Is this antisemitism, or something else?

It’s not Jew hatred. But even still, it stings.

It's one thing to agree to combat antisemitism. It's another thing to agree on what it means. (goglik83/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

(RNS) — Many years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Recently, our Christian friends ensured that theirs would no longer be the sin of silence.

The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has issued “A National Reckoning of the Soul: A Call to the Churches of the United States to Confront the Crisis of Antisemitism”:

The United States is facing the greatest crisis of public antisemitism in a century. Prominent figures — entertainers, athletes, media personalities, politicians — are using twenty-first century technologies to spread antisemitic lies and conspiracies to millions of people. So-called “Christian” nationalists openly declare that true Christians hate Jews. Jews are being verbally and physically abused in the streets, vilified in social media, attacked on campuses, and assaulted and shot in their synagogues…

We implore all churches to redouble their efforts to denounce antisemitism publicly as antithetical to the very essence of Christianity itself… We urge them to encourage their communities to speak out strongly against antisemitism when they encounter it and provide them with strategies to do so…

We entreat the churches to look inward by examining their preaching, teaching, and theologies to eliminate any traces of anti-Jewish sentiments and look outward to act and speak against all forms of antisemitism they encounter. We ask Christians to reach out to their Jewish neighbors in solidarity and friendship and so follow the scriptural admonition: “let them shun evil and do good; let them seek amity and pursue it” (Psalm 34:12, 14; 1 Peter 3:10-11).

I applaud this statement, and its direct criticism of antisemitism that has its roots in malignant interpretations of Christianity.

But, there is another kind of antisemitism — or, at the very least, insensitivity to Judaism — that is so subtle you might miss it. Let’s call it cultural antisemitism.

I was invited to address an interfaith gathering on the topic of spirituality. My hosts asked me to send a proposal for a session on Jewish liturgy. When it came back with their comments, I noticed they had consistently edited one word out of the description.

The word was “Jewish.”

I was talking about “Jewish prayers,” as a living, historical, liturgical inheritance.

They had hoped I would talk about “prayer,” as an inward spiritual need and not necessarily Jewish.

Yes, every prayer, in any particular tradition, begins as a welling-up of the inner spirit of an individual person. In that sense, the act of prayer is universal.

But, I thought my assignment was to discuss how Jews pray, using the words that Jews have prayed.

Was this antisemitism? Hardly.

It was not a demonization of the Jews.

Rather, it was something else, something softer.

It was the soft demand/request that Jews and others fit themselves into a liberal Protestant way of viewing religion and faith. I suspect a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim cleric, among others, would have had the same kind of disconnect.

With that comes the parallel wish. How we wish that the Jews would not be so narrow and parochial. Get out of your intellectual and spiritual ghetto — which is what Jews have been saying to themselves for the last 250 years.

But, it is not simply this incident alone.

Consider other examples of “soft” antisemitism — microaggressions committed against Jews and Judaism, by people who would never countenance antisemitism, and would actively fight against it.

Let us take two important examples.

The “Old Testament.” The “Old Testament” refers to, what do you want to call it? The Hebrew Bible? The Jewish Bible? The Hebrew Scriptures? The Tanakh — an acronym for Torah, neviim (prophets) and ketuvim (writings)?

What’s wrong with the term “Old Testament”?

Whether we know it or not, its use harks back to classic Christian theological anti-Judaism.

The Old Testament — the old covenant — was the one God made with the Israelites at Sinai. Covenant 1.0, the beta version.

The New Testament — the new covenant — was the one God made with the early Christians through the blood of Jesus on Calvary. Covenant 2.0, the new and improved version.

That is the idea of supersessionism, or replacement theology. It implies the Jews are no longer chosen by God, their Scriptures are obsolete and their entire religious culture belongs in a museum.

Supersessionism has become the Nehru jacket of Christian theology. Many Christians no longer refer to the Hebrew Bible — or whatever other term you might choose — as the “Old Testament.” In church services, they will refer to it as the “First Testament” or “the Hebrew Scriptures.” The first testament is still valid for Jews, as the second testament is valid for Christians.

The “angry Old Testament God.” I was speaking with a close Christian friend, who was telling me about an argument he had with a colleague.

Apparently, it got pretty ugly, because he reported that he “went all Old Testament God on him.”

My friend was repeating the centuries-old slur. The God of the so-called Old Testament is a cruel, vengeful God. The God of the Christian New Testament is a loving God. God of justice vs. god of love.

What is wrong here?

First: This conception of God denies monotheism. It is not as if there is another God out there, waiting around for our prayers. As a Christian colleague and friend quipped: “When Christians talk about the God of the ‘Old Testament,’ I wonder which God they think Jesus of Nazareth worshipped.”

Second: That whole “loving God of the New Testament” thing … when we look at the historical record of expulsions, the Inquisition, torture, forced conversions, for most of the last 2,000 years, Jews did not feel the love.

That is why the last 60 years in Jewish-Christian dialogue have been so crucial. It has allowed the Christian world to do teshuvah, repentance, for the erroneous ways it had portrayed and understood Judaism. In that sense, Christian leaders have expanded God’s love.

But, third: It is true that, in the Bible, God sometimes has bad days.

Which might prompt us to ask: What gets God angry?

Read the Bible, and you will see God reserves divine anger for acts of extreme human evil. God gets furious with societies, like the generation of Noah and, generations later, Sodom and Gomorrah, that engage in depravity, callousness and violence.

Yes, God gets angry — and for good reason — God’s anger is a reflection and a refraction of the anger that should be welling up inside the souls of all good people when confronted with human failure.

Fourth: This view of the “Old Testament” God erases entire pieces of the divine personality. Jews, as well as others, know the God who holds us in loving relationship. Jewish liturgy is quite clear: The definition of the meaning of the relationship between God and the Jewish people is ahavah, love. God loves the Jewish people — which, by the way, many Christians also believe, perhaps even more than Jews do.

Finally: The problem with the “Old Testament” God thing is that it has real-life implications. The concept of “bad Old Testament God of the Jew” easily led to “bad Jews,” and that is the source of antisemitism, even today.

“Bad God” became “bad Jews,” which has become “bad Israel.” Some anti-Israel critics have actually accused Israel of, well, going “Old Testament God” on the Palestinians. There is an unbroken line of unexamined theological antisemitism that has become anti-Israelism.

So, you will ask: Are these examples — Old Testament, Old Testament God — really antisemitic?

Certainly not in the broken windows, graffiti, name calling, acts of violence style of antisemitism.

But, by slurring and misrepresenting Judaism, they lay the basis for antisemitism.

They are “theological gateway drugs.”

What about that opening vignette — that whole thing about prayer as a spiritual act vs. prayers as a piece of liturgy?

Granted: Judaism has abundant room for both and contains both.

But, there is an unspoken, often unpacked assumption, here. Christianity forms the default religious culture of the West and thus frames the “typical” way of thinking about religion.

Jews, and others, need to fit into that frame, or feel a little bit of cognitive dissonance.

This is precisely what I feel during the holiday season — either erased from, or begrudgingly admitted into, the ambient culture. I have become accustomed to it.

The truth is: When someone wishes me “Merry Christmas!” I am not offended. Yes, it feels hegemonic, but I know they are just being nice in the only language they know.

I also know that if I feel that way, so do my fellow “religious strangers” — Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, etc.

Here is the good news: In an increasingly multicultural America, we are all coming to understand that God’s love is even larger than we can imagine, that God speaks in more ways than we could ever hope to comprehend and that this society can afford to be more open than it had previously thought. In fact, that was the founders’ dream.

In this new year of 2023, may we increasingly get that memo.

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