Shabbat Zachor

Mistakes Christians Sometimes Make about Jews
In our megillah reading tomorrow night, Haman says to King Ahasverus, “There is a certain people- scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws….”  Those “certain people” are, of course, the Jewish people who Haman wishes to exterminate. Of course, Haman is, at best, misunderstanding the nature of the Jewish people – that we are xenophobic and misanthropic and do not obey the laws of the country in which we reside.  Haman is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. Some of us might be surprised to learn, however, that some of the people in our lives – those who love and respect us – misunderstand Judaism even today.  Of course, one can misunderstand Judaism and NOT be an anti-Semite.  I want to make that perfectly clear.  However, I daresay that even many Jews share these same misunderstandings about Judaism!!  This evening I want to share with you a talk that I attended with Amy Jill Levine. She is s a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her talk was entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes Christians Make about Jews.” I think you are going to find this subject as interesting as I do. However, tonight I am only going to comment on three of those mistakes. The first mistake that some Christians have about Judaism is that Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity is a religion of love. If anyone ever tells you this, please remember   that the Hebrew word for “love’ – “Ahava” is used over 250 times in Hebrew scriptures. Some Christians – and unfortunately many Jews, I might add – view Jewish law as a burden.  In fact, Jewish law is a grace, that is, a way for us to be close to G-d, a gift that G-d has given us.  It is a way for us to share common practices that bring us closer together, that cement our common bond.  Many of us had a first-hand experience of how this could work when we went on our family retreat two weeks ago. We had no problem following Jewish law – worshipping at the proper times, eating kosher food, reciting grace after meals, studying sacred texts, turning off all of our electronic devices, not traveling, or shopping and just enjoying being together.  Jesus was a Jewish man who followed Jewish law – he wore tsitsit to remind himself of the law, he kept the Sabbath, and he argued with others about what is the proper observance of the law. One doesn’t argue points of Jewish law if it is not important to you. Archeological remains from the time of Jesus show the presence of Shabbat lamps the existence o, mikvahs and an absence of pig bones, indicating there was widespread adherence to Jewish law. It was the way of life that most people were following. There is no evidence whatsoever that Jews were suffering under some terrible burden of Biblical commandments whose weight they could not bear. Yet this does not stop the World Council of Churches from writing that at the time of Jesus, “Judaism had encased G-d in its laws and traditions and its ministers could not accept a concept of G-d that went beyond their own limits….” Catholics learn from one of the pre-eminent Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Leonardo Boff, that “in the world as Jesus found it, human beings were under the yoke of the law. Religion was no longer the way that human beings expressed their own openness to G-d — It had crystallized and stagnated in a world of its own – a world of rights and sacrifices.” Thus, first century Judaism is still portrayed as a fossilized religion in which Jews focused on fulfilling the minutiae of the law without any experience of the spiritual dimension of our faith. A second mistake that Christians have about Jews concerns mitzvoth, that is, the commandments.  Some Christians are taught and believe that we follow the Torah in order to earn G-d’s love so that we can gain entrance to heaven. This makes us what is termed a “works righteousness religion”.  Based on this, Christians feel sorry for us because they gain heaven through faith alone.  They worry about those Jews who do not follow the mitzvoth – if they are not earning G-d’s love through practice of the mitzvoth, what will their ultimate fate be? This is a misunderstanding of the role of mitzvoth in the lives of the Jew. All Jews are assured a place in heaven, according to no less authority than Maimonides. The Mitzvoth are not given to us to earn G-d’s love – they are given to us as a way to show our love for G-d. This can be compared to the relationship between two spouses.  A husband does not, say, prepare a special dinner for his wife in order to earn her love.  He does it because he loves her. Similarly, we follow mitzvoth because we love G-d, not to earn that love, which has already been freely given. I will conclude tonight with a third of the ten mistakes that Professor Levine spoke about.  A third mistake is a misunderstanding that Jesus invented the idea of a G-d who is in intimate relationship with human beings. Some even teach that Jesus was the first to call G-d “father”.  It is mistakenly taught that first century Jews worshipped a G-d who was “a remote judge condemning people for infractions over little rules”, as opposed to Jesus, who worships a G-d full of “grace, compassion, forgiveness and love.” That comparison was on one made by President Jimmy Carter on his Bible Tape. Of course, Jesus did not discover the G-d of grace, compassion, forgiveness and love. Jesus was already part of a tradition that understood G-d as a G-d of grace, compassion, forgiveness and love—the Jewish tradition!  He was Jewish, after all, and he knew his Jewish texts, for example: “G-d is the father of orphans and the just judge of widows… who provides a home for the lonely”. (Psalm 68:5) “He shall say to me, ‘You are my father, my G-d, the Rock of my Salvation.” (Psalm 89:27) “Now, O Lord, you are our Father ….. we are the work of your hands.” (Isaiah 64:7) “They shall come with weeping, and with compassion I will guide them, for I am ever a Father to Israel.” (Jeremiah 31:9) Perhaps these misunderstandings stem from the fact that although Christians might know that Jesus was Jewish they do not authentically understand what that truly means in terms of his formative years, his development, his practices and the historical, cultural and religious contexts of his life. Unfortunately this is seldom taught or even noted in various religious communities. Scholars like Professor Amy Jill Levine are working to correct this by bringing it to the attention of seminaries that ordain religious leaders. She has written a book readily accessible to the non-expert, The Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, which expands on this line of thinking. It behooves us all to learn more about our religion, as well as what others say and teach about us, so that we are better prepared to meet the challenge of responding to misunderstandings about Judaism. Shabbat Shalom