I’ve been a fan of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, ever since I encountered Moment magazine’s article “The Gospel of Amy-Jill Levine.” To me, she’s a towering figure in the realm of interfaith work. She puts words to the often confusing barriers that stand between laypeople and interfaith understanding. Even as a child, she dared to explore Christianity from an intellectual standpoint rather than subscribing to the false notion that learning about other faiths, and particularly the Christian faith, will weaken one’s Judaism.
At her informal talk on Sunday, Feb. 7, at Temple Beth Shalom, Dr. Levine led with a compelling personal anecdote. She described her interest in attending catechism as a 7-year-old in order to learn where anti-Semitic ideas, such as “The Jews killed Jesus,” came from in Christian education, and how to put an end to them. Her account of noticing other little girls preparing for their first Holy Communion and envying them their white dresses reminded me of the touching short Irish film “Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion.” It also revealed that Dr. Levine’s curiosity about Christianity started very early and shaped some of her formative experiences in the field of comparative theology.
Some of what Dr. Levine said on Sunday echoed ideas we had discussed the previous morning at SpokaneFAVS’ February Coffee Talk. Sometimes misunderstandings between Jews and Christians persist, Dr. Levine pointed out, simply because “We don’t ask the questions” — the ones that matter and could help us educate ourselves. We worry, she said, that we should already know the answers to the questions we want to ask, so we remain silent.
Dr. Levine touched on common anti-Semitic contentions about Jews, including the belief, supposedly supported by John 8:44, that the Jews are Satan’s children. However, she also noted that the New Testament contains elements of Jewish history that most Jews never learn, since traditional Jewish education ignores the New Testament. She used her quick wit to keep things light (“When in doubt, quote a German philosopher”) even as she talked about troubling subjects, such as Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic 1543 writing “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
Even though I’m married to a Lutheran, and so have more understanding of Christianity than perhaps the average Jew, I got a lot out of this talk. Dr. Levine clarified that most Christians don’t actually believe that Jews are going to hell, helped me to understand the basic idea of the Gnostic Gospels, and told a hilarious story, to make a theological point, about what may happen when she herself dies and appears at the “pearly gates.” (The point: Even if you believe Jesus is the son of God, only Jesus himself can determine who gets into heaven — not “the Christian on the street,” not the conservative pastor).
Dr. Levine is the co-editor of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” a book that is likely to strengthen interfaith understanding, among clergy and laypeople alike, for many years to come. I suspect that many Jews, especially those from generations previous to mine, were taught to avoid, if not fear, the New Testament. To survivors of the Holocaust as well as institutional anti-Semitism right here in America, all things Christian may have come to symbolize the ongoing oppression and second-class citizen status of Jews in most parts of the world. But Dr. Levine’s impulse as a 7-year-old was correct: How can a Jew counter the lie that Jews killed Jesus if they don’t have the knowledge required to make a rebuttal? We don’t become less Jewish when we learn about Christianity; we see our faith and cultural tradition in a fuller context. And that more fully contextualized understanding of Judaism does not require belief in Jesus as savior.
Dr. Levine reminded us that Yiddish, the language spoken by many European Jews of my grandmother’s generation, contains not a few anti-Christian expressions. Persecution has been a bitter experience for Jews over the centuries, but passive-aggressive jabs in a language most Christians don’t understand won’t right historical wrongs. Dr. Levine encouraged us to introduce our children to other religions, since “they’ll have to deal with them eventually anyway.” That is especially true in a place like Spokane, where being Jewish will make many a child the only one of his or her kind in a classroom, social group, sports team, etc.
Dr. Levine said she encourages her Christian students at Vanderbilt to think more Jewishly about their faith in some ways. Specifically, she advises them to consider the benefits of arguing and negotiating with God, as Abraham and Moses so memorably did. She said many of the Christian students she encounters fear such an engagement with God, since it seems to contradict the notion that God is infallible and knows exactly how everything should unfold. Dr. Levine observed that even being in lament, as the Psalmist is on a number of occasions, still constitutes relationship with God, rather than a forsaking of God.
Scholars like Dr. Levine make me optimistic about the future of interfaith work and religious pluralism in this country. Even as Islamophobia weakens the U.S. and issues like abortion and LGBT rights expose sizable rifts between religious conservatives and progressives, there is hope for healthy, productive coexistence as long as people like Dr. Levine continue to put our differences in context and debunk the untruths that so often keep us divided.