On Us the Blood? Interreligious Reckoning with the Legacies of Christian Anti-Judaism
By Amy-Jill Levine and Aaron Hollander
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Department of Jewish Studies; she is also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge, UK. Professor Levine has been awarded grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. She has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies. She has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 15 books (most recently The Bible With and Without Jesus, co-authored with Marc Z. Brettler) and given over 500 lectures on the Bible, Christian-Jewish relations, and Religion, Gender, and Sexuality across the globe. Her commentary on The Gospel of Luke (with Ben Witherington III) is the first full-length biblical commentary co-authored by a Jew and an Evangelical Christian. In 2019, she was the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute; in 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute and Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends, currently serving as Vice President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists. He is a scholar of theology and culture, whose current research concerns the dynamics of ecumenical/interreligious conflict and coexistence, the aesthetic textures and political functions of holiness (particularly in Orthodox Christianity), and the circulation of theological understanding beyond explicitly religious settings.
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Professor Levine, it is an honor and a pleasure to speak with you for this issue of Ecumenical Trends, as we highlight questions around two of the many enduring systems of violence and marginalization – racism and anti-Judaism – that demand truthful reflection and bold action in the Christian churches, by both clergy and laity. As Ecumenical Trends has done previously in these sorts of conversations, I’d like to begin with a bit of biography, taking the opportunity to share some of your own fascinating history with our readers. You are a prolific scholar (including influential works on the New Testament and the Judaism of Jesus’ era, such as The Jewish Annotated New Testament; The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus; Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, and many others) and widely sought speaker, not only in academic settings but also in synagogues and churches, and in interfaith contexts as well. Let’s begin where you yourself did when introducing your intellectual path in The Misunderstood Jew. You tell such a striking story – it’s wonderful for its humor and empathy, but it’s also a heart-wrenching story – of how a Roman Catholic schoolmate accused you of “killing our Lord.” This startling accusation became a launching point for a lifetime of inquiry and fascination with the fraught, occasionally bloody and terrifying, but always complicated relationships between Jews and Christians.
It’s tempting to think of that encounter with your schoolmate as something that belongs to the past. After all, it happened just a few years prior to the release of Nostra Aetate and the interreligious advances in the Catholic Church that followed. But is it, actually, a thing of the past? Would you say that Jewish children are still facing this kind of accusatory, even contemptuous attitude from their Christian peers?
Amy-Jill Levine: Are Jewish children still being accused of killing Jesus? Yes. I know this because parents write to me and say, “my child was just called a ‘Christ-killer,’ and what am I supposed to say?” This particular problem is not as dire as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thanks in good measure to Nostra Aetate and then to other Christians, both individuals and certain denominations, who began to pay attention to Nostra Aetate, but it’s still there.
As an academic with a focus on the Jewish contexts of Christian origins, I am less invested in challenging overt statements of basic bigotry, whether it’s that the Jews killed Jesus, or that the Jews own all the banks and run all the media and so forth. Just this morning I read in the paper that a Polish priest, who is also an academic, is insisting that Jews have killed Christian children and used their blood to bake matzoh – insisting, in other words, that this “blood libel” is historical fact and not reprehensible slander. But there are both individuals and organizations better equipped to deal with deliberate hate-speech. Where I can make a difference is with regard to the anti-Jewish statements that are made not by outright bigots but by people who are ignorant of Jesus’ and Paul’s historical context and who have a false, in fact toxic, view of Second Temple Judaism. It’s because of ignorance that otherwise well-meaning pastors and priests get up in the pulpit every Sunday or sit down in Bible study on a Wednesday night and reinforce or even inculcate anti-Jewish stereotypes in the minds of the faithful. Given the historical work that’s been done over the past half-century, there’s no reason for this to be happening. Addressing such misconceptions demands a careful and strategic response on the part of seminary and divinity school professors, synods, councils, boards of ordained ministry, bishops’ conferences, indeed any Christians who are concerned that the good news not devolve into bad history comprised of false witness against Jews and Judaism.
AH: Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that there is a gap between what came out of Vatican II in terms of official documents, on the one hand, and how these documents are actually lived out in people’s understanding and relationships. Nostra Aetate is a historical document – the question is what actions are taken because of it and validated by it. Is it something kept on the shelf as a trophy, or is it something that influences every level of theological education, of social action, and so forth?
AJL: Nostra Aetate was produced in 1965; it was an excellent beginning, but it was only a beginning. There have been several more recent documents produced by the Vatican and by various national bishops’ conferences in the Roman Catholic tradition, which have advanced from what was achieved in Nostra Aetate. There are also statements by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American, by the Presbyterian Church USA, and so forth – most of them are from the 1980s. The Anglicans just came out with a statement in 2019 – and it’s over 100 pages. I do worry that no one will read it apart from other experts in interfaith relations. The problem here is that the statements don’t do very much on their own.
More is needed. For example, every year I get emails from pastors and priests asking, “how am I supposed to proclaim the Gospel of John on Good Friday, considering that it blames the Jews for Jesus’ execution?” So what is to be done? I suggest that lectionary-based churches start with revising the lectionary. If statues of Confederate generals can be pulled down and flags with symbols of the Confederacy can be replaced, churches should be able to adjust their lectionaries when their selections reinforce harmful stereotypes. Churches could also put notes in their orders of worship when a potentially problematic biblical text is the reading. Ministers should be held accountable for what they say, and they should make corrections when they wander into anti-Jewish or other harmful stereotypes. Better programs for children would help prevent the anti-Jewish impressions in present curricula, as would better training for teachers and youth-group leaders. There’s lots more that can be done. But simply to acknowledge the problem and not do anything about it is at best virtue signaling.
AH: I would think that there is a step in between churches’ reconciliatory statements or documents, on the one hand, and their structural or liturgical changes, on the other. There has to be widespread recognition that what is referred to in the statements is a living problem, and appreciation of the link (often invisible) between what’s in the lectionary, to take your example, and the violence or contempt we see in the world around us. Without that step, I would fear that important changes would be met with skepticism, or worse, with a reactionary entrenchment of the very attitudes the changes are meant to help uproot. Even among people who completely understand the grave historical consequences of anti-Judaism, it’s common to say: well, that’s a problem in church history or even in parts of the church today, but I’m not anti-Jewish, I don’t buy into any of those conspiracy theories, so this is all a bit much. But aren’t there ways that we can be formed in, and come to depend on, anti-Jewish assumptions without even realizing it?
AJL: First, the problem is not limited to lectionary churches. Any biblical text can be misused in the hands of clergy and religious educators. That is why education is so important. As for your good point about push-back and denial: yes, such responses are comparable to similar dynamics of white privilege and white fragility. People who would code as white might say, “I’m not personally responsible for slavery. I know I’m not a racist. I don’t make racist comments or treat people of different races poorly,” and so on. Yet they might still harbor problematic presuppositions, like believing that everyone begins on equal footing and therefore everyone has an equal chance to prosper educationally and financially, rather than being asymmetrically affected by racism, poverty, prejudice, and so forth. And all too often, we react defensively to the suggestion that we might be prejudiced and consequently dismiss the concerns of people who feel harmed, even are harmed, by bad teaching and preaching.
I don’t think that most people who deny the problem of anti-Jewish teaching and preaching in Christian contexts intend to be anti-Jewish any more than most people intend to be racist or homophobic or otherwise to harbor negative beliefs about certain communities, but we nevertheless are products of attitudes and assumptions grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish and other negative stereotypes. For example, many of my Christian students are surprised to learn that first-century Jews welcomed gentiles into their synagogues and into the Jerusalem Temple, because these students had been taught that Jews are all xenophobic. They are surprised to learn about the loving God of Jewish theology, because they had always thought of an Old Testament God of wrath as contrasted with Jesus’ new and improved God of love.
On the other hand, many Christians do realize that these assumptions are not only incorrect but also harmful and are working to uproot them. I’m not a voice in the wilderness.
AH: I appreciate that the dynamics you’re pointing to aren’t solely pertinent to anti-Jewish assumptions but are rather more fundamental hermeneutical questions. How do we read our own sources responsibly and self-consciously? What are the blind spots that develop in making sense of the traditions that have formed us, and are there ways to fill in those blind spots? You’re suggesting, I think, that patient and hospitable dialogue with those outside one’ tradition (yet whose own lives and understanding have been profoundly affected by it over the centuries) is one key to seeing aspects of our own history that we are not necessarily equipped or inclined to observe on our own.
AJL: Yes. I think this is a problem in every religious tradition, not just in Christianity – I can’t think of any single set of scriptures that doesn’t have analogous problems. Even if we say that they’re divinely inspired, they still necessarily reflect the social and historical context in which they are written. And it’s the case with all scriptures that, as times and locations change, those who hold them sacred have to figure out how to read these older texts with new eyes and in light of new frameworks of meaning. That’s one of the things I appreciate about Judaism: we wrestle constantly with texts, and disagreeing with my rabbi (whom I like a lot) can be a sign of respectful engagement rather than a move into heresy. We’ve all got baggage in our texts, traditions, and histories – but it just staggers me that so many people continue to lug the baggage around rather than trying to open it up and evaluate what we need to keep carrying with us.
AH: So in light of all this, how do you conceive of your own scholarly work? Would you speak a little bit more about how you understand the purpose of projects like your commentaries on New Testament texts? On the one hand, the academic value of reading the New Testament in conjunction with a deep understanding of the Judaism of that time and context is very clear. I can see how this historical contextualization would complement other scholarly commentarial work. But more broadly, is your hope that this work is going to intervene in how the tradition is lived out in Christian communities or in social environments where Christians and Jews are part of a common polity?
AJL: Just yesterday, I finished a study guide for Abingdon on the “difficult sayings” of Jesus. There’s scholarly depth to the work, but the guide is designed for adult education programs, especially in churches where people are interested in diving more deeply into problematic areas of scripture. Academic work, faith formation, and ethical considerations should not be seen as mutually exclusive – and good commentaries can help enormously. For instance, when Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, how are his followers today to respond to this teaching? What is a Christian today to do with Jesus’ statement in Luke about how a disciple has to hate his father and mother and siblings and children and wife (presuming all male disciples) if he is to follow Jesus? What are Christians in the United States to do with Jesus’ language of slavery – and the ways that he models slavery and slave-behaviors in his context, such as washing the feet of his disciples – given our own history of slavery? Is this a model that should be upheld in the church today? Or Jesus’ descriptions of the outer darkness and the wailing and gnashing of teeth – should Christians be worried about a literal, physical hell? And what do we do with the hateful and hated “Jews” in the Gospel of John?
The major book I published this past academic year, in October 2020, is The Bible With and Without Jesus, which I co-authored with Marc Zvi Brettler (who was also my co-editor for The Jewish Annotated New Testament). The book looks at – I’ll use Christian terms here – the major Old Testament citations that appear in the New Testament, and it considers first what these citations meant in their own historical context. Then, it asks where else were they deployed in Second Temple Jewish literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, or Philo. Third, it looks at how they continue to be used in post-biblical Jewish literature – the Talmud, the Midrashic collections, the medieval commentaries. Very often we see a polemical reception, indicating that the Jewish authors know how Christians are using the texts and are concerned to respond; but sometimes the rabbis give no indication of knowledge of how Christians are reading these passages. This book serves a number of purposes. The primary practical one is that I no longer have to write back in detail to people who write to me – I get such letters about once a week – saying “AJ, if you just read your Old Testament carefully, you’d see how it all points to Jesus.” If we read through the interpretive lenses of Jesus’ followers, such as the authors of the New Testament texts, of course the Old Testament points to Jesus! But if we take those lenses off and put on non-Messianic Jewish lenses, we see a whole host of other things. Christians learn to connect the dots, so to speak, in the ways promoted by the New Testament authors. We Jews have our own ways, and usually multiple ways, of understanding these same texts, whether Genesis or Isaiah or the Psalms.
AH: It sounds like this is not only a matter of doing good history but also, or even more so, a hermeneutical exercise in which an explicitly Jewish lens can be applied to the Christian scriptures (whereas the reverse has historically been and continues to be the norm). I would expect that Christians who read their own scriptures guided by Jewish questions or mentalities would encounter aspects of their own traditions that they wouldn’t otherwise. And I could imagine the benefits going the other way as well – you’ve written about how little of Christianity is known to many Jews, even though Christian history and the Christian scriptural texts have exerted enormous power in the formation and history of postbiblical Judaism. In this respect, the value for Jews in reading and understanding these enormously influential Christian claims (not least about Judaism) seems clear. But these outcomes are still inward-looking, we might say, for both traditions. Are there specifically interfaith benefits as well?
AJL: We have to start with a clarification: there is no singular Jewish lens on what our Scriptures mean. Nor is there a singular Christian take away, as we see already in the various ways the New Testament reads Isaiah’s so-called “suffering servant,” although the dominant Christian approach has been to see the Old Testament as pointing to as well as pointing out Jesus.
While the work I do in biblical studies is based in rigorous history, it is also biased in favor of both intra- and inter-religious understanding. I have an agenda; all historians do, we just don’t typically admit it. A primary aim in my undertaking historical work is to get Christians to stop bearing false witness against Jewish history. I also want to help Jews become more familiar with the New Testament, because it is part of our history as well. Jesus was Jewish, all the Marys were Jewish, so were Paul, James, Peter, and so forth. If we Jews want our Christian neighbors to know something more about Judaism than the Shoah (or Holocaust), whatever’s going on in the Middle East, and the occasional tour of Fiddler on the Roof, then I think we owe our Christian neighbors the same courtesy – to know more about Christianity than Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. A big part of this is not only knowing what’s in the New Testament, but also knowing more of how Christians over time have interpreted and are now interpreting those texts.
Judaism indeed becomes what it is, in part, in dialogue and debate with Christianity, and vice versa. There are other dialogue and debate partners – the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the development of new technologies, political and ecological contingencies, and so forth. But to know ourselves better, we need to know better how our neighbors see us, and how we react to such sight: do we reflect it back? Refract it? Reject it? Moreover, we can learn a great deal from studying alongside one another, and if the framing is right and everything works well, we can arrive at what Krister Stendahl described as “holy envy” – we look at what our neighbors have in their tradition and we say, “that’s not mine, but it inspires me,” or “that strikes me as philosophically true,” or “I don’t agree with you, but I can respect how you came to that conclusion.”
AH: I want to dig deeper into the contemporary interfaith implications in a few minutes, but while we’re still thinking about the early Christian texts – you’ve written a great deal on anti-Jewish elements (or at least, elements that have historically been read as anti-Jewish) in early Christianity. But how should we be making sense of rhetoric that assigns guilt or misunderstanding to “the Jews” when this rhetoric is produced by authors who saw themselves as Jewish, as faithful sons and servants of Israel? If they are in fact forms of intra-Jewish polemic, does that change how we read such statements? Or is this a slippery way of looking at the way that New Testament texts construct opposition to “Judaism”?
AJL: If we begin with the presupposition that the Gospel authors are Jews, we’ve already made a historical guess. We don’t know who the Gospel authors are, and even if we can make a good argument that a particular Gospel author is Jewish, we have a greater problem identifying their target audiences (if in fact they had a clear target audience). For example, Paul frequently cites the Septuagint, but Paul is clearly writing to gentiles. The claim that the Evangelists are Jews talking to Jews is not only a historical guess; it also threatens to exculpate gentile Christians for the negative effects of the polemic, even as it reproduces the assumption of one homogeneous Judaism and Jewish community. It reproduces the anti-Jewish trope that whatever is bad about Christianity is due to Jewish influence.
The common view in New Testament studies has been, although this position is eroding somewhat, that Matthew was a Jew writing to some sort of narrow Jewish group of Jesus’ followers and trying to convince them that gentiles should be acceptable in the community. Yet Matthew was the most popular gospel in the gentile churches of the second and third centuries – on the criteria of manuscript attestation, citation by the church fathers, and canonical placement. Moreover, this idea of Jewish Jesus-followers being unwelcoming of gentiles does not match what we know of first-century Jews, with their openness to gentile affiliates in synagogues and to gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple, not to mention the numerous “righteous gentiles” in Israel’s Scriptures, from Pharaoh’s daughter to Rahab to Ruth the Moabite. Indeed, there’s no canonical evidence of there being some narrow Jewish-Christian enclave that is excluding gentiles. What we do have is a number of texts trying to make sense out of what these gentiles are to do now that they’ve joined the Jesus movement.
The Gospel narratives clearly present Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, and in very harsh terms – using rhetoric that can be compared to the rhetoric of a Jeremiah or an Ezekiel or an Amos. The problem is that we don’t have direct access either to Jesus or to his Jewish audience: Jesus is a Jew talking to Jews, but the Gospels are narratives about Jesus and his fellow Jews written from the perspective of the Evangelists, who may or may not be Jews themselves but who definitely see the ongoing Jewish community as a problem. For the Evangelists, the Jews should have all accepted Jesus as Lord. The Jews are thus a problem that needed to be addressed: did they refuse because of the divine time-table, as Paul would have it? Were they mislead by their leaders, which is more or less Matthew’s take? Or were they, as John puts it, “children of the devil” who would never, and could never, live in the light? Moreover, the Gospels are preserved by an increasingly gentile church, whose members hear the texts and come away with an overall picture of Jews who are doing everything wrong. Jesus debates other Jews in an intramural manner, but the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus debating with Jews makes the debates extramural, since the Gospel-readers, followers of Jesus, likely do not associate themselves either with the Jews in the text or with their Jewish descendants.
We know that Paul, the Pharisee, welcomed gentiles into his messianic communities. And we also know that Paul isn’t expelled from the synagogue. He’s disciplined, but he’s not tossed out. Even were there a mechanism for tossing someone out of the synagogue, we would need to ask why a congregation would expel a Christ-follower who was a fellow Jew? Proclaiming that somebody is the messiah isn’t blasphemy. Nor is seeing oneself as G-d’s child a blasphemy; we’re all children of G-d. The bigger problem, and it’s one people today often miss because it makes sense in ancient contexts and not in modern ones, is what Jesus’ Jewish followers, like Paul, are saying to gentiles. Telling gentiles that the messianic age has begun and that therefore they can no longer worship their local gods or eat meat offered to idols creates both political and familial disruption. Why? Because if they don’t make offerings to the gods, then the gods will no longer protect their city. It also means they can’t eat at their parents’ table. All this puts the local Jewish community in danger, because the message of this messianic age is coming from Jews, like Paul. Jews in the Diaspora were in the minority and it would be unwise, at best, for them to tell their gentile neighbors that their religion is false.
AH: If what I described a minute ago as “intra-Jewish polemic” is, in fact, a sort of staged intra-Jewish polemic on the part of an increasingly gentile church… that’s disturbing, not least, because it moves up the timing on the constitutive opposition that develops between Christians and Jews. If gentile Christians are, from the very beginning, making imaginative and identitarian space for themselves through dramatic but caricatured depictions of Jews telling other Jews that true Judaism has migrated out of the synagogue, this strikes me as something far more fundamental than the recent history of rapprochement and the resources of contemporary interreligious dialogue would seem to be capable of addressing.
AJL: There was internal Jewish polemic. However, as I have noted, the polemic in the New Testament is not preserved by the Jewish community; it is preserved by the gentile assemblies. I do not agree with Rosemary Ruether that the flipside of Christianity is anti-Judaism; I don’t think you have to be anti-Jewish in order to be Christian. Even if we decide that parts of the New Testament are anti-Jewish, where we start need not control where we are now or where we finish. An alternative would be to think of both Judaism and Christianity as unfinished products. Christians are in an in-between state, waiting for Jesus to come back (though not all Christians are particularly worried about this), and Jews are waiting for the Messiah to come in the first place (again, that’s the traditional understanding; not all Jews are actually doing that). We’re all still moving toward something – we’re not in the world to come or the kingdom of heaven yet, and if we want to defer questions of who’s right until the messianic age arrives, that’s fine. When the Messiah comes (or comes back, if you prefer), the disagreements today will be sorted out. And in the meantime, we can treat one another with compassion and work together for justice and peace – or as Jews would put it, tikkun olam. All religions are supersessionist to one degree or another, all make truth-claims that outsiders would reject – but we can still be kind to one another!
AH: You’ve described this, I think, as a “theological response” – that is, choosing a stance of goodwill over a stance of blame, recognizing that the historical questions are not going to be resolved either completely or without great pain.
AJL: Choosing a stance of good will is a theological response, because historical work is not going to resolve tensions. I understand but am not convinced by historical arguments put forth by Christian scholars that John’s “Jews” really means just certain Jewish leaders, or that the Epistle to the Hebrews really isn’t supersessionist, and so on. But ethics and theology provide us a way forward: we learn from our history, and our history still impacts us, but we are not restricted to that history. That was, in part, the genius of Nostra Aetate, because the New Testament does say or at least strongly suggest that the Jews killed Jesus – Matthew 27:25 (the title of this article); 1 Thessalonians 2, most of the Gospel of John – but it was the decision of the Second Vatican Council (a split vote, but nevertheless) to make the ethical commitment that no, Roman Catholics aren’t going to blame all Jews in all times and places for the death of Jesus.
If we consider patterns of biblical interpretation among slaveholders and abolitionists, we find that they were all using the same texts, though they were emphasizing different verses. But today, few Christians would say, “Slavery is fine because the New Testament commends it.” The New Testament approves of slavery, but Christians today condemn the institution. The New Testament says highly problematic things about Jews, and the interpretation of the New Testament in many quarters exacerbates the problems. And yet, nothing requires today’s Christians to promulgate such views – or any views that suppress the human dignity of women, LGBTQ+ people, the disabled, the poor, non-Christians, and so on.
AH: Ethics becomes a rudder for interpretation. If there’s always going to be a canon within the canon, always an apparatus with which we approach the ancient texts and retrieve their pertinence for a new time and place, it had better be one grounded in love and compassion rather than one grounded in self-importance and vindictiveness.
So here we are now, some sixty years after Vatican II. The same year that Nostra Aetate came out, Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a famous address at Union Theological Seminary in which he claimed that what unites Judaism and Christianity is their interdependence and solidarity in the face of fascism and nihilism. His dictum was that Jews and Christians are siblings on a deeper level than they are strangers. Yet now, in the last decade at least, we have seen a burgeoning of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Jewish violence, not least on the part of self-identifying Christians. How might you begin to interpret – I hesitate to say explain – this resurgence? Or has it been simmering all along and is only becoming more visible?
AJL: It’s true that hate groups are increasingly visible. This presence has existed all along, but thirty or forty years ago, people weren’t marching with torches in Charlottesville and shouting Nazi slogans, storming the capitol with Auschwitz t-shirts, or taking guns to shoot up synagogues. Nazis planned a march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1978, but the local community resisted them and the planned march was called off. Such manifestations are not new, but they’re happening more frequently and they are more frequently publicized because of advancements in technology. I’ve been in Nashville for close to thirty years, and there’s always been a guard at the synagogue; there have been threats at the Jewish community center, sporadic threats, but they have happened enough times that we need some sort of protection. Most of my Christian friends – though not all – have no idea what it’s like to go to worship and to have their bags checked by an armed guard.
Jews are not the only people being targeted, though, and Charlottesville provides a good example of the connection between various forms of hate now increasingly prevalent. I was tracking sermons the Sunday after the Charlottesville march, and pastor after pastor decried American racism. But I heard almost nothing about the marchers who shouted “Jews will not replace us” or about how the local police refused the Charlottesville synagogue’s request for protection. How then do we unite in solidarity and practical support for one another? The harm done to one group should not cause us to ignore the harm done to others.
One challenge here is the increasing concern for ideological purity: the expectation is that if we identify with a particular group, then we have to sign on to all its various positions and programmatic convictions, and if we don’t sign onto all of them, then somehow we’re insufficiently authentic or even unwelcome. For instance, I experience this lack of hospitality from time to time when someone finds out that I’m a Zionist – which means I believe that the land of Israel is the national Jewish homeland. I also believe that the land of Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian people. But more so today than a decade ago, people will say with utter seriousness that, if I’m a Zionist, I can’t be part of other groups that are fighting for the liberation of a different minoritized group in a different context. We need to find ways to have conversations again with people who don’t see eye to eye with each other on every issue.
AH: We’re in a moment when we hear a lot about polarization; we can be a little more precise, I think, and identify what’s going on as an ideological centrifugal force where positions are pulled apart from each other so they form into clusters of positions, positions which may be only loosely related to one another but, as you say, seem to demand consistency within a given cluster. I’d be fascinated to think more about how Jewish-Christian relations have been affected in these last couple of decades by this polarization, this ideological centrifuge.
AJL: Well, it is a rare political issue where we can assume the Jew will be on one side and the Christian will be on the other. Instead, we have very conservative Jews and very conservative Christians, who might have extremely differently views about theological or even moral issues, aligning in political coalitions. And we’ll find the same with liberal Jews and liberal Christians. There’s immense diversity within these traditions – we have secular Jews, even atheist Jews, and we have ultra-orthodox Jews; Christians have the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. There’s no reason to believe that these groups would be in lockstep with one another on any given issue. So too, Christians are not at all in theological or ethical lockstep on the status of Judaism or the appropriate actions to take in relation to their Jewish neighbors – there’s a wide spectrum from philosemitism to ignorance or apathy to antisemitism.
AH: As we think about this issue of solidarity or collaboration between political or moral affinity groups across religious lines, a significant example is the Christian-Jewish solidarity that was so important to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. I wonder what role is played by Christian-Jewish relations in the continuation of that struggle today. Is interreligious support still as pivotal to the pursuit of civil rights in America as it was sixty years ago? And are there lessons that might be learned from the history of Christian-Jewish rapprochement, which have some bearing on struggles for racial de-escalation and justice today?
AJL: The racial issue is different in important ways from the Jewish-Christian issue – very different histories, but also different categories of identity for the individuals involved. But can each process can learn from the other. Part of what we need to learn today in both contexts is the capacity to listen, truly listen, to the other voices. So instead of one group telling the other what to do – we begin instead by stopping and listening, really listening, to how others describe their experiences and their views. Such listening has to go both ways – if we hear something that we do not understand, we should be able to admit our lack of understanding and ask for clarification without immediately being dismissed as an antisemite or an apologist, as ignorant or naive. Listening is not easy. I think that this problem with listening is getting worse because of how we acquire and filter our information, especially on the internet where we settle into echo chambers, approving of people who agree with us and demonizing those who don’t. Moreover, we lack a common set of references that existed in greater measure fifty years ago, when media choices in television and radio were much more limited and the internet was the stuff of science fiction.
As for the intersection of racial questions and Jewish-Christian relations, I’ve found it particularly helpful to attend to the increasingly heard and increasingly acknowledged voices of Jews of color. For example, the organization Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “in every language”) offers wonderful programs by, for, and about Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American and mixed-race people within the Jewish community.
AH: It sounds like, even without drawing conclusions from one rapprochement process to the other, there are still what we might call some methodological best practices – that’s putting it crudely, perhaps – that should be uplifted and prioritized as part of any such process, even recognizing that the specifics of what needs to take place are going to be extremely specific.
AJL: Empathetic listening does help break down stereotypes, and breaking down stereotypes allows partners in a conversation (or in a multicultural context) to be their own individual selves. We self-identify with larger groups, and we are also identified by others (whether that identification be based on religion or race or gender performance or sexual orientation or age or physical ability or economic class), but we are always individuals as well, and I’d like to think that each voice can be counted and heard. One challenge, and I see this happening in my classrooms as well as in some Jewish-Christian dialogue settings, is that the rigidity of categories like oppressor/victim can foreclose dialogue. Oppression needs to be acknowledged, as do matters of privilege. At the same time – and here’s where matters can get difficult – victims of one form of oppression or bigotry can themselves be complicit in other forms of oppression or bigotry. Jews of color can harbor anti-Christian attitudes, Black Christians can harbor anti-Jewish views, Asian Christians can harbor homophobic views, and so on. Without taking responsibility for this complexity, it is all too easy to find oneself in an increasingly narrow pocket of solidarity, making it more difficult to support one another in a common cause.
AH: This issue of “common cause” is an important one, because there’s a lot to be said for pragmatic partnerships in facing the ethical and political problems of our day, yet the last several decades have seen some unintended consequences of framing Jews and Christians as part of a unified “Judeo-Christian” tradition or civilization with a coherent “Judeo-Christian morality.” The concept, as you know, emerged out of efforts to combat antisemitism in the mid-twentieth century, but also as part of a Cold-War-era American civic project (just last year in The Atlantic, James Loeffler described the concept of “Judeo-Christianity” wonderfully, as an “ecumenical marketing meme for combatting godless communism”). So, to what extent is this legacy still part of the framing of Jewish-Christian solidarity today? Is this language still regularly used, and if so, at what cost?
AJL: I do not find the term “Judeo-Christian” helpful. In biblical studies, the term “Judeo-Christianity” often appears as short-hand to describe the followers of Jesus who are seen as still trapped in that old (read: Jewish and negative) legalistic perspective. Accordingly, “Christianity” as such, without the “Judeo” prefix, becomes the “pure Christianity” of the mind and heart and spirit, without any of that Judeo-stuff. The term “Judeo-Christian” also came to be used to refer to “the Bible – Old and New Testaments – plus Christianity.” This delimitation has nothing to do with Judaism per se, because Judaism isn’t the Old Testament; Judaism is living commentary on the texts of the Old Testament (which, of course, we wouldn’t call the Old Testament). Judaism as we know it today is based on the rabbinic commentaries on that earlier Scripture, and then commentaries on the commentaries, from antiquity to today. It is a living tradition. Therefore, we can’t read Leviticus and understand what people are doing in the local synagogue today, or even in the local synagogue at the time of Jesus. While speaking of “Judeo-Christianity” today can indicate the commonalities between Jewish and Christian ethics, its effect is to co-opt the Bible for Christians while hinting that other groups – Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and so on – lack a moral code.
AH: I’d like to pivot a bit and come back to issues of formation, because healing relationships that have been so poisoned over the course of centuries isn’t just about getting together and forging accords at an institutional level – it’s also about the formation of communities over time so that they are capable of the kind of deep listening, the courageous modes of reading and reflecting on a troubled history, that we’ve been talking about. How, for instance, are humility and empathy with regard to Judaism, and ethical commitments to protect Jewish neighbors from the legacies of Christian anti-Judaism, being cultivated in seminaries?
AJL: When it comes to Jewish-Christian relations or to avoiding anti-Jewish teaching and preaching, let’s talk about what seminaries do. The Association of Theological Schools, which is the major accrediting organization for divinity schools and seminaries in the United States and Canada, has never put into effect any sort of best-practices model or even advised that candidates for ordained ministry in Christian churches be informed about how and why to avoid anti-Jewish teaching and preaching. I have spoken with the head of the ATS – and that office has changed hands, so I’ve spoken with every head of the ATS since 2006 – to ask that something be put in place, and the response is always something along the lines of, “Dr. Levine, we just don’t have the mechanism to do that.” This strikes me as a staggering lack of imagination.
I’m not saying that Christians need to do away with Christian soteriology. I’m not saying that you have to sacrifice the particulars of your own tradition on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. I’m simply asking that false witness not be borne against Jews and Judaism. If you want to proclaim salvation only through the Christ, go ahead – that seems to be a reasonable Christian doctrine based on numerous passages in the New Testament – but do it without spite and without slander. Christians should not be saying that all Jews are unspiritual legalists, or that Jews have a morbid conception of God as just a transcendent, warlike king, or that Jews despise gentiles when in fact they’re welcoming gentiles in synagogues and at the Jerusalem Temple, or that Jews are responsible for oppressing and depressing and suppressing women whereas Jesus invented feminism and the pantsuit! Christians should not have to make Jesus or Paul look good by yanking them out of a falsely constructed toxic Jewish system and making them the only Jews who cared about women, the poor, gentiles, or what we would call “social justice.”
AH: I really appreciate what you’re saying, particularly the nuance over the issue of exclusivist claims that still can, or maybe need to be, made – if they can be made without slander and falsehood when it comes to constructing the Jewish other against which these theological principles were developed. But is there a line where this approach breaks down? For example, in my own area of research, Orthodox Christianity, the early theology of the icon – so fundamental to Orthodox life, liturgy, identity, theology, and so forth – was predicated upon and articulated in terms of a logic whereby the Christian capacity for interacting with holiness contrasts with and proactively repairs a brokenness that existed in Israel and is still evident among “the Jews.” That’s just one example of a core Christian teaching where anti- or post-Judaism is loadbearing in the tradition. Uprooting it would seem to be a huge, transformative task – not just an abstention from libel. This is surely not something we can resolve today, but my question is about the limits of the interreligious approach you’re describing.
AJL: It’s a great question. Partly, a response depends on where that brokenness is located. If you locate brokenness within Judaism and determine that Christianity is providing liberation from Judaism, then you’ve misread the origins of Christianity even as you’ve constructed a negative Judaism. But if instead you determine that the brokenness to which Christianity responds is located in the human condition, in the rupture of Adam and Eve from their wholeness, then it’s the brokenness of the human condition and not specifically of Jews and Judaism for which Jesus provides reparation and reconciliation. That construction is less of a problem and may even provide a wavelength for productive dialogue.
AH: Yes, especially if the disorientation of facing violent or cruel attitudes in one’s own tradition can resolve into deeper self-understanding and opportunities for spiritual or moral growth – for instance, Christians might understand the temptation to scapegoat and hold Jews in contempt precisely as a symptom of being broken beings in need of healing, a corruption that can be overcome in grace.
We’re coming to the end of our time, but I have one more question, a little more open ended than the rest: what models do you uphold for the kind of interreligious attentiveness and reconciliation work that motivates you? Which spiritual giants, or even regular folks in your experience, register to you as voices or icons particularly needed in our own time?
AJL: I’m not sure there needs to be a patron saint for interreligious relations. But if I think about the person who was most influential in terms of my own formation, I’d have to say my mom. When I was a child, after that classmate accused me of killing God, I announced to my mom that I wanted to go to catechism, to religious education class at the local Catholic church, to find out where this hateful teaching came from. My mother said, in effect, “as long as you remember who you are, go – you might learn something, and it’s good to know about other people’s religious traditions.” And then, as I found out much later, she facilitated my getting into those classes. She’s the one who always encouraged me to pursue the answers to questions I found intriguing, and I was very intrigued by my Catholic neighbors’ teachings and traditions. If I wanted a book about Christian iconography or the Virgin Mary, my mother took me to the library. If I wanted to visit a church, she took me – she never quite understood why I was interested in this material, but she thought that fostering my intellectual curiosity was an important thing to do.
AH: There’s a real courage in that kind of encouragement for your child, especially in light of the culturally fraught environment that you’ve described.
AJL: Absolutely. She knew that you couldn’t just put your head in the ground, especially if you’re not part of the majority. She taught me to take a kind of Sermon on the Mount approach, although I doubt she’d ever read Matthew 5-7. Rather, she epitomized Jewish practical wisdom: when somebody hurts you, you don’t respond with violence, but you figure out some way of moving forward without losing your own dignity. I’ve taken that to heart. So if I think about my interfaith role model, my model for how to live in a world of religious diversity and complexity – I’m proud to say, and we should all be so lucky, that’s it’s my mom.
AH: An inspiring thought on which to conclude. Thank you, Professor Levine, for your challenging insights and your hope that our history of Jewish-Christian entanglement remains a worthwhile work in progress.
This interview originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.