Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Jewish encounter with Easter

What follows is a short talk commissioned by the Methodist podcast NOMAD. Thanks to Tim Nash for asking me to write it. Happy Easter to my Christian friends and readers.

I can remember, surprisingly well, the thoughts and feelings I had the very first time I sat through a Good Friday Church service nearly 30 years ago. None of them were particularly godly. Most of them lacked any generosity towards my hosts.

Let me tell you why.

I was with my university girlfriend and we'd travelled back from Manchester to her hometown in Kendal in Cumbria. Anne had grown up in an Evangelical Anglican Church and she wanted to attend the Easter services with her mother and she invited me, her new Jewish boyfriend, along too.

I agreed to come, seeing it all as some kind of anthropological exercise, a social science trip to explore the tribe my girlfriend had come from. This wasn't an attempt at conversion on Anne's part, merely an introduction to her home and upbringing.

But in truth this was never going to be a dispassionate investigation on my part. I was carrying with me far too much cultural baggage.

Religious beliefs and family background had inevitably cropped up early in our relationship. It was too important to both of us to be left unspoken. We had already found much we could agree on. But Easter is at the very heart of the Christian calendar and despite all of the parallels with the story of the Hebrew Exodus, it has appeared to be where Judaism and Christianity are forced to part theological company.

I hoped our Easter trip to Kendal was not going to see our own relationship split asunder.

The idea of God existing simultaneously as a Father and a Son had always felt like an affront to  my strict Jewish monotheistic sensibility. The idea of a physical resurrection was also problematic but that had more to do with my modern scientific view of the world than with Judaism, which has its own accounts of biblical returns from the dead.

But at the time I remember that my biggest problem with Easter was not the the doctrinal divisions it created but its long-term historical fall-out.

For me Easter was not the joyful occasion it was to Christian worshippers delighting in the affirmation that 'He is Risen'. No, Easter was the annual disaster that created license for Christians to bring mayhem and murder to Jewish communities across Europe. All this was thanks to anti-Jewish Church teaching that went unchecked for nearly 2,000 years embracing both Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Jew as eternal 'Christ Killer' had been a mainstay of Christian education. The account of the Jewish religious elders passing judgement on Jesus, the Jewish mob outside Pilate's head quarters calling for crucification and of course that staggering unhelpful passage in Matthew that has the local Jews saying: 

"His blood be upon us and on our children. (Matthew 27:2425)

And none of this stopped with the Reformation. Actually, it got worse for a while. Here's what Luther wrote in 1543. They, the Jews, are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." Cheers Martin! Another unhelpful Christian contribution to interfaith dialogue.

No wonder across Europe my ancestors locked their doors and hid during Easter Week. It was open season on the Jews. And all of this created the fertile soil that allowed Hitler to perpetrate the murder of a third of the world's Jewish population just seventy years ago.

So all of this was on my mind that first Good Friday service with its solemn telling of the Christian Messiah's final earthly hours.

In a perverse and mean-spirited way, I was sitting there, not just waiting to be offended, but secretly hoping it would happen. I wanted the vicar to say something crass and stupid, something ignorant and offensive to a Jewish listener sat in his pews. I wanted my prejudices about the Church to be confirmed.

In retrospect, I can see how my feelings were those of a righteous victim. Somewhere in my upbringing I had imbued the psychological survival strategy for any long-term oppressed group.

I had cultivated a feeling of moral superiority towards the oppressor.

This is how the mind-set works. And I will admit there is a touch of the Woody Allen school of righteous paranoia in what follows.

Okay, so you may be the powerful all conquering world religion but all the best bits you learnt from Judaism and your violent behaviour towards the very people who nurtured your Messiah brings you no credit and much moral debit. And if you keep bashing on about the Jews rejecting their Messiah I'm going to get pretty hacked off by your self-righteous arrogance. Since when did you corner the market in cosmic revelations? Oy Vey, I forget, that happened at the first Easter.

Sadly for me at the time, the vicar made no moral gaffes that I can recall. The communal Jewish rejection of Jesus was not a theme of the preaching that day. There were far better and more interesting things for him to reflect upon. As much as I tried, I couldn't find offence. In reality, at least in Kendal in the late 20th century, the problems were all inside my head. But of course that's a problem in itself.

As for the Easter Sunday service, which we also went to, it was the joyfulness that I found most off-putting. I obviously preferred my religion to be solemn and contemplative rather than celebratory. I couldn't understand why the congregation appeared quite so pleased with themselves and with life in general. I think this had more to do with personal temperament than with Jewish tradition, which undoubtedly does celebration quite well too.

Time to hit the fast forward button.

A Quaker wedding, four children and 30 years later, Anne, the university girlfriend, is my wife and I am now the Jewish husband of an Anglican vicar in North Yorkshire. I have had the privilege of attending a great many Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. I now find the Good Friday story utterly profound and deeply moving as an account of personal and universal suffering. My time with Christians of deep and loving faith has been immensely rewarding and nothing but positive. I have undoubtedly gained strength in my own faith through being a part of these worshipping communities. And, despite all of this exposure to Christianity, I remain happily, proudly, perhaps stubbornly, Jewish.

What has changed, is not only a deepening of my own faith in the God of my ancestors but a radical change in my attitude.

Long ago I decided not to allow doctrine or liturgy to trip me up when it comes to interfaith relations, whether institutional or personal.

We are all limited by our mental capacity to grasp the mysteries of the universe. And all we have at our disposal are words which mostly struggle to do justice to our spiritual condition.

While remaining comfortable in my liberal Judaism with its emphasis on an ethical and prophetic tradition, I've come to appreciate what Christianity brings to the human party.

While Judaism is hotter on justice, Christianity breaks more ground with love and forgiveness. While Christianity can get a little hung-up on sinfulness and the afterlife, Judaism likes to keep things firmly grounded in practical matters of family and community.

To me it looks like ecclesiastical swings and roundabouts.

And for our Sabbaths, both faiths take a formal moment to stop and rest and wonder at creation.

And in those moments, between our prayer book words and the communal singing, we are all wrestling with the same questions about the same human dilemmas.

How we frame our answers my be slightly different from each other but it's the questions that we should allow to unite us rather than letting the answers divide us.

But what about the really big stumbling blocks between Christianity and Judaism? The ones that come out so strongly at Easter time. Surely there's no way to ever completely square that religious circle?

A few years ago I was sitting in the chapel near the sea of Galilee built on the site where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the peacemakers and notice the plank in your own eye before the spec of dust in your neighbour's...and much more ethical brilliance.
I was thinking what a shame it was that Jesus and all his teaching is so 'persona non grata' in Judaism.

We've been forced to cold shoulder an outstanding and innovative Jewish teacher and social critic who was clearly steeped in Jewish law and liturgy.

Wasn't Jesus pioneering a post Temple movement of Jewish renewal based on prayer and ethics rather than temple sacrifice? In fact the same agenda rabbinic Judaism was to develop.

The Christian church is mostly to blame for this state of affairs. Jesus, and all he said, became Jewishly toxic because of the Church's persecution of the Jews. Both sides lost out in more ways than one. But the body count is rather higher on my side of the fence.

But there I go, getting all defensive and victim-like again.

When it comes to the 'Jewish Jesus' I'm more than happy to invite him home for bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese....and maybe some roll mop herrings. And I've found the theological links between Easter and the Jewish Passover, with their parallel themes of rebirth, renewal and liberation, fascinating to explore.

But how far can I go in my understanding of the 'Christian Jesus'? The one that dies on the cross for the sins of the world and then comes back from the dead to everlasting life at the right hand of God.

Well, perhaps I can go further than you might think. After all who am I to limit God's ways of working.

If God wanted to cast himself as an earthly human to make it easier to relate to Him, then what right do I have to limit the Almighty's room for manoeuvre?

Okay, so I have to adopt a more flexible approach to monotheism but aren't there visions in the Book of Daniel that sound suspiciously like a God who intends to send a messiah that clearly has metaphysical attributes. Christianity never seems to escape its Jewish roots...and quite frankly I'm happy for us to take the collective credit for all Christianity's best ideas! You owe us big time after all.

Easter, I can now see, is the moment when Judaism gets super-charged, repackaged and delivered to the world. It's a development to be welcomed.

But none of that has to make Judaism obsolete or superseded. The same goes for the world's other great faiths.

When I look at the world I see variety in everything. Trees, birds, Heinz soup, and of course human beings. God's creation is all about the majesty of difference.

So why, when it comes to religion, would we be so arrogant as to suggest that there is only one true way to the truth. 

Did God really have in mind Methodism, or Anglicanism, or Coptic Christianity as the ultimate and final manifestation of his will?  And which variety of those denominations was he thinking of? "Do it like the North Yorkshire Anglicans" He might say..."or wait for the lightening to strike!"

No, I don't think so.

I think God likes the variety and is probably slightly amused at our well-meaning, but bumbling attempts, to create the 'correct way' to worship him.

Except of course when we turn our distinctive and particular understandings against each other. Then, I suspect, any heavenly laughter stops abruptly.

Typically, the bad stuff happens when faith gets knotted-up with power and politics and particularly territorial nationalism. Local cultures and a poor reading of history usually have a role in the trouble making too. 

In Judaism you can see this playing itself out in the strand of Zionism that has become a form of extreme religious nationalism. It rejects, or at least sees as inferior, all other claims to the Holy Land. It certainly leaves no room for Palestinians whether they are Christian or Muslim.

All of which leads me to the issue I want to leave you with.

These days the question I think we should ask of ourselves, is this:

What is our theology of 'the other'? How does our world outlook find a safe and respected space for people who do not share our precise notion of the will of God?

I can understand your possible reservations at this point.

Our theology, doctrines and creeds may feel like strength, comfort and certainty. But they can turn out to be frighteningly dangerous, especially in our wired up digital global village where we all live, at least virtually, side by side.

For some, my question and its challenge may feel like a fairly easy task. For others it will require some theological heavy lifting, including some reinterpretation of holy texts.

Why not start with Easter though? Can you celebrate the risen Christ and still believe that I - or a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist friend - have an experience which is true and valid and not, at best, just a well-meaning mistake?

If you are struggling with this, keep asking why? What's getting in your way of seeing the spark of God in the face of your neighbour? Why do they have to change rather than you?

As a Jew I have finally reached a comfortable accommodation with the Easter story. I am no longer threatened by it. I no longer react with anger and resentment. Instead I see the power and value, not only in the story but in its Christian interpretation as well. I don't think you are wrong. I don't think you have made a mistake. God created a very big universe, I'm quite sure it is big enough for all of us.

Now, can we all say that of each other?

Happy Easter!

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant, Robert! Couldn't have put it better myself 😄 we are all travelling to the same place, just by different routes. Happy Passover to you, happy Easter to your wife & God bless to all your family x