Bill Long 11/23/05
I have never been as warmly received by any community in America as the Jewish community. This dawned on me once again when I was in Portland 2 1/2 weeks ago for the inaugural Gus Solomon lecture sponsored by the new Jewish Studies program at Portland State University. The friendly exchanges with people whom I had not seen in decades, as well as easy conversation with new people, confirmed me in that belief. By the way, Solomon was a towering figure in the federal judiciary in Portland, serving as a US District Court Judge for a longer period (1950-87) than any other person in Oregon's history. In his lecture, Professor Stephen Gillers of NYU Law School delivered a sterling presentation on a book he currently is writing--the banning and then reversing of the ban on James Joyce's Ulysses in the 1920s and early 1930s. This essay arises from my reflections on that lecture/event in the context of my thoughts on American Jews and Judaism over the years.
From the record of my earliest days there was no reason to believe I should have had an affinity for Jewish people or things Jewish. I grew up in Darien, CT, a town with historic anti-Jewish prejudies. Indeed, when I was raised there in the 1950s it was rare to find a Jewish person in the town; "they" lived, appropriately, in nearby New Canaan. This changed for me when I was a religious studies major at Brown University in Providence, RI. Boasting one of the world's leading scholars of Judaism in Late Antiquity, the Department of Religious Studies attracted a fascinating mix of Protestants, Catholics and Jews (Eastern religions were only beginning to be the rage in those days), though I was the only out-of-the-closet Evangelical who hung around the department in the early 1970s.
It was not until my graduate program in religious studies that I truly felt I learned some of the "politics" of Jewish Studies programs, the nature of the Jewish experience in America and why I was thought of as someone who could be honored or received very warmly by Jewish people. Let me state two things that dawned on me during this period. First, I became aware of the politicization of religious studies under the guise of "neutral" scholarship. The "hot" issue at the time was a reconsideration of the question of who actually was responsible for the death of Jesus. Texts from the Gospel of Matthew, and other places, identify the animus against Jesus as coming from his fellow Jews. This would be most natural, since Jesus was a religious reformer and normally the people you offend the worst when you reform a religion are more conservative members of that religious establishment.
But I was interested to discover how it was of great importance to get Christian scholars to begin to pin the blame for Jesus' death on the Romans instead of the Jews. The reason for this was quite clear--anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution was historically related to allegations that Jews were "Christ killers." What better way to try to change this reality than saying that the Romans were the ones who killed Christ? No one really cares about offending Caesar Augustus or Nero today.
Within a decade the effort was successful. No respectable NT scholar today will say that the Jews were largely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as we have gotten rid of "B.C." and "A.D" in historical dating (in favor of "BCE" and "CE"), so we have interred the notion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
The second thing that dawned on me as I studied with Jewish students, especially in graduate work, was that they really admired intelligence, and that I knew their material as well as they did. Oh, to be sure, in the graduate program, the Jewish students knew Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac better than I did, and I was grateful for some of their translation help. But, I was perceived to have at least as good a grasp on their texts and history and, especially, on methodological issues in the study of religions, as they. And so they brought me into their fraternity (there were no women in the graduate program in Judaism). When I told this story to a Jewish psychologist later in life, he said, "It is no wonder they fully accepted you. Respect for intelligence is hard-wired into us."
More Things, Later Learned
Time rushes on. And space is limited. So, I will only mention one more important thing I learned later in life, which leads to my major question now to the Jewish community. The thing learned later came about during my professorship of religion and humanities at Reed College in Portland, the most prestigious private college in Portland. I was asked to join the board of the (new) Institute of Judaic Studies and later, of the Holocaust Center. It really was a very good experience. I was one of very few Christians on the boards, and I frequently was asked to be a guest lecturer at conferences they sponsored. I learned in that context that it was crucial for the Jewish community, in order to secure support of and continue conversation with the "majority" community, to have visible or prominent Christians on their boards or in their programs. It isn't as if this representation gave legitimacy to their programs; indeed, I felt I often added very little to the programs. But I learned about this method of operation, which I don't think is disrespectful or inaccurate to call a survival mechanism for the Jewish community. But it leads to a problem, with which I will close this essay.
The problem that this accommodation and inclusion has contributed to is the sense that there is not only a "Judeo-Christian" tradition in America, but that Judaism vaguely is nothing other than a sort of "shadowy" Christianity and that, in fact, we "all" believe the same things. Not true. I think America greatly misses a sense of what the living Jewish community is, a community apart from Christians, a community with its foibles and glories that is does not gain its legitimacy from some Judae-Christian myth but which gains its honor and respect from the particular, and often peculiar, way it defines life. Judaism today needs to tell us what it is, and especially what it is as an intellectual force, for we live in times where religion is increasingly falling into the hands of the anti-intellectual and intolerant. The time is ripe for someone to write a book on our endangered American values from the perspective of Judaism. I would certainly look forward to it.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long