Religion

Amy-Jill Levine teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Amy-Jill Levine straddles two worlds. A professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, she is Jewish. As a child, she sought out catechism classes at a Catholic church and administered communion to her Barbie doll.

Levine has spent her life to date exploring the profound connections and equally profound divisions between Christianity and Judaism — and between Christians and Jews, according to a New York Times review of her latest book: “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus” (HarperOne, $24.95).

Levine will speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at St. Luke United Methodist Church, 2204 Second Ave.

Her visit is co-sponsored by the Columbus Jewish community and St. Luke.

The premise of “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus” is simple: Jews and Christians need to understand one another. The implicit corollary: Despite years of trying, and to their mutual harm, they do not, the Times reviewer wrote. Levine’s theme in her talk here is unity.

Following is an e-mail interview with Levine.

You’re probably asked frequently how you, an orthodox Jewish woman, ended up teaching at a Christian seminary; what’s your response? I am a member of an Orthodox synagogue, but I am not Orthodox in terms of practice. I do not teach in a “seminary”; Vanderbilt is a university-based, predominantly Protestant Divinity School. I feel blessed to have the opportunity of teaching candidates for ministry: I can help them to understand how the Bible took shape and how it has been interpreted over time and across the globe: I can also help them be forewarned about how texts of love can, with irresponsible preaching, be turned into texts of hate.

Are you primarily teaching men and women preparing for ordained ministry? I teach candidates for ordained ministry, undergraduates, masters candidates who are interested in the academic study of religion and Ph.D. students.

Your topic here is unity. Not to steal your thunder, but what is your view of achieving unity among people of faith? How can people best go about it? I am not interested in erasing differences; religion should not be watered down to a lowest common denominator, and people should not sacrifice the specific teachings of their own traditions on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. In order to reach the shalom, the peace, that both Christianity and Judaism value, we need to understand not only our similarities, but also our differences.

You have said that anti-Jewish attitudes in this country are still common. Can you offer examples? What are remedies? Examples of anti-Jewish attitudes, negative stereotypes and general misunderstandings permeate the Internet, surface in Sunday sermons across all Christian denominations, and surface in casual conversations in all settings. Remedies include not only education and sensitivity, they require those who hear such comments to speak out against them. We are all our brother’s, and sister’s, keepers. Anti-Christian comments (anti-Catholic, anti-Evangelical, anti-Liberal …) are also common, and these too need to be denounced.

In your book, “The Misunderstood Jew,” one item on your A-Z list contains this: “(There is a) recognition that both Jewish and Christian sources contain ugly, misogynistic, intolerant and hateful material.” Can you expand? And, how should scholars/lay people best deal with this? Jews and Christians, and members of all other religions, have not always practiced the love, peace and grace that their traditions promote. Our responsibility is to recognize, with humility, the sins of the past, and to work toward a future in which they will not be repeated.

Another item on your list: “Do not seek artificial connections in inter-faith dialogue and do not be afraid to disagree.” In general terms, where do you see promise (on the world or national scene) of inter-faith dialogue? Where do you see room for improvement? And should it matter to people of faith? Interfaith conversation should not seek agreement on everything; the goal should be a better understanding both of our neighbors’ beliefs and practices and of our own tradition. The benefits come when our own views are expanded and our understanding of another tradition is increased. Areas where more work needs to be done include discussions of the Bible, the Middle East, salvation and liturgy.

You’ve been described as a person of humor. How is that trait helpful in your work? I’m a Yankee Jewish feminist who attends an Orthodox Synagogue and who teaches New Testament to candidates for Christian ministry: the multiple ironies here should surely be enough to prompt a smile.

What’s been your overall experience of being, what you have called, a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the Bible belt”? I have done talks in, as of last count, 42 different churches in the greater Nashville area. People in these churches are aware that I have enormous respect for both the New Testament and the people who try to understand it and to follow its teachings. Faith in a particular religious teaching is like love: it cannot be compelled; one cannot be argued into it, or out of it. Faith is a gift, and different people have different gifts. But we can nevertheless appreciate the teachings of another tradition. I do not worship Jesus as lord or savior — I am completely fulfilled in my own Jewish tradition — but I find much that is inspirational and challenging in his teaching.

Allison Kennedy, 706-576-6237.

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