Everything You Wanted To Know About Judaism But Were Afraid To Ask, Part Two

This is Part Two of my interview with Rachel Lazerus, Director of Operations and Research Analyst at Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). We are discussing her experiences as “the Jewish person” working side by side with us former evangelical and fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers. Our goal is to give the Christian homeschool alumni community (and the broader ex-fundamentalist community) an opportunity to learn about Judaism and its history and traditions of thought and how that history and those traditions differ from the evangelical/fundamentalist lens with which we were raised to view both Jewish people and the Tanakh.

Throughout the interview, “RS” will be me and “RL” will be Rachel.

You can read Part One here.

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RS: There’s a lot of backlash against the Old Testament among post-fundamentalist and homeschool alumni communities. Considering how we were raised to think about the Old Testament, this makes sense. But the conservative evangelical Christian understanding of the Old Testament is vastly different from the actual Judaic tradition. What are some of the biggest missing pieces in our understanding?

RL: Speaking of words being used as a pejorative, the phrase “Old Testament” is pejorative – Jews don’t see it as “old”! We also try to refrain from using the phrase “New Testament” because, again, from our perspective it’s not “new.” It’s an entirely separate book with pretty much no connection to the events prior except for the ethnicity of the protagonist.

By using the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” I’m allowing myself to be in a world framed by Christianity. I will continue to use it in this interview — because I’m primarily talking about how Judaism is interpreted by a Christian lens — but I never use the word “Old Testament” when I’m talking about a Jewish context. Instead, I’d use the word “Tanakh,” which is a Hebrew acronym for the three sections of the Written Law: Torah, Nev’im or Prophets (Joshua through Malachi), and Ketuvim or Writings (Psalms through Chronicles). And the Tanakh is not the complete source of Jewish tradition, either – there are dozens of other influential texts that are part of the Oral Law!

Another big piece that’s missing is that Christians tend to think that Judaism reached its zenith during the time of Jesus. From the Christian perspective, okay, maybe that’s true, but from the Jewish perspective, Judaism has changed and evolved and grown and split and been through highs and lows that Christianity knows nothing about. Some of the most famous and influential figures in Jewish thought – among them Rashi and Rambam – weren’t even born until over a thousand years after Jesus died.

Personally, I’ve often felt that Christians make an effort to understand Judaism, because they always view it through a Jesus-centric lens. Doing that to Judaism is like eating chocolate ice cream and wondering why you can’t taste the vanilla. That being said, I’ve been struggling through the New Testament, and it’s really hard for me to get into the appropriate mindset. So I have new empathy for why it’s difficult for Christians to understand Jews. I don’t understand Christians!

RS: Many of us were taught that Jews hate Jesus. Can you talk about how Jews have traditionally understood Jesus, and how that understanding might differ from contemporary interpretations (if they do)?

RL: When I was in high school and college, I’d joke to my friends, “My mom wants me to marry a nice Jewish boy – you know, like Jesus.” This is essentially how we viewed the “historical Jesus” – the Jesus who was a rabbi, and preached, and got in trouble with the authorities, and was one of many Jews who were crucified by the Romans during their occupation of Judea, and… that’s where his story ends, as far as we’re concerned.

Jews tend to regard Jesus himself – the historical Jesus – as just a guy. A rabbi, but not a particularly important or original one. His teachings in the early parts of Matthew are very similar to what rabbis of that generation and the generation beforehand were teaching.

Now, as for the claims of being the Messiah, we Jews know that he wasn’t, because the world still sucks balls — and when the Mashiach (the Hebrew word) comes, the world will not suck balls! It’s very much that simple: there are a number of promises that the Mashiach is supposed to fulfill, and none of them came true after Jesus died. So essentially, the rabbis laid down the law back in the first century: if you believe Jesus is the Messiah, you are not a Jew, you are a Christian. Believing Jesus is the Messiah is simply incompatible with Judaism. You’re not a bad person for believing in Jesus, you’re just not Jewish.

RS: What are ways in which you have experienced blatant and/or casual anti-Semitism on a daily basis?

RL: My answer to this question has changed since you first asked it. Originally I was just going to say that I am lucky enough that I don’t experience anti-Semitism very often. A large part of that is the privilege of living in areas with a high enough concentration of Jews that being Jewish isn’t unusual, and where police take anti-Semitism seriously. This is not something that I take for granted: the horrific shooting outside two Jewish community center buildings in Kansas City this week by a white supremacist are very much on my mind. I am distraught that three innocent people died because of one man’s blind hatred.

Because of the shooting, I’ve been thinking about the things that I take for granted – I live in a town where there are multiple synagogues within a five-mile radius, where there’s a kosher butcher shop and I have multiple options (two is multiple) to find kosher meat, where anti-Semitism doesn’t affect me personally, but where I also know that there are going to be police on duty outside every local synagogue on the High Holidays because we all know, privately, that synagogues are a target on these days. There are places I’ve been where I have surreptitiously made sure that my Star of David necklace is hidden below my shirt, because I don’t want to be targeted. There are places where I’ve pulled it out as a tiny fuck-you. I don’t internalize or categorize the anti-Semitic things I’ve heard or had happen – but the way I live my life is changed by them. And again, I’m protected by my privilege: I’ve always had a Jewish community around me for support and reassurance that anti-Semitism was wrong and external, not because of something I was doing wrong, and a non-Jewish community that listened and did not tolerate threats or slurs.

I have been the first Jewish person that people have ever met, and I’m frequently the most religious Jew that people have ever met: I am frequently conscious that I am representing Jews and Judaism in a way that people who are part of majority culture don’t think about, but which homeschooled alumni can probably understand.

More often than anti-Semitism, I’ve experienced philo-Semitism, or maybe it’s better described as a Semitism fetish, where I become an object of veneration because I’m one of the Chosen People. People assume that I’m particularly smart or knowledgeable or whatever because I’m Jewish, rather than being a Jewish person who has these traits. It’s always coming from these very well-meaning, very nice people who have no idea how badly they’re creeping me out – and it often takes me off-guard, because how do you prepare for being fetishized, and how can you call them out when they’re being so “nice”? But it’s not “nice.” It’s not love when you love me just because I belong to a religion that is currently venerated by certain branches of Christianity. Love me because I’m a human being with positive traits, hate me because I’m a human being with negative traits — but my Judaism isn’t a trait that should define your feelings about me.

RS: How do you feel about Christians celebrating Jewish holidays? Do you think it’s appropriation?

RL: This is a sticky issue. I don’t want what I say to become canon. I don’t want people to say, “Hey, this Jewish person has no problem with it, so it must be cool!” I’m not the arbiter of what’s good or bad in the eyes of all Jews. I can only speak for myself.

In the past few weeks, people have asked me how I feel about churches hosting seders, because “That’s what Jesus would have done.” Personally, I’m not thrilled by it, and I wouldn’t participate in such an event, but I also don’t have a problem with Christians who want to explore a heritage that they see as part of their own.

And yet.

I have many non-Jewish friends. I welcome them to my holiday celebrations. I’m always willing to explain one specific tradition or another. I’ve also visited friends’ Christmases and Diwali celebrations. I have worked in interfaith organizations and co-hosted religious events with people of other faiths, and they can be a really interesting and fun learning experience.

That said, churches taking a modern-day Jewish celebration, and twisting the meaning around – it doesn’t seem like the same thing at all to me. Whitewashing the very real history that Christianity has of anti-Semitism around Passover – there have been so many Jews killed by the blood libel – doesn’t seem to be very effective at building up Christian-Jewish relationships.

I’m troubled by this, and I do feel like there is a line, but I also don’t think I have the right to tell people how they should practice their religion, just as others don’t have the right to tell me how to practice mine. I might not like it, but I wouldn’t be angry at someone for participating in one. Yet be aware it’s not a mutual exchange.

(I do want to point out the anachronism of a church hosting a seder – at the time of Jesus, it would have been an actual sacrifice in the Temple. The fourteen-part seder with a Hagadah was established centuries later, and Jesus would be very confused by it. Sacrifices didn’t cease until after the destruction of the Second Temple, some thirty-seven years after Jesus died. Anything that isn’t actually killing a year-old male goat or lamb is simply not emulating what Jesus would do.)

RS: How can people who have left conservative evangelical Christianity be on guard against casual anti-Semitism in their own words, actions, and thoughts? What are some of the things they need to be aware of?

RL: I try to give a wide berth to people who have been wounded by religion in any form. I don’t want people to have to speed up their recovery process because of me, or to censor themselves. I know they’re hurting. I know a lot of people in the HARO community have been really, deeply hurt by religion, and by the things in my religion they’ve been taught are true.

I don’t want to add to their pain in any way.

That being said, I’ve seen some really distressing comments, mostly about Old Testament law and the stupidity of people who follow Old Testament law, or about how stupid it is to follow any religion because of something in the OT, or those memes about well, if you believe gay marriage is immoral, do you eat shellfish and pork, because otherwise, you’re a hypocrite? But I think marriage equality should be legal, and I do refrain from shellfish and pork! So… I’m still a hypocrite! Damn you, memes!

Just in general, my advice is to refrain from broad statements. Realize that this book that has hurt you contains many different meanings within it. You don’t have to believe in any of them – it’s totally fine if you don’t! I don’t think you’re going to hell! I don’t even believe that hell exists! But just keep in mind that there are more interpretations than the one you’ve been taught, and some of your allies do believe in these other interpretations.

RS: Judaic thought is obviously not monolithic. What are some of the different camps within it?

RL: This could take up an entire interview all on its own, but I’d be petrified of getting things wrong about camps that I’m not a part of. This site has a good primer on the religious divisions, while this page has a lot on the ethnic divisions. (I am Ashkenazi, I married a Sephardi)

RS: If people are interested in educating themselves more about Judaism, do you have any resources you’d recommend?

RL: There are great sites out there – the Jewish Virtual Library is one I frequently refer to, as is MyJewishLearning. The Jewish Women’s Archive is really awesome, too, for a look at more contemporary Judaism.

Speaking personally, the way to connect to Judaism is by reading Jewish authors. Isaac Bashevis Singer is well-known for how wonderfully he draws on Jewish folklore and tradition in his stories. Chaim Potok – The Chosen and Davita’s Harp are my favorite, but I think HARO people will really love My Name is Asher Lev, where the narrator is forced to choose between his religion and his art.