Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Debt to Jewish Thinkers

In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals.  But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and some Jewish thinkers (theologians, philosophers, political theorists) are extremely important.  Christianity has a different relationship with Judaism than with any other faith. Judaism is both our mother and older sister. We began as a messianic movement among 1st C. Jews–one far more open to Gentile inclusion.  But soon we became a mostly Gentile religion and there was what James D. G. Dunn calls the “parting of the ways” between synagogue and church.  With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducee movement was finished.  With the final destruction of Jerusalem after Bar Kochba’s revolt, the Zealot movement, and violent nationalist strains of Judaism disappeared.  The Pharisee movement became normative, rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora.  But with the “parting of the ways,” and soon with Christian use of imperial power to persecute Jews, Christians lost sight of the Jewish nature of our faith–and much that developed since can only be considered pagan.   Christian pastors and theologians need Jewish dialogue partners–perhaps more than they need us.

People will rightly notice the absence of the major Jewish “Holocaust Theologians”: Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg. I have, of course, learned things from these worthies. But I have become convinced by “post-Holocaust Jewish theologians” such as Ellis and Goldberg, listed below, that the WAY Wiesel & Co. have placed the Shoah at the center of Jewish life has distorted the central moral dimensions of Judaism and led to uncritical support of everything the modern State of Israel does.  Some even contend that the gradual movement of many mainstream U.S. Jewish institutions from a center-left political stance to a center-right, or even neo-con, stance can be traced to these Holocaust theologians.  I do not know. And I certainly think Wiesel, Greenberg, and Rubenstein have written important works that both Jews and Christians need to engage. But MY thought has been more shaped by those Jewish thinkers listed below.

  • Martin Buber (1878-1965). I have been deeply influenced by Buber’s “communal existentialism,” especially his “I-Thou” dialogic principle. But I also have learned to appreciate Hasidism from Buber–and I confess that previous to reading some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, I thought of the Hasidics as simply “Jewish fundamentalists” with little to teach modern people. Now, I see them as one effort to avoid assimilation–and contemporary Christians need desperately to find ways to avoid assimilation into the wider cultures of the world.  If Zionism has any redeeming qualities, it would have to be something like Buber’s “cultural Zionism” in which he worked from the beginning for Arab and Jew to share the Land of Promise.  Buber’s many writings can be found here.
  •  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great “public intellectuals” of the 20th C.  Born (in Warsaw, Poland) into a family in which both parents were descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, Heschel’s initial education was in a traditional Yeshiva, and was “ordained” a rabbi with an orthodox smicha. But Heschel felt himself compelled to interpret Judaism to the modern world and so earned a second ordination at a Reform seminary in Berlin while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Berlin.  A Holocaust refugee (almost all the rest of Heschel’s family perished in the death camps), Heschel came to the U.S. and taught first at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnatti ( a Reform school) before finding a better “fit” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (a Conservative institution where one could be both a historical critic and take halakah seriously).  At JTS, Heschel interacted with several Christian scholars at nearby Union Theological Seminary. He also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement–once telling a group of Rabbis that if they wanted to hear the authentic voice of the Hebrew prophets in America, today, they would listen to Martin Luther King, Jr!   It was Heschel’s two-volume work, The Prophets, which first blew me away. I still consult it today as one of the best interpretations to the biblical prophets available.  Heschel captures well how the Hebrew prophets were both drunk with God and completely OUTRAGED over injustice.  Heschel also taught me how to appreciate the Sabbath and the hallowing of time–whereas the Christianity I knew as a child taught that all Sabbath keeping was simply “legalism.” Like Buber, Heschel had a mystic view of God coupled with a profound compassion for all humanity.  Daughter Susanna Heschel is a professor of religious studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist.  Find many of Heschel’s works here.
  • Geza Vermes (born 22 June 1924) in Hungary.  Vermes and his parents were all baptized into the Catholic Church when he was seven, but whether that was social climbing assimilation on his parents’ part (common among Middle and Upper class European Jews of that era), or genuine conversion, I do not know.  At any rate, it did not save his parents from dying in the Holocaust.  Vermes became a Catholic priest and was one of the first scholars to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and he wrote the first translation into English.  Something in his discoveries led him to leave the Catholic Church and reclaim his Jewish identity.  He moved to Britain and eventually became the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a post he retained until his retirement in 1981.  Vermes has also been at the forefront of contemporary Jewish reclaimations of Jesus, beginning with his groundbreaking Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I don’t always agree with him, of course (I am a Christian, after all), but I greatly appreciate Vermes’ reconstructions of the Judaism(s) of the NT era and his placing of Jesus within such a context.  Vermes’ books are here.
  • Michael Walzer (b. 1935), who teaches in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Princeton University, is one of the foremost political theorists in the U.S.  Walzer is a just war theorist and I am a convinced pacifist. Walzer has some blind spots concerning Israel and, initially (until they went overboard even in Walzer’s view), supported some of the Bush administration’s actions in the “war on terror.”  So, I obviously don’t just agree with all his views. But Walzer’s method of moral and political reasoning has greatly influenced me.  Some have noticed that I stand between MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout as a self-declared “democratic communitarian.” I learned that alternative stance from Walzer, especially in Thick and Thin: Moral Reasoning At Home and Abroad, The Company of Critics, and On Toleration.  I largely agree with his pluralistic account of “complex equality” in Spheres of Justice and share his commitment to a democratic socialism–in a nation without a viable democratic socialist party!  Walzer began his career as a rather assimilated Jew, but his work on particularist identity and universalist commitments led to his reclaiming increasingly more of his Jewish identity–something which first became very apparent in his Exodus and Revolution which showed how the revolutionary politics of the biblical exodus has influenced so many other “reiterations” of the narrative.  Now, Walzer is in the midst of editing a huge multi-volume work on The Jewish Political Tradition–a project that connects in spirit to my own identification with the radical free church democratic vision of the Levellers.  Walzer’s writings (through 2006) are found in his c.v. here.
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) is one of the leaders of the “Jewish Renewal Movement” in the U.S. which seeks to get beyond the way that U.S. Judaism has been divided into “denominations” (e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) while losing ever more young people to assimilation or conversion.  Waskow also began as a fairly assimilated Jew who was a historian and political activist throughout the 1960s.  In the wake of the conservative backlash of the Nixon era, Waskow began to see that radical social reform took deep spiritual roots and began to forge institutions and practices of Jewish renewal (while also participating in interfaith work with Christians and Muslims). In 1995, this process led to Waskow’s rabbinic ordination with a beit din composed of one Orthodox rabbi with Hassidic roots, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, and one Jewish feminist theologian.  Waskow has been working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since 1969 and is a former board member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Currently, runs the Shalom Centre and is a leading voice connecting worship to peacemaking.  Waskow has influenced me mainly through his example–seeing that reconciliation with enemies or partnerships with alien traditions cannot take place through watering down one’s own particularism, but only through rediscovery and and deep transformation of one’s own tradition.  See some of his major works here.
  • Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College.  Her Standing Again at Sinai was my introduction to Jewish feminism.  Because of it, I resist versions of Christian feminism which try to blame everything patriarchal on the Hebrew Scriptures and, Marcion-like, see the New Testament as a repudiation of all that came before. (This Marcionite tendency is also prevalent among some forms of Christian pacifism and I resist THAT, too.) 
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner (b. 1943) is another former ’60s radical who combines spiritual depth and social passion.  Lerner, who has one Ph.D. in psychology and another in Jewish philosophy, studied under Heschel at JTS–but found the rest of his teachers disappointing.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beyt Tikkun in Berkely, CA, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish-inspired interfaith journal that is similar in political outlook to the Christian Sojourners), and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives which seeks to renew a spiritual Left in the U.S.  A strong defender of Israel’s right to exist, Lerner is also a strong defender of a Palestinian state.  He has worked to end the estrangement in the U.S. between African-Americans and Jews (once a firm coalition), working with Cornel West to uproot Jewish anti-black racism and African-American anti-Semitism.  Unlike those listed above, I have met R. Lerner more than once and I always learn much from him–but not usually about Judaism, per se, I have to say. His writings (in addition to articles in Tikkun) are found here.
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949) was one of the earliest women in America to be ordained a rabbi, finally becoming ordained in 1981.  She is a major peace and justice activist, serving on the boards of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Rabbis for Human Rights, and founding the Jewish-Muslim-Christian peace walks. She also is the founder and Exec. Director of Interfaith Inventions, a daycamp for children and youth.  A master storyteller (Haggadah) who uses theatre arts in social transformation, Rabbi Gottlieb is also a leader in the recovery of the Hispanic Jewish heritage than came to the “New World” during the expulsions from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand and a student of Sephardic Jewish culture.  I met her first in 2002 at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and got to know her better when she was a guest speaker at the 2006 meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  There, R. Gottlieb so impressed my youngest daughter, Miriam, that she wanted to become a rabbi! (Miriam was 6 at the time!)
  • Marc H. Ellis (b. 1952), directs the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Baylor is closely related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and this is the first Center for Jewish Studies at a confessionally Christian university–at least in the U.S.  Marc Ellis has been one of the strongest voices for Jewish-Palestinians reconciliation. Further, and more controversally, Ellis has contended in many books that the story of the Holocaust has been misused so that Jews see themselves as “eternal victims” and are unable to criticize an Israel that has power, even nuclear power.   Ellis helped me to see that the modern State of Israel has often functioned to warp normative Jewish thinking in a way analogous to the establishment of political power for Christians with the Constantinian settlement. (Ellis does NOT argue, as he has been accused, that Israel should cease to exist. One cannot turn back the clock without more bloodshed. He simply seeks to recover the moral center of Judaism that uncritical defense of a nation-state has warped.) Ellis has also been the Jewish theologian who interacts most with Christian liberation theologians.  Ellis’ many writings on Jewish and Christian topics are found here.
  • Update: As noted in the comments section, Jonathan Marlowe reminded me of another major dialogue partner:  Rabbi Michael Goldberg is another “nondenominational” rabbi. After receiving his ordination, he completed a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union under one of my mentors, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  R. Goldberg has become a major contributor to the “narrative theology” genre.  In his 1995 book, Why Should Jews Survive?, he echoes Marc Ellis’ contention that Holocaust-centered Judaism distorts the moral center of the faith.  In his Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, Goldberg draws some contrasts between the Jewish “master story” (the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai) and the Christian “master story” (Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) which I cannot follow because he strips the Exodus from the Christian story and claims that the Christ event is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Exodus-Covenant.   This kind of interpretive disagreement may be irreconcilable–I cannot see how Goldberg could change his view without becoming a Christian. Read Goldberg’s books.
  • Michael Wyschogrod is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and one of the first Jewish thinkers to attempt a systematic theology. He has been called a “Jewish Barthian,” a term which caused Barth himself some amusement. His books are listed here.
  • Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, who died in the late ’90s, was a German Orthodox rabbi and also a scholar of the historical Jesus and a participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue.   He argued that God really raised Jesus from the dead and he was contemptuous of so-called Christian theologians who attempted to demythologize Christ’s resurrection.  However, even though Lapide agreed that the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s message, he did not agree that Jesus was the promised Messiah! (So much for some kinds of apologetics!) Lapide also entered into dialogue with Jurgen Moltmann concerning Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarianism. Lapide also wrote a major interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, showing its many roots and parallels in rabbinic thought.  Yet, Lapide thought Jesus actually went beyond the rabbis in calling not just for good treatment of enemies, but for the love of enemies–this was the radically new element in Jesus’ thought! But, said R. Lapide, if this is true, then it is clear that from about the 3rd C. until today, more of Jesus’ physical brothers and sisters (i.e., Jews) had come close to loving enemies than Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters (i.e., Christians)! The truth of that observation is profoundly embarrassing.  R. Lapide’s writings are here.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | heroes, Jews, theology | 13 Comments

Jewish Peacemakers Praise Carter

The media would have you believe that all Jewish people in the U.S. have condemned Jimmy Carter and his new book, Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. This link shows that to be false. Update: Although only a few people are pictured, the banner is from Jewish Voice for Peace, a large organization pushing for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israelis conflict. Other prominent Jewish voices that have defended Carter’s book, include Rabbi Michael Lerner,
of Beyt Tikkun synagogue. Rabbi Lerner is also the editor of Tikkun magazine, and the national coordinator of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
Those familiar with Israeli politics will know that, although Carter’s title uses a controversial term, others in Israel itself have used the term apartheid. Like Carter, they are not claiming that Israel is racist, but that the many barriers and “Jewish only” roads and checkpoints throughout the Occupied Territories is similar to the Bantustan “homelands” under apartheid era South Africa. For instance, Shulamit Aloni, who was Israel’s Minister of Education in the government of Primee Minister Yitzak Rabin, has written an article earlier this month called, “Indeed, There is Apartheid in Israel.” For the Hebrew original, click here
and for the English translation of her article, click here and scroll down. And award-winning Israeli author Uri Davis had written a few years ago, Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within–which has sold well in Israel and outside of it, but not in the U.S.

January 24, 2007 Posted by | Israel-Palestine, Jews, Jimmy Carter, just peacemaking | 3 Comments

Jewish Rabbi Defends Former Baptist President

Rabbi Michael Lerner says that Jimmy Carter was the best presidential friend Israel ever had.

“Jimmy Carter was the best friend the Jews ever had as president of the United States.He is the only president to have actually delivered for the Jewish people an agreement (the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt) that has stood the test of time. Since the treaty, there have been bad vibes between Israel and Egypt, but never a return to war, once Israel fully withdrew from the territories it conquered in Egypt during the 1967 war.

To get that agreement, Carter had to twist the arms of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Sometimes that is what real friends do—they push you into a path that is really in your best interest at times when there is an emergency and you are acting self-destructively.

When the U.S. government is following a self-destructive policy, even a policy backed by people in both major political parties, its best friends are those who try to change its direction and are not afraid to offer intense critique. That’s why a majority of Americans, and 86 percent of American Jews, voted in the 2006 midterm elections to reject Bush’s war in Iraq and his policies suspending habeas corpus and legitimating wire-tapping and torture. Not because we were disloyal, but precisely because we love America enough to challenge its policies even when Vice President Cheney questions our loyalty. We know that critique is often an essential part of love and caring.”

Rabbi Lerner goes on to defend Carter and his new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, from attacks by both Jewish and Evangelical Christian organizations. Last week, President Carter was in my adopted home town, Louisville, KY, for a reading and book signing. The line stretched around the block, but there were also protests. So, I find Rabbi Lerner’s defence very refreshing. See the rest of it here.

Cross-posted from Mainstream Baptists’ Group Blog.

December 7, 2006 Posted by | interfaith, Jews, Jimmy Carter | Comments Off on Jewish Rabbi Defends Former Baptist President

A Rabbi’s Sermon to Baptists

Rabbi Michael Lerner, senior rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, CA, Editor in Chief of Tikkun magazine, and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, explains to the Baptist Peace Fellowship attendees the need for a “new bottom line” in the American economy and society. 10 July 2006. Rabbi Lerner was with us for most of the week. His prayer for peace at Ebenezer Baptist Church on 11 July, first in Hebrew and then sung in English, was AMAZING.

July 24, 2006 Posted by | heroes, Jews | Comments Off on A Rabbi’s Sermon to Baptists

More from BPFNA Peace Camp

One of the fascinating people we’ve had with us this year is Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, one of the women to be ordained a rabbi in the history of Judaism. I met her a few years ago when the Fellowship of Reconciliation (see link at the right of this blog) celebrated its 90th birthday at a conference in L.A. Rabbi Gottlieb is the creator of the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walks and I, as a Christian, joined them. Rabbi Lynne’s Hebrew name is Miriam, which is also the first name of my youngest daughter (7). This has delighted my Miriam and she has adopted R. Gottlieb as her rabbi–and has been learning how to write “Miriam” in Hebrew.

R. Gottlieb, along with Hector Arizabotl from Colombia, has been helping us to use theatre to work on peace issues, especially a participatory technique called “theatre of the oppressed.” It has been bitter-sweet that she has helped us focus on the descending spiral of violence in the Middle East just as news reports have reached us of continued fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon –as if the Gaza standoff wasn’t enough.

Another fascinating person is Rev. Elise Elrod–whose full name is Ronald Elise Elrod. She is transgendered and lost her church when she came to terms with this and got corrective surgery to become outwardly female. Her wife, Joanie, has remained married even though they now have no sex life since Joanie is straight and Elise is now asexual. She has incredible humor and has used it to help us begin to understand the situations of the transgendered –very different from the sexual orientation issues of gays, lesbians, and bi-sexuals. I am hoping thatwe can have Elise come speak at my church, Jeff Street in Louisville. For Elise’s fascinating story of transformation from an overweight, conservative, male Southern Baptist minister and former engineer to a thin, liberal, secretary and itinterant preacher, her work in diversity training (IYQYQR or I Like You Like You Are), and information on gender identity disorder and transgendered persons (where, unlike with gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons, the issue has nothing to do with sexual orientation!), see her website: http://www.eliseelrod.com !

More later.

July 13, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, GLBT issues, Jews, Judaism, peacemaking, prejudice, progressive faith | 6 Comments

BPFNA Conference Update

Well, this remote blogging is trickier than I thought. My first update went only to my church’s blog (Life at Jeff Street) and the second one didn’t go anywhere–lost in cyberspace. So, let me try to convey a sense of these exciting days. Thanks to portable DVD players, we got all the way from Lousville to Chattanooga before the first “Are We There Yet?” came from the back seat! Molly (11) and Miriam (7) were much better behaved on this trip to Atlanta than I remember being as a kid in car trips.

The opening plenary Monday night was rich–but very long! We awarded Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who is living proof that the U.S. electorate sometimes gets it right, a peacemaker award for her solitary “no” vote following 9/11 to giving W a blank check to wage war with whomever he wants under the guise of a war on terror. Rep. Lee, a Baptist and member of Allen Temple BC in Oakland, CA (a BPFNA partner congregation), has also led the congressional concern about Darfur, formed the “out of Iraq” caucus, has been part of the effort to impeach based on the Downing Street memos, and is a co-sponsor of the legislation to create a cabinet level Department of Peace. Her mother was facing surgery, so Ms. Lee had to leave that first night, but it was great to have her.

Rabbi Michael Lerner was with us Mon & Tues. Check out the “Life at Jeff Street” blog for what he said to us Monday night. The link is on the right of this blog. On Tues. Rabbi Lerner gave a worskshop on his attempt to create a Network of Spiritual Progressives with a 3-fld task: 1) Countering the misuse of God and religion in public life by the Right; 2) Countering the phobia of the Left to all talk of faith or morality or values. Insisting that, without violating church/state separation, there can be a valid spiritual voice in politics–but it must be pluralistic (not just evangelical Christians) and not treat people without faith as second class citizens. 3) This
network must move for a new bottom line that does not judge everything solely in terms of

Then R. Lerner closed out our worship Tues. night at Ebenezer BC with a traditional Hebrew prayer for peace, that he translated freely into English in song form set to an old Gospel tune. It was beautiful. R. Lerner said that one(of the many) sad results of the history of Christian persecution of Jews is that until recently Jews had lost Jesus as one of Judaism’s greatest prophets. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus is more than a prophet, but he
was definitely a prophet–something on which Jews, Muslims, and Christians can agree and use
as a beginning point in dialogue. I know that Jewish scholars have really helped this Christian’s picture of Jesus!

On Monday night, I go to introduce the legendary C. T. Vivian who spoke on fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream today. Because I find typing on this laptop difficult,I won’t attempt to summarize his message. I’ll wait until I get back. Tomorrow night, I get the honor of presenting the Bill Moore Lifetime in Peacemaking Award to Dr. Vivian.

Dr. Peter Paris has been leading us in a series of reflections on types of violence and responses: We have covered war and poverty, and will also discuss sexism, and racism as types of violence.

Today, I went to a went to a workshop on “understanding whiteness,” something this whiteboy has been trying to do for 44 years! Whiteness is a pseudo-scientific cultural construction that brings privilege—but at a price.

More later, with more detail once I am on my home computer. Please feel free to post comments, but they won’t showup until my return.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, Jews, Judaism, peacemaking, poverty, prejudice, race, sexism, social history, violence | Comments Off on BPFNA Conference Update