On being Israel.

There seems to be a parallel between Jesus among Israelites then and Jews among nations now. The sent child of God carrying a special relationship with God, the light and the truth and the life, a preacher of the New Law, leading by example, judged, persecuted, and killed. The chosen people of God, carrying a special covenant with God, a light unto the nations, the first receiver of the Law to lead by example, judged, persecuted, and killed. Is this, perhaps, how it goes? Is this the heritage? The privilege? The mission for the Jews—to be to the world what Jesus was to the Jews? To shake it out of moral slumber and habitual ritual by an outstretched hand, and by a harsh word, and by the sight of blood? To awaken compassion, hope, remorse?

Even after many decades of the Quest for Historical Jesus, after the pronouncements of Vatican II, I am stunned by how many Christians are not struck by the fact that they revere Jewish names, holy places, and heroes. That at every service they read from a book written by Jews for Jews and thank God for it. That they call themselves Israel, worship a Jew, and long for New Jerusalem. Christianity, as big as it’s grown and as different as it looks now, is still Judaism’s rebellious child – resentful, perhaps, and, as many children, more forward-looking and more insightful in some ways, not as wise in others, but carrying the heritage of the parent inescapably within it. The procession of our revelation is not an accident, Jesus having grown from the loins of David, and he from Abraham. So how can there be anti-Semitism within Christianity? It boggles the mind.

Every Christian is a Jew. This is something I, as a religion scholar, could have told you years ago, but not quite in those words. I understood that Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism, that they are mother and daughter religions, but I did not realize the depth and strength of their emotional and spiritual, traditional, earthly and divine connection until they came together in my one heart.

I am a Jew by birthright. I am connected to a nation spread around the globe, to a mythos, to a vast history. It is the fabric of me undeniable and inescapable, ancient, and as definitive as my humanity, my womanhood, my Russian culture. Yet raised in a secular society, I would not have felt or known it well if I weren’t reminded of being a Jew, since early childhood, by pervasive anti-Semitism of the people I loved, among whom I lived, in Russia. Observant or not, this is a common experience of Jews in diaspora: we understand our Jewishness through rejection; we learn our past through the history of disaster and flight, and we look back toward ancient roots and preserve tradition to hold on to ourselves. Sometimes we run for our lives, yet some of us stay, and we love the people who don’t consider us theirs.

I am a Christian by the discovery of love, but that, too, is a birthright. From the start of my journey to the baptismal font and still I have to explain countless times to some of my Christian friends that I am not about to cease being a Jew—that I will never cease being a Jew, that even if I wanted to, that would be impossible. They don’t seem to understand what being a Jew means. I have to defend myself against my Jewish friends who tell me that becoming a Christian is a betrayal of my Jewish heritage. I used to tell them that the two were not incompatible with each other, and I talked about Love and the great, abstract, and mystical vision of reality. I even pointed out that Jesus was a Jew, but only recently did I suddenly and truly take the final step in realizing what that meant to me. And this realization took place in my heart not in my mind. And, as all great realizations, it’s obvious and simple, and I can’t believe I didn’t say it before: Jesus is not just compatible with my Jewish heritage. He IS my heritage.

This is my heritage.

This path is mine in every possible way, for it is mine through universal Love that is the Source of this world and that he preached. It is mine in the Light that he shined. It is also mine by birthright. I am a Jew. I am his people, to whom he spoke, in the ancient and painful time, whom he asked to hear and carry the message. I am the inheritor of the language he used, of the scripture he quoted, of the Law he obeyed, of the history that had shaped him, of the myths he relied on to propel his people into action, of the prophetic word he cited. He made Israel out of the whole humanity, and so every soul that wants to belong to him, belongs by definition, and I belong to him with countless brothers and sisters. We are Israel in Christ. But I have the blood of Abraham pouring through my veins. I am the inheritor of the Covenant, with the burden and the pain of it already on my shoulders, and I have spent decades struggling with the meaning of that burden before collapsing at his feet, and then I saw the face of Christ and heard his call and found the meaning. Like Simon, like Mary, like Matthew. I am an apostle without a number. I am Israel.

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