Mostly scripture scholar, part stand-up comedian, Amy-Jill Levine reveres her Jewish tradition but isn't afraid to see humor in it.
"It's said that Elijah is present at every ritual circumcision," she told a large audience Nov. 29 at the University of Portland. "Oh well. It's a job."
Levine, an Orthodox Jew who specializes in New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University, helps Christians understand how Jews approach sacred scripture — and vice versa. Her new book brings Jewish insight to the parables of Jesus.
"Bible study is not a zero-sum game," Levine said. "People can come up with opposite interpretations and they can both be right." The fact that the church embraces four different gospels, she argued, affirms that varied perspectives are welcome.
Levine set out what she calls a comforting fact of Bible scholarship — we can't ever get it all right, but many interpretations can have part of the truth. "That is exactly what God's word should give us," she said.
She grew up in a Massachusetts Catholic neighborhood and has been involved in what she calls "interfaith talks" since she was seven.
"The point is not to be able to hold hands afterward and sing Kumbayah," she said. "It's to see the beauty of what the other does or says."
During its first centuries, the church functioned side-by-side with Judaism. The two traditions sometimes shaped themselves in contradiction to the other. For example, whereas Christians came to see faith as a free gift, Jews focused all the more on rationality. The church expressed belief through visual art as synagogues embraced the heard word.
Pre-existing belief can shape scripture interpretation. Levine cited the passage from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping. While Christians see the scene prefiguring the slaughter of innocents after the birth of Jesus, Jews focus on the following verse, which expresses confidence that God's promise of land will prevail and soothe sadness.
The very arrangement of scripture reflects belief. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi predicting the return of Elijah — a reference to the role of redemption Christ will play. The Jewish canon concludes with 2 Chronicles and the Persian King Cyrus telling the exiled people to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Explaining the different endings, Levine compared Christianity to football and Judaism to baseball. The church sees itself making up lost ground and heading forward to the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Judaism, by contrast, is about making it home.
Levine felt gratified after the Vatican in 2001 recognized the legitimacy of Jewish biblical interpretation. She wants Jews to return the graciousness. "Of course the church is going to find Jesus in the book of Genesis," she said. "It would be silly if it didn't."
Levine prodded her mostly Catholic audience to be more like Jews in one way — arguing within the church over tenets of faith. Jews feel more comfortable with debate, since they are members of their religion by birth and can't be excommunicated. Christians tend to fear dissent because they are members of their community by belief and could be shunned for divergent views.
Levine urged listeners to have trust in their baptismal dignity and recall that the word Israel — an identity both Christians and Jews take on — has its roots in "wrestling with God."