Thursday, June 5, 2014

Jews and Christians

The elephant in the living room for most Christians is the fact that Jesus was Jewish. Joseph and Mary were Jewish, his disciples were Jewish, most—if not all—of his friends were Jewish.  Yet the only people called Jews in the gospels are people who are not currently following Jesus. Take his friend Lazarus in the Gospel According to John. Now Lazarus is Greek for Eleazar. That’s really a Jewish name. Eleazar was Jewish and so were his sisters, Martha and Miriam (called Mary in the Gospel, naturally).


So in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, Lazarus’s sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus—that is, Eleazar—is dying. And Jesus takes his time getting there so that by the time he arrives, his friend Eleazar is dead and buried. And John says there are Jews who have come to sit shiva with the grieving family as if they’re Jewish and Eleazar’s family isn’t, although I don’t know why, in that case, the family would be sitting shiva and why “the Jews” would sit with them.


Anyway, Jesus comes, and you really know Martha is Jewish because she actually believes that Jesus is the messiah and this means that the messiah of all people apparently has come to sit shiva with her family, and yet the first thing she says to him is, basically, “You couldn’t have come sooner?”


Now there has recently been some controversy about verses being left out of the gospels, and in this case it happens to have come to light that a line was left out of this story about Eleazar being resurrected by Jesus. Jesus brings him back to life and presents him to his sisters, and what’s been left out is Martha’s line: “But he had a hat.”


I think I was doing well in the above commentary until I brought out the old hat joke, but you get the idea.


It has been said that Jews talk about being Jewish in a way that Christians don’t talk about being Christian. This is true in the sense that being Jewish is an identity that goes deeper than one’s religious beliefs. Being Jewish depends on history, ethnicity, family, and the experience of being an often oppressed minority. It is precisely that experience of oppression—many Jews themselves believe—that has given many Jewish people an ironic, sarcastic, skeptical sense of humor. One Jewish man went so far as to describe his parents as “very satisfied middle-class people and I love them dearly but they have never been funny. My grandparents, on the other hand, escaped pogroms in Europe and spent the first years of their lives in America in poverty, and they are hysterically funny.”


The same man observed that Christians, across the board, don’t have the kind of identity issues that would lead them to sit around talking about being Christians per se. Although you might want to watch the Coptic Christians escaping Egypt today and settling in places like New Jersey. In Egypt they have been killed by mobs, their daughters have been raped, their homes, businesses and churches burned—there might be a good chance that their sons and daughters, if they survive to reach America, might be the next wave of young standup comics.

While Christians don’t get together to discuss being Christian in as deep a sense as some Jews might, we should qualify that by saying that Christians have identity issues, usually surrounding their belief systems and how that has affected their personal lives, families and even their community. Obviously, people who have deep Christian beliefs do relate to each other in a special way. A Christian woman I know told me that she went into an office and the secretary, a woman of a different race, asked how she was. My acquaintance said, “I am blessed.” “Well, so am I,” said the secretary, and the two strangers ended up hugging each other.


There is also a kind of high sign between apostate Christians. You know what I mean if you have ever seen two ex-Catholics or two ex-Baptists meet. There is a sense that they each know what the other has been through: parents, friends, community, clergy, all frowning on their current life choices. This has to do with belief—or in this case, the absence of belief—but it affects relations with parents, siblings and community members who either take a long time to come to terms or never do. My best friend no longer practices Catholicism but she still says, “I am not an ex-Catholic; it has marked me forever.” I asked her today whether she feels that she has a “Catholic soul” in the sense that some Jews have said that they feel they have a Jewish soul. No, she says. A soul is more likely to come from ethnic identification and usually when they have a history of having been denigrated. So Irish people might feel they have an Irish soul, or African-Americans might feel they have a unique soul. (Indeed, African-Americans have virtually owned the concept of "soul" for some time.)


A New Age guru ran a commune where he invited speakers of different faiths to come and present their spiritual gifts. After a charismatic rabbi spoke to the commune, the guru stood up and said that before the rabbi came, the commune was about six percent Jewish; now that the rabbi had come, they were still six percent Jewish, but only because each member of the community was now six percent Jewish.

Four possible reactions from  four (or fewer) Jews:

Reaction number one: Wow, what tolerance! What acceptance!


Reaction two: This kind of logic is the best you can expect from the goyim?


Reaction three: Only SIX percent?


Reaction four: How come the six Jews in this cockamamie commune lost ninety-four percent of their Jewishness?