot say which love is greater. Like the rabbis of the Talmud, I leave the final settling of the question to the Holy One. So maybe we can start to move toward a Christianity that is not founded on the necessary inadequacy of Judaism or of Jews, or of anyone, but on the wholeness and perfection of all of us as children of God.
Blessed be God, and blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever.