It often happens during a reception following a wedding or a memorial service: someone approaches me, thanks me for the service, and says, “So, tell me about the Unitarians.” Or they say, “What do you believe?”
It happened this week. On Thursday afternoon, following the private memorial service in honor of the life of Dana Reeve, Mark approached me and said that he and Dana were old friends—they waited tables in the same restaurant when they were struggling, wanna-be actors 24 years ago.
The answer I give to the question about us depends on the way the question is posed, and how the person responds to the initial exchange, of course. I don’t have a ‘standard response.’
I said to Mark, “We like to say that there are three pillars of our faith: freedom, reason and tolerance.” He listened, thoughtfully. Then he asked what I meant by ‘freedom,’ and the conversation deepened. He gave me his notion of religious freedom; then we talked about the other pillars, reason and tolerance.
The conversation went on for quite awhile. He asked about the historical roots; good questions. So I told him about the developments at the Council of Nicaea in 325; we talked about James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword—the history of Christianity under the influence of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, whose motives were more political than religious.
Then I told him about Julie Galambush’s new book: The Reluctant Parting – how the roots of Christianity are firmly embedded in Judaism – the branches, too!
When I began reading Julie Galambush’s book I was surprised, and pleased, to see that James Carroll wrote the forward to the book He said, in part:
“As long as the New Testament is read as an essential Christian condemnation of Jews and Judaism for the rejection of Christ as…the Jewish messiah…Jews and Judaism will be at risk. The misremembering of Christian origins has been lethal, and if it continues, it will be lethal again. The momentous achievements of post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue, in which contempt and suspicion were replaced by civility and respect, are not enough. The source of Christian contempt for Jews must be uprooted.”
Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for one that is digging at the roots.” Galambush is digging at the roots of the evil we know as anti-Semitism, with it’s lethal consequences.
Carroll said, “Christians must learn to read the profoundly ‘anti-Jewish’ texts as if they (those texts) themselves are Jewish…”
“The church forgot the permanently Jewish character of its Lord. If it had not done so, the histories of Jews and Christians would be very different.”
“Jesus remains the hidden man of Christian faith. He is the hidden man of Jewish memory, too…”
“Julie Galambush suggests that this hidden Jesus, coming into new and unprecedented focus through the texts themselves (not through the ‘historical’ push behind the texts), can have a fresh set of meanings to Christians and Jews alike. Christians can recover Jesus as their Jewish Lord who preached nothing but the God of Israel.”
While reading the forward by Carroll I was reminded of the time when my Jewish step-daughter, Carlyn, was about eight years old – she was already learning about anti-Semitism. One day she said to me, “Frank, I just don’t get it. Some Christians hate Jews, but their god was Jewish…I just don’t get it.”
She wasn’t asking a question. She was pointing to one of the basic human puzzles, which is actually a theme that runs through life; it’s a theme that runs through Bible stories about siblings who are always trying to ‘supplant one another,’ which is why the sect of Jews who ultimately became known as Christians supplanted the old religion of Judaism with something they called new: New Testament.
In fact, there’s nothing new about it. Christianity is a re-telling of the Jewish stories, the myths and metaphors, which are, of course, all about us as humans – the source of all the religions of the world…the human experience of being born and knowing you will die; the experience of those inner forces we call good and evil. “What’s the right thing to do?”
Julie Galambush writes about the time when all the Christians were Jews, and the later interpretation of the early writing as anti-Jewish.
James Carroll says it well: “In nothing more than in its supersessionism does the Christian habit of mind reveal its Jewishness…”
The very title of the Christian collection reveals that mindset: The New Testament, which supplanted The Old Testament.
To emphasize the separation one group of Jews from the other – from those who said that Jesus was the messiah and those who are still waiting for the messiah – a new calendar was started, dated from the date of the birth of Jesus, which we know is an approximate date. Now that’s supersessionism! Time itself, in our calendar, is divided into before and after the guessed-at date of the birth of Jesus.
This is symbolic of the way our human mind is divided – not about time, only, but something else that is just as big as this mystery we call time: the mind is divided between the rational and the spiritual; between the way of knowing we call scientific and the way of knowing we call intuition; the way we think about geometry and geography vs. the way we respond to poetry, music, art and architecture.
We Unitarians focus on the Jesus of history, the Jesus who taught about right and wrong, who told parables to illustrate his point – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and so forth. We ask, “What did Jesus mean or intend?” Thomas Jefferson cut out those portions of the story he considered the essential teachings of Rabbi Jesus – the religion ‘of’ Jesus, excising what he considered the religion ‘about’ Jesus.
The Jesus of history is different from the Christ of faith, of course. Enter Galambush.
I didn’t know her until I discovered her book, The Reluctant Parting, on Rabbi Orkand’s coffee table while we had lunch together a few weeks ago. We’ve been having lunch in his office every Friday for eighteen years, and I’ve often borrowed his books. So I took the Galambush book with me, but I could not possibly read it without marking it up — underlining hundreds of sentences and whole paragraphs. A couple of days after I borrowed his book I called to tell him I had to buy a new copy for him!
I learned that Julie Galambush graduated from Yale Divinity School, was ordained as a Baptist minister, and after doing her Ph.D. in Old Testament studies at Emory University, she converted to Judaism.
What I discovered in her book – and this is so typical of my relationship to books all my life – is that she said things that I was already thinking. In recent years, when I discover a book like this, I think ‘I could have written that, and I wish I had!’
Actually I could not have written this book – at least not while I was doing the day-to-day, wonderfully demanding work of parish ministry. It’s just that this is one of those books for which I was waiting, without realizing I was waiting for it — until I found it on Bob’s coffee table, and dug into it.
At the risk of over-simplifying, let me summarize the book:
The most important point she makes is that the collection of writings that were eventually canonized and put between the covers of what we call the New Testament, is Jewish literature, through and through.
From the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John to the writings of Paul and the others, all the way to the book of Revelation, is Jewish; it’s a conversation and set of arguments that Jews were having with Jews; all of it was written by Jews who were talking to and about other Jews, about what’s right and wrong; the way members of a family talk and sometimes argue.
She says that The Reluctant Parting, ‘began as an experiment at Temple Bet Aviv in Columbia, Maryland’ when she taught a class on the first three chapters of Genesis. She said, “The class repeatedly brought me questions about how Christians read the Bible. The questions came as no surprise; my students knew that I had been raised a Christian, had been ordained, and had served as an American Baptist minister before my conversion to Judaism.”
Later she was asked by Temple Bet Aviv to conduct a ‘Jewish study of Christian texts.’
As I read her book, looking at the basic Christian stories as written by Jews who thought of themselves as Jews, but who were struggling to grow their faith, to increase the depth of their faith, I realized that her book, like all good books, is autobiographical, as well as historical – it’s the story of what happens to a person who takes a fresh look at things she’s believed all her life, up to that point.
Isn’t that what Susan B. Anthony and all the women who worked for equal rights had to do? It’s the essence of revolution…radical change that begins deep within.
The Reluctant Parting, as the title clearly says, is the process of turning away from one’s origins, as she turned away from her own – at least from the religious home that was obviously so central to her as an ordained clergyperson.
There was another piece in the New York Times this week that said that scientists have new evidence that humans are continuing to evolve. I always feel a sense of hope when I read about this evidence of ‘our ongoing evolution.’
(Some years ago I was accosted by a Christian fundamentalist on a live local television show – he was waving a Bible at me and he said, “Isn’t it true that you said that we evolved from the monkey? Do you or don’t you think that we evolved from the monkey, sir?!” I replied, “Not yet! But I haven’t lost hope!”)
Julie Galambush digs into the roots. She says, “Christians have inherited a legacy of texts that often appear simply to condemn Jews as Jews. Understanding such polemic as part of an inter-Jewish, or even an inter-Christian argument can provide a welcome corrective to centuries of Christian disparagement of the Jews.”
This is what eight year old Carlyn came to on her own when she said, “I just don’t get it.”
She says, “Each author (of the books of the New Testament) pushes the boundaries of his Jewish identity; none consciously abandons it.”
“Judaism as we know it today did not exist in Jesus’ lifetime. In the first century C.E. the Jews were not the one people and one religion portrayed by the Hebrew Bible and later, by the rabbis, but a socially and geographically diverse group with a broad range of norms and beliefs.”
One of the central ideas in Judaism is the notion of the messiah – the anointed one, appointed by and sent by God to usher in a new and better world, who would win the battle of good over evil. There are various ways to understand the idea of the messiah, from an actual flesh-and-blood person who will arrive on earth on the wings of an angel, sent by a god who has decided that the time is right to intervene in his experiment, to a metaphorical way of thinking about the emergence or evolution of a new kind of human consciousness – maybe a collective consciousness, or maybe the consciousness of each individual.
That kind of messiah, then, is the ‘person next to you.’ It’s the influence that people have on one another – the people in your life who helped you to believe in yourself; those who encouraged you, helped provide necessary discipline, and loved love into you.
The idea of the need for a messiah emerged because of the evil in the world; because of war and violence of all kinds; because of greed and the attempt of one human being to dominate other human beings.
This theme of good overcoming evil is basic to the struggle of every individual – at least those with a well-developed conscience. That’s what attracts me to Chief Yellow Lark’s prayer – where he says, “I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.”
There are many ways of interpreting or understanding the concept of the messiah. Those different interpretations caused ancient (and modern) Judaism to be broken into its competing divisions. Galambush points to the players in first-century Judaism — the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots, for example, about whom Jesus complained.
He was complaining about ideas or the teachings of certain Jews – he was complaining about them as one Jew to another – he certainly was not attempting to form a new religion; that didn’t happen for more than a hundred years after his death; indeed, it didn’t really happen until the fourth century.
Christianity focuses on Jesus as the messiah; the early believers – those that believed that Jesus was the awaited messiah – were all Jewish!
Even after his death they didn’t give up on him. She says, “But a messiah who died without establishing something like peace and justice was simply not the messiah. If Jesus’ painful and humiliating death proved anything, it was that he had not been the messiah.”
“Within a few years of Jesus’ death, a group of Jesus’ followers had coalesced into a new sect within the turbulent mix that was first-century sectarian Judaism.”
Julie Galambush looks at the people whom Jesus criticizes in his teaching as if he’s criticizing members of his own family, the way Orthodox Jews today criticize Reform Jews for not being more observant to the letter of the law as they interpret it; the way Catholic-Christians criticize Protestant-Christians, and so forth.
She wants us to look again, and see these disagreements the way a couple struggling with their marriage may engage in difficult disagreements – the kind that may not have a solution, so they may decide to part ways – if they’re married, to get a divorce, or if they’re not married but living together, to move out. Such a decision is always painfully difficult – it’s a ‘reluctant parting.’ (The word reluctance comes from the Latin verb ‘to struggle.’)
Carl Sandburg captures this in a poem – it’s a poem I included in my collection, and some folks asked, “Why is this poem in a collection you call ‘sacred?’” I respond: it’s there because it’s part of the very real human struggle: Carl Sandburg says it powerfully and painfully in his poem, Mag:
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I’m wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come.
Life is a struggle – we struggle to come into the world, reluctantly parting from the nice, safe, comfortable womb; but from the kicking I was invited to feel before the birth of my children and grandchildren, I’m thinking that the struggle begins before that reluctant parting.
Life is a struggle as we move through the older years – losing the things of youth – physical things and mental, emotional and sometimes spiritual things…and it’s a struggle in the years between the birthing and the dying.
The essential teachings of Judaism – the story of creation and the stories of human development – are about the struggle – the struggle to become a person, the struggle to relate to other persons – the struggle to live without all the answers to the big questions.
The essential teaching of Judaism focuses on the messiah; but there’s a wide range of interpretations and understandings about the concept of the messiah – what does it mean? Is it about the wish for a good father figure; a person who will come into the world, or into my life, to save me from the struggle…to liberate me…to free me from the burden of being a person, of having to move through the days and the years, asking what’s right and what’s wrong?
Julie Galambush offers a convincing, scholarly argument that says that the New Testament, and the Christian religion in general, is the child of Jewish parents, of Jewish ancestry.
She went through her own evolution; just as each of us is going through ours. Belief is a function of experience; if we pay attention, if we’re thoughtful, we will continue to grow in our own understandings…new insights into the old stories emerge – not only insights about the old religious stories, but insights into our own story. We need to do that. It’s risky business. We may have to give up some old prejudices; we may have to change some old ideas, and we’re reluctant to do that.
There’s something in us, however, that knows that we have to part with old ideas that weigh us down, or hold us back; ideas that divide the saved from the unsaved, the believer from the infidel. Those ideas are the cancer that attaches itself to religious thinking, turning brother against brother, sister against sister, child against parent, and so forth.
There’s something in us that knows. The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi captures it in this closing poem:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Sufi Poet, 1207 – 73