I’m a sucker for books about interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians, but almost always left feeling disappointed and even frustrated by them. It’s not that I don’t believe productive conversations are possible – they are! I still have them regularly with Jewish friends.
But when the goal is unity rather than education, Christian doctrine always makes this impossible. It’s based on a message that is both good news and highly offensive, and cannot be softened to make it more palatable. For all their good intentions, books on interfaith dialogue that are written by Jewish authors don’t always seem to realize this.
This book, Let’s Talk: a Rabbi Speaks to Christians by Rabbi Michael E. Harvey, caught my attention because the author attracted controversy for his political tweets. I know the Twitter platform isn’t exactly known for nuance, with such a limited allotment of characters per post. But it seemed like Harvey was only interested in riling up his like-minded base by making caricatures of anyone he disagreed with. That type of platform is an immediate turnoff to me.
Still, I kept seeing posts about his book on other social media sites. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I tracked down a used copy and attempted to read with an open mind.
My Review: First, the Good
As a rabbi, Harvey is obviously educated and does his research when recounting Jewish biblical history. The book is short, but packed with several pages of notes that cite his sources. He’s quite thorough in his explanations of how Jews approach sacred texts, which holidays are most important and why, what Jews expect in their messiah, and how certain Christian liturgies are deeply insulting to them.
That last part is especially important, because the gospels are quite damning in their portrayal of the Pharisees. What many Christians probably don’t know is that the Pharisees weren’t just a fringe group of Jews who regularly clashed with Jesus: they are the group that formed the basis of Judaism as it is understood today. It is from their collective writings outside of Hebrew scriptures that modern Judaism developed. Therefore, dismissing them as one-dimensional “bad guys” is to present all Jews in a negative light.
It’s important to keep this in mind whenever Christians are tempted to use the term “pharisee” as a catch-all slur for “hypocrite” or “legalist.” We can simply use the term “legalist” and our theological point remains the same.
Because Judaism doesn’t see the Bible as a divinely inspired, inerrant document, I’m sure people like Harvey would be fine with excising those insulting passages altogether. Because Christians believe scripture is God’s inspired word to us, that’s not an option. However, we can certainly discuss the possibility that the pharisees who appear in the gospels were fringe members of their larger sect, rather than a representation of all Jews, everywhere, throughout time. Because one need not be Jewish in order to have the same issues with Jesus’ teachings that they did. They are just as controversial today for non-Jews as they were in his own time.
Harvey also writes well about the bloody history that resulted from the unbiblical teaching that the Jews alone murdered Jesus. That is a shameful stain on the reputation of the Church, which we must never forget.
Let me say first that I do not regret reading this book, and still plan to keep it on hand as a reference. It was important for me to read it because it represents what some of my family members and acquaintances think about Christianity. That’s a perspective I want to understand better in order to keep those relationships healthy. Everyone should be willing to study how the “other side” thinks. It will help you to avoid mischaracterizing them the way Harvey does here.
On the one hand, I understand Harvey’s very apparent anger and mistrust of Christians. I felt the same way for most of my childhood, starting with being called a “Christ killer” by a friend’s mother when I was six years old. Quite understandably, that led to a deep-seated fear of Christians that I couldn’t shake completely until I was almost an adult, at which point (miraculously!) Jesus was calling me to himself. But that’s another story.
So on that note, I do have genuine sympathy for Harvey. Generational trauma is real and runs deep. I don’t want to make light of that.
At the same time, I am also keenly aware that my chosen faith is a divisive one. This is true regardless of one’s ethnic background: the gospel is offensive to Jews and non-Jews alike, plain and simple. Why is this? Because the concept of sin is offensive. No one wants to be told that they are not a good person; that there’s actually no such thing. Sin is the default state of humanity, for which Jesus Christ is the only cure.
Harvey has only the vaguest understanding of why it’s imperative that Christians share the gospel. He mentions a common metaphor that Christians essentially hold the curative shot to a viral disease, and the only loving thing to do is to make sure everyone gets the shot.
Harvey takes this personally, as if it’s Judaism that is being compared to a disease: “This seemingly positive promise of an easy cure comes to the negative implication that…they are describing my religion, my way of life, as a pathogen, as a disease to be cured…Jesus preached humility and to love one’s neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor if you see their way of life as a disease” (71).
But it’s not Judaism or any other religion that is the disease; sin is. And to the contrary, Jesus teaches that what’s really unloving is leaving people dead in their sin without telling them about “the cure.” There is no way to understand this teaching without a Christian framework of love, and Harvey doesn’t appear to have studied it.
Harvey also goes on to describe “lifestyle evangelism” as equally insidious: “[Christians] simply explain to the Jew that Christianity has fulfilled their life and made their life better, and so they wish to share that with those around them.” This is a blatant mischaracterization of Christian theology. Maybe the prosperity gospel teaches this, but that’s a heresy.
If you’re looking to be happy and fulfilled, don’t choose a religion whose founder tells you to pick up your cross and die to self. That is the absolute worst recipe for arbitrary happiness. At best, you’ll get made fun of, rejected for dates, and considered a general weirdo who believes archaic things. At worst, in some parts of the world, you’ll be jailed or killed.
No one follows Jesus because it makes them happy. They follow him because they learn that he is who he says he is, and that what he says is true. They follow him because of the evidence of the resurrection. Because his redemptive goodness and faithfulness are powerful and transformative.
I’m sad that Harvey apparently hasn’t met any Christians who communicated this to him. His solution, at the end of the chapter, is that Christians do away with sharing their faith altogether. That they stop teaching Jesus Christ as the only valid path to heaven. That they basically stop being Christian, because all of it is insulting and dehumanizing to Jews and outsiders.
Certainly, Christians can be a lot less intrusive and annoying with our evangelism. We should be better at respecting boundaries when people express disinterest. And we can deliver our message with a balance of truth and grace.
But Jesus predicted that our message would be ill-received by the masses, no matter how gently it’s delivered. Watering it down to placate feelings, even those of a marginalized group, is just not an option.
What Can We Do?
All of this leaves me wondering, what can we do about this perpetually strained relationship between Jews and Christians? Just leave it broken? I don’t think that’s the answer. Education is always a good thing: Jews and Christians share what they believe, how they interpret the scriptures, etc.
Certainly, Jews should be listened to when describing their legitimate hurt from other Christians, especially when Jewish feasts are being held in many churches. Christians should listen without judgment or defensiveness. If there are certain actions we’re doing that aren’t essential to our faith (like holding our own seders), we should seriously consider not doing them if it harms our collective witness and overall relationship with the Jewish people. It’s simply not worth it.
We are never going to agree theologically; we should drop that expectation entirely. Nor will we be able to resolve hundreds of years of Jewish persecution and injustice from our spiritual ancestors.
But we can certainly listen with compassion and empathy. We can study our scriptures in context and learn from one another. And we can stand up against antisemitism wherever it occurs.
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