And here's the final piece of my reflection in preparation for my meeting tomorrow with the rabbi. He'd given me the assignment of reading Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks with Jesus and asked me to respond to it:
I was frustrated by Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus almost from page one. Although he writes in a respectful tone, I thought that the “conversation” he set up was lopsided, since he contrasted Jesus’s words in only the gospel of Matthew against all of Torah, which he then defined as the entirety of all of Hebrew scriptures, the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and various compilations of interpretations. I know that his point was to argue that Jesus breaks with Jewish tradition in important ways, and I agreed with him on that point (I’d already thought of the contrast between “honor your father and mother” and Jesus’s claim that he will alienate some parents and children, in addition to the commandment to honor the Sabbath versus Jesus’s disciples’ gathering grain on the Sabbath). But I kept wondering how much of his argument was based on his skewed data set. It just seemed wrong to me that he explained Torah and Jewish tradition often in the context of how they were commented on by medieval interpreters, but he apparently wasn’t interested in how the gospel of Matthew had been interpreted in later years. I also think that in some cases he misreads the gospel of Matthew, at least in light of 2000 years of interpretation of it; as I read Neusner, I often found myself saying, “but wait, you’re misreading; that’s not what that actually means!”
Plus, he also frequently set up Judaism as a monolithic religion, as though no one else within Judaism had ever disagreed on elements of Torah. He mentioned the Sadducees versus the Pharisees in a footnote, but the thrust of his argument was that Judaism has a unified body of thought and practice that Jesus in some ways was part of but broke with in important ways, and I find it hard to buy the first part of that argument. In fact, it seems to me that much of the history of Jewish thought is people’s arguing about how to read and follow Torah, which indeed is one of the very things I like about Judaism! I kept joking that I now wanted Neusner to write a book called A Rabbi Talks with Isaiah, and then Dylan added that he should write A Rabbi Talks with Hillel. And presumably he wouldn’t cast either Isaiah or Hillel out of the Jewish fold! All of this made me very grumpy.
However, let’s leave aside my academic frustrations and focus on the point of reading Neusner for conversion studies: I walked away from the book newly aware of how much Jesus sets himself up as someone for others to follow, and some of the ways in which he puts himself in place of Torah, neither of which I guess I’ve paid much attention to since my emphasis in reading the gospels has always been on Jesus’s teachings about justice and radical inclusion. (In part this is because I’ve never accepted Jesus’s divinity, so I’ve undoubtedly underplayed those elements of the Christian scriptures.) So Neusner’s exposition helped to convince me that Christianity, although it clearly originates in Judaism, can’t now be considered another branch of Judaism, as some Christians have tried to argue. (I do wonder, however, about Chasidic Judaism, in which the rebbe seems to set himself up as someone to follow, but I simply don’t know enough about Chadism to follow that comparison.)
I didn’t think that the contrast between Jewish sanctification and Christian salvation was as clear-cut as Neusner made it out to be (Ch. 9), but I ultimately liked the last chapter (the only one I liked, really), in which that contrast is drawn more clearly: “If I thought the kingdom of heaven were upon us, I’d come [with Jesus to Jerusalem]. But I don’t, so I won’t” (154). And since I also don’t anticipate that the messianic age is about to happen – I mean, maybe it will, but I don’t see any reason to count on it happening tomorrow or the next day – it makes sense to me to emphasize the daily life of the here and now more than a radical departure from the social structures in which I’m embedded. Selling everything I have and giving it to the poor would be a generous act, and some people have managed to do this even though the kingdom of heaven hasn’t arrived during their lifetime. But I’m the breadwinner of my family, and I like my home and my job, and I want to live an ethical, righteous life within that structure rather than breaking from it as Christian scriptures would ask me to. (Of course, most Christians also live in homes and have jobs, but this is in tension with the scriptures.)
Honestly, an author I have personally (and perhaps idiosyncratically) found more helpful on the Judaism versus Christianity topic is Harry Kemelman. Okay, yes, his Rabbi Small books are mystery novels and not at all academic! And they are dated, and they definitely come from a Conservative rather than Reform point of view. But I find Rabbi Small’s discussions, especially with the Catholic police chief, on topics such as the function of prayer, the roles of rabbi versus priest, etc. very clear. And while I frequently found myself defensive about Christianity while reading Neusner – not that I was being convinced that I should stay within Christianity, but rather than I thought he was misrepresenting Christianity at times – I don’t feel that way at all with Kemelman, in part because he’s simply exploring the contrast between two religions rather than trying to make an argument about that contrast or convince his reader of the superiority of one over the other.
I’m in the midst of reading Kemelman’s Conversations with Rabbi Small, which I’m not liking as much as his mysteries because I don’t care for apologetics as a genre. But I continue to find his explication of Jewish thought and practice interesting and helpful. However, I’m struggling with his argument that there’s no reason for anyone to convert to Judaism. Rabbi Small’s theory (and presumably Kemelman’s) is that Judaism is primarily an ethical system, and anyone is free to live by those ethics, but that’s it’s also an ethnic culture, and it simply doesn’t make sense for someone to adopt a culture different from his or her own. I guess what I’d say in reply is that it’s not only an ethical system and a culture but also a way of worshiping God and living out those daily ethics within community, and it’s this last point that makes conversion worthwhile.
So I’m trying to hit all three of these points: the ethical (Dylan and I just got volume one of Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics); the cultural (after our last Intro to Judaism class, we ordered Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America, which we’re already enjoying reading, although we haven’t broken out the pots and pans yet); and the worshipful (we just received our ordered copy of On the Doorposts of Your House, and I want to make a serious commitment to attend at least two Friday night services a month this summer).
(Clearly conversion studies are only making our bibliophilia a bigger problem than it already was!)
So that’s where I am right now. I feel like I’ve left out a lot that I’ve been thinking about, but I also know that this reflection has gotten way too long already, so I’ll leave it at that. I’m looking forward to our conversation on Thursday afternoon!