By Heather Adams
Once residing under the same roof, University Synagogue and Irvine United Congregational Church have spent about thirty years meeting, sharing, challenging each other and being challenged.
This time, as Amy-Jill Levine looks out over the crowd on Friday, March 9, 2018, everyone is being challenged to put Jesus back in a Jewish context. Both Christians and Jews can learn from this, she said.
“You can both be right,” Levine said to the crowd. But, she said, you have to actually know about your “neighbor” before you can realize that.
Levine uses examples from the New Testament and compares them to the stories in the Old Testament, points out how Jesus was always following Jewish law and how the Lord’s Prayer is completely in line with Jewish teachings.
“That Jesus, along with Paul and Peter, Mary and Martha, etc., are Jews is today not a strange idea,” Levine said. “The problem is that too few people know about Jesus’ own Jewish context.”
Levine is a Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is also on the road about every three days, traveling to give talks with Jewish and Christian groups, colleges, clergy and religious educators and more. She has written multiple books including The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
According to her website, she is a “self-described Yankee Jewish feminist” and is a member of “an Orthodox Synagogue in Nashville, although she is often quite unorthodox.”
Throughout Levine’s talk, those in attendance laughed, with oohs and ahhs coming from the crowd as well.
“First, the Bible has great humor in it,” Levine said when talking about why she uses humor in her speeches. “More, when discussing difficult topics — sexist readings, anti-Jewish readings, culturally insensitive readings — a bit of laugher can ease the tension.”
She uses her talk to also point out that it’s not just about understanding but could be used as a way to build interfaith dialogue.
The Rev. Paul Tellstrom, senior pastor at Irvine United Congregational Church, said some members of the church have family members that go to the synagogue or other places of worship. In a case like this, Levine said, they could both recite the Lord’s Prayer because although it is traditionally used in Christian teachings, it is also grounded in Jewish teachings.
Now, they can worship together.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue was most amazed at the level of detail Levine was able to provide for the audience in her examples. He said it was the details that made him be challenged the most.
Tellstrom said he also felt extremely challenged.
“I was a little upset for a moment,” Tellstrom said when talking about how Levine “debunked” one of the ways he’s been taught to read and understand the Bible. He laughed and said he was joking “No, that’s why I’m here, to learn also.”
Tellstrom said he hopes Irvine United Congregational Church is “a place to ask questions and not have to swallow dogma.”
It is a progressive church, and instead of a creed, the group follows eight aspects of progressive Christianity, which include things such as “seek community that is inclusive of all people” and “commit to a path of lifelong learning, compassion, and selfless love.”
Tellstrom said he is always amazed at the openness of the congregation.
“Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself,” Tellstrom said. “Is this kind of openness and acceptance real? And it is here.”
Both Rachlis and Tellstrom emphasized how they want to do more events similar to the one on March 9 and continue to strengthen the decades long relationship between the church and the synagogue.
“I think it will create mutual respect for the synagogue and the church,” Rachlis said. “And it will help us see Christianity and Judaism not as radically different.”