Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Passing through Samaria

This desire for real tradition, however, was not what pushed me over the edge. Oddly enough, it was a film review written by a Sephardic Jew that led to my final break with Judaism. Like, I suppose, many others, our church decided to capitalize on the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ by scheduling a few discussion sessions for those who had seen or were interested in the movie. As adult Bible study coordinator and resident expert on Aramaic, I was naturally part of the group that organized the sessions. Because of my association with Judaism, I offered to prepare some material on anti-Semitism in the movie. I knew I would be able to gather a list of the possible criticisms from several posts that had appeared on the Jewish e-mail lists that I read. By far, the most insightful review that I came across was written by David Shasha, editor of the Sephardic Heritage Update, an electronic newsletter devoted to issues of concern to the Sephardic Jewish community. I subscribed to his newsletter and went looking on the Internet to see if he had written anything else or perhaps had his own Web site. What little I found included an editorial he had tried to publish in a newspaper but ended up instead having it posted on an e-mail list called shamireaders. Discovering this list marked a major turning point for me in both the political and the religious arenas.

shamireaders is a distribution list with over 1000 subscribers. It is used by Israel Shamir to post his writings and other writings that he thinks his readers might appreciate. He also runs a discussion list with a much smaller membership called togethernet. I read a little bit and decided to subscribe to both. Israel Shamir is an Israeli journalist—a Russian Jew by birth, but recently a convert to Orthodox Christianity. With the beginning of the second intifada he started writing in English to protest the policies of the state of Israel and advocate a one-state solution to the conflict. Through his writings, I was reminded of some things I ought to have known. Christianity has long been a part of Arab society, while Ashkenazic Jewry is something completely foreign to the region. As Shasha frequently points out, Israeli policy is dominated by Ashkenazic, not Sephardic Jews, the latter of whom generally got along quite well with their Christian and Muslim neighbors before the Zionist venture. Shamir stresses the environmental and social destruction of Palestine by Zionism and the closer relationship that ought to exist between Christians and Muslims, who at least agree that Jesus is a prophet, that he was born of a virgin, was taken to heaven, and is coming back at the end of the world. His position is exaggerated in some respects, but it seems to me that this is intentional embellishment, to counteract the prejudices of the West.

Changing sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict was a paradigm shift for me that radically re-aligned my thinking about religion as well as politics. Shamir’s preference for Orthodox Christianity over Evangelicalism (which he characterizes as Christian Zionist) also pointed the way to another tradition that I ought to explore. As I came to realize that I would not fit very well into a Messianic congregation as an anti-Zionist, it also occurred to me that Christianity had already been through this once before. No one denies that Christianity and Judaism started closer together than they are now. And there probably were those who wanted to take the kind of path laid out by the Messianic groups. So why didn’t Christianity in general go down that road? I figured if anyone had a response, it would be in the patristic tradition, which was yet another reason to look at Orthodox Christianity. I found this answer (in the writings of Justin Martyr, for one), and I also found that Orthodoxy took what I considered to be a more appropriate stance toward Middle East peace issues than most of what I saw in Evangelicalism. But the more important question was whether it could be the authoritative, traditional community that I sought.

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