The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures
at a Jesuit University
By Elizabeth Groppe
It is a warm evening in late October, and graduate students are flocking to a course on psalms and wisdom literature. They will spend two and one half hours poring over texts, looking carefully at translations and discussing interpretations. This is common practice in all scripture courses.What is unique about this course is that study of the texts is led by two professors—one a Christian scholar and the other a Jewish Rabbi.
Rabbis have been teaching courses in Judaic Studies as adjunct faculty at Xavier University since 1970. What is different about this class is that it is a study of texts that are part of the canon of both the Jewish and Christian traditions, taught by two people who practice these faiths. Although this team-taught course was not a response to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s statement “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (December 2001) it is a good example of what it could mean to put some of the principles of this document into practice.
“The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible”was issued with less publicity than typically accompanies statements from Rome, prompting New Testament scholar Fr. John Donahue (MAR) to dub the document the “stealth missive from the Vatican.”Donahue is one of many who believe the missive is worthy of more attention than it has received.
In centuries past, many Christians derided the exegesis of the Rabbis as an obstinate and blind refusal to see Christ in the testimonies of their own prophets and sages. The PBC statement, in contrast, states that the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament “is a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not in the text as such, but in the events of the New Testament proclaimed by the apostolic preaching” (no. 21). This holds true even of the prophetic books: “It would be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events . . . . The original task of the prophet was to help his contemporaries understand the events and the times they lived in from God’s viewpoint” (no. 21). This position leads to one of the significant contributions of the PBC statement: the affirmation that “the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion” (no. 22).
The topic of the course for the late October evening is not the prophets but the book of Job, the story of a blameless and upright man who loses oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, home, children and health in a test of his fidelity. Job resists the temptation to curse God, but he also resists the theology of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, who insist that his suffering must be the result of sin. In some Christian interpretations of this story, Job foreshadows the Christ-figure, the suffering righteous one. But no one voices that interpretation this evening. The focus of the discussion is rather the way in which the story upends assumptions and established orthodoxies. How wrenching it must be to Job, comments Dr. Sarah Melcher, the Christian professor, that his friends cannot approach him in any manner other than that of dominant orthodoxy, which interprets progeny and prosperity as the consequence of righteousness and suffering as the consequence of sin. Although this theology is true to the book of Deuteronomy, it is completely inadequate to Job’s experience.
For contemporary Jews, adds Rabbi Abie Ingber, whose grandparents perished in Nazi-occupied Poland, the book of Job is necessarily read through the experience of the Shoah. Job’s lament “If I go forward, God is not here; or backward, I cannot perceive him” (22:8) articulates the Jewish experience of the hidden God who was absent from the death camps of Europe. This prompts Dr.Melcher to comment that she knows Christians who maintain—like a modern-day Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar— that the Jews who lost everything in the Holocaust were deserving of this suffering. Rabbi Ingber notes that there are Catholic priests who have said as much to him. And a Protestant student in the class adds that he has heard this theology voiced by some Protestant ministers.
It is clearly very painful for the Rabbi to speak about the Shoah. But there are light-heartened moments as well. “God has deprived me of justice!” laments Dr.Melcher, offering a dramatic reading of Job 27:2 and noting that this reminds her of Scarlett O’Hara. “Don’t you love it,” comments the Rabbi with a smile, “I see the Holocaust and she sees Gone with the Wind.”
The students who chatted with me love the course. They appreciate the opportunity to hear a Jewish perspective on the psalms and wisdom literature and especially the lively exchange between the two professors, a model of interreligious education in action. The conversation about the parallels between the book of Job and those Christian theologies that find Jewish sin at the root of the Shoah would very likely not have taken place if the class had not been team taught by a Christian professor and a Rabbi. The discussion leads me, as an interloping student for the day, to ask myself how my own unexamined orthodoxies may do a wrenching injustice to others.
Elizabeth Groppe is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, Religion and Society at Xavier University and a member of the Jesuit Advisory Board for Interreligious Dialogue and Mission.
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