Monday, December 11, 2017

Sacred Dissonance - A Review

Religions co-exist in the “real world.” Yet when it comes to Judaism and Christianity, we are dealing with two distinct religious traditions – that is, rabbinical Judaism and (post-Constantinian) Christianity. These religions traditions were constructed over centuries in contradistinction to each other: that is, to be different. Jews didn’t build a “fence” around the Torah to keep the goyim out (the concept was intended to keep Jews from violating the Law), but Jewish identity began to be defined in terms antithetical to Christianity. Christians, in turn, constructed “the Jew” as Other, a disturbing reminder of their own origins in Judaism. Think Jesus-as-Messiah, the Crucifixion-as-Atonement, the Trinity, and Original Sin as borders that may never be crossed. There was a time, however, when it was hard to tell “Jews” and “Christians” apart: when the first “Christians” were “Jews” and some “Jews” “Christians.” The construction of Christian identity via religious difference(s) from Judaism was a long, complicated process that involved dissolving those relationships that once were. Some would rather those old ghosts stay buried.

Since the much-celebrated Encyclical Nostra Aetate of Vatican II affirmed Interfaith Dialogue in 1965, however, Jewish-Christian dialogues have significantly improved. In Sacred Dissonance: The Blessing of Difference in Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Anthony Le Donne and Larry Behrendt model a kind of inter-religious collaboration by “dialoguing” with each other from their respective faith/religious perspectives. Le Donne, a self-described “tree-hugging” evangelical New Testament scholar, and Behrendt, a Reform Jewish lawyer and “specialist in interreligious dialogue,” are friends, but the level and degree of self-exposure that both demonstrate here is admirable. Sacred Dissonance is the culmination of many conversations in a field of many ongoing conversations. But this brave book – in which both partners reveal their religious identities and commitments – models a high level of public engagement and interreligious cooperation.

As a New Testament scholar, I am predisposed to being interested in these discussions. Anthony and Larry are also my friends. It is a pleasure, therefore, to be invited to eavesdrop on their conversations and find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with their respective positions, albeit at different times. Like Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the Foreword, I am also impressed by the quality and the intellectual rigor of their reflections and appreciate the dialogue format of a conversation between friends. Larry and Anthony are aware that many Interfaith participants are reluctant to embrace the idea that the different religions can be blurred and combined to construct a “perennial(ist) philosophy.” For many Interfaith participants, it is religious difference that makes all the difference. In academic discourse, the comparative method, exemplified by scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith, encourages a “discourse of ‘difference.’” According to Smith, difference is “a complex term which invites negotiation, classification and comparison, and at the same time, avoids too easy a discourse of the ‘same’” (Drudgery Divine, 42). The comparative process navigates the relationship between similarity and differenceAffirming religious difference is not only historically, culturally, and methodologically appropriate, it also avoids the possibility of covert conversion attempts and provides the safe space for assertions of equality at the table. Finally, it affirms the borders and boundaries of both ethnic and religious identity while holding open the possibility of real change. 

At the same time, too rigid an attachment to religious difference – and an avoidance of the tough questions that religious exclusivism suggests – only serves to maintain religious identites by fortifying the borders between different groups. It is interesting, for example, that Anthony is “encouraged by Jewish friends who view their Judaism” as something they are “born into,” since it was “comforting” to think that this was a “legitimate way to view one’s heritage: You might change in significant ways, but you don’t just jump ship” (26). The difference, of course, is that Christian identity, unlike Jewish identity, is not based on ethnicity, but rather on (correct) belief(s). This important emphasis on ethnicity vs. belief highlights a significant difference between Jews and Christians; it also signifies the limit(ation)s of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Anthony and Larry’s discussion of Matthew 27:25 (32-38) illustrates the problem for it recognizes the historical improbability of “the Jews” having accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death in perpetuity – but given the limits imposed by the affirmation of Scripture as sacred text (a position widely held by Christians) – there is little room for theological commitments to give way to historical criticism. In this case, Inter-faith dialogue is not equipped to adjudicate history

In their chapters devoted to Jewish-Christian borders, Anthony and Larry explore topics like the problematic status of “Messianic Jews” in Judaism and Christianity. While “Messianic Judaism” is a modern phenomenon intended to convert (rabbinical) Jews to Protestant Christianity, they also represent a precarious “border” crossing for both Jews and Christians, often leaving congregations feeling alienated from both communities. This alienation is all the more poignant given that Jesus was Jewish and that the first followers of Jesus are commonly identified as ancient “Jewish Christians!” The asymmetrical sharing of history is succinctly articulated by Anthony: “Jesus was Jewish, but he’s now firmly placed on the Christian side of the Jewish-Christian border. For better or for worse, Jesus now belongs to the Christians” (97). For my part, I would say that this is much for the worse: the historical Jesus properly belongs to the history of Jews and Judaism as well as to Christians and Christianity. Here the borders maintained by both “religious” bodies simply continues to  re-inscribe the very same heresiological “border lines” of church fathers like Epiphanius and Jerome on the one hand and the rabbis on the other.

Anthony and Larry's chapters on the Shoah illustrate another example of Jewish-Christian dissonance. Humanity’s darkest hour – which went on for years, preceded by centuries of anti-Semitism – is differently “remembered” by Larry and Anthony. Anthony “remembers” the Shoah as an historical narrative of a shared Western cultural past. Larry “remembers” his father fleeing from Nazi Germany in 1936. Since the Holocaust could only have been conceived and carried out after centuries of anti-Semitism had stoked the fires of an even more ancient anti-Judaism, it is understandable that some contemporary Christians might want to seek absolution from Jews insofar as the Shoah is conceived as a Christian crime. Christian guilt is a currency that many contemporary Jews have learned to navigate and negotiate, often as a way to correct imbalanced power dynamics.

The Christian desire to “dialogue” with “the Jew” is a trope as old as Trypho, where it functioned as an apologetic exercise in proving “the Jew” to be in error. Christians begin the exploration from a place of power and authority, resulting in what Anthony and Larry call the “assymetry” of traditional Jewish-Christian relationship. The re-inscription of a Christian-dominant discourse is an ever-present danger in Interfaith dialogue. Since Antiquity, the difficulty in determining or defining what constitutes “Jewishness” has also been implicated in non-Jewish agents and interests (as Cynthia Baker’s Jew so masterfully explores). Since “Jewishness” involves and incorporates ethnicity, praxis, and belief, it is tempting to consider the possibility that the redefinition of Cicero’s religio (as “ancestral customs”) (De Natura Deorum II.72) as “re-linking” humanity and God in a theologically Christian context (Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae IV.28) served not simply to affirm Christianity as the (one and only) true religion, but also to undermine ethnically “Jewish” claims that were more compatible with Roman conceptualizations of proper religio

Judaism, as constructed and systemized by the rabbis, developed in terms of an ongoing “conversation” with dialogue, debate, and discussion. This was an historical development out of the collapse of Second Temple society when different Jewish groups fought amongst themselves over who held the true vision of Israel. Yet Larry, as a modern liberal/progressive Reform Jew, represents a distinctive tradition within Judaism that is, in part, itself an historical product of (and an unspoken dialogue with) the modern intellectual history of the European scientific West. That is, Reform Judaism is a child of the Enlightenment. Reform Judaism thus has much in common with modern liberal Protestantism, especially its rejection of the “supernaturalism” of "Orthodox" traditions. Eschewing the binding formalities of "Orthodox" observance, Reform Jews find community in Jewish history, culture, civilization, and a shared sense of social identity.

Larry, for example, finds a “sacred quality” in “Jewish-Christian dialogue” (228) since it effectively reinforces, and even expands, his personal self and (Jewish) social identity. This is an expansion he does not feel or find in the company of fellow Jews, but only in the face of otherness (241). Similarly, Anthony “encounters G-d” in dialogue with “others,” but with an eye toward how “Christianity attempted to supplant Judaism” (254), sensitive to how his awareness of Christian anti-Judaism results in perceiving himself as both “divided” and misunderstood. While both Larry and Anthony engage the Other to expand their own social and religious identities, I wonder whether both quests for personal wholeness could also be extended far further than just estranged “religious” neighbors.

Sacred Dissonance shows us that Christians can remain Christians and Jews Jews and still be friends. My question, then, is not whether different “religious” individuals can “get along” with each other. I think the answer to that question is an emphatic Yes We Can!, but this is not necessarily because we are “religious.” I think we can get along despite being “religious.” We live in a world where Jewish-Christian/Interfaith dialogues have the potential not only to shed light on our understanding of the Other, but to ask the question that takes us even beyond “religion”: When two or more “get along,” is it because they are “religious” and/or is it because they have found their common humanity? Here Anthony and Larry helpfully remind us - in their mutual love of baseball, books, higher education, humor, the shared Scriptures, and dialogue - that sacred dissonance always co-exists in relationship to (albeit sometimes in considerable tension with) common ground.