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There’s a story Amy-Jill Levine tells often, in response to a question she’s asked often. How on earth did a Jewish woman become an expert in the New Testament?
It all started, as so many stories do, on the school bus. When Amy-Jill was 7, a classmate said to her, ‘You killed our Lord.’
Emily: So what happened after that?
AJ: I insisted I did not. And she said, “Yes you did, our priest said so.” So I started to cry. I cried all the way to the bus stop. My mother met me at the bus stop, early 1960s. She said, “What’s wrong?” I said I killed God. She assured me that God was doing just fine which was quite a relief. And as I found out later the priest had been reprimanded. Something called Vatican 2 had already started. But the very last document of Vatican 2, which came out in 1965, had not yet been promulgated. And that document says that Jews at all times in all places cannot be held responsible for the death of Jesus.
Young Amy-Jill did not know about Vatican 2 or the history of this claim. So she was just confused. If she didn’t kill God, that seemed like a pretty awful accusation.
AJ: I could not figure out how this tradition with the bunny and Santa and beautiful churches and interesting people called Nuns with fabulous outfits, how could this tradition be saying horrible things about Jews? So I announced to my parents — you can probably tell I’m an only child — I announced to my parents, “I’m going to go to religious education class with my friends, I’m going to go to catechism, and I’m going to find out where this terrible teaching came from, and I’m going to stop it.” I’m 7 years old and I’m going to end anti-Semitism. But when I went to church school, I liked the stories, and I liked the people, and I kept listening to the stories and kept hanging out with the people. And I was 7 then and I’m 62 now, so I’m in for the long haul.
From Nashville Public Radio, this is Movers & Thinkers, where we go deep into the minds of some of the most interesting people in this city. I’m your host, Emily Siner. In this episode, in front of a very multi-faith live audience, I’m interviewing Vanderbilt Divinity Professor Amy-Jill Levine — someone who’s spent her career and really her whole life bridging the divide between Judaism and Christianity.
AJ: I want those differences to be celebrated and I want people to have the ability of saying, “That’s not my tradition, but I see where you get it and I see the beauty in it.”
I’ll ask her about the misconceptions Jews and Christians have about each other. We’ll get into a little biblical humor. And she’ll give us one possibility of what the afterlife looks like. Stay with us.
One might say Amy-Jill Levine’s primary motivation in life since the age of 7 has been to correct faulty assumptions about Judaism and Christianity — which she says are quite numerous.
Emily: What are the biggest misconceptions that people have.
AJ: Oh, gosh how much time you have?
Emily: Give me the top three. Let’s start with, what misconceptions do Jewish people have about Christianity that you find yourself kind of over and over saying, like, “No no no.”
AJ: Right. Well heaven forbid that I would speak for all Jews, because even myself I would be of conflicting opinions. Jews sometimes think that Christianity is simply a pagan religion when in fact the entire Jesus tradition makes a great deal of sense in first-century Jewish context; it just doesn’t make any sense in a fourth-century Jewish context because Judaism changed. They think that all Christians — as soon as they begin “all Christians” I have to stop them. It’s not like there’s a simple way of “Christian think.” And even for Christians who are in denominations where there are certain creedal statements, very often it’s the case that somebody will be sitting in the pew thinking, “I am really not sure I believe that. I’m really uncomfortable here.” So usually somebody finds himself or herself sitting uncomfortably listening to a sermon or reciting a creed. A lot of Jews think that all Christians have to do is believe in Jesus and that’s it. There’s no work requirement whatsoever. And then I point out that the New Testament is very clear: Faith without works is dead, and there’s a lovely parable in the Gospel of Matthew, sometimes called the parable of the sheep and goats, and it’s a final judgment scene. If you don’t know this parable and you get into heaven and there’s a sheep line and a goat line, get into the sheep line. Just don’t ask any questions. Get into the sheep line. And the goats are a little confused as to why they’re there; they’re probably bound for hell. And Jesus says, “Well, when I was in prison you did not visit me, when I was hungry you did not give me food, when I was naked you did not give me clothing,” and the goats say, “When did we see you when these terrible circumstances?” and he responds, “As you have done to the least of these, so you have done for me,” which means that Christianity, the Jesus tradition, the Pauline tradition, exactly like early Judaism, insists that you love your neighbor as yourself — and more than that, you love the stranger who dwells among you because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Emily: So what about vice-versa?
AJ: Oh, what do Christians get wrong about Judaism? Let me count the ways. They think a number of Jews, if not all Jews, at the time of Jesus were legalistic. They’re just interested in going through the motions, and they don’t have any sense of spirituality. They don’t have any sense of the imminent presence of God, when sources across the Jewish world at the time show quite the contrary. A number of Christians think that Judaism is the Old Testament, so if you just open up Leviticus you can tell what somebody in the local synagogue is doing. I once had a student many, many years ago say to me, “Professor Levine, do Jews in urban areas need a zoning variance in order to offer animal sacrifice?” “Well, you know, we haven’t been doing that since the year 70 after Jesus.” “Really?” So there’s no sense of the ongoing Jewish tradition.
For a short moment in time, Jews and Christians weren’t so different. Jesus himself considered himself a Jew. Amy-Jill spends a lot of time studying that period of overlap between the two religions. But she says the overlap didn’t last very long.
AJ: Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews. But most Jews don’t sign onto the program. Because, although there’s no one single way that Jews thought about the Messianic age, one dominant way that they thought was: when the Messiah comes the Messianic Age comes with. It’s a package. And that means everybody comes back from the dead, and there’s a final judgment, and all the Jews in the diaspora and lands outside the Land of Israel come back to the Land of Israel, and you can find a parking place and it never rains when you have to go outside. I mean, it’s a perfect world. And that doesn’t happen. Rome is still in Judea. The people are not free. There’s famine, there’s drought, there’s war. And most Jews said well, social justice stuff — great. Parables — terrific. Healing — love it. But he can’t be the Messiah because there’s no messianic age. But the message goes out to the Gentile world, the pagan world, and the pagans are told not only do you get forgiveness of your sins — Jews already had that in the system — but these followers of Jesus were saying, “if you’re hungry we will feed you, if you’re sick we will nurse you and sit by your bedside, if you’re lonely we will be your family.” And that was compelling to the Gentile world. So words of Jesus spoken by a Jew to Jews wind up in a text produced primarily for Gentiles and then read only by Gentiles. And as church and synagogue began to fight between themselves, fighting for converts, fighting for the legacy of what the church calls the Old Testament and the Jews call it Tanakh, the hatred comes in.
Which brings us to Amy-Jill’s jarring school bus conversation about a particularly hateful religious teaching.
Emily: Well so, I mean, how did that experience make you want to learn more about it as opposed to — I could have seen you say, “Wow, this is horrible. Christians are saying bad things about Jews,” and that would have been your impression for the rest of your life.
AJ: But it wasn’t.
Not when she actually started attending Catholic religious school.
AJ: I kept waiting for somebody to say something anti-Jewish, and my 7-year-old radar was on high alert, but nobody did. They did not read their text with an anti-Jewish lens. So when I finally read the New Testament that was maybe eight or nine years later, I realized that the text can be read and has been read with a very anti-Jewish sense. But people choose how to read because we have certain filters. So I wanted to find out what those filters were, so that if I ever got a job doing this, I could go into the classroom and say, “When you read, be careful with these verses. Here are some ways you might treat them that will not inculcate or reinforce anti Jewish-views.”
Now Amy-Jill has this job teaching divinity students speaking to churches, and she has a better understanding of the many different ways people filter their religious texts. Often, she says, it’s generous and inclusive. But sometimes it’s not.
AJ: I’m worried about Sunday morning sermons. I’m worried about some of the passages in the Gospels where if they’re not read carefully, one can easily get the idea that Jews are terrible people. I’m worried about passages in the New Testament that talk about how the “Jews” killed Jesus, and the text really does say that, or references in the Book of Revelation to a “synagogue of Satan.” Negative views about Jewish practice as if it’s a stranglehold or a straitjacket, rather than something that allows Jews following Torah to live out their tradition 24/7 rather than for one hour on Saturday morning. So as long as the New Testament continues to be proclaimed, there will be problems. And what I want is clergy and Sunday School teachers and — God bless them — Bible study leaders and people who work with little kids at vacation Bible schools — I want them to be careful with their text.
Emily: What do you find is the most effective way of teaching your students who are divinity students at Vanderbilt —
AJ: Well, I have to be careful, because there are a couple in the room. What I find actually probably best, beyond all those sources that I can provide them and the feedback on exams and papers and the meetings in my office, is to give them the following warning: When you are in the pulpit, I want you to picture me sitting in the back pew of the church. Do not say anything that will cause me to stand up during your sermon because if I hear the Gospel being deformed, it’s important enough to me that I will say something. And I’m in church a lot. I’m probably in church more than most of the Divinity School faculty, pretty much every Wednesday night and Sunday morning. And I have twice heard sermons that forced me to stand up. One was anti-Jewish and one was homophobic, and I thought, “This is not preaching the Gospel of love, this is preaching the Gospel of negativity.” I don’t want the church to think when they walk out on Sunday morning that the good news is, “Oh thank God, we’re not like those Jews.” Jesus does not need a negative Jewish foil in order for him to look good. If I think he looks splendid and I’m not a Christian, how much more so should Christians think he looks splendid?
By understanding the filters we all have about religion, we understand each other better. Coming up, we’ll talk about how to have a conversation with someone who ultimately believes a completely different truth and what it means really to have faith. You’re listening to Movers & Thinkers.
In my high school choir we performed the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah every December. We performed a lot of religious songs, and generally that didn’t really bother me. Choral music is beautiful to sing, even if you don’t believe in the text. But there was one line in this piece that made me and another Jewish girl I sat next to squirm a little: “The kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” We were so not used to saying the word “Christ” out loud, and it felt almost like a betrayal of our own religion to sing it so confidently.
So between the two of us, we secretly sang “and of his rice.” Not saying that was the best thing to do, it’s just what we did. Amy-Jill Levine has none of this defensiveness, and she encourages other Jews to learn about Christianity. But I wondered:
Emily: How do you get Jews to engage with it at all?
AJ: Were I to make a case to Jews — and I tried to do this fairly frequently — my concern is we, as Jews, we are a minority within a Christian majority for the most part of the United States and much of Europe as well. If we want Christians to respect us as Jews, which means knowing a little bit more about Judaism than the book of Leviticus which they’re probably not reading anyway, the scribes and the Pharisees in the New Testament, the Shoah, the Holocaust, the state of Israel and maybe a production of Fiddler on the Roof, then we owe our neighbors the same respect and we should know a little bit more about Christianity than the bunny and Santa Claus. That’s what it means to be a good neighbor.
AJ: Here’s one of the weird things about Judaism, one of the many weird things: We have the holiday of Hanukkah, but we don’t have the books of the Maccabees in our Bible. That’s in Catholic Bibles and Anglican Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. So Christians get the book, we get the holiday. Christians have the book that tells us all about first-century Judaism. The only Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. The first person in literature ever called rabbi is Jesus of Nazareth. If I want to know about the destruction of the temple and what Judaism was like before and after, the New Testament is one of the best sources that I have. So in order to fill in the gaps of Jewish history, the New Testament is an essential text. So I think all Jews ought to be familiar with it. And what typically happens, I’ve found, is when Jews start reading the New Testament, they get more interested in Judaism.
Or, in Amy-Jill’s case, they become renowned New Testament scholars. In fact she’s spending the spring of 2019 teaching the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, which is pretty rare for someone who’s not Christian.
Emily: Obviously you’re not a believer in Jesus as God, which gives you, I guess, you could argue that gives you more objectivity reading the New Testament. But does that also take away some of your credibility when speaking to either students or congregations of Christians?
AJ: Well, if I don’t have credibility, I’ve done remarkably well lacking it. No, because I treat it with the utmost respect. Religious belief, what we would call faith, is not a matter of academics, it’s not a matter of IQ, it’s not a matter of training. It’s a matter of what the church would call grace. In other words, generally people do not choose to believe, they are given the gift of belief. Sometimes I will use the analogy of: Religious belief is not like Sudoku, where you put all the numbers in little boxes, and if you’re smart enough and patient enough and you have an eraser, you can get the right answer. Religious belief is not like Sudoku. Religious belief is like love. And love cannot be compelled. You fall in love because you fall in love. You can’t make an argument for it. If it hits you, it hits you. And that’s fabulous.
Emily: How would you define your own religious views?
AJ: I’m a member of Congregation Sherith Israel, which is an Orthodox synagogue. I’m not particularly a believer, but I love to pray. I love my congregation. I love the people, I love the Torah study. I love going to services and saying words in Hebrew that I remember hearing my parents say and my grandmother say. So there’s that sense of connection. But my husband and I usually park about two blocks away to give the illusion that we’ve walked on Saturday morning, because we live too far out. So I’m a non-practicing, not very much believing member of an Orthodox synagogue. But I come out of synagogue feeling better about having spent my time with the congregation. And that’s sufficient for me.
Emily: You have these kinds of conversations a lot about religion, about something that can make people uncomfortable. What is it about your style of speaking or communicating that you think makes people receptive to what you’re saying?
AJ: I’m funny. And the fact is, the Bible is in a number of cases actually itself really quite funny because the stories had to travel. People wanted to listen to these things, and if it’s just all sad and somber and theologically heavy, nobody is going to pay attention. I think one of the reasons people listen to Jesus is because he had a good sense of humor. He knew how to tell a good story. Because he was Jewish.
Emily: What are some tips you have for the rest of us somehow how to have religious conversations with people who do not share the same beliefs?
AJ: Oh, it’s hard. You might not even know what you believe yourself, and sometimes that belief begins to surface in conversations with other people. If one goes into an interreligious dialogue, you do not represent your entire tradition. I don’t speak for all Jews, my Catholic friends don’t speak for all Catholics, my Church of Christ friends don’t speak for all members of the Church of Christ. You come in as an individual and you represent only you. You don’t have to be an expert on anything. It helps to ask questions. “Well, why do you do this? What do you believe?” And don’t be afraid to ask questions that might be problematic because unless you ask you will never learn.
Emily: And then what do you say if someone says something that feels problematic?
AJ: Usually people don’t. Sometimes people ask me if I worry about going to hell, to which the answer is no, actually I don’t. But if there is a hell and I land there, I think there will be interesting people there and I can, you know, I can work with them. You make the best of a bad situation. I don’t believe in hell, personally. I think it’s a good idea because there are people I want to put there. But I don’t personally believe in hell. Generally, I find people are polite and curious, and generally they’re respectful.
And this kind of respect is what Amy-Jill has been trying to foster since the age of 7.
AJ: I want people to speak kindly about each other and to each other. I want people to know each other better. I want people not to engage in the blithe and easy forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that pass in polite company when they think Jews are not there. And similarly, I want Jews to stop using, for example, certain Yiddish expressions that have a negative Gentile coding to them. I want people to be civil. I want them to watch their language, and I want them, if they actually do claim to love their neighbor, to get to know the neighbor as well, because otherwise that love is just a form of hypocrisy.
Emily: What you describe is not necessarily everyone coming together and saying, like, “Oh, we’ve agreed.”
AJ: Oh no. I don’t want that big kumbaya moment. I want people to be comfortable in their disagreements. We are magnificent creatures in all our diversity, and I don’t want some sort of homogenous, lowest-common-denominator theology. I want those differences to be celebrated, and I want people to have the ability of saying, “That’s not my tradition, but I see where you get it, and I see the beauty in it.” The former dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden Krister Stendhal talked about something he called “holy envy.” The ability to see in somebody else’s religious tradition something meaningful, beautiful and inspirational. And I can see that in much of Christianity. I can see it in the text. I can see it in a Christian worship service where everything is going well, and you know that the pastor and the organist directly talking with each other, and the sermon has something to do with the hymns. Beautiful! Or walk into a magnificent church, or even one of the small Baptist, very simple churches, and you can feel peace there. That’s holy envy. I don’t have to colonize it. I don’t have to call it my own. I don’t have to recreate it, but I can as a visitor appreciate it.
At this point in the conversation I could tell people had lots of questions, so I opened up the floor to the audience. Here’s a question from someone whose father was an Episcopal priest but studied Judaism for several years before that.
Audience member 1: I am wondering if you get any pushback from the Jewish community about the use of your incredible talent and humor to be focused on the New Testament as opposed to more of the basic Judaic teachings.
AJ: Right. When I first came to Vanderbilt, I did, even before the class has had started. We moved over the summer. The dean at the time of the Divinity School was getting negative phone calls from local Jews who were convinced that I was a Messianic Jew, and I was going to tell them they all needed to believe in Jesus. And he was also getting calls from good Christians in Greater Nashville who were concerned that a Jew was hired to teach New Testament. So he threw a big reception for me and invited all the naysayers. They showed up. And he said, “Tell them what you do,” and about 20 minutes later, we were all friends. I get a little bit of pushback from some Jews but very, very little. Because in order to do work in New Testament, you have to know the antecedent scriptures, you need to know the Tanakh, what the church would call the Old Testament. I do both. But I find it’s better for Jewish-Christian relations to be working in New Testament, and because the New Testament keeps echoing the scriptures of Israel, I get the best of both worlds. I get both testaments.
Another audience member wanted to know about that question that Amy-Jill says sometimes comes up about hell.
Audience member 2: I’ve yet to find Christians that, when push comes to shove, will say, “Well, if you don’t believe in Christ, you’ll find a good place in the afterlife.” When you kind of push that issue with any Christian, they’ll say, “Well, if you don’t believe in Christ, you do go to hell.”
AJ: I’m an historian which means I work my way backwards. After life, I have to work my way forwards. But what I did do is invent an explanation for my Christian students about what happens if Jesus really is the gatekeeper. Can I tell the story?
AJ: After a very, very long and happy life, I die. I find myself at the pearly gates. The pearly gates, by the way, are completely open because I don’t think heaven is a gated community. So anyway standing at the pearly gates is St. Peter, and you know he’s St. Peter because he’s got a little rock insignia on his lapel. So I say to him, “Peter, lovely to see you. I’ve got questions like, can you speak Greek? Can you read? Where did you wander off to in the middle of the book of Acts? Were you crucified upside down? Because that’s not in the New Testament. What happened to your wife?” Peter says, “Look, lady, I’m on duty right now but you can pick up your harp and your halo here and you get your wings and your slippers at the next table. We’ll talk after dinner.” Standing behind me in this heavenly line — there’s always a line but it moves quickly — is a fellow who was in his previous life a television evangelist. I like to watch them. They’re interesting. And they’re a certain morphic type: perfect gray hair, perfect smile, pants — the crease is so sharp, you get a paper cut, you know. And he has managed to find in a heavenly antechamber a copy of a King James Bible red-letter version, leatherbound, floppy text, so you can bang it in the pulpit. You can find all sorts of books in the heavenly antechamber: the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the complete works of Mary Baker Eddy, the Book of Mormon. You can find Jewish Art Scroll stuff there, but it is under lock and key because it’s problematic.
AJ: So he’s got his text open, he’s got it open to John 14, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the father but by me,” and he’s becoming apoplectic and he says to Peter, “Look, Mr. Apostle, sir, I don’t mean to make trouble my first day in heaven, but did not our Lord and Savior say right here in red letters that he is the way and the truth?” And then he says, “And this Jew,” he looks at me, “I know she she’s read about Jesus, I know she’s written about Jesus, I’ve seen her on TV (although she is thinner in person, I just thought I’d mention that). She doesn’t worship Him as Lord and Savior, so pardon the expression, what the hell is she doing in heaven?” Peter says, “Oy gevalt, wait here.” And he comes back a couple of minutes later with a fellow who’s about my height — I’m five-five — olive complected, dark almost black eyes that bore into your soul and holes in his wrists. Jesus says, “What is it, my son?” And give this guy credit for his convictions, he’s going for it. He says, “Lord, all my life I proclaimed you savior, I brought people to baptism, I preach the Gospel, and now you’re saying that you can just get in?” Jesus responds, “The Gospel of John does have me saying that, which is very carefully worded. But if you flip back over to Matthew, the parable of the sheep and the goats, I make it very clear that it’s not those who say, ‘Lord Lord,’ it’s those who do the will of the father.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Well, I’ve been working Riverbend Prison for 20 years, like I’ve checked everything off.” And the fellow said, “But wait, that’s work’s righteousness. You’re saying she’s earned her way into heaven. But getting into heaven is supposed to be a free gift.” And Jesus says, “Right. Go back to John, where I make it clear that I am the way. I am. Not you. Not your narrow sense of salvation, not your constipated sense of God’s mercy. I say she gets in. Do you want to argue?” And the last thing I recall before going off to get my heavenly accessories is Jesus handing the man a Kleenex to help get the log out of his eye.
AJ: Which means if the Christian wants to make Jesus the gatekeeper, by all means do so because that’s what the New Testament says. But the Jesus I know from history, the Jewish Jesus who spoke to other Jews by the seashore in Galilee, the Jewish Jesus who died on a cross is going to be much more concerned about how I deal with interpersonal relationships than he is going to be concerned about the particulars of my theology.
Emily: Well, Amy-Jill Levine, thank you so much for this great conversation.
AJ: What a pleasure to talk with you all. This has been great fun.
That was Amy Jo Levine speaking in December 2018. Movers and Thinkers is made possible by Carl Peterson, Cameron Adkins, Anita Bugg, Mack Linebaugh, Blake Farmer and Chas Sisk. Music for this episode is by the Blue Dot Sessions, courtesy of the Free Music Archive. The recording of the “Messiah” is courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada and the Public Domain Media Database.
See all previous episodes of Movers & Thinkers and other great shows at podcasts.wpln.org. I’m Emily Siner, and this is Nashville Public Radio.