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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

The Misunderstood Jew

by Amy-Jill Levine Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

I fell in love with the book at the Introduction when the author states: ”When I was a child, my ambition was to be pope. I remember watching the funeral of John XXIII and asking my mother: “Who was that man?” I understood very little about him, but I did learn from the television coverage, that he lived in Italy, had a very nice white suit and a great hat and everyone seemed to love him.” My Mother told me he was good for the Jews.“I immediately decided I would be pope: it meant lots of spaghetti, great accessories, and the job was good for the Jews. My Mother continued by letting me know that I couldn’t be Pope because I wasn’t Italian. Basically the author was in desperate need of instruction regarding the relationship between church and synagogue as she relates!

Amy-Jill Levine mixes rigorous scholarship with helpings of both wit and pastoral care, she reveals Jesus as The Misunderstood Jew. She shows how Christians often misunderstand Judaism in general, misunderstand the New Testament in particular, and then yank Jesus out of his Jewish context resulting in intolerance and sometimes outright hatred of Jews. She doesn’t let Jews off the hook either, cutting through willful ignorance of Jesus cutting through willful ignorance of Jesus and His message. Levine from the divinity school in Nashville, Tennessee offers a unique, deeper understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught. She cheerfully lets us know that Christianity started as a Jewish movement before spreading to the Gentiles of the Mediterranean. Probably one of the most important aspects of the book that I really enjoyed, is that Levine contextualizes Jesus’ time on earth: what he ate and dressed in first-century Palestine, the celebration of Jewish holidays, the numerous public roles of Jewish women, and the rituals of the Temple. Levine shows how Christian theologians often make Judaism look backward and antiquated so that Christianity can, in contrast, look progressive and superior. Jews and Christians are too often afraid to engage each other in inter-faith conservation. We fear sounding ignorant. We fear giving the impression that we are trying to proselytize. Perhaps we fear that we might find something attractive about the other tradition and so question loyalty to our own. Worse, sometimes we do not even know what our own tradition already teaches. Today these fears are exacerbated by stereotypes. We presume we already know what our neighbor will say: the Jew will advocate a pro-Israel agenda; the Christians will advocate an anti-abortion stance. In all these cases, defensive walls go up and the result is ignorance at best, if not fear and even hate.

Levine points out that sharing psalms is one thing; sharing rituals is something else entirely. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died a faithful Jew. That does not mean, however that his followers today should see themselves as “faithful Jews” or even that the members of the Pauline churches of the 40s and 50s of the first century should have seen themselves as such. There are certain elements of Jesus’s Jewishness that the church today a gentile institution should not claim. Levine reports that the task of biblical scholarship is not merely one of arid academic exercise. It is one with potential import for politics, for justice, and for the Spirit. the various classifications noted by Levine of a “bad” Judaism have spread, mostly in a crass, unnuanced form, from the classroom and the professional journal to the pew of Bible study. Scholars who would be appalled to be thought of as anti-Jewish wind up spreading anti-Jewish views among themselves, to the rest of academia, and to the broader Christian world beyond the ivory tower. Again, Jesus wept.

This is such an engaging book to all who take it up to read. It is filled with humor and great scholarship that diminishes our prejudices and gives is the ground work to make the conversations between all interested less prejudicial and more meaningful for all.


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