Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Review of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament by Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Part 3

Chapter 2 – Results of Ignorance: Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus

Cook divides the history of this topic into six periods. It’s not a bad overview. The first historical period Cook treats is the period of Jesus’ ministry. Here Cook maintains that we can know little of what Jews of that day actually thought about Jesus, because our sources—the gospels—are separated from the original events chronologically, geographically, demographically (that is, more Gentiles than Jews were Christians by first century’s end), and ideologically (anti-Jewish bias in the gospels). I’ll address Cook’s historical minimalism as the review progresses, as well as the idea that the gospels reflect anti-Jewish bias. At this point, note that Cook finds the available sources, which he restricts to the gospels, highly problematic as historical evidence.

Period two takes us to the end of the second century, where our sources remain few. We have Josephus in his famous Testimonium, which in its current form is recognized to reflect Christian interpolation. We have the gospels, where Cook seems willing to accept its portrayal of negative non-Christian Jewish views of Jesus, but Cook is silent on positive portrayals (Joseph of Arimathea; the 3,000 and 5,000 (or increasing to a total of 5,000) who came to believe in Acts 2:41 and 4:4, who were certainly therefore favorable towards Jesus before they came to faith; and the multitudes of Jewish people who listened to him favorably (Matthew 7:28-29). Finally, he mentions Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, where he is correct to see the dialogue, whether a literary invention or not, as reflective of actual argumentation that was taking place. The portrait of Jewish views skews toward the negative; the truth was that Jews responded negatively and positively, with the development of “border lines” between Judaism and Christianity being solidified more by the leadership on each side than by the man in the street. And note that just as there were Jews in the first and second centuries whose positive attitudes towards Jesus led to official negative responses, later on (e.g. in the days of John Chrysostom) we encounter the phenomenon of philo-Semitic Christians visiting synagogues and observing Jewish holidays, leading to a hardening of the positions by church leadership. Thus borders solidified on both sides of the fence.

The third period is that of early rabbinic literature, roughly the 3rd through 6th centuries. There is a substantial literature on the phenomenon of “Jesus in the Talmud,” with voices on the spectrum between maximalist and minimalist positions (that is, those who find all alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud to be actual references and those who do not). Here we find the beginnings of the ideas that Jesus was a sorcerer, a blasphemer, and an enticer of Israel. Again the evidence is skewed to the negative. “Mindful that some Jews had been lured into Christian ranks, the rabbis denounced Jesus for attempting to ‘entice and lead Israel astray…’” (p. 15). The term “lured” sounds like a retrojection of modern Jewish attitudes towards Christian missionaries and implies some sort of deceit in the presentation of Jesus during this period. It’s an anachronistic term in that environment; the rabbinic label of ‘enticement’ was based more on the rabbis’ perception that Jesus had arrogated God’s prerogatives to himself thereby promulgating idolatry. Again, too, Cook fails to mention any of the positive or neutral references to interactions between Jewish believers in Jesus and the larger Jewish community (see the recent Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik [Henderson, 2007]). To be fair, it is mostly recently that the imbalance is being addressed in scholarship, though the cry against the “lachrymose” view of Jewish-Christian relations—as one of little but persecution on the part of the Christians—goes back to Salo Baron.

In period four we find ourselves in the Middle Ages. The well-known medieval disputations tell little of what the man in the street thought of Jesus. For that, we can go to the Toledot Yeshu, a medieval parody of the gospels’ Jesus story, a counter-narrative that has lasted in Jewish minds well into the twentieth century. Cook here acknowledges that the Toledot “misdirected” Jewish thinking about Jesus. What was said above about the lachrymose view of Jewish history applies perhaps even more strongly in this period.

The fifth period is the mid-1800s on, the period of the “First Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The Jewish context of Jesus was rediscovered, and Jesus was fixed within the orbit of Judaism and the charge at his trial reconfigured to be sedition; while Paul, not Jesus was the “bad guy” (not Cook’s term) who spun off Christianity as a separate religion.

Finally, the sixth period is right now: a “split” has developed among Jews between those willing to expose themselves to the subject of Jesus and those who are not so willing. Cook wants the refuseniks, so to speak, to enter the discussion. Yet there is also another, possibly more important split, that has to do not with willingness to engage, but—among those who do engage—with to what extent they see Christianity, Paul included, as inherently Jewish (even if they disagree with the message) or to what extent they see faith in Jesus for Jews, and the existence of Jewish believers in Jesus, as valid. In other words, attitudes are the beginning point; but once established, we still have matters of content to deal with, and that can be as polarizing as the matter of attitude.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament by Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Part 2

Chapter 1—When Advice of Sages Ceases to be Sage Advice

I won’t say too much about this first chapter, since it serves basically as an introduction to the themes of the book which will be more fully elaborated later. Two of these themes stand out in importance. The first is that Jews continue to ignore the New Testament to their own detriment. Cook relates nine short vignettes—ranging from reactions to a nativity scene, to the Hebrew name of Jesus, and to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—to underscore how Jewish ignorance of the New Testament ends up being counter-productive for Jews who become “seriously disadvantaged.” Indeed, Cook says, Jews get tongue-tied when asked questions such as “Who do you think Jesus was?” or “How do you account for Jesus’ empty tomb?” Or even when asking questions of themselves, such as: if Jesus’ death conferred benefit on humanity, why aren’t Jews praised instead of blamed for that death?

What we need, Cook argues, is a revolution which can only come from the top down, not from the ground up. He gives us an instructive historical note here. In 1899, Reform Rabbi Harris Weinstock wrote a sort of survey entitled “Shall Jesus of Nazareth Be Taught in the Jewish Sabbath School?” which in fact advocated for greater Jewish knowledge about Jesus, in order that Jews might better defend themselves. Responses among the 60 respondents ranged from the negative to the cautiously positive. Yet no change ensued because “seven required conditions” (to be enumerated in chapter 23) did not yet exist.

Jumping ahead one hundred years to 1999, we find another survey taken by Roxanne Schneider-Shapiro, designed to update Weinstock’s results. The proposed learning curve would embrace not only Jesus but also the New Testament and Christianity. Of the 450 synagogues who received a survey, 225 responded—with again, both positive and negative feedback. These two surveys give us meaningful data on the attitudes of “Jewish religious professionals,” a baseline from which we can determine what is still needed.

The second main theme to be elaborated in the rest of the book concerns the New Testament itself, which does not portray the “real” Jesus. The gospels, in Cook’s view, are the real culprits in fostering anti-Semitic attitudes, as can be seen from their blaming of the Jews for Jesus’ death and from their supersessionist theology, exploited in recent times by Nazism. For historical reasons, then, the Jewish community has been discouraged, or rather discouraged itself, from engaging the New Testament. (In the Introduction Cook has already reworked the metaphor of famous sculptural figures of Synagoga and Ecclesia—which depict the blindness of the Jewish people towards the gospel—into an image of Jews’ self-imposed blindness vis-à-vis the New Testament.)

The particular way in which Jews should come to know the New Testament lies in what Cook calls its “dynamics”—and to apply this knowledge to “enhance the well-being of Jews living in a Christian environment.” What he means by “dynamics” is, as he will show, learning how the gospels developed, namely, through inventions, alterations, and creation that leaves the now-undiscoverable real Jesus behind. In the course of the book Cook will show himself to be a minimalist in terms of “recovering” the historical Jesus. In fact, his approach is standard-fare form- and tradition-criticism; he accepts, for instance, the idea that there is a sharp dichotomy between history and theology. That is, the gospels reflect the theological concerns of their writers rather than history—not as well as history or not as (true, accurate) history written from a theological viewpoint. Or, the idea that the later church created material now in the gospels in order to meet its own needs at the time.

And those needs had distinctly anti-Jewish overtones. A minimalist when it comes to the historicity of the New Testament, Cook is a maximalist in finding anti-Judaism embedded in the final gospels.

NEXT: Chapter 2—Results of Ignorance: Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution . . .

I’m part way through Rabbi Michael J. Cook’s Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment. Here’s the scoop: Cook teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Specifically, his area is Judaeo-Christian Studies, and his affiliation is Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR, Reform’s rabbinical seminary, is according to Cook the first such seminary to require training in the New Testament. It is high time, Cook believes, that Jews stop being intentionally ignorant of the New Testament and come to learn what it’s all about. In contrast to the high value Jews place on knowledge in other areas of study, we are woefully ignorant of the New Testament and therefore cannot formulate a proper response when confronted with questions from or about Christians. New Testament study will enable Jews to feel empowered rather than tongue-tied in dealing with texts that have contributed to anti-Semitism and ill feeling towards Jews.

So in Modern Jews Cook becomes, you should pardon the expression, an evangelist who wants to see a revolution in the curricula of each and every Jewish seminary, synagogue and religious school. It’s radical, unheard of, extraordinary, out of the mainstream. But it needs to happen.

I’ll look at each of his chapters in coming posts, hopefully one every week or so. This week here are a few of my first thoughts.

What Cook attempts to teach is not so much the content of the New Testament as what he calls “Gospel Dynamics.” (The constant repetition of that phrase in the book begins to sound like a registered trademark after a while, and it strangely reminded me of Charles Atlas’ “Dynamic Tension” exercise method!) What are Gospel Dynamics? It’s Cook’s phrase to explain how the New Testament gospels work. And specifically, to explain why the New Testament is (allegedly – more on that later) anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish.

In a nutshell, here’s how it goes. The gospels are not really interested in history. They are interested in theology. In fact, what the gospel writers did was to take the real, historical, Jewish Jesus and to rework the story of his life to meet the needs of a community several decades, even generations, removed from the original. So for example, by the time the gospel writers wrote, Christians were afraid of Rome and afraid of being associated with the Jewish people – Christianity had been considered a Jewish sect early on - who had just unsuccessfully waged a failed rebellion against Rome, which ended in the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. So what did the gospel writers do? They switched the blame for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews, thereby in effect pacifying any Romans who would hear or read the Christian message.

Think of it this way. Supposing that in real history John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by a coterie of Republicans. For the next forty years the Democrats hold sway in the government, only to be finally replaced by Republicans. And the life of Kennedy has not been written down until the Republicans come to power, though early on everyone knew whodunnit. Now comes the time to write that story, but for fear of Republican reprisals the chroniclers rewrite history and make Democrats to be the real assassins.

That’s not a full analogy to what Cook is doing, because even more than being motivated by politics and fear, the gospel writers are motivated by theology. But it’s enough to give you an idea.

And such ideas are by no means Cook’s own, just the rather patentable phrase “Gospel Dynamics.” For a long, long time, some scholars have done two things when approaching the gospels (they’ve done a lot more, but let’s start here):

1. Assume that the content of the gospels was first circulated orally, then later on massaged, shaped, and reworked in written form not to tell what actually happened, but to meet the needs of a later generation, in the process often inventing things wholesale.

2. Assume a false alternative. Either the writers were interested in history, or they were interested in theology, but not both. Either the writers were interested in their own generation, or they were interested in what really happened in a previous generation, but not both.

Imagine a malleable, clay sculpture of a man in a standing posture, hands at his side. Decades after the statue was first created in peaceable times, life takes a dramatic turn for the worse and the hapless people are in need of self-defense. They take classes in karate, they carry weapons, they keep their lights turned on all the time. They look to heroes who can defend them against others. In this social climate, someone takes the original clay sculpture and reworks it so that the man is now shown to be carrying a machine gun, and the statue is put on public display. This is the kind of person we need these days! This is what speaks to our community. And that is what we are interested in — what works for us today, not what the original may have been.

I am oversimplifying a huge area of scholarly study, but I am doing so in a calculated way in order to make vivid some of what is going on in the field of gospel studies. Actually, what Cook calls “Gospel Dynamics” includes what scholars otherwise call “tradition-history” — the idea that the gospel content (“traditions”) circulated orally for decades before being shaped in light of community concerns and finally written down, with minimal concern for history. And so the historical Jesus, his actions, his words, and those of his immediate followers, are lost to us, the only Jesus we have being in large part the creation of a later time.

I’ve said so much on this in order to point out that Cook is not doing anything especially new, and in fact he takes his ideas even further than many others would. But is it “good for the Jews”? Cook thinks so. In succeeding posts I’ll examine his chapters individually and see if he presents an accurate picture of the New Testament as well as how he hopes his understandings will benefit the Jewish people. And we'll explore if this is a Twitter-worthy revolution.

Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm continuing a series of reflections from my reading of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Literacy. Some of these reflections, like this one, take us far afield from the topic of the book, but I have found many of his comments and stories to be applicable elsewhere. Case in point today. In the section on "Destruction of the Temple", Rabbi Telushkin notes:

The Temple’s fall, more than any other loss, signaled to the Jews the final failure of the revolt. The Talmud speaks of Jews who went into a permanent state of depression, who “became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. Rabbi Joshua got into a conversation with them and said to them: ‘My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine?’ They replied: ‘Shall we eat meat which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that the altar is no more? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but now no longer?’ He said to them: ‘If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased.’ They said: ‘[That is correct, and] we will manage with fruit.’ ‘We should not eat fruit either, [he said] because there is no longer an offering of firstfruits.’ The ascetics responded that they would manage with other fruits. Rabbi Joshua said, ‘But we should not drink water because there is no longer any ceremony of the water libation.’” To this they had no answer, whereupon the pragmatic Rabbi Joshua advised them: “My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.”
There are some Christians, Jewish or not, who believe that it is wrong to observe Christmas or Easter because of their alleged pagan origins. I happen to be Jewish, and there is much about Christmas and Easter that is foreign to the Jewish culture. But to observe the birth and the resurrection day of the Messiah can be a wonderful thing. And actually, the pagan connection was likely that the church took over -- co-opted -- the pagan holidays to sanctify them. Nevertheless, some will insist that by virtue of a pagan connection in the first millennium, they are off bounds today.

To that, I offer a variation on Rabbi Joshua's argument:

"We shall not celebrate the Messiah's birth and resurrection because they were transformations of pagan holidays."

"If that is so, we should not call the names of the days as we do (Sunday, Monday, etc.) because they are named after pagan gods and celestial bodies."

"That is correct. We will manage with saying, 'first day,' "second day,' 'third day'" [as is actually done in modern Hebrew].

"We should not say that either, because English was a language that developed among pagans."

To this they had no answer.

From my mouth to God's ears. I'm sure though, that the anti-Christmas folks will have an answer even to that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Ironies of God

Rabbi Telushkin, in the section of Jewish Literacy on “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” writes:
There is a certain delicious irony in the fact that Nazi antisemitism—responsible for chasing both Einstein, Meitner, and hundreds of thousands of other Jews out of Germany—also guaranteed that the Axis would lose the Second World War. If not for Nazi antisemitism, Germany would likely have been the first nation to develop the atom bomb, and the history of the world would have been radically different.
Is the hand of God in this "irony" of history? Sometimes it is dangerous to read theology into history—there is always someone who is sure the latest catastrophe is God's judgment. Yet in Genesis, the Joseph story recounts how Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. There, Joseph became known to Pharaoh as the only one who could correctly interpret Pharaoh's dreams. As a result, Joseph was elevated to the second highest position in Egypt. By divinely given foresight, Joseph knew that the entire area would be devastated by famine within a few years, and so devised a plan to store grain. When the famine finally came, Joseph was enabled to save his family by selling them some of the grain which had been set aside. As Joseph remarks to his family in chapter 50, verse 2: "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive."

Irony? Yes. God's hand? Yes. It's dicey to read off divine intervention from the headlines, but the Joseph story assures us that God can take tragedy and turn it into something that results in good. Maybe we can't trust our interpretations of the lastest disaster, but we can certainly trust God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Jewish Loyalties

I’ve been going through the book Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in preparation for some classes I’ll be teaching this fall on Judaism and Jewish history. It's a superb resource and a great overview of all things Jewish. I thought it would be helpful (for me, maybe for you) to regularly blog on what he has to say.

So today's thought comes out of Rabbi Telushkin’s article on “Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)” which includes this, on Jewish loyalties:
Brandeis aggressively criticized Jews who expressed fear that support for Zionism would call their loyalty to America into question. “Multiple loyalties,” he cogently explained, do not necessarily imply “mutually exclusive loyalties. A man can be loyal to his family, his city, his state and his country, and need have no fear that these loyalties will conflict.” Today, some three quarters of a century later, American Jews still cite Brandeis’s formulation to counter accusations that those who work on behalf of Israel are guilty of having dual loyalties [pages 412-413].
This fear of divided loyalties was also part of early Reform Judaism’s resistance to Zionism, as Telushkin explains elsewhere:

Reform Jews feared that Zionism’s insistence that Jews should live in Palestine would call into question Jewish loyalties to their native lands [“Neturei Karta,” p. 335].
Jews who have come to believe in Jesus but insist they are still Jews claim loyalty both to the Jewish people and to Jesus. And they claim loyalty both to the Jewish people and to all people who follow Jesus, Jewish or gentile.

Brandeis was no believer in Jesus, but one wonders if he would have extended the dictum—“Multiple loyalties do not necessarily imply mutually exclusive loyalties”—to the case of Jesus-believing Jews. Or would he have said, as many do, that for a Jew to be for Jesus is an oxymoron, like vegetarians for meat?

Oxymoron or multiple loyalties? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Before Its Time

I've just re-read The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, noted Polish science-fiction writer. It's one part Brave New World, one part The Matrix, with a bit of Alice in Wonderland thrown in for good measure. This 1970s book was prescient, foreseeing many of the current dilemmas of bioethics and transhumanism. There's a lot of talking points that can could out of this for a group discussion. Besides which it's really quite funny; I had to stop myself from laughing out loud in Borders over my latte. (The last book that had that effect on me was Rabelais' Gargantua in something that was billed as "the lively modern translation.")

What's the future hold for followers of Jesus? For Jewish attitudes towards him?