These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 29: Role-Playing, or Jesus, Death, and All Their Friends

Posted on March 25, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

Sunday night Pardes made history as the first yeshiva ever to host the launching event for a new edition of the New Testament. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, co-edited by friend of Pardes and Gene Wilder look-alike, Mark Z. Brettler, is actually a lot like the original New Testament, except the word “Jesus” is replaced by “Yeshka.”

No. In reality, it was produced in part to combat that very brand of shallow understanding too many Jews have of Christianity and Jesus to begin a new, intelligent, and respectful dialogue between the faiths. Personally, it’s always been a pet-peeve of mine when religious Jews blame gentiles for being so ignorant of Judaism, while in the same breath espousing embarrassingly ignorant statements about other faiths as though they were fact. Jesus isn’t Voldemort, we can say his name! While it is highly unlikely those who do not will want anything to do with this new book, it is still exciting and, I think, important, that it exists. The commentaries and essays in it are from 50 Jewish scholars from all-over the world, many of them observant, none of them Jews for Jesus, in an effort to bring the long-ignored Jewish perspective on the authors, characters, milieu, even ideas it contains all of which, after all, were Jewish back into the public consciousness. As many of the speakers pointed out, the books of the New Testament contain a wealth of context and information about the late Second Temple-period that shed enormous light on the development of the Judaism we practice today, not to mention how Jews in the Western world cannot possibly understand their culture if they don’t understand Christianity.

The launch took the form of a panel of scholarly all-stars weighing in on the significance of this book, moderated by our Rosh Yeshiva, R. Landes.

The first speaker was Dr. Marcie Lenk, of Ben Gurion University, who spoke about why it’s so important for Jews to study the New Testament. Her presentation in a quote: “We can only understand the other if we allow the other to speak in his/her own voice.”

Following her was Prof. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who spoke about why every scholar of Judaism should study the New Testament. His presentation in a quote: “Any scholarship that ignores an important source is not real scholarship, and any scholar who would ignore such a source is not a real scholar.”

Next was Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. He was the only speaker of the night I had heard of before coming to Pardes, as his reputation precedes him as one of the lights of our generation and I was most eager to hear his presentation. He spoke about the Halakhic ramifications of reading the New Testament, about whether the discomfort so many Jews have with it is the result of it’s being legally forbidden or merely culturally taboo. He argued that since the Sages of the Rabbinic Era had a in-depth understanding of real idol worship, Sages throughout time have understood Christianity for the sake of public disputations and anti-missionary activity, interfaith dialogue has brought tremendous good to the Jewish People in the modern-era, most significantly Vatican II and the Papal apology for past harms, and we are living in the Information Age where information is available to everyone, it is therefore Halakhically permissible today for everyone to study the New Testament.

The final speaker was Mark Brettler, of Brandeis and Hebrew Universities. His presentation in a quote: “Judaism cannot be fully understood without Christianity, especially early Judaism.” He also made a good case for how this book and the Jewish commentaries within it on problematic passages, would help Christian readers dispel many myths they may have learned about Jews and Judaism.

The whole evening was so fascinating, and I learned so much, I had never been prouder to not go to a “real” yeshiva. It made me pray fervently for the day when the world will be ready for The Jewish Annotated Koran.

During the question and answer session, someone asked the panel if they thought the Jews should try to “take back” Jesus. They answered that there’s nothing to take back, he always was.

Tuesday, I went to the group lecture called “What we Talk About When we Talk About Learning,” which presented Rabbinic texts on how Torah can only be acquired once you leave all your presuppositions and past beliefs behind. As R. Yose ben R. Hanina says, words of Torah will only remain with one who becomes naked for them (Bavli, Sota 21b). Some opinions say you can only acquire Torah by killing yourself for it. Wednesday we said “E.l Ma’ale Rachamim” for the victims of the terrorist attack in France then said Psalm 130 for the people under constant rocket fire in the South. Coincidentally, later that day in Self, Soul, and Text, we practiced killing ourselves. We read texts about the spiritual importance of remembering our own mortality then did a death meditation, close your eyes and imagine yourself getting older. Moving hurts. So does breathing. You don’t understand things the way you used to, you are utterly dependent on others for everything. You know the end is near, and your loved ones are all gathered around you, somber looks on their faces. Now your body is being treated by the chevre kadisha, now people are gathered for your funeral, speaking remembrances of you, now you body is being eaten by worms and maggots, and your soul….What do you imagine your soul is doing?

It was a sobering, powerful exercise. It made me conscious of how badly I just want to be loved for who I am, to never try being someone I’m not, to raise children who share my values, and resolved to always act for the good. Most others seemed similarly effected. While reading the texts, my chevruta and I discussed a lot about how much we enjoy Judaism’s emphasis on living a good life in the here-and-now, how refreshing it is that Torah focuses you on making the most of the life you currently live without getting so hung-up on next-world speculations. One classmate, after over 6 months at Pardes, even had to ask our instructor whether Judaism even believes in an afterlife. Like any good Pardes instructor, he began his reply, “It depends who you ask.” It had just never been mentioned in any other class; it seems mostly irrelevant, while you’re so busy trying to figure out the best way to live, to think about how you’re going to not live. Yet here it was now, death, shoved into our consciousness whether we were ready for it or not. Just like the real thing, except not at all.

All around the school all week were Haggadas, complaints about kitniyot, and talk of vacation plans. In both morning classes for the past few weeks, we have been studying things related to Passover: Gemara relating to the Seder in one, the Biblical account of the first Passover in the other. This can only mean Passover is fast arriving. The season was officially kicked-off at Pardes Thursday night with the Leil Iyun shel Pesakh, a public event centered around learning and eating. There were two sessions of classes, each about an hour long. For the first, I chose a Bibliodrama class about the Exodus. One of my first thoughts upon hearing about this session was that there’s enough Bibliodrama in this country already, there is no need for me to create more. But I decided it would be something different, so tried it anyway. As it turns out, “Bibliodrama” is not confusing politics with the Bible, rather it’s role-playing the Bible in a much healthier way—we started by choosing personas among the original Israelite descendants into Egypt: some were young people born there, others were elders who remembered the old way of life, some were happy about the change, others resentful. In character we discussed the issues at hand. Then we role-played the new Pharaoh deciding to “deal wisely” with the Israelites, then Israelite slaves and Egyptian taskmasters, then Israelites and the Egyptian army as they approached the seeming dead-end of the Reed Sea. At each stage, after role-playing, we had to ask ourselves, “At this point, would you rather be an Israelite or and Egyptian?” It was never an easy choice—would you really rather be the oppressed, beaten, and enslaved than the oppressor? Were the Israelites betrayed or did they have it coming? I have been studying the first chapters of Exodus since October, yet I feel like I gained at least as much fresh perspective on it in that hour as I did in all those five months. You just can’t underestimate the importance of putting yourself in the other’s shoes.

The second session I went to was called “The Four Cups of Wine and the Problem of Evil.” To simplify a complex point, the lecturer discussed the Talmudic debate about which of the four cups during the Seder we should lean for: Some say we should not lean for the first two since we are not yet considered “free” when we drink them, others say we should lean for the first two but it should be optional for the last two since leaning will be old hat by then. Some trust in God enough to lean even when things look bleak, others refuse to be comfortable until their redemption arrives. As the tradition has come down, we Jews have decided to lean no matter what.

Quote of the Week: “It’s fine to call it the ‘New Testament,’ just don’t call ours the ‘Old Testament.’” – Prof. Avigdor Shinan

Hebrew Word of the Week: מות (“mavet”) – death