John Bennison Words and Ways | Not Jewish Enough: Advent II

Not Jewish Enough: Advent II

Commentary for the Second Week of an Advent Journey

 

[Note: The context for this commentary is found in selected portions the Common Lectionary texts assigned for the Second Sunday of Advent Season.  These complete texts can be found at the end of this a pdf version, which is available to print and/or read here.]

 

Originally from California, Jonathan Leavitt recently made aliyah – the Jewish term used to describe migration to the state of Israel.  A stocky American Jew, with blue eyes and an easy-going manner, he said he wanted to serve in the Israeli Defence Force, because he believes in the homeland of the Jewish people.

Once he’d made the decision, Jonathan recalled his excitement, “feeling more Jewish than I’d ever felt in my whole life.”  But when he arrived in Israel he was told that according to Jewish law, Leavitt was not considered a Jew.

“I can recall the lady working behind the desk,” he explained, “asking me what religion I practiced, and I thought that was an odd question.  And I said, ‘I’m Jewish obviously,’ and she replied,’ I’m sorry we can’t put that on your ID.’  I asked her, ‘Why?’ I have a letter from my rabbi, I’ve been bar mitzvahed.’  And she said, ‘According to the rabbinate, you are not Jewish enough.’”

As it turns out, Jonathan’s mother was not born a Jew, rather she converted. That isn’t a problem for the more liberal Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism.  But religious life in Israel is dominated by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.  Unless one undergoes Orthodox conversion, one is not legally recognized a Jew.  The same goes for their descendants, from one generation to the next.

The news didn’t sit well with Jonathan.  “I thought to myself, what did I come here for, if I’m not going to be allowed to be a part of this culture?  I can fight for them, I can die for them, I can go into the army and give up my life and my freedom, but I don’t have the same rights?  Even Israeli Jews who are entirely secular, [who] don’t observe anything and really have no connection to their Jewish religion, are considered more Jewish than I am.”

Apparently there is a work-around. The army offers a three-month crash conversion course. Those who pass are to be considered Jewish by the Israeli government, with the rights to get married and buried in Israel.  But the ultra-Orthodox complain that’s cheating, and vow any such convert would not be regarded by them to be sufficiently Jewish.

We’ve all heard all this before. Not being enough of one thing or another is nothing new, nor particularly unique to Jonathan Leavitt.  We all remember one-time presidential candidate Barack Obama was criticized by some as not being black enough, because he is only half black, and didn’t behave the way some folks thought he should.  Others subsequently questioned President Obama’s citizenship and religious persuasion, that he wasn’t American enough or wear his Christianity on his shirtsleeve.

Politicians have sometimes secretly acknowledged hesitating speaking out against our own government’s war policies, or the enormous level of military spending, for fear of being perceived as not patriotic enough.  While those serving in the armed forces have to be discrete enough, if they can’t be straight enough.

 Then there are an endless number of examples of people who don’t measure up, in terms of their performance.   In our legal system, so-called lenient / liberal judges who are regarded by some as being too soft on crime, are sometimes ousted in the electoral process because they aren’t tough enough.

Last week South Korea’s Defence Minister resigned in humiliation after North Korea’s unprovoked attach on remote Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, apologizing for not being vigilant enough.

 Not being enough of whatever even provides a reason, if not an excuse, for the sometimes inexplicable.  For example, NFL coaches who can’t exact the winning formula out of their players in the high-stakes game of professional sports get the boot for not being successful enough.  Effort doesn’t count.  The buck has to stop somewhere.  And anyone who isn’t skilled enough, clever enough or just plain lucky enough gets the short straw.

Any way you look at it, there seems to be an abundance of folks – whether it’s their own doing nor not — who aren’t enough of whatever they’re supposed to be.

Any way you look at it, there seems to be an abundance of folks – whether it’s their own doing nor not — who aren’t enough of whatever they’re supposed to be.

 Certainly, there’s a case to be made for being “enough” of this or that, when it comes to a question of ones qualifications or abilities.  Codes of conduct, rules to live by, and certain performance standards to delineate those who adhere to them, and those who don’t, should constitute a necessary claim or right to something, or other.

And then when there’s a clump of people who are sufficiently alike, you create a group identity.  It makes it all easier to tell who they are, and who is not one of them.  Jonathan Leavitt found that out the hard way.

For, nowhere is all this clearer perhaps than in the arena of “orthodox” (that is, “right thinking”) religious beliefs; no matter what the religious stripe or color.  In this regard, the first of two dirty little truths that’s often swept under the temple rug is this:

As much as those in authority at any one particular time would like followers to believe, so-called orthodox belief is not a static and immoveable set of standards, in their application.  Rather, the difference between orthodoxy and heresy is a non-stop game in which the goal post gets moved all the time.

And second, that being the case, it is usually delegated to the ecclesiastical hierarchy to pass judgement and determine who is enlightened enough, or righteous enough, repentant enough, or acceptable enough.

The difference between orthodoxy and heresy is a non-stop game in which the goal post gets moved all the time.  That being the case, the ecclesiastical hierarchy will pass judgement and determine who is enlightened enough, or righteous enough, repentant enough, or acceptable enough. 

When John the Baptist – or, John the Forerunner as he is sometimes called, announcing the imminent arrival of the One whose sandal John says he is not worthy enough to untie – comes on the scene in Matthew’s gospel, the trap is set for a reversal of roles.  The wild-eyed prophet from out of the wilderness not only captures the attention of the general populace for miles around; but even the learned elders and religious authorities apparently leave the temple and come out to see what all the commotion is about.

As far as the Pharisees and Sadducees were concerned, John the Baptist should not have been enough of anything but simply crazy, to warrant so much attention; let alone issue a general call to repentance, and then proceed to meddle in the business of ritual purification rituals.  After all, no one could have been regarded in those days as being more Jewish than these pillars of the community.

But when John sees them coming, he points an accusatory finger and publicly denounces them as “a brood of vipers.”  Why such a rude and disrespectful greeting?  If it wasn’t a matter of them not being Jewish enough, then what was it?

Remember, the way Matthew tells his gospel tale, it is clearly evident he loves his own Jewish-ness.  He begins his gospel with all those innumerable “begats” in a faulty effort to trace the lineage of Jesus back through the generations of the line of David, and the old stump of Jesse. The family tree is an ancient one, and the roots were deeply embedded into the genetic consciousness of what it means to be Jewish enough.

The rest of his gospel is then littered with the oft-repeated phrase, that Jesus did this, or Jesus said that, “in order that the (Jewish) scriptures might be fulfilled.”  Matthew goes out of his way, again and again, to proof text how Jesus was certainly Jewish enough to not only be the heir apparent in the lineage of David and Jesse; but the incarnate fulfilment of their long-awaited messianic hope and expectation, as well.

Yet in Matthew’s relating the story of John the Baptist confronting the religious authorities of his day along Jordan’s banks, there are no exceptions made and no special dispensation given to those who would claim special privilege by virtue of being more than Jewish enough.

In effect, he says, “Don’t waste your breath saying, ‘well we’re so Jewish, Abraham is our great-great-great-great-great-etc-granddaddy.”  That blue-blood religious lineage is about as worthless a claim to some inherited kind of vapid righteousness as the useless stones under their feet.  The stark and startling message that the Forerunner brings cuts to the very root of that ancient family tree.  It’ll count for nothing but kindling in the purifying fires about to be set, John snarls.

What then will count for something, in the kingdom that’s apparently coming any moment; with the arrival of the One who will judge what is enough of everything?  If birthright is of no consequence, then how will we know who’s in and who’s out?  What are the citizenship requirements?  And, what kind of kingdom is it going to be, if those who aren’t enough of anything – the meek, the weak, the poor, the marginalized and disenfranchised — might inherit it?

What then will count for something, … with the arrival of the One who will judge what is enough of everything?  … And, what kind of kingdom is it going to be, if those who aren’t enough of anything – the meek, the weak, the poor, the marginalized and disenfranchised — might inherit it?  

Matthew — who was certainly Jewish enough — was also part of a formative early Christian faith community struggling to grasp what had come to pass in light of this new reality.  He tells his version of a story, with a message about an itinerant Jewish rabbi from the Judean peasant class in the early first century of the Common Era, whose name was Jesus.

Both Matthew, and this Jesus, would have long heard and known well their own sacred scriptures; including those texts from Isaiah the prophet, written more than seven centuries before; when the Northern Kingdom was annexed to the Assyrian empire, and Judah was almost as bad off.  It was a time when being Jewish enough was of little practical consequence; which, in its own way, made the prophet’s vision of their liberation and transformation even more poignant.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  …  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth …  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  Isaiah 11

And then follows those poetic lines about the peaceable kingdom, that unbelievable kingdom, that almost ludicrous kind of a kingdom, that “fairy tale” of a kingdom (as one Pathways participant described it this week); where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, etc,” and “a little child shall lead them” and “there shall be no more pain or destruction,” so pervasive will be the “knowledge of the Lord” among all the people of the earth.

And, as this portion of Isaiah’s passage concludes, “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

The two-part, two-step message is this: God’s final reign of peace and justice, that has yet to be fulfilled, remains a vision that was to begin with one very Jewish nation, but extends to all the people of the earth in its fulfilment. And the only expectation for those who would make the trek up the holy mountain to this glorious dwelling place is that they envision such a reality with enough “righteousness.”

Such “righteousness” is nothing we inherit; let alone are able to sufficiently conjure up for ourselves.  True righteousness is simply the right response to what God has always longed to do, and already done.  If it’s a matter of measuring whatever might be “enough” in such right response, it would be whether we have, in turn, similarly and indiscriminately shown enough mercy, kindness and compassion, peace and justice.

As the psalmist sings (Psalm 72), “Give to the “king of justice” our righteousness,” because “he judges the people with righteousness,” and “the holy mountain of the Lord yields its righteousness.”   The psalmist envisions a time when “In days (to come) may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.”

Centuries upon centuries later, it is left for Paul (once a very Jewish Saul) to look back on this age-old vision in light of the experience of the emerging early Christian community of believers; a hodgepodge of Jews and Gentiles, and who knows what else, who weren’t enough of anything of any importance, save the knowledge of the gift of Grace, and a simple kind of righteousness that stemmed from knowing such a God in Christ.

In his letter to the church in Rome, he writes, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction … I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [those who formerly could never be enough] on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Paul tells his brothers and sisters in Rome there is no distinction to be made between them. You can’t exclude those who aren’t Jewish enough – or enough of anything else for that matter — from the Grace of God that is freely given to all, and is all-sufficient.  Whatever you are, whoever you are, it’s enough.  Enough is enough.

If Advent is to be an authentic path for us to follow these days, it is a way that intentionally envisions such a place for everyone, without distinction or qualification.

You’d recognize the place if, at last, you realized at last the standard policy was Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell.  Don’t bother asking if you’re enough, it doesn’t matter.  And if you can’t tell any real difference between us, perhaps we can, once and for all, abandon what divides us.

Then the lion, the lamb and the little child can show us the way together.

© 2010 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

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6 Comments

  1. Katherine Angle /

    If I get the drift of this —This version reminds me of [that portion of the text in] Isaiah when the exiled … were tying hard to see the vision of what he promised … to be an all inclusive chosen people that any and all could repent and change their ways and worship a God for all people; not just some special ones who were ‘enough’. Could it be that the same issue repeated itself with Jesus? I think I got it. Sounds like it lives on even today when some folks think they can be ….and others are not.

    • Thanks for sharing your comments, Katherine, and I think we’re pondering things along similar lines of thought. While the Jesus portrayed in the synoptic gospels echoes the call to repentance first uttered by the Baptist as he begins his own brief ministry, the character of the Jesus that subsequently emerges seems less concerned with people changing their ways; and instead seems to demonstrate, time and again, a radical willingness to regard others as fully-acceptable ‘enough,’ even in their waywardness. He doesn’t seem to have rubbed elbows with those that the highly pious considered unacceptable simply to be irksome; he just didn’t see much difference between the two groups, except in the hypocritical blindness of the religious establishment. Since none of us can ever be (even repentant and worshipful) ‘enough,’ it’s the better part of faithfulness to simply live responsively with the same kind of Grace given all, which is all-sufficient. Such responsiveness isn’t conditional, only consequential, in the transformative power of gracefulness. It’s a gift everyone gets and no one deserves. Just take it and run with it. JB

  2. Your commentary explores the concept of “enough” in very thoughtful ways. I’m one of those folks who experience moments of feeling that I’m “not enough” of a Christian (if in fact that is what I am “supposed to be). So I thank you for the reminder, John, that in this Advent season, enough is enough.

    • Thanks for the comment. So, you sometimes wonder if you’re “Christian” enough? If your faith is no bigger than a miniscule mustard seed, I think I read somewhere that’s enough …
      JB

  3. As a born Baptist who migrated to the Episcopal Church, the only way I know that I’m “good enough” (when none of us are) is the round collar the bishop gave me and so far has not taken back. That is, frankly, small comfort with the prospect of judgment day.

    I was moved the first time I heard you add to the invitation at Holy Communion, “for all people are of God.” I have since used those same words whenever I preside at the Eucharist. If indeed “all people are of God,” as I hope and believe they are, then it’s likely there is room for even me.

    I don’t have to ask anyone if they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim, or Buddhist or secular humanist, or agnostic, or atheist enough. I can tell them they are loved, accepted, forgiven, and cared for by God. The only hope for salvation in this world is for people to respond in thanksgiving and joy to that Good News.

    And if it is, as I believe, a God of love we will meet on the final day, then we have nothing to fear.

  4. J.B.: What a good commentary (“Not Jewish Enough”). It was so good I thought there wasn’t enough of it! Enough for now.

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