I had nice response to this sermon from last Friday night, so I post it in case you are interested.
I spend a good deal of time in conversation with Christians. I suspect many of you do so as well, though you probably talk about the weather and the kids and work and politics a lot more than you talk about being Jews and Christians in this society.
Just this week, I went out to lunch with my friend Dale Seley, the pastor at Downtown Baptist Church in Old Town. We had a conversation that resulted in both of us sitting with our jaws hanging open in disbelief. It began when Dale asked me if we tithed in our congregation. I get asked this question a lot since the Torah is filled with instructions about setting aside a tenth of this and a tenth of that for the priest and Levites and the Tabernacle and all sorts of other things.
No, I responded, we do not.
Well then, how do support the congregation, he wanted to know.
We bill, I answered.
You bill, he asked.
Sure, I said. Each year, the board sits down and prepares a budget. Then we take into consideration the approximate number of members living on limited resources and subtract the aggregate of their contributions from the whole. Then we divide the rest of it by the number of full-paying members. And we send a bill.
What an interesting idea, he said. We don't make the budget until we know how much is coming in.
That strikes me as a particularly responsible way to do it, I said. But since we can't pass the collection plate on Shabbat or even write down pledges, this works for us.
How much do you bill each member, Dale asked.
Oh, I said, I am not exactly sure. But it's a lot. I think that even before we get to tuition and miscellaneous charges, it's about $1800 or $2000 a year.
That's when Dale's jaw dropped.
$1800 or $2000 a year? he said, incredulous.
Yes, I said sadly.
Jack, he replied, do you know how much my wife and I tithe to the church each year? Between $9000 and $15000.
That's when my jaw dropped.
Now, we never got around to what other kinds of giving we are each involved in. I am relatively certain that the Southern Baptists do not have the extensive networks of specialized charities that the Jewish community has, but I was ashamed to discover the kind of commitment that is presumed to be usual from members of Dale's church.
He did tell me he wasn't going to share that information with his congregation, or we'd have a line of Baptists waiting to join Agudas Achim.
I tell you this information not to shame you into greater support of the synagogue, though I wouldn't object if it did. I tell you because it is illustrative of the different principles at work when Jews and Christians look at the same set of circumstances.
Which brings me to another conversation I had, this one just about a week ago. I was invited by the American Jewish Committee to participate in a conversation between rabbis and Presbyterian ministers about the Presbyterian Church's intention to divest itself of holdings in companies that support what they term the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. I was actually teaching at the Episcopal Seminary for the first part of the program – I told you I talk a lot to Christians – so I missed the speeches. But I was there for the discussion.
In my small group of four ministers and two Jews was a delightful man who serves as the chair of the Israel committee at a local synagogue. He was seated next to the minister who had presented in favor of divestment. The discussion was polite, but strained, with each of them covering well-trod paths, especially about home demolitions. The Presbyterian objected to demolishing the homes of innocent families in the neighborhoods of terrorists, and the Jew insisted that however inconvenienced a few families might be, dozens of lives on both sides were saved by preventing communities from encouraging murderers.
I interrupted after a while which is, as you know, something I like to do.
I said to the Jewish guy, "I want to say something you are not going to like, because this isn't about home demolitions, really, and it isn't about divestments. It's about what we think of Christians."
I paused for dramatic effect, as I do now.
"Jews generally have a patronizing attitude toward Christians. We can't figure out how they believe all that stuff about Jesus. We think Christianity is a pale imitation of Judaism. And therefore, we define a good Christian as one who behaves most like a Jew."
There was some sputtering on the other side of the table.
Taking advantage of my credibility as a critic of the Jewish perspective, I turned to the Presbyterian minister. "And here's the thing about your approach to divestments. It's not about human rights or standing up for the underdog. You aren't doing the same thing in Africa or the Balkans or Northern Ireland. For you, it's about being disappointed in the Jews. Protestants in particular figure that if the Jews have so stubbornly insisted that they don't need Jesus to be in right relationship with God because of the covenant in the Old Testament, then they ought to do a better job of living up to it. And when they don't, you are furious and you want to punish us."
The minister slammed her hand down on the table and said, "That's exactly the way I feel."
At this point, everyone around the table was a little startled (including me, by the way). And the conversation proceeded at a little deeper level.
Jews and Christians do this elaborate dance around each other, envious and arrogant at the same time, even as we try to craft the kind of language that smoothes over our differences. We want to love each other and accept each other, but we are in conflict, even the most liberal among us, because deep down we find the other one just a little less legitimate than ourselves.
And, ironically, it is because covet what the other has. The symbol of God's presence in our midst is different, and unacceptable to the other. For us, it is Torah. for Christians, it is Jesus.
Torah is to Judaism as Jesus is to Christianity. That is, each is the embodiment of what God wants us to know about the divine nature. From a purely objective point of view, each has its advantages, but to my mind, it is the Christian model is at least slightly superior for the reason that it is universally accessible.
Torah is undeniable in its content. What is written is written, and though we may argue its application, we can't argue the starting point. It is fixed and unvarying. But it is also two-dimensional. You can't look at the printed page from any direction but front-on, and you cannot project yourself on a piece of parchment.
Jesus has the human aspects that make him accessible to flesh-and-blood. What is lost in certain ambiguities is regained in a three-dimensional, real-world setting. And since the genius of the claim to resurrection is that Jesus remains eternally present in the life of the believer, "what would Jesus do" becomes a real-time, real-life experience of God.
So how ironic is it that most Jews accept nothing in Torah as black and white -- claiming that there are seventy facets to Torah, and every one of them is an expression of the Living God -- and much of Christianity wants to reduce the life and teaching of Jesus to non-negotiable pronouncements and regimented thought and action! Jews seek to find the multi-dimensional advantage that Christianity enjoys while Christians want to recreate the certitude that comes from the two-dimensional and external authenticity of revealed Torah!
I am sure that many of you will argue against my presumptions. And I am equally certain that, when push comes to shove, a lot of the difficulty comes from our genuine desire, Jews and Christians alike, to know The Truth.
But "truth" cannot be contained any more than God can be contained. Any perception of truth is relative. I am less concerned about truth, an objective demand, than I am about honesty, a subjective demand. Or, to put it differently, until I (the subject) can be honest, I cannot claim to receive truth (the object) without distorting it in my human bias and perspective.
I remain a deep believer in the Jewish endeavor. And I remain an active disbeliever in the claims of Christianity. But the mandates of my belief include my appreciation of the authenticity of the Christian endeavor as the mandates of Christian belief include a love of the Jewish endeavor.
And much as Dale Seley and I would like to joke otherwise, there will be no Baptists looking for a discount house of worship on our doorstep, and there will be no return to tithing to the temple on the part of local Jews. Because we are who we are. And never mind who we would like each other to be – it's not up to a Jew to define a good Christian, and it's not up to a Christian to define a good Jew. And the sooner we can be honest about that, the sooner all of us can get together and look for the truth.