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Interview: Amy-Jill Levine, professor of Jewish and New Testament studies

13 July 2011

It might be easier to think of me as a Yankee Jewish feminist, who teaches New Testament to Christian ministerial candidates in the buckle of the Bible Belt. At Vanderbilt I teach undergraduates, Divinity stu­dents at the Masters level, and Ph.D. candidates. I also do a substantial amount of both church and syn­agogue adult education.

My interests range from New Testament texts (primarily the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles) to Jesus of Nazareth (I’m especially interested in the parables), to Second Temple Jewish literature, to broader ques­tions of the Bible’s depictions of gender and sexuality.

I also explore how and why Chris­tian teaching and preaching, from biblical exegesis to liberation theo­logy, sometimes reflect anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Finally, I’m very much interested in Jewish/Christian relations includ­ing Church statements on the Middle East: Christian Zionism, and the use of biblical and theological language related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

As a Jew, I became interested in Christianity at age seven. A class­mate said to me: “You killed our Lord,” and I am fascinated, and often appalled, at how religious texts become (pardon the cliché) rocks thrown to do damage rather than rocks on which one can stand.

I became interested in NT studies because I wanted to understand how and why some Christians read the Bible in anti-Jewish ways. Similarly, the Bible has been read in ways that harmed women and people who do not conform to pre­vailing sexual norms. If I can use my scholarship to promote better inter­faith relations and to decrease sexism and homophobia, good.

As a historian, I can recover the pro­vocation of Jesus’s teaching, and at the same time prevent common anti-Jewish stereotypes from deforming Christian theology and homiletics. If we want to take Jesus with full seriousness, we should also consider the setting in which he lived. If we mis­understand first-century Judaism, we will also misunderstand the Jew Jesus and the Jewish people who first followed him.

For Christians interested in pro­moting a two-state resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I can help them see how their legitimate con­cern for Palestinian rights is often expressed in ways that prevent like-minded Jews from working with them.

I think of myself as helping Chris­tians to find even deeper meanings in the texts they hold sacred, and concurrently in helping Jews recover the parts of our history that were preserved by the Church and that can be located in the pages of the New Testament.

If by “theologian” you mean people who comment on the nature of the divine, then I don’t read that many theologians. I am more interested in what people do than in what they believe — or, to use the academic jargon, in orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

I much appreciate the comment attributed to St Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” When our children were little, we em­ployed Vander­bilt Di­vinity School students as baby­sitters. When the stu­dents could not be with the chil­dren because they were en­gaged in church work — feeding hungry people, pro­viding shelter for people who are home­less, tutoring il­literate adults, teaching English to new residents — the children would say: “They are busy being Chris­tian.” My hus­band and I thought that was an excellent def­ini­tion.

There is an in­creasing interest in Jesus on the part of Jews, so much so that Oxford Uni­versity Press is pub­lishing the Jewish An­notated New Testa­ment this year, which I have co-edited with Marc Brettler of Brandeis University. If Jews and Christians are to live together har­moniously, we do well to know what we hold in common, to learn how we came to disagree, and to develop respectful understanding of each other’s views.

All recounting of history is biased; often what is told is only half the story. To be informed about the Middle East requires research into the multiple accounts and listening to multiple voices.

Some abstract definition of “jus­tice” may be a goal we cannot reach. I am reminded of Luke 18.3, the ac­count of the widow who pesters the unjust judge. Most modern English translations present her request as: “Grant me justice against my op­ponent.” The King James Version is closer to the Greek: “Avenge me of mine adversary.” “Vengeance” is not, in my view, a desirable outcome. We might have to compromise and settle for something else, such as “peace” or “life”.

My students often see Jesus as a feminist who lived within a Jewish world that made the Taliban look progressive. To the contrary, the Gospels tell us about women’s sub­stantial rights: owning homes, having use of their own property, having freedom of travel, worship­ping in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple, and so on. Women did not join Jesus because Judaism op­pressed them, and the Jewish women who followed him did not cease to be Jews.

When I was a child, I wanted to be Pope. I remember watching on tele­vision the funeral of Pope John XXIII. When I asked my mother about him, she responded: “He was the Pope; he was good for the Jews.” I concluded that to be the Pope meant that you got to live in Italy, which meant eat­ing lots of spaghetti, you got a great hat, and the job was good for the Jews. I announced, “I want to be Pope.” “You can’t,” my mother re­plied, “you’re not Italian.”

I have an ongoing fondness for Restoration literature. I had plan­ned an undergraduate thesis on Ro­chester, until the chair of the English department announced: “Young ladies at Smith College do not write on such subjects.” I wound up writing instead on Shadwell, which was not much of an improvement.

I married a man who challenges, sup­ports, and loves me, I have two great children, the career I want, and see the fruits of it impact on both Jewish and Christian circles. My family is ex­ceptionally im­portant to me. I would not be in Cam­bridge if that meant sep­aration from my brilliant hus­band, Jay Geller.

I can honestly say I have no regrets, in the sense of missed oppor­tunities. I do wish that I could share my interests, and suc­cesses, with my parents.

My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. As she put it: “You’ve got brains, and you like to argue.”

If my work can help eliminate anti-Jewish teachings and preaching in churches, anti-Christian atti­tudes among Jews, and sexist and homophobic theologies, I shall be more than content.

It is difficult to choose a favourite Bible passage or verse; it is typically the material I am presently studying. But I do think that certain passages are especially profound. For ex­ample, Genesis 34, the story of the rape, possibly seduction, of Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah, brings to the surface major questions: what is the appropriate response to rape, since the violence in the text only begets more violence? Can a rapist be redeemed, given that Shechem seeks to marry his victim? If justice, or judgement (which is what the name “Dinah” means) would speak, what would it say, for Dinah herself is silent throughout her story?

On Monday evenings, when I am in Nashville, I am either teaching or helping to facilitate a class at River­bend Maximum Security Institu­tion, where Tennessee’s Death Row is located. The class consists of Divinity School students and River­bend in­mates. Reading about Cain and Abel, or David and Uriah, with men who have committed murder, or reading about Dinah and Shechem, the Levite and his concubine, Tamar and Am­non, with men who have committed rape is both challenging and painful.

The Bible offers numerous pro­found insights: that victims’ voices must be heard; that perpetrators are also human beings made in the image and likeness of the divine; that violence impacts not only the victim and the perpetrator, but their families, their communit-ies, even their descendants; that violence is not restricted to some other group but is in our own house­holds; that responding to vio­lence with more viol-ence is not the answer; that there is no quick fix; that repentance is possible but that one also must take responsibility for one’s actions; that no one is immune to sin; that perfect justice is usually elusive.

I am on the road, speaking in churches and synagogues, lecturing on university campuses or giving papers at academic conferences, run­ning workshops for clergy, consult­ing for peace organis­ations, etc. on average of one day out of every five. On “holidays” (I’m not sure what those are), I like to stay home.

At the moment, I’d like to be locked in a church with Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu, and not let them out until they brokered a peace agreement. I doubt this would be a pleasant experience, but it has the potential to be productive.

Amy-Jill Levine was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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