Is anti-Semitism like pornography? Do we know it when we see it? Absurd on the one hand, this analogy helps me make sense of my frustration with the recent quietude of some liberal Christians. Let me explain.
The idea that we know pornography when we see it is deceptive in simplicity. It suggests that there is one standard for pornography upon which we can agree. If this was the case there would have been no need for the Supreme Court of the United States to have heard Jacobellis v. Ohio to decide if the movie The Lovers was pornographic, which gave rise to the famous quote by Justice Potter Stewart. In reality, the line between art and exploitation is not fixed and does shift with the sensibilities of the viewer. And it is in this respect, that I see the similarity between anti-Semitism and pornography.
So I understand how liberal Christian groups like the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of the United States and I differed in our understanding of their denominational condemnations in recent years of the policies of the Israeli government. To be clear, I do not endorse the occupation; I favor a two state solution and disagree with many of the specific policies of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, I could not shake my sense the resolutions and public condemnations by liberal Christians of Israel but not of other oppressive governments such as that of China, Iran, or Russia was tinged with an element of anti-Semitism, the expectation that a Jewish State be held to a higher standard. Overlapping with liberal Christians on many political and theological fronts, I nonetheless feel that historic legacy of Christian anti-Semitism places upon them a special responsibility to consider how they approach modern Jews and Judaism. Calling out Israel as a unique oppressor of human rights cannot in my mind be separated from historic anti-Semitism. But my liberal Christian friends and colleagues were quick to defend their denominational policies and assure me that no anti-Semitic overtones tinged their these movement policies. Publically these denominations asserted that there was no condemnation of Judaism or special singling out of Jews. Where I saw anti-Semitism, they assuredly did not. They would know anti-Semitism if they saw it. Had they seen anti-Semitism, they would have certainly acted differently.
I wish I could be sure.
In recent weeks, since the fighting between Hamas and Israel has intensified, there has been a range of reactions to the conflict. But there have also been reactions, which while correlated with the conflict, seem to overstep its boundaries. Synagogues across Europe have been attacked. Flyers blaming all Jews for the war have been distributed in the United States. Calls for “death to the Jews” have been heard at rallies in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Hashtags like “hitlerwasright” have been attached to support for the Palestinians. Writing recently for Reuters, John Lloyd, pointed out that Jews are unique in becoming targets for disapproval of the actions of a foreign governments. “We should mark how unique this is. There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London — and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.” Similarly, we have not stopped eating in Chinese restaurants because the Chinese government occupies Tibet. Jews, however, seem to be fair game. While we might disagree about how to understand the situation in the Middle East, surely liberal Christians would have no difficulty in seeing these attacks on Jews outside of Israel who are not Israeli as anti-Semitism.
And yet there has been no broad scale condemnation. There have been no circles of solidarity created around Jewish centers by Christians to stand physical guard against anti-Semitism. Liberal Christian groups have not flooded social media with calls for civility in interactions with Jews living outside of Israel. There have been no official letters of support or condemnation of firebombings and personal attacks.
This silence and lack of action undercuts Church claims to hate the occupation just as much as they hate anti-Semitism. I am left to wonder what kind of anti-Jewish action would have to take place before it might be viewed as anti-Semitism and worthy of response. Anti-Semitism is no small charge. It is one that I am loath to trot out. My own personal experience with anti-Semitism has been limited to a few uncomfortable playground incidents when I was a child and the odd off hand remark in my adult life. Working in the field of inclusion and diversity, I have long seen those kinds of incidents as part of the complex residue of unfamiliarity that often fosters distrust of the “other.” But there is a line between misunderstanding/misinformation and outright hatred/brutality. There is no question in my mind that the recent events in Europe and in France in particular are the latter. And the deafening silence from Christians in the face of overt anti-Semitism is in and of itself a form of action and complicit endorsement. It is time that Church groups, who have attempted to distinguish between condemnation of Israel and anti-Semitism, to show moral leadership and take a stand against this current wave of anti-Semitism.
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As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.
There are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.
Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.
In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.
Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.
The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”
I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.
I’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.
I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.
Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.
Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.