The following is the text of a talk I gave at Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City on April 23, 2023. I am very thankful that this church (where I once ministered) was willing to let me come back and share some of my observations from these two traditions (FYI, I am now Jewish). Also, FYI – the accompanying slide show for this talk can be found here.
(SLIDE 1) It is such a joy to be here at Joy today! (laughs)
Today I’m going to speak about what I see as significant common ground between the two spiritual traditions that have shaped my life the most — the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition and the Jewish tradition. But I also want to share a bit about the differences between these two traditions. My hope is that this exploration will help you to understand your Anabaptist views better, but also to hopefully have a better understanding of your Jewish friends, folks who you likely have a lot of common ground with.
But first, before I dig into those commonalities and differences, I wanted to share just a bit about my context and why I care so much about these two traditions, both of which are traditions I did not grow up in.
(SLIDE 2) So first, on the Mennonite side of things — I have had a connection with this congregation for almost 20 years. The first time I visited was in 2003 — back when I was in law school and preaching at the Church of Christ where I grew up.
(SLIDE 3) I had previously met Sadie for the first time at a peace protest in Oklahoma City. We had a great conversation (I believe at the Gold Dome corner), and while we were there holding protest signs, she actually invited me to come speak at Joy as a guest speaker by the end of this conversation. — And I never could say no to Sadie!
I had a wonderful experience visiting Joy, so much so that I actually considered leaving my old church and joining Joy right after being there, but Sadie discouraged me from doing this, saying I should “grow where I was planted.”
But a few months later, the Church of Christ fired me because I wasn’t evangelistic enough (and I also think because I was talking too much about peace during a time of war), so I took that as a sign that it was time for me to come to Joy. And I officially joined the church, the following spring on Easter Sunday 2004.
(SLIDE 4) During my last year of law school, Joy enabled me to start some peace organizing work focusing on helping members of the military get discharged, as well as to challenge mistreatment they experienced in the service. Doing this work under the auspices of Joy, eventually as our “Minister of Peace and Justice,” was a wonderful opportunity. And it brought me in contact with a cohort of older experienced activists who had been doing spiritually-rooted peace work for many years, including Catholics, Quakers, Unitarians, and other fellow travelers.
(SLIDE 5) But Joy wasn’t just my church. And it wasn’t just my hub for activist organizing . . . it also gave me a home, quite literally. At first, I lived in this building upstairs but later I was in the garage apartment (and then back and forth at least one more time)
And it was a good place to be.
(SLIDE 6) My first five years as an attorney were challenging but also good years. The congregation grew in numbers, especially with a new surge of young adults who were busy deconstructing their evangelical conservative upbringings but also seeking to find new ways to follow Jesus.
(SLIDE 7) We did a lot of good work together, had a lot of fun, and built some strong friendships. And we were blessed to have so many elders to guide us, Moses and Sadie especially, but others too, both inside the congregation as well as some fellow travelers like Art & Marianne.
(SLIDE 8) We also faced challenges and times of conflict too, but through it all, this congregation and its people taught me a great deal about what it means to seek the way of peace and justice in the context of a spiritual community.
But by 2011, my personal life was getting messy. I was hitting a wall of burnout in my activist lawyering but also was reconnecting with Becky, who I would end up marrying at the end of the year.
(SLIDE 9) Marrying her at age 35 also meant that I would become one of Ty’s dads.
… which brings me to the Jewish part of my story. In our first year of marriage, Becky came out to me as being secretly interested and compelled by Jewish spiritual practices. She came to this place, not because of her background, but rather because she found that the spiritual practices she had inherited from her Christian upbringing didn’t give her what she needed when she was fighting cancer and going through a divorce as a new mother. In those difficult days, she had experiences that pointed towards Jewish spiritual practice as a way for her but she had not yet had a chance to really explore them in earnest.
(SLIDE 10)These conversations led our family to seriously explore Jewish spirituality in our home context, while still remaining part of our respective church communities. This exploration evolved over the years and became more and more important to us — and to make a very long story short, we as a family reached a place where we felt it was time for us to commit to Jewish community in a more tangible way.
(SLIDE 11) This desire, coupled with my desire to take a break from some congregational conflict that we were dealing with at Joy during that time period, led me to step down as one of the ministers of this congregation.
(SLIDE 12) Today, I see myself as a Jew, but as one that has been shaped in deep and profound ways by the radical community of Jesus-followers here at Joy Mennonite, as well as by the broader movements of Humanistic Spirituality. This is the perspective I’m bringing to this conversation. (SLIDE 13) (SLIDE 14) (SLIDE 15)
So… that brings us to the heart of today’s message: I think there are four primary points of commonality between these two great faith traditions, which are: (1) an ethic that focuses more on the earth in the present, rather than focusing on the afterlife, (2) a strong focus on social justice, (3) an experience of diaspora, and (4) a practice of reading and interpreting sacred texts in in the context community.
But before I go on, I should also say that I will be using a big-picture, 30,000 feet up approach to this. The movements of Judaism and Anabaptism are diverse and huge, and hence it is hard to make accurate generalizations that apply to all people within those movements. And so I would suggest that what I will be saying is more of a discussion of tendencies, rather than concrete judgments. — I also think it is important to say that I will be speaking of Judaism in the 21st century, a very important distinction — because Judaism today is a radically different tradition than what is depicted in the Bible. A lot of history has happened in the last 2000+ years on all branches of the Abrahamic religious family tree, and so we are speaking of the present.
(SLIDE 16) So… the first area of commonality is this: both traditions share a present-tense Earth-centered ethic.
So first, looking at Judaism … there are almost no references to the afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), and those that are there are fuzzy and unclear.
(SLIDE 17) Later generations of Jews did talk about ideas like heaven and hell (especially during the times of struggle with the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE), but there was never any kind of consensus on the subject, and that continues to the present because according to the folks at Pew Research, the majority of Jews in the US today do not believe in the concept of Heaven and Hell.
So, what about the Anabaptist tradition? Many Anabaptists have for the most part held to some traditional Christian views about heaven and hell, but it generally is not an aspect of the faith tradition that is emphasized. This means that most Anabaptists do not spend a great deal of time speaking about Heaven as being the goal for Christian living, but rather speak about the values of the Kingdom of God in the present. (SLIDE 18)
This is quite different than what is often taught in other Christian faith traditions.
This common focus on the present tense and the earthly, has powerful ethical implications and helps to avoid the pitfall that so many religious folks have, of deferring the work for justice because “God will fix everything in the end.”
(SLIDE 19) Speaking of the struggle for justice, we come to point Two, that both traditions share a deep focus on social justice.
(SLIDE 20) For Jews, this stems from a concept called Tikkun Olam, which mean “to repair the world.” So, to do tikkun Olam, is to work in the world today to repair it. This includes all of the ways that the world is broken, including care of the earth itself, but also mending broken and fractured human relationships. The value of Tikkun Olam goes back to the earliest parts of Jewish scripture, but was especially amplified through the writings of prophets who called the people of Israel to righteous ethical living. And since at least the 1960’s, the idea of Tikkun Olam has animated a new generation of Jewish social justice activists.
(SLIDE 21) For Anabaptists, the focus on social justice primarily comes from their reliance on Jesus’ teachings on the KIngdom of God, a coming reality that would be manifested not only in eternity, but especially in the present-world. Unlike Luther who saw the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible discouraging burden, Anabaptists read saw hope. They read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a actionable manifesto of ethical living and as a sort of “canon within the canon,” a central text that was used to inform all interpretation of scripture.
Speaking of the passion of these two traditions as it relates to social justice, reminds me of two bits of good advice I’ve heard from those who’ve gone before. One is a Jewish voice, the other an Anabaptist.
(SLIDE 22) The first is from Rabbi Tarfon, a rabbi who lived sometime between 70-135 CE and who was quoted in the work Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.” In other words, we are called to fight injustice and work for good, even if we do not know how and when the work wil ever be completed. We cannot neglect this work.
(SLIDE 23) And then, I have to quote Joy’s own Sadie Mast, who told me many times, “Do what you can… but not too much.”
What I take from both of these teachers is the reality that the struggle for justice is long and that we have to keep our work sustainable to go the distance in seeking a better world.
(SLIDE 24) Three, the experience of being in diaspora is important. In fact it is a big factor that led these two traditions to go through times of transformation and evolution.
Starting on the Jewish side — I think it is fair to say that what we call “Judaism” today is really at its heart a religion of diaspora— because it was in diaspora that Jews fully embraced the idea of God as a portable deity, one who is not tied to a specific geographic location. But it was, more importantly, in diaspora that Jews developed forms of worship (most notably liturgy and prayer) that replaced the cult of animal sacrifice, a total reinvention of this religion. In fact to give you an idea of how profound this change has been, our rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel recently said in her one of her messages, “if they bring back animal sacrifice, I’m out!” And I think 99% of Jews living today would agree with her. Two thousand years ago, Judaism was a religion of animal sacrifice. Today it is not. The reason for this reinvention is diaspora.
But… life isn’t easy in diaspora. Maintaining religious and cultural identity in a foreign land requires a great deal of thoughtful education and the maintenance of markers of cultural identity — as well as arguably the preservation of language skills. And yet, arguably doing these things has made Judaism what it is today.
Anabaptists also know diaspora very well. Anabaptists have been on the move since the earliest days of the movement, choosing to leave the homes of their birth, rather than to give up their core values, or having to use violence to defend themselves.
(SLIDE 25) And like Jews, Anabaptists have also had to work hard to maintain their religious and cultural identity in foreign lands. Some have taken a much stricter approach by using cultural lifestyle markers like clothing, language, food, etc as dividing lines, but many more have found positive ways to live out their Anabaptist values and to enjoy the unique aspects of their culture, while also still being part of a broader modern world. This dynamic of different approaches makes me think of the Oklahoma Mennonite Relief Sale. Folks gather to eat food with cultural history, enjoy quilts, hear some music, and give to MCC. — while at the same time maintaining their own specific community practices.
(SLIDE 26) Four, the practice of reading and interpreting sacred texts in community is a shared value of these two traditions.
(SLIDE 27) The Anabaptist tradition has long embraced a community-hermeneutic (that is the method in which one reads a text)… in which all voices (from the most learned to the least learned) are valued. This is why the “Anabaptism at 500” project is so powerful because it is a celebration of this democratic tradition.
(SLIDE 28) The Jewish tradition also values reading and interpreting texts in the context of community, but adds another element to the equation – time. In other words, Jews generally do not read the text in isolation but rather read it alongside commentaries that provide insights into the lessons learned from past generations. But at the same time, as the old saying goes, “the past has a voice, not a veto,” which means that the voices of modern interpreters is also important.
These four points of commonality are significant, but they are also not the whole story — which is why I also want to take a moment to talk about two points of difference as well.
(SLIDE 29) By the way, these two points are not the only one ones, but I chose them because I think these two points of distinction are ones that might lead to helpful insights, by both Anabaptist and Jews. — In other words, we often learn to understand ourselves better, when we hear how others see us.
So, first there is the issue of nationalism.
Judaism is rooted in a national identity, one that has at times in human history been represented by actual governments: (1) including the early tribes of the Israelites, (2) the United Kingdom of Saul and David, (3) the later twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah, (4) the brief period of autonomy after the Maccabean revolt, and (5) most recently the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
Today, about half of the world’s Jews live in Israel/Palestine, and about half live in disapora. While many of us in diaspora have complicated (and sometimes even antagonistic) relationships with the state of Israel, it is still always a part of the equation — if for no other reason than that about half of the world’s Jews live there. For me, the complicated issue of nationalism is the hardest aspect for me of being Jewish.
The Anabaptist approach has long held out the ideal of anti-nationalism and of calling its people to a higher loyalty than state power – a sentiment that I find pretty compelling. These ideals are not easy to live out by the way, and often there are very different approaches taken by different Anabaptists in various contexts. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that Anabaptist keep bringing this issue to the table.
Second, we have profound differences in how we engage in dialogue
Both Jews and Anabaptists place a high value on community, and hence traditions both seek to practice conversation and dialogue. But, they differ on how they do this.
Anabaptists tend (and I emphasize the word “tend”) to focus on gentleness and in finding consensus as being the most important value in these conversations. Jews, on the other hand, tend to focus more on disagreement and even purposeful argument. — The best example of this might be found in the Talmud (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, written from around 200-500 CE), which provides detailed accounts of the arguments of the rabbis on various topics, with there normally not being an editorial voice to say which rabbi was right and which one was wrong. This is because all of the voices, even those in disagreement, count.
This different conversational style takes some getting used to, but I think I prefer it today, because in a Jewish context, if someone disagrees with you, they likely will tell you, right away. People are much more blunt.
(SLIDE 30?) I hope that today’s message helps to explain why I am so drawn to these traditions. I see so many, many points of commonality and connection, but I also see deep value in the different perspectives the two traditions have. And I personally think both traditions would be richer if there were more opportunities to connect past the typical religious boundaries.