Book Review – “The Misunderstood Jew” by Jill Ann Levine (available from HarperCollins)


My dad never let me drink stagnant water. It’s slimy. Gross stuff grows in it, and drinking it will make you seriously sick. In fact, I’m not sure my dad could bring himself to drink stagnant water even in an extreme survival situation. It’s that bad. In nature, water needs to stay in motion to offer life to those who consume it. The same truth holds for theology. I am utterly convinced that too much time spent affirming what we already know leads to stagnant faith. To give life our theology needs to stretch, grow, and accommodate tension.

I opened “The Misunderstood Jew” by Jill Ann Levine with hot anticipation. The Jewish faith has produced millennia of excellent theological scholars. They see the Old Testament from a very different perspective than mine, and Judaism stands founded on the concept of havruta (learning in fellowship with those who disagree with you).

Levine did not disappoint. She opened with an examination of how effortlessly the Christian faith dispenses with the Jewishness of Jesus. That makes sense since the Jews made a shambles of Judaism and Jesus came to trade new wine for old…right? After all, he was born Jewish, and he kind of lived Jewish, but just to introduce a new religion…right? Maybe not.
According to Christian interpretations of the gospels, “Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women… (teach) nonviolent responses to oppression… (and the only one who) cares about the ‘poor and marginalized.’” In fact, throughout much of the NT Jesus looks great specifically because he is contrasted to the negative foil of Judaism.

Theologians support this interpretation by focusing consistently on the Jewish leaders angered by Jesus and out stop him at all costs. We end up just like the Pharisee most Christians scorn for rejoicing that he is not like the tax collector. We praise God that we are not like the Jews. We somehow miss that the crowds, the majority of Jewish people, are not shocked but support Jesus and his works. Recall, these are not new Christians but Jews. Not incidentally, in the Jewish reading of that story the Pharisee is indeed righteous and receives positive status. In fact, it is that very standing that elevates the tax collector in comparison. Well, OK I thought. Maybe the Jewish people weren’t so bad, but what about the law? Jesus clearly came to free us from the law, right?

Not quite. Instead Jesus participates in the time honored Jewish tradition of creating a fence around the heart of the law. This process puts a more restrictive prohibition around the actual law in order to help people avoid breaking the law inadvertently. Torah prohibits murder and adultery. In the Sermon the Mount, Jesus condemns anger and lust. The Torah forbids swearing falsely. Jesus says to avoid swearing altogether. Not only does Jesus affirm the law, his position is highly conservative. Now I was thinking, “Well OK, but Jesus did start a new religion, one that does not follow the law. Aren’t we just arguing over technicalities?”

Unfortunately, no. The distancing of Jesus from Jewishness has spawned a world of misunderstanding and a great deal of mistrust between Jews and Christians. It matters, and there is a better perspective. Levine spends ten pages near the end of the first chapter detailing the deeply Jewish nature of the Lord’s Prayer in very convincing fashion. She describes one profound purpose of this foundational Christian prayer, steeped in Jewish traditional and theology, like this: “Jesus truly does provide a bridge, rather than wedge, between Christians and Jews.”

If you believed that Jesus did not come to establish a new religion, how might that affect your faith? What about your view of Jews and Judaism? Levine makes that point well in a laudable effort to combat the frequently venomous dialogue between Christians and Jews. However, she in no way advocates an erasing or even blurring of the line between Christianity and Judaism today. Instead, true to the tradition of havruta, the truth is in the tension between distinct and well defined perspectives that seem to sharply contrast or even contradict one another.



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3 responses to “Book Review – “The Misunderstood Jew” by Jill Ann Levine (available from HarperCollins)

  1. I think the tendency to remove Jesus from his Jewishness may very well be intentional by theologians—both those in history and today—in an attempt to usurp Jesus’ messages for their own purpose. We want an authority figure to stand as the head of our theological position, and as a Christian, who better to stand there than Jesus?

    I think it’s wise of you to ask the question how we might react when we realize that Jesus may not have come to establish a new religion. How might Christianity be if Paul hadn’t come along and argued with Peter about the inclusion of Gentiles without having to first become Jewish?

    I appreciate your humble and nurturing perspective on A.J. Levine’s book, as she really does attempt to bring to the table both Jews and Christians with the desire that we find our common ground.

  2. One thing I want to ask; did you ever feel she was being negatively critical of the Christian origins? I had difficulty accepting some of her suppositions regarding Paul.

    • I struggled with what seemed to me like her efforts to win a point through sheer weight of argument. I found that when I slowed down and mapped out everything she wrote, some of it did not apply so directly to the topic at hand. Since some of those points were disparaging of Christianity (Christians?) I did pick up a negative vibe. However, the balance of the book was excellent and presents a great path for interfaith discussion.

      After all, we’re not exactly well balanced and pro-Judaism in all we write as Christians.

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