The World's Best Pharisee

Saturday, January 10, 2015

When the Gospels speak negatively of the "Pharisees" and in John's Gospel more generally of "the Jews" one can easily get the mistaken idea that all Jews were legalistic, angry, and opposed to Jesus and his ministry of caring for people.

That's simply not true. 
What makes this misunderstanding especially tragic is that the general impression of Jews being "legalistic" and "hypocritical" that we can get from (a misreading of) the Gospels has led to Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries. That means this is not only a wrong way to read the Gospels, but one that has led to real harm.

So let me set the record straight: Jesus was a Jew, and the conflict we see in the Gospels between Jesus and those identified as "the Pharisees" is more properly understood as an intra-religious debate within Judaism between two competing ways of understanding faithfulness to Torah.
More specifically, what we see in that conflict is best understood as a conflict between Jesus and the fundamentalism of his day. That conflict was real, and the Gospels record that conflict.

What's important to understand here is that fundamentalism -- then and now -- is not so much about what particular doctrines one holds to (indeed, doctrinally Jesus and the Pharisees had a lot in common), and much more about one's character and maturity -- about how we act and treat others.

There is a famous story about two of the key leaders of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, i.e. the Second Temple Period -- Hillel and Shammai. Both were given a challenge by a Gentile who said,
"I'll convert on the condition that you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand here on one foot." 
Shammai's reaction was to try to beat the person with a stick for his insolence. Hillel in contrast responded,
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn."    (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
Note, first of all, how in-line Hillel is with Jesus (or rather I should say how much Jesus was influenced by Hillel, since Hillel pre-dates Jesus). It's easy to see why many scholars believe Jesus got his "golden rule" directly from Hillel, and one can certainly also observe that Jesus' approach to Scripture mirrors Hillel's focus on it leading to love. For Hillel the law is there to serve people, not to burden them down. To paraphrase Jesus, the law was made for people, not people for the law. 
If all of the Pharisees had been like Hillel there would have been no conflict. But with Hillel’s death (10 CE) the Shammaites (followers of Rabbi Shammai) took control of the Sanhedrin and remained in control until the destruction of the Temple. The Pharisees we encounter in the Gospels appear to be ‘Shammaites’ rather than followers of Hillel (as Jesus arguably was). 
It did not stay this way however within Judaism. Just as the Gospels record constant disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees, within Rabbinic literature there are over 350 disputes recorded between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, and just as in the Gospels, in the Rabbinic literature the focus is always on Hillel's way of love over and against Shammai's harshness. As the Zohar puts it (Ra'aya Meheimna 3:245a), Shammai's way was based on severity and power (guvurah), while Hillel's was based on grace and mercy (hesed). Sound familiar?
Let's notice a second thing about Hillel's response to the Gentile standing on one foot. Hillel's answer is not only focused on love and grace, but he does so with a sense of humor. That's so important. Our political and religious debates are desperately in need of that. Humor is a crucial element of Jewish theology, and we can see a lot of that humor in the teaching of Jesus and Paul if you have your eyes open for it.
In contrast to this response of wisdom, compassion, and good-willed humor exemplified by Hillel, Shammai instead gets really angry and wants to hit people.
That's fundamentalism. 
Again, fundamentalism at its core is not about particular beliefs so much as it is about a way of dealing with people that is characterized by anger, judgmentalism, and close-mindedness. We constantly read stories in the Gospel where we are told that the religious leaders "tried to throw Jesus off a cliff" or "tried to kill Jesus, but he escaped into the crowds." That was what the fundamentalism of Jesus' day looked like. 
I hope the irony is not lost on you that rabbinic Judaism, in siding with Hillel over Shammai, has a lot in common with Jesus and his way, while many conservative Christians seem to have adopted an approach that looks a lot more like that of the Pharisees we encounter in the New Testament.
As the example of Hillel shows, not all Pharisees were fundamentalists, just as not all Evangelical Christians are today. Being a fundamentalist is not connected to one particular group or belief. We see fundamentalist atheists, too. (Bill Maher seems to be moving more and more in the direction of fundamentalism lately). Of course, let me hasten to say, not all atheists are like that either!
The question then is, are we focused on love like Hillel and Jesus? Or are we judgmental, close-minded, and angry? Do we feel it is more important to treat people right, or to be "right"? Are we trolling the internet, looking to put someone in their place, looking for someone to beat with our metaphorical sticks?
I know it's really easy to read that above paragraph and think of someone else who fits that description, someone over there who does this. But remember Hillel's words, don't become what you hate. Instead of pointing fingers and shifting blame we need to instead put the searchlight on ourselves, to remove the plank from our own eye, as Jesus said. 
Properly understood, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as it is presented in the Gospels is not at all about a clash between two religions, rather it shows how all of us can easily get our priorities wrong, get focused on the wrong thing, and as a result we can be total jerks and think we are in the right, that we are fighting the good fight.

This applies to how we have treated our LGBT brothers and sisters. It applies to how we treat our Muslim neighbors. It's about a way of being, and that way should be one focused on love, on seeing the one we regard as "other" and even as "enemy" as a human being beloved by God. We need to stop otherizing people, and start humanizing them. That's at the heart of Jesus' way, and if we read the Gospels and instead end up otherizing and blaming some other group like the Pharisees, then we've missed the whole point of the gospel.
In Jesus' version of the Golden Rule he alters the focus from Hillel's. Instead of not doing what we hate having done to us (which is already a huge moral advance), Jesus says to treat others the way we want to be treated. This is preemptive love. It's not just refraining from evil, but actively sewing good. It's a way to break the cycle of blame and hurt. Being the first to forgive, the first to say "I'm sorry."

Okay, I'm done. You can stop standing on one foot now.

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At 11:50 AM, Blogger Duh-sciple Tim said...

Amen! Lord, help me to talk the way of love, not hate.

Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but it has not solved one yet. – Maya Angelou

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

While in college I took classes on both Judaism and Islam. These things you shared here I heard before. I was just too narrow minded then to listen. Glad I can learn and listen now, though:)

At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

Ephesians 4:31-32, 5:1-2a

"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us."

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Susan said...

Thank you for posting this comment. It such a hard concept for many Christians to grasp. I'm surprised there aren't more comments. I am a Jew and I have tried to explain your point to Christians, but they seem unwilling or unable to understand.


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