Our church hosted a Seder once when I was younger. It was held in our Fellowship Hall, a room straight outta the 1960s with mustard colored stained glass that tinted the sunlight streaming in through the tall windows that inexplicably had metal bars that looked like ladders leading up to the heavens. (Note to future Fellowship Hall designers: If the gist of the room is to “contain the children”, perhaps don’t put ladders on the windows leading up to the ceiling.)
The only thing I remember from the Seder was the horseradish, which was dipped in salt water and then eaten raw. This was a wee bit traumatic for a kid who ate potatoes and green beans as her only “vegetable” intake.
The whole “Christian church hosting a Christian seder” thing came up again this year with my church. I’m very wary of cultural appropriation and so I did some digging. Of course, there are Jewish people who do not mind Christians doing the Seder. There are also plenty of Jewish people who do see it as appropriation. I ended up choosing not to participate but instead I went to a presentation at a synagogue about the meaning behind the foods eaten at a Seder.
It was very interesting to hear what the foods represent. I also loved to hear the “we” and “us” language. As an outsider, it is beautiful to observe a people that are so deeply connected to their roots and to each other. I felt that same way when I attended a yoga class at a Black church. The whole vibe of the class was much more communal than my normal yoga studio.
It was also interesting to hear the Jewish congregants discuss the role of ritual in their lives. As someone who grew up shackled to legalism and then threw off those shackles and now metaphorically dances naked in the streets of religion, my relationship with ritual has been complicated, to say the least. But the way that these people were relating to ritual was very different than what I had ever heard before.
This led me down a rabbit hole.
Listening to those Jewish people talk about their faith made me realize that I had never learned about Judaism in its own right- I always learned about Judaism only to immediately Christianize it. I had certainly never really learned about it from actual Jewish people.
(Let me say here that reading two books and talking to a Rabbi does not make me an expert on Judaism. Let me also remind you that Jews are as varied as anyone else and so let’s be careful not to pigeon-hole all Jews into believing the same way.)
So, I started where I always do and looked for books at the library. A quick search immediately turned up a book called, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of Jesus. I’m here for anything scandalous about Jesus so I snapped that baby up and started reading it. It’s written by Amy-Jill Levine, who’s a Jewish scholar who has done lots of work trying to contextualize the New Testament in it’s Jewish roots.
“Jesus’s words are too familiar, too domesticated, too stripped of their initial edginess and urgency. Only when heard through first-century Jewish ears can their original edginess and urgency be recovered. Consequently, to understand the man from Nazareth, it is necessary to understand Judaism. More, it is necessary to see Jesus as firmly within Judaism rather than as standing apart from it, and it is essential that the picture of Judaism not be distorted through the filter of centuries of Christian stereotypes; a distorted picture of first-century Judaism inevitably leads to a distorted picture of Jesus.”
This book in particular focuses on Jesus and she makes a good argument that Christians so often, I can attest so often, try to set Jesus apart from Judaism. For example, we think that the story of Jesus talking to the woman at the well was scandalous because she was a woman. Levine pulls from several extrabiblical sources (as well as Old Testament laws) to show that a man interacting with a woman was not scandalous in Jewish times. She contextualizes Pharisees and Scribes, reminding us that Jesus’s harsh words for them were for them and that people who are obsessed with power and abuse that power don’t represent all of Judaism (hmmm, just like people who are obsessed with power and abuse that power don’t represent me as a follower of Jesus).
Deeper than that, she talked about how Christians demonize “the law” to make Jesus’s sacrifice seem better. From early on, Christian kids are taught that, because of Jesus, we don’t have to follow all those “crazy laws” that Jewish people “had to follow”. Levine has a pretty in-depth discussion about the Peter/Paul debate post-resurrection over whether Gentile Christians should have to practice Jewish law or not.
I know this might make some nervous. There is obviously a tension between how Jewish people see the law and controversy over what Jesus’s death and resurrection means for Christians in relation to the Law. Like most things, I think the answer is probably more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. At the very least, I feel that tension and, for now, am sitting still with it.
At a recent Faith In Texas event, I met a female Rabbi who happens to shepherd a synagogue very close to my house. I reached out to her to see if we could meet because I wanted to talk to her about her faith. Reading books and listening to a presentation is one thing but being able to be in relationship with someone is so important.
We met last Friday and I was so enlightened. If anything, I realized that my concept of what Judaism is was very one-note: legalistic, misogynistic, rote. Hearing Rabbi Zelony spoke about how eating Kosher helps her to be more thoughtful about her consumption in things other than food (ideas, consumerism, etc). Eating Kosher doesn’t make her faith feel less authentic; on the contrary, it deepens her faith and makes it more of a part of her day. As someone deeply committed to social justice work, honoring the Sabbath reminds her that “she’s not so important”. It gives her a break from feeling like the world will fall apart without her.
I can definitely relate to that.
I left feeling better. Part of my faith deconstruction is trying to uproot any theology of oppression that I had unthinkingly absorbed. This recent foray into trying to learn more about my Jewish brothers and sisters showed me that some of the things that I believed about Jesus took him out of his Jewish context and actually had an anti-Semitic bent to them. “Jews care more about the Sabbath than healing. Jesus knew better than that.”
This has caused me to think more carefully about how I internalize what Jesus was for and what he was against. Instead of trying to pull Jesus out of his Jewish context, I can see him within it, challenging the people in power who had distorted Judaism to suit their own purposes. That’s actually a much better metaphor for what I feel called to do within the Christian church- call out those in power, those that have twisted Jesus into a militaristic, misogynistic, capitalist who cares more about success and winning than identifying with the marginalized. I don’t want to call people out of Christianity– I want to call them back into it (the heart of it).
I’m excited to learn more about Judaism and uproot more of my stereotypes that I didn’t even know I had. I’m feeling good about holding complex situations and ideas in tension and not having to have everything resolved neatly into clear-cut answers. Join me?
- The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine
- Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine
- Podcast: Amy-Jill Levine on the Bible for Normal People
- Podcast: Marc Brettler on The Bible for Normal People – This podcast really made an impact on me. Brettler illuminates us on how (in some Jewish spaces), Scripture is open to multiple interpretations and there is no need to really settle on which is “correct”.
- Your local synagogue (I’m sure they’d love to answer your questions!)