The Aleinu prayer celebrates being Jewish in contrast to all the goyim out there, so it made an interesting focal point for Vanderbilt University religion professor Amy-Jill Levine as she spoke to a Temple Sinai sanctuary packed with Christians as well as Jews on Friday night, Jan. 8.
While addressing in less than 15 minutes the mistakes Jews and Christians make about each other, Levine delved into a prayer that has been a source of Jewish-Christian tension, to the extent that the text has been amended and altered through the centuries and that Prussia enacted a law in 1703 to control its chanting.
I’ve interviewed Levine by phone and email and once on the radio show the AJT used to have on Joe Weber’s WMLB-AM, though I’ve never met her in person.
She’s a colleague and friend of my brother, Andrew, who like Levine is among the not-small group of American Jewish academics who study the New Testament and early Christianity. Andrew, a professor at Scripps College, contributed to Levine’s “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” and if you’re looking for the definitive book on Jesus’ bris and how Christians struggled with the idea of snipping divine flesh, my brother wrote it: “Christ Circumcised.” (You can get a shorter, free taste of that scholarship online at the Ancient Jew Review.)
Naturally, I was happy to hear that Levine was coming to town to be a scholar in residence and was intrigued by the circumstances: She was speaking at services at Temple Sinai on Friday and Saturday, then at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church on Sunday. Members of the two congregations, which are less than a mile apart in Sandy Springs, were encouraged to attend all the sessions at both locations.
Bringing Christians to a synagogue for services isn’t unusual; it happens at congregations all around Atlanta every week during simcha celebrations. I suspect it’s less common for Jews in significant numbers to attend Christian services, but Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was packed last February for The Temple’s traditional Presidents Day visit to Martin Luther King’s former pulpit.
So when I wrote a preview of Levine’s visit for our Dec. 25 issue, I thought I was just sharing details of a nice interfaith event in our community, with no deeper meaning than perhaps our general acceptance in Atlanta (not an insignificant point a century after Leo Frank’s lynching, but not something to be hammered home). So I was caught off guard when one of my favorite behind-the-scenes constructive critics emailed his concerns.
He argued that a Jewish newspaper should view interfaith worship critically, not complimentarily. He mentioned the dangers of interfaith friendship leading to interfaith marriage. He also worried about Jews joining in Christian prayers in front of a crucifix and wondered whether the Jewish liturgy would be watered down to avoid offense. Would the Shema, the fundamental declaration that we are the chosen people, even be recited?
I can speak only about the Friday night service, but it was not watered down. All the usual prayers for a Reform service were there, including the Shema and Aleinu. It appeared that Christians sang along with English-language songs and prayers and happily observed when Hebrew was involved. My guess is that the Jews at the Episcopal service Sunday sang along with prayers about G-d (many of them close translations of Jewish prayers) and listened quietly when Jesus came into play, but I welcome comments from anyone who was there.
Levine on Friday night was dynamic and brilliant, educational and entertaining. If you ever get a chance to see her kick off her shoes and teach, whether about history or religion, ours or theirs, it’s worth putting aside concerns about the venue.
Her brief Aleinu discourse offered at least one answer to the skeptics. The messianic vision of that core element of our liturgy involves all the people of the world recognizing and worshipping G-d, but it doesn’t say anything about their becoming Jewish. Part of our ultimate mission as the chosen people isn’t to create 7 billion converts to Judaism but to help guide all those people to His message and mission.
Bringing those who aren’t Jewish into our services works toward that goal, and if the price is paying a return visit, so be it.