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

I am honored to interview Rachel Lazerus here. I know Rachel from our shared advocacy work at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), where she is Director of Operations and Research Analyst. She and I have been discussing on and off her experiences as “the Jewish person” working side by side with us former evangelical and fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers. We former homeschoolers (and I definitely include myself among the “we”) often have an understanding of, and use rhetoric about, the Tanakh (what we were raised to refer to as the “Old” Testament) that can exclude and marginalize Jewish people with which we work alongside. So Rachel and I wanted to do this interview 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. (And I fully admit I am learning much of this information for the first time, too!)

A little bit about Rachel Lazerus: She received her MPP at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago with a focus on educational policy. She has previously worked for Brown University, the Urban Institute, and the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and has consulted on projects for Chicago Public Schools, the Urban Education Institute, and the Wyman Center. While she was not homeschooled herself, she attended both public and parochial schools.

This interview will be split into two parts. I am releasing the first part today and the second part on Thursday. Throughout the interview, “RS” will be me and “RL” will be Rachel.

*****

RS: What is your religious and educational background?

RL: I was raised in a Conservative denomination and went to an Orthodox day school for most of my childhood, where I learned to speak and read Hebrew. However, it was a pretty terrible experience for me both academically (way too easy) and socially (tons of bullies). After seventh grade, I transferred to – horror of horrors – public school. (I had pleaded with my parents to homeschool me, but they felt that they would not have been able to educate me successfully, and that I would have spent all day online talking to my friends – which was part of the appeal of homeschooling to me.)

I ended up going to public school for eighth grade and high school. I eventually got my bachelor’s in history, where I started getting really interested in the role of religion in social movements, and my Masters in Public Policy, both at the University of Chicago. Between undergrad and grad school, I worked at both Jewish and interfaith nonprofits. I also briefly taught in Israel, where I was surprised to find out I was more observant than most of my students.

I was raised keeping kosher, celebrating all of the holidays, going to synagogue every week, so I seemed super-observant to most secular people I met (“You’ve never had a bacon cheeseburger?!”). But to my more religious cousins, I’m very lax in observance – I remember shocking one of them by saying I would kiss a guy before I got married, when we were 17. (And I did!)

RS: What inspired you to get involved as an advocate for responsible homeschooling?

RL: Responsible homeschooling advocacy kind of found me, but I’m pretty happy here. As I said before, I got my Masters in public policy, but I was specifically focusing on education policy. During grad school, I met Rachel Coleman through a mutual friend. I was fascinated to hear about her upbringing. She introduced me to a bunch of people, including Heather Doney. When they started brainstorming for CRHE, they tapped me because of my educational policy knowledge.

RS: Coming from a Jewish background, I’m sure you have experienced significant culture shock as you’ve joined in advocacy with current and former homeschoolers who grew up in conservative evangelical Christianity. What are a few observations you’ve had about that experience?

RL: I’ve been “the Jewish person” since I was 12, so I’m pretty used to being the person in the room who has all the answers about Judaism. I get a different range of questions with homeschooled alumni: no one asks me the nitty-gritty about keeping kosher or the like, and they assume I’m well-versed in both OT and NT, but people do always seem really surprised when I give non-literal answers or chime in with the historical context of a passage. And appreciative, too, so I keep chiming in.

The weirdest moments are when people will bring up verses that have traumatized them, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I learned that too. I took this very positive interpretation from it, I never thought about it in that way…ooh, now I see why you’re upset.”

For self-proclaimed fundamentalists who claim to take the Bible literally, there is a whole lot of not actually reading the Bible closely. I’m frequently very frustrated that I can’t discuss the text on multiple levels, because people are so tied to the connotations they see in an English word — when none of the Bible is even written in English!

But even amongst fundamentalist Jews, people who think every single word, every single letter has meaning – and I do not put myself in this group anymore – they don’t stop at the literal level. The literal level has meaning, but it’s “peshat”: it’s the simple meaning, it’s the direct meaning. There’s so much more to the text than just that!

Here is an example, which is both relevant to my work with CRHE and to the Noah movie.

When CRHE was preparing materials for the website, a discussion came up about how homeschooling studies often don’t control for background factors, and how we can explain why this is a flaw to people who don’t have a degree in statistics. I came up with this brilliant (so I thought) explanation using rabbinical commentary: in Genesis 7:9, Noah is described as a righteous man who is perfect “in his generations.” But other righteous men are not described as being perfect in their generations. Only Noah gets this extra phrase. From this, we can deduce that Noah was only considered righteous because he lived in such a terrible generation. If he had lived in the generation of Abraham or Moses, he would have been nothing special. Therefore, it’s a Biblical principle that we should only compare within groups that control for background factors. Because on an absolute scale of righteousness, Noah wasn’t anything special. But on a relative scale, in his generation, he was a righteous man.

I was so very excited when I came up with this allegory, as I felt like I could finally make common ground with the Christian right, and explain this relatively complicated concept in a way that would make sense! So I pitched it to Rachel and Heather separately, and they each just kind of went, “That’s…that’s not going to work at all for Christians.”

This is also a good explanation of what I think is “simple”.

RS: People say words all the time, but sometimes they don’t really know what they mean or imply. Can you help people understand some basic terms and differences between them? — e.g., “Jew,” “Jewish,” “Judaic,” “Israelite,” etc.

RL: I think I need some clarification here, because I don’t know how Christians use these terms, and how I use them is very different than how you would use them. Historically speaking, the term changes: the descendants of Shem are regarded as the “Semites”, which includes all people in that language group. The Torah uses the terms “Hebrews” and “Israelites” relatively interchangeably. Abraham is the first of the Hebrews, but the Torah does not call the descendants of Ishmael “Hebrews”. After Jacob gets his name change to Israel (Genesis 32:29), his descendants are called “Israelites”, as he’s the first person listed by the Torah who has all of his children believe in God.

Jews, Jewish, Judaism – all of these come from the name of Jacob’s son Judah, whose descendants were the most prominent in Israelite history following the Davidic dynasty. While not all Jews are descendants of the tribe of Judah, the majority of people who had survived with their identity intact were. (Modern-day groups like Beta Israel and Bnei Menashe are thought to be descendants of groups of Israelites who were separated from the mainstream, and thus would not be descendants of the tribe of Judah.)

Judaic tends to be an adjective used for objects that are related to Judaism (a relatively new word).

Please try to refrain from calling someone who is Jewish “Jew”, or referring to “that Jew” or whatever. Yes, “Jew” is the word for a singular Jewish person. It’s also a pejorative. Don’t use it.

RS: 99.99% of the time, Christians use the word “Pharisee” as a pejorative. Why is this wrong? And what’s the actual history and context of Pharisees?

RL: I am going to have to look this up, because I don’t know. *laughs* Jews tend to steer away from using the words “Pharisee” or “Sadducee.” I am not really aware of any Jewish text, or any text intended for Jews, that uses that phraseology, which might be because we consciously don’t use Christian terminology.

The Pharisees were not just one ideology, or one group. They were a school of thought within Judaism that had various positions through the years. They tended to be the rabbis who were pro-Oral Law and generally pro-1st-century-equivalent-of-proletariat, as opposed to the Sadducees, who were wealthier and more assimilated and also disavowed the existence of the Oral Law. The Pharisees’ beliefs became the basis of rabbinical Judaism, which is the phase that started after the destruction of the Second Temple.

To put this in a modern-day metaphor, the Pharisees would be roughly the equivalent of Antonin Scalia – they were very much into the strict “originalist” intent of the laws, and interpreted everything through this framework, and put up a lot of very difficult fences around the laws to make sure the laws were continually interpreted through that intent. Which makes Jesus, so pragmatic about the impact that the laws will have on the people, the Stephen Breyer of Judea.

RS: What is the oral tradition within Judaism?

RL: Lengthy!

So, the traditional interpretation is that when Moses went to Mount Sinai and received the Torah from God, he actually received two parallel traditions – the Written Law, which is set as the Five Books of Moses, and the Oral Law, which was to be passed along verbally from generation and generation and also to grow with every passing generation. And the Oral Law stayed oral until just after the destruction of the Second Temple, when Roman persecution of the Jews meant that people who knew the entire Oral Law were dying too quickly to pass on their knowledge. So the Oral Law was written down, and then more commentaries were written on that, and more commentaries, and more…rabbinical debates on the practice and meaning of the Written Law are ongoing until today.

A gross simplification is that the Written Law is what we learn, the Oral Law is what we practice – because even fundamentalist Jews practice according to rabbinical tradition developed in line with the Oral Law. Maybe a better metaphor is that the Written Law is bone, and the Oral Law is muscle and sinews, which cover the bones and make it possible for the body to walk and move. Alternatively, the Oral Law could be seen as commentary and explanation: every line, every word, probably every letter of the Written Law has commentary on it.

In one of my first college classes, I had to read the book of Genesis (in English translation) without commentary. It was a disorienting experience for me, because I had never looked at the text itself without commentary. Stories that I had known well – that I had translated into English and been tested on – all of a sudden looked very different without the multiple levels of meaning and commentary to explain it.

For whatever reason, Christianity doesn’t have the oral tradition. I don’t know why this is. That’s the biggest difference between early Christianity and its contemporary Judaism. Now, they’re vastly different creatures.

Part Two >

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2 thoughts on “Everything You Wanted To Know About Judaism But Were Afraid To Ask, Part One”

  1. Very interesting. I look forward to the next segment!

    The fact that most Christians do not even bother to accept historical background behind the writings of the Bible continues to boggle me.

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