Christian Anti-Judaism

In connection with the anti-Judaism project of the SCLM, we have invited the Rev. Susan Auchincloss to contribute an article for our blog.  Susan has an excellent blog on Jewish/Christian issues which is read widely in the Episcopal Church:  faithnotfault.org.   Readers of this SCLM blog may have noticed that I have not accomplished my goal of posting materials on this subject at regular intervals.  The problem is that I have been dealing with medical issues for the past few months, and this has dominated my life to a substantial degree.  So I welcome with great enthusiasm Susan’s willingness to allow us to post this article for our readers.  — Louis Weil

Christian Anti-Judaism by Rev. Susan Auchincloss

How can we correct a mistake if we cannot see that we are making it?  Anti-Judaism runs so deep in the Christian faith that we honestly do not hear ourselves when we spread it.  We need more than vigilance; we need education and above all we need others to call us on false preaching.

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to this still-current concern in the “Faith Matters” column in the August 24, 2004, issue of the Christian Century.  Titled, “Teaching Contempt,” she writes:

Last month I received a letter from a doctor in California who had recently listened to some of my sermons on tape. He had borrowed one set from the rector of his Episcopal church, he wrote, and had liked it well enough to order an older set. The difference between the two made him want to share a few thoughts with me.

“I think you’ve come a long way,” he wrote, adding that he knew that sounded presumptuous but asking me to let him explain. “I’m a Jew,” he said, “and although my core identity is still as a Jew, in other ways I’m a happy convert.” Active at every level of parish leadership, he also actively pursues friendship with Jesus. “Still,” he wrote, “when I listened to the earlier set of tapes, there were times when I cringed to hear echoes of the old ‘teaching of contempt.’ It seemed like you looked underneath the surface of everyone in the gospel stories, showing complex motivations and spiritual struggles—yet your portrayal of Jesus’ opponents and the Pharisees seemed one-dimensional and lacking in sympathy.”

As graciously as this was couched, it was like hearing that I had been caught strangling kittens while walking in my sleep. Me? Engaging in the teaching of contempt?

I set down the letter and went to find the sermons in question. Before I had read two pages, I was staring at a dead cat. In a sermon on the “easy yoke” passage from Matthew 11, I had helped Jesus make his case by nailing the Pharisees as self-righteous prigs. Reducing them to cardboard cutouts of everything I found despicable in religious people, I was not only able to blow them away handily. I was also able to congratulate myself for doing so.

All these years later, it is clear that I did Jesus no favors by lampooning his opponents. His ministry involved engaging real people with real concerns, not defeating cartoon characters. It is even clearer that I maligned observant Jews everywhere by painting those who love Torah with the same old scorn-full brush. While my California correspondent was kind enough to note some progress in my preaching, my penance has involved trying to figure out what I was thinking in 1990 as well as why my thinking has changed.

Fourteen years ago, I believed that the New Testament told me the whole truth about Pharisaic Judaism. Nothing in my church or seminary education led me to believe otherwise. None of the commentaries I used to prepare my sermons challenged the traditional story of Christian origins. I do not remember whether it was Jack Spong or Marcus Borg who first raised serious questions about that story for me, but they led me to Jewish teachers such as Jacob Neusner and Paula Fredriksen (as well as Christian ones such as E. P. Sanders and Mary Boys), who have enriched my reading of the New Testament by helping me recognize the nature of its polemics.

Simply to find those teachers changed the way I preached about Torah, Talmud and Judaism. Then a man in my congregation married a Jewish woman who sometimes came with him to church. When she did, I heard the slurs in familiar passages. I tasted the razor blades in beloved hymns. Before long, she had changed my sermons even when she was not there. If what I said did not sound like good news to her, I decided, then it was not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In an essay on Mel Gibson’s movie earlier this year, Rabbi Michael Lerner said that if Christians have not confronted anti-Judaism as effectively as they have tackled other “isms,” then that is because doing so requires them to question the historical truth of their own scriptures. I believe he is right. Yet even without such questioning, those same scriptures call me to love my neighbor, and in that I find no room for the teaching of contempt.

This article pleases me for many reasons.  First, Barbara Brown Taylor’s story parallels my own.  A parishioner of mine married a Jew, and when he joined her in church one Sunday I listened to the readings for that day with his ears… and squirmed.

I, too, thought I knew about Judaism from reading the Old Testament; and like Taylor, nothing I had learned in seminary, church, or biblical commentaries caused me to question that.  James Carroll launched my quest for better understanding when I read his Constantine’s Sword.  That was a few years ago.  Now I have a shelf of helpful books, including Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism, by Marilyn J. Salmon.  Others are listed on my web site, http://www.faithnotfault.org, under “Resources.”

The best aspect of this article comes from recognizing the author.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s books have brought new life to my faith.  I feel unqualified respect for her; and yet even she did not hear what she was doing.  That helps me feel less callow.

Above all, it shows how subtly the threads of anti-Judaism are woven into our faith.  We are like fish in water, too immersed to perceive it.  As a consequence, we must acknowledge our need for each other, for calling each other to account.

Self-education about the roots and fertilization of Christian anti-Judaism should be the number one topic of adult education forums.  Along the way we will learn a proper respect for another great religion and that will, in turn, add to the richness of our own faith.

Anti-Judaism Issues in the Scriptures for Holy Week by Louis Weil

One of the consequences of Jewish-Christian dialogue in recent decades has been a growing awareness of the role played by the New Testament lectionary readings for Holy Week.   Consciously or unconsciously, interpretations of these readings in the preaching of Christian pastors have fostered anti-Jewish attitudes among Christians over many centuries.  Preachers have propagated the idea, from the earliest times and continuing into our own day, that the Jews as a people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus.

Although this effect was at times unintended, we have explicit evidence of preaching in which the Jews were demonized from the pulpits of Europe.[1]  We find this especially in the preaching which took place during Holy Week, and most particularly in the intense focus on the death of Jesus on Good Friday.  Preachers did not hesitate to remind their hearers of the guilt of all Jews for the death of the Lord, with the consequence that quite commonly on Good Friday Jewish families would remain hidden in their homes in order to avoid abuse and even death.[2]

This history places an enormous responsibility upon preachers today to remain alert for any comment in their preaching which might give renewed support to this anti-Jewish prejudice which was often communicated by parents to their children from their earliest years.  The hearing of the Scriptures and the interpretations offered by preachers had a determinative effect in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes as characteristic of a Christian identity.  A potent example of this is the use of the term “the Jews” as a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes within a congregation as being appropriate for people of Christian faith.  Such preaching shaped an identity in which these anti-Jewish attitudes might become embodied in words and actions against one’s Jewish neighbors.

Our goal in this commentary for Holy Week 2013 is to focus on certain ‘difficult’ issues which emerge from a consideration of the Holy Week readings.  Since we are in Year C of our lectionary cycle, our initial attention must be given to the Gospel of Luke which plays a primary role in this year’s cycle.

 

The Sunday of the Passion:  Palm Sunday.

The proclamation of the Passion holds primary place on this Sunday.  This tradition predates the introduction of what we know as Holy Week, including the Liturgy of the Palms, which was introduced in the fourth-century in Jerusalem.  The normal day for the assembly of Christians was Sunday, the Day of the Lord, and so the Sunday one week prior to Easter was the day on which the Passion would be read, being the last day of assembly prior to that on the Day of the Resurrection.

The Liturgy of the Palms was a later addition at the time of the historicizing in the liturgy of the events prior to the death of Jesus.  This development took place quite naturally in Jerusalem since that is where the events occurred.  It was from there that the Holy Week rites spread to other parts of the world.  In Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Palms was not attached to the reading of the Passion at the Eucharist, but rather became the first part of the evening liturgy of Vespers, thus quite separate from the proclamation of the Passion.  The people gathered on the Mount of Olives in the late afternoon and from there moved in procession into the city.  The Palm liturgy thus began the “second layer” — the weekday sequence — commemorating the daily sequence of events leading up to the Sacred Triuduum, the Three Days which took as their focus the final meal, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Easter Vigil and first celebration of the Eucharist of the Resurrection.

The proclamation of the Passion in cycle C, being drawn from the Gospel of Luke, immediately faces us with the significant distinction between the Passion in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Passion of John.  In the synoptics, the death of Jesus has the appearance of defeat — he is, as it were, a martyr, and the Jews are given the blame.  In Luke, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate declares Jesus to be innocent and is prepared to release him, but in the end submits to the Jewish leaders and the crowd by authorizing the execution.  But the preacher must make clear that by the time of the writing of Luke’s Gospel, the hostility between the Christian disciples (most of whom were themselves Jewish) and the Jewish leaders had become acrimonious.  It is likely that this hostility affected the way in which the recounting of the events of the Passion were presented.

It is not special pleading to suggest that the account in Luke may exaggerate the culpability of the Jewish leaders for its own polemic purpose.  At the very least, the presentation of the Jewish leaders and of Judaism in general is complex.  The early part of the Gospel dealing with the events around the conception and birth of Jesus, his circumcision, and his presentation at the Temple all place his life in the context of a faithful Jewish community, which sets these chapters in sharp contrast to the harsh descriptions of the Pharisees in later chapters.  New Testament scholars generally agree that the Gospel of Luke was the work of a Gentile writer and was addressed to Gentile readers, and so looks at the events, as it were, from ‘outside’ Jewish religious experience.

 

Maundy Thursday.

The lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, offered Luke 22:14—30, as an alternative to John 13:1—15.  The Revised Common Lectionary does not offer the Lucan alternative, but expands the Johannine reading:  John 13:1—17, 31b—35.  This expansion articulates the particular perspective in John that the crucifixion of Jesus is his glorification:  the Cross is the sign of victory, as in the ancient hymn Vexilla regis (Hymnal 161), “God is reigning from the tree.”  Thus the Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday links us to the proclamation of the Passion of John on Good Friday.

This supports the claim that the liturgies of the Triduum are actually one great liturgy in three ‘parts’ which are celebrated over that number of days.  This understanding is further supported by the rites themselves in that there is no dismissal given in the prayer book for either the Maundy Thursday or the Good Friday liturgies.

Another dimension of the Maundy Thursday rite which invites an exploration of the common heritage of Jews and Christians is the presumed character of the Last Supper as a Passover seder, as it is presented in the Gospel reading.  Many Christians have had the experience of participating in the Passover meal with Jewish friends.[3]  For me, this experience has been much more rewarding than that of a so-called ‘Christian seder’.  It is worth remembering that in 1979, the Standing Liturgical Commission issued a document in which such Christianization of the Jewish rite was strongly discouraged as a presumptuous use of a Jewish ritual that removes it from its appropriate context.[4]  When I last attended the Passover with Jewish friends, I was profoundly moved by the many moments in the ritual when within me the connection of the Passover to our Lord’s final meal was made real in its own terms.  If a preacher on this day chooses to talk about the Last Supper, it offers an occasion to again emphasize the common heritage in which both Jews and Christians are rooted.

 

Good Friday.

Finally we turn to what is in many ways, along with Passion Sunday, a rite that offers particular challenges to the preacher.  Albeit allowing for differences of emphasis, it is in both of these rites that the Passion is proclaimed, and thus where anti-Judaic attitudes have most been nurtured.  It is with regard to the Gospel of John in particular that commentators have raised the question of anti-Judaism.  That is, of course, an important question for us, and perhaps particularly for those who preach on Good Friday.

Throughout the Gospel of John there are comments about “the Jews” which have confirmed in the minds of many people that the Gospel is itself anti-Jewish.  But is this claim justified?  In the Gospel of John, who were “the Jews”?  The term appears over seventy times in this Gospel, far more frequently than in the other three.  Whereas the Synoptic Gospels generally refer to specific Jewish groups such as the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, John generally refers indiscriminately to “the Jews.”  We have been conditioned to hear those words as applying to the opponents of Jesus, and thus as pejorative.

Commentators have noted, however, that the term is used with various meanings in John.  “The Jews” can refer to the people who live in Judea (John 7:1—18), or it can refer to a sub-group within the synagogue (John 9:22).  At other places, the term is used in reference to people who are clearly friends, like those who comfort Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus has died (John 11:31f.), or in reference to “the festivals of the Jews.”[5]  We need always to remember that all of the people in the Gospel narrative were Jews, therefore the preacher must avoid any hint of seeing “the Jews” in caricature.

The problem for us is that, although we may assert that the Gospel of John is not anti-Jewish, it seems that it often sounds that way to our ears.  For this reason, it is imperative that preachers — generally, of course, but especially when preaching on the Passion — be very attentive to their choice of words.  Unless we are careful about this, our hearers may not hear what we intend.  In this regard, it is helpful to read a variety of translations of the pericopes assigned for Holy Week in the lectionary.  Every translation offers, of course, an interpretation, and if we are attentive to a variety of voices offering to us nuanced distinctions, we shall be more prepared to meet this challenge, and to proclaim the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord with words that embody the Gospel in its integrity.

SUPPLEMENT

Statement By The Standing Liturgical Commission:

Why a Seder is not appropriate on Maundy Thursday

26 February 1979

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in celebrating a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday. Sometimes the meal is thinly Christianized; sometimes a traditional Jewish Seder is used without any change. (The word seder means order). Although this practice grows out of an understandable desire to reproduce the circumstances of the Last Supper, and so to participate more vividly and intimately in one of the central events of Holy Week, it is a questionable practice for several reasons:

  1. There is a serious disagreement within the New Testament itself as to whether the Last Supper was in fact a Passover Meal. The first three Gospels clearly describe it as such; but the Fourth Gospel declares that the crucifixion occurred on the “day of Preparation” (John 19. 31), and thus the Last Supper fell on the night before the Passover.
  2. For another thing, a true Passover Seder is a highly festive occasion, inappropriate during the Lenten fast.
  3. But most important, every aspect of the Jewish religion has been transformed for Christians by the death and resurrection of Christ. Even Maundy Thursday is not simply a historical reconstruction of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Although our attention on Maundy Thursday is fixed on the scene in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, nevertheless our primary act of worship on that day is a full Christian Eucharist, during which we proclaim, as we do throughout the year,

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Thus, even on Maundy Thursday, Christians worship in the power of the resurrection. On the Passover, Jews remember their deliverance from Egypt, and thereafter from all the enemies of their historical existence. But Christians, in their worship, remember their deliverance from “the last enemies”, sin and death. We say “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” because we believe that Christ, through his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter, has brought the fulfilment of God’s promised deliverance. It is the death and resurrection of Christ, rather than the Last Supper, which most nearly correspond to the Exodus from Egypt; and thus the Great Vigil of Easter which most nearly corresponds to the Passover Seder of the Jews.

Christians who celebrate a Jewish Passover on Maundy Thursday are not truly respecting the integrity of Jewish Passover expectancy, for Christians believe that Jewish expectations have already been fulfilled in Christ. (Christians can truly worship only by expressing that conviction, as in the Eucharist. For them to participate in Jewish worship requires a degree of mental reservation: a temporary setting aside of their distinctive Christian identity. ) Also, they are failing to recognize that the fulfilment of those Jewish expectations in Christ is through the whole paschal mystery, through his death and resurrection, rather than in the Last Supper, which was a preliminary anticipation of that hope.

It is a right instinct to celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection at this time of the year in a more intimate and familial way than usual. The holding of agape meals during Holy Week, especially on Maundy Thursday after the celebration of the Eucharist, is to be encouraged. But these meals should be simple, even austere, in keeping with Lenten fast. They should point forward to the great paschal fast, which begins after the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, is intensified on Good Friday, continues through Holy Saturday, and is concluded by the reception of Easter communion.

Part of the pressure for observing a Passover Seder may arise, even unconsciously, from our desire to experience transition or passage to a new life. Of course, it is the celebration of Holy Baptism within the Great Vigil, and the Lenten preparation for it, which constitutes for Christians our passage to new life, our “Exodus.” When Christian initiation is better understood, and its practice becomes a dramatic part of our celebration of the Easter mystery, the desire for a Christian observance of a Passover Seder may pass away.

http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/ENS/ENSpress_release.pl?pr_number=79055


[1] See Devils, Women, and Jews by Joan Young Gregg (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1997.  This book gives examples of medieval sermons in which evil is attributed by nature not only to the devil, but also to women and to Jews.

[2] We must remember, however, that such anti-Jewish preaching was by no means limited to the liturgies of Holy Week.  Anti-Judaism was fostered in devotional literature as well.

[3] It is important to note that the seder as we have come to know it probably does not follow the same ritual which Jesus and his disciples would have used.  The pattern now familiar to contemporary Jews did not appear until several centuries after the time of Christ.

[4] The text of the Statement from 1979 is being added as a supplement to this commentary.

[5] See the discussion of this question in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (eds. Levine & Brettler), NY:  Oxford University Press, 2011,

pp. 155-6.

Confronting Anti-Judaism in the Liturgy by Louis Weil

In the Spring of 2012, I placed an article on the BLOG of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in which I discussed a proposal for addressing a resolution of the 2009 General Convention which called upon the SCLM to prepare “materials that assist members of the Church to address Christian anti-Judaism expressed in and stirred by portions of Christian scriptures and liturgical texts.”  The SCLM asked that this project be extended into the new triennium (2013-’15).

As hoped, that extension was authorized by the 2012 General Convention.

A note was included with that first article which discussed the terms ‘anti-Judaism’ and ‘anti-Semitism’.  Since this first article and the note are still available on the SCLM BLOG, what was said there will not be repeated here.  We have now arrived at the time for this project to take form in offering to the Church commentary materials intended as a resource for clergy and laity who may be preaching in Holy Week this year (March 24-31), using the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the current Cycle C.  In other words, this commentary will focus on what are regarded as the most problematic texts linked to the sometimes unintended anti-Judaism which these texts have nourished in Christian liturgy.  In general, these are texts which have encouraged a supersessionist understanding of the Church as “the new Israel” — the new people of God in distinction to the Jews.

In its extreme forms, this supersessionist attitude renders Judaism as obsolete spiritually.  At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church took a firm stand against this view, and numerous theologians and biblical scholars have likewise called for a much deeper reflection on the part of Christians in general on this important issue.  Yet anti-Judaism remains deeply entrenched among many Christians who consider themselves faithful to Jesus the Jew.  Increasingly it is seen that this painful issue requires confrontation.

Anti-Judaism was planted in both subtle as well as blatant ways for centuries as, for example, Christians learned the anti-Judaism taught from pulpits during the Middle Ages as well as from the time of the Reformation.  To some degree, all Christian traditions have been affected by the belief that was taught among Christians that the Jews are a people who have been rejected by God for their failure to accept Jesus as the expected Messiah.  This belief was reinforced generation upon generation as it was affirmed again and again by Church leaders.

Since this belief was often supported by what the people heard preached, may we hope that our liturgical preaching might be a means by which anti-Judaism may be confronted effectively in our own time?  With that hope, in early March a commentary will be placed on this BLOG dealing with the texts that are generally considered the most problematic.

That commentary, focused on Holy Week this year, will be followed in due course by other commentaries on texts which occur elsewhere during the course of the liturgical year.