Sep 2, 2013

"I Love Jewish"

In honor of Labor Day I mowed half the lawn.  The front half, for the neighbors’ benefit (and mine too, I guess, as it sort of saves face, which has needed saving for about 2 weeks now).  Then off to more pressing and eternally important matters – attending a panel discussion with visiting theologian Avner Boskey about the roots of anti-Semitism and its fruit in the church.  I wasn’t sure if the questions were to be posed by the audience, and out of all the many that have flitted through my head over the years, only one kept coming to mind.  I didn’t get to ask it.  However, it was answered.

Let me backtrack.

One Sunday morning a visitor came to the church I grew up in.  In between songs and sermon we often invited testimonies, and this tall, beautiful woman stood.  She was dark, vibrant, and around her neck wore a cross and a star of David on the same chain.  She fingered these as she spoke. 

With a lovely accent, in fair but imperfect English, she haltingly told us she was from Iran, and had been saved very recently.  In her own language her words would have flowed like music.  Through the mask of the limited English vocabulary she had, I could still hear that flow of heart, tender and deep. 

She told how she had been raised to hate the Jewish people, and how she always had.  Her testimony was this, as she stood there in our Gentile congregation—that she knew her conversion was unalterable and profound, for the Lord Jesus, Himself a Jewish man, had done inside her heart a work that was impossible.  Tears and triumph and thankfulness in her voice, she clutched her star and cross, and exclaimed over and over:

“Now I love Jewish!  I love Jewish!  I love…I love Jewish!”

My heart was leaping like a dancing lamb; my eyes were weeping; my youth was struggling to keep both private.  Her proclamation was full of power—unexpected waves like electricity.  I felt true shock that I was given the privilege of hearing this on earth—me, a simple girl in a podunk inner-city church—to hear this former Muslim, shouting out her love for the Jews.  And yes, this was a proof of how real salvation and redemption and restoration, and JESUS, are: “I love Jewish!”

The English word, “Jew”, was just not in her vocabulary yet.  Still, her endearing phrase has stuck in my heart for many years. 

Recently I’ve been wondering about when to use the words “Jew” and “Jewish”.  One is a noun.  It implies a comprehensive definition.  The other is an adjective—one descriptor out of many possible. 

As I’ve made more Jewish friends, it’s become apparent that under the petticoat of culture and even orthodoxy lurks an anti-Semitism of which we are almost completely unaware.  It comes out in our speech and thought patterns, and it is this “outer-ring” anti-Semitism the panel was discussing (as opposed to the more familiar inner-rings, which would include things like Nazism or an overt dislike for the Jews). 

I didn’t ask my question about “Jew” versus “Jewish”, because it wasn’t really about words (word usage changes so over time, staying PC isn’t our goal) but was about collective definitions being applied to individuals, and whether that creates a barrier to the individual Jewish heart.  And the panel discussion went there pretty quickly, confirming what my heart had been saying.  Relating to a person through stereotypes, whether negative or positive, does not convey the heart of Jesus. 

I remember times I was labeled according to the college I went to, or the country I was from, and considered to embody the stereotypes of those places (usually good ones, mind you).  What I’ve found is that even a “good” stereotype marginalized me. 

For instance, in a discussion I cared very much about and which would steer the direction of a many-year endeavor, I once had a manager dismissively answer my opinion with: “Yes, but you’re from Wheaton,” effectively eliminating my point of view from the table.  He meant that my ideas would be too high-literature, too educated, to be useful in an attempt to reach the regular reading population.  His words worked – I realized later I could have left the conference table at that point, and the team’s decision would have been unaffected. 

Stereotypes are just that—assumptions that define each individual according to a group label.  While the Jewish people are certainly defined by God in particular and very beautiful ways, and corporately have been given gifts and giftings, to view individual Jews only according to that corporate identity is potentially a great injustice to the individual—it is to marginalize him or her.  We don’t realize how often we do this, and when we do (as Christians) we say with shortsighted relief, “well, at least my stereotypes are all positive ones.”

As we talk about how to avoid accidental anti-Semitism in our words and assumptions, the question doesn’t really come down to which words are correct/positive and which aren’t.  It comes down to which words are spoken with love and knowledge of individuals, and which aren’t.  As my father taught me: Love is always person-to-person.  One country might say it “loves” another country, and one Christian might say she “loves” Israel, but in the end, love is shown to be real when it can and does manifest on a personal plane. 

Is the individual seen?  Is the individual loved? 

I know the whole church should love me, and theoretically does.  But my heart is melted by those who take time to know more about me than that I go to the same Sunday service as them.  Do you love me because I’m a Christian, or do you love me because I’m Amy?  Every human heart cries out for the latter. 

Do we love them because they are Israel, or do we love them because they are Eitan and Fran and Avner and Sivan and Daniel and Hannah and Joshua and…  It’s not that I don’t know there are very special, very important promises made by God to all the Jews (promises that benefit me, too), it’s that I know those promises have been made specifically to Eitan and Fran and Sivan (et al.)!  And to their families.  And to their ancestors.  And to their children’s children… 

…and from one love of one person, I can love a whole nation. 
…and because I know Eitan has been promised the physical homeland of Israel, I can understand the implications of that promise in the lives of all his countrymen, too. 
…and when he embraces me like a father, and talks kindly, I suddenly know that I too will be welcomed there, that he will gladly include me in what he has been given.  That this personal love doesn’t just go one way, it goes two.  And oh, that is the best sort of love!

It all reminds me of what John the beloved said in 1st John 3:16-18:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

P.S.  In college I had a friend from middle-America who had never met a black person.  It’s possible.  Lest you despair that you know no Jews, let me give you a hint: you do!  His name is Jesus.  Love that Man like this, then love His sisters and brothers and parents, then love His grandparents and His nieces and nephews…then love His whole people.  It’s as easy as it sounds.  Course, it’d be great to find a few of them and invite them over to dinner, too.  Remember, real love is person-to-person.

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