Monday, 19 January 2015

A Sermon on Jewish - Christian Relations

The following sermon was preached by Dr Ann Conway-Jones who is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews a scholar in the Jewish - Christian Relations as well as an Associate Tutor in Biblical Studies at Queen's. It was delevered at a service of Word & Table at the end of a Weekend on the Jewish - Christians Relations for Ordinands

‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’

Such was the Christian claim: that the scriptures, from Moses in the law to the prophets, wrote of Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. And in our first series of readings (see Appendix) we heard some of the verses that those who made that claim may well have had in mind. We heard Deut 18:15–18, in which God tells Moses that he will raise up another prophet for the people of Israel of comparative stature. The prologue to John’s gospel, however, aims to show that there is more to the link between Jesus and the Torah than that: It begins with a riff on Genesis and Proverbs, talking of the Word, the Wisdom, which was there in the beginning, and though whom God created the world,[1] and continues by implying, thanks to the Greek word it uses for the verb ‘to dwell’, that this Word,
soon to be revealed as Jesus, became the successor to the tabernacle in the wilderness –
the presence of the divine glory on earth.[2]

We also heard verses from the Psalms, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and Daniel all of which are quoted or alluded to at various points in John’s gospel. In all the gospels, the way in which the story of Jesus is retold is shaped by the Christian reading of the scriptures. Jesus was seen as the fulfilment of all the biblical references to the prophet, the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, the Son of Man.

In today’s passage, the person doing the telling, making the claim is Philip. Philip is a Greek name.  I think we can safely presume that Philip was Jewish, but a bilingual Jew, who spoke both Greek and Aramaic. In John 12:20–22 some Greeks ask to see Jesus, and it is Philip they approach to act as translator, because Jesus, as far as we know, did not speak Greek. In this story, Philip finds Nathanael. Now Nathanael is a good Hebrew name: ‘God gives’, and Jesus characterises him as ‘truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ – He is the real deal. There may be an implicit contrast here with the original Israel: Jacob, whose name was changed because he strove with God and prevailed, but in whom there was plenty of deceit. Anyway, in response to Philip’s claim, Nathanael expresses doubt about Jesus’ presence in the scriptures: Where does it say anything about Nazareth?

This was a sore point.

We know that because it crops up again later in John’s gospel: John 7:40–42: ‘ ... some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.”  Others said, “This is the Messiah.”  But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?  Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”’
Search as they might, the first Christians could not find a proof text predicting that the Messiah would come from Nazareth. I imagine that people who were getting fed up of being pestered by followers of Jesus trying to prove that he fulfilled the scriptures would say to one another: ‘Ask them about Nazareth – that should shut them up.’

Luke ensures that Jesus is born, if not raised, in the right place by moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for a census. Matthew has the family living in Bethlehem – the wise men visit them in their house (Mt 2:11). They only move to Galilee on coming back from Egypt, on advice Joseph receives in a dream. And in the absence of a proof text, Matthew makes one up.
Matthew 2:23 reads: ‘There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”’

There is no such saying in the prophets!

Matthew’s move shows us how desperately it was needed!

Anyway, back to today’s gospel. Nathanael expresses the typical Israelite objection to claims that Jesus was foretold in the scriptures, but as the story progresses, we see his doubts dissolve.
He is sceptical about Philip’s testimony, but a meeting with Jesus changes him.
The significance of the fig tree now eludes us. It must be a characterisation of Israel, because that is what Nathanael represents, but is it a symbol of abundance, the place where one studies Torah, a reference to the Garden of Eden, or to the eschaton? Whatever it is, Israel was there before the Greeks arrived. And Nathanael sees the light: he acknowledges Jesus as Rabbi – a master, an authority, and more than that, as Son of God and King of Israel.

The quotation we heard from Psalm 2 shows how closely those two titles were linked: the King of Israel, ruling from Zion, was envisaged as the adopted Son of God. The titles Messiah, King of Israel, Son of God, are all the titles of an anointed earthly ruler, a new King David, who will restore the fortunes of Israel. But there is more, says Jesus, like your ancestor Jacob, in his dream at Bethel,
you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending. And this time, the ladder will be the Son of Man – that enigmatic rider on the clouds described in Daniel 7, to whom will be given an everlasting dominion. That figure, although of human form, is not a human being,
but a second, younger, divinity. And so, paradoxically, Son of Man is a higher Christological title than Son of God.[3]

The Son of God is the earthly King of Israel, the Son of Man sits on a throne in heaven next to the Ancient of Days.

That is why John chapter 1 begins with the Word and ends with the Son of Man: Jesus – the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, is more than an anointed earthly ruler; he was with God in the beginning, before creation, and he will be with God at the end, when all peoples, nations, and languages, will serve him. Such is the Christian claim, a claim expressed entirely in the language of the scriptures. A claim that Nathanael, the true Israelite, comes to accept, according to John’s gospel.

The process of separation between Christians and Jews, a process which took longer than you might think, involved fierce disagreements over the interpretation of scripture.

The first followers of Jesus were Jews, and therefore they expected all the answers to their questions about Jesus to be found in the scriptures, and so they scoured them for clues. Luke depicts Jesus telling the disciples on the road to Emmaus to do just that. Their memories of Jesus became fused with their reinterpretations of scripture, they retold his life in terms of his fulfilment of the prophecies. That is indeed what scriptures were thought to be for, and not just by Jews and Christians; for ancient Greeks too, the search for truth was an exegetical exercise – it involved the interpretation of authoritative texts, such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates. But as ancient interpreters knew very well, the answer you get depends on the question you ask, and there is always more than one possible interpretation.

We know from our own experience that debates over controversial issues are almost never solved by the killer blow of a quote from scripture. The exchange of contradictory proof texts rarely leads to consensus. The first Christians turned to the scriptures to ask questions about Jesus, and so they got answers about Jesus. They creatively remoulded ancient traditions into new theologies. Jews who were not interested in Jesus turned to the scriptures with a different set of questions, and, naturally enough, received a different set of answers.

There has been a long history of Christians trying to persuade Jews that they are 'blind' as regards their own scriptures.

St Augustine described Jews as custodians of books they didn’t understand, and therefore as unwitting servants of the church (to be fair, this means that he said they should be protected, in contrast to other Christian voices of his time).[4] Then there were the infamous medieval public disputations, which Jews couldn’t afford to win. And just the other day I picked up this leaflet in the CLC bookshop in town: Jewish Fulfillment: Quick Reference Counseling Keys:
‘How to share Jesus with a Jewish Friend. ... Point to the Jewish Scriptures.  Your friend will be surprised at the Messianic nature of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament says much about Jesus. ... Plan to share fulfilled prophecy about the Messiah. (Isaiah chapter 53)’

Jews and Christians share common roots and common scriptures, but they have developed completely different frameworks for interpreting those scriptures, and gone their separate ways.
We need to recognise that we stand within a particular interpretative tradition, a tradition of great beauty and power, one which shapes our lives, but that is not unique. Jews too can do biblical gymnastics, and produce an equally virtuosic display, albeit in a different style. So how are we to treat those who interpret scripture differently, and do not see Jesus reflected in its pages?

The New Testament reflects a time when Christians were beginning to define themselves over against other Jews. Battle lines were being drawn. Today’s gospel passage is not a nice personal story about a guy called Nathanael who went through a conversion experience. It is polemic – a story which claims that Nathanael, who recognised Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel, represents the true Israelite, as opposed to all those Jews who persisted in asking awkward questions about Nazareth.[5] Jews at this point are a minority in the Roman Empire, but a recognised, established minority,
with ancient, authoritative texts. Christians are nobodies, and they need the authority of those texts to prove that they are not following some new-fangled superstition. They are well aware that they are taking Jewish tradition in a new direction, and so, like rebellious teenagers, or any small sect,
they argue vociferously with their ‘parent’ body.

But now, today, the context of Jewish-Christian relations has changed completely. Christians turned from being weird non-entities to ruling the Roman Empire. And ever since Christians have had more political power than Jews, and have often used it to enforce their prejudices, sometimes violently.

Is NT polemic, therefore, still the language we want to use?

Or can we develop a new kind of relationship, in which we acknowledge the right to be different?
We can still follow Nathanael and John’s gospel in acknowledging Jesus as Son of God,
and we can continue to find inspiration in the scriptures as we try to make sense of who Jesus is for us, but we don’t need to indulge in competitive proof-texting, or try to batter Jews over the head with scripture, because we recognise that they inhabit an equally rich tradition of interpretation.

Nathanael was surprised to discover that something good could come from Nazareth,
we might be surprised to discover that people previously considered enemies could become friends,
if only we have the humility to recognise that the scriptures are richer, deeper, and more fertile than our particular Christian interpretation.

Appendix:  Old Testament Lesson, Sunday 18th January
This requires 6 readers.  Could each one please stand up in their seat, announce the biblical reference, read the verse(s), and sit down.

Deuteronomy 18:15-18
Moses said to all Israel: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.  This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”  Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” 

Micah 5:2
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

Psalm 2:6-8
The Lord says: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” 

Isaiah 53:1-3
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 

Zechariah 12:10
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Daniel 7:13-14
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. 

[1] See Daniel Boyarin, ‘Logos, a Jewish Word: John's Prologue as Midrash’, in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 546-9.
[2] ‘And the Word became flesh and lived (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).  In the LXX, the word for ‘tabernacle’ is σκηνή.
[3] See Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels:The Story of Jesus Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012), 25–70.
[4] See Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 290–352.
[5] For a fascinating account of a contemporary Jewish scholar engaging with John’s gospel, see Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (New York: Continuum, 2001).

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'Mercy like the Rain Keeps Falling Down' - My Greenbelt Talks

Greenbelt 2012  © Jonathon Watkins
It was great to be speaking at Greenbelt this year - my first time. It was good to connect with friends old and new and particularly encouraging to see my friend Mohammed Ali from Birmingham enjoying himself so much and receiving such a good reception - you can read his own reflections on the festival here

I was a bit nervous about my first talk in the Jerusalem venue facing the Racecourse Grandstand which seemed a large venue for me a first timer. However, I needn't have worried as the turn out was good and despite the rain I felt comfortable in the space and relished the experience and the challenge to connect with people across the tarmac - 'Preaching up a storm' as one of the Queen's students present put it. In fact the whole experience brought to mind the story of when the Nasheed Band Shaam came to perform at the local MultiCultural centre in Hyde Park Leeds when I was vicar there in 2005 and sang 'Mercy Like the Rain is Falling Down'

In my talk I outlined an approach to Christian Inter Faith encounter that emphasised what I called 'Christic Vulnerability' using personal stories and a wide range of scriptural reflection.  What was really humbling was the number of people who came up to talk afterwards with their own stories. I have also received a number of tweets and emails since Saturday giving very generous and positive feedback. These included a church  Inter Faith advisor who wrote 'A beautiful, fiery, passionate talk. Thank you',  a university chaplain who commented ' I caught the first of your talks this weekend and I thought you were great. Passionate, intelligent, convincing, and accessible... Thanks for the challenging words!' and a youth worker from London who said  'I just thought I’d drop you a line to say many thanks for the talk you presented at Greenbelt over the weekend. And this, despite the downpour that you endured with humour!! '

You can download the talk on the Greenbelt website for £3.50 here

Unfortunately my second talk was not able to be recorded. In the smaller venue of the Living Room many of those there had been to the first talk as we explored more deeply the model I had set out in the Jerusalem venue but this time in the specific context of relations and engagement with Judaism and Islam.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Birmingham Interfaith Iftar - Fasting & Feasting With The Faithful

Faeeza Vaid opens the evening with a call to seek connections
It was great to be involved in a little way in bringing together nearly 70 people from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities together for the Interfaith Iftar at Zogora's Restaurant last Thursday. The evening was hosted by Faeeza Vaid of the Muslim Women's Network and Aisha Iqbal - who was the woman with the vision for the event and who put in the hard work of getting the evening together with a collection of friends and family. I asked Aisha to tell us about her motivation for organising the event and a little something about the evening itself.

Aisha Iqbal a wish to encourage dialogue
"Ramadan completely consumes my life and that of many Muslims for 30 days each year. Everything that we do is influenced by the special connection with the month; from fasting between dawn and dusk, increasing our prayer exponentially, to giving charity with an open heart and stuffing ourselves to the brim with lush food sent by friends, family and neighbours. Everything is about Ramadan. However, our experiences and sense of unity often does not successfully transcend beyond the immediate Muslim community and I feel that it is important to fill this gap - especially as we live a diverse multi-cultural/multi-faith society.

The faithful feasting!
One solution - Interfaith Iftaar: Fasting and feasting with the faithful. The core purpose of this event was to encourage a dialogue amongst the diverse guests. And so we began the formal part of the evening listening to  Dr Hany El-Banna (founder of Islamic Relief) explaining the purpose of Ramadan and closing with collective prayer led by the Dr Rizwan (ISB), thus cementing the sense of unity. And to stay true to the interfaith aspect, we also had the opportunity to hear insights of fasting traditions in Christianity (Rev Ray Gaston), Buddhism (Yann Lovelock) and Hinduism (Ravi Ladva). To cap off the night of learning and discussion, guests stomachs were tantalised by an array of Moroccan cuisine and their ears smoothed by the harmonious music from SILKROAD"


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Friday, 22 June 2012

Jesus, Divorce and Equal Marriage - A Rabbi reflects on a Christian 'debate'

Rabbi James Baaden
The last couple of weeks has seen much debate concerning the Church of England's and to a lesser extent the Methodist Church's responses to the Government's consulation process on Same-Sex Marriage. One of the leading Christian campaigners for equality on this issue has been the radical social justice think-tank Ekklesia. On 12 June Ekklesia published its response to the Church of England's contibution to the process. 'CofE and same-sex marriage: Serving society or protecting privilege?'

In a guest post  Rabbi James Baaden of Wolfson College,Oxford and  Sha'areiTsedek Synagogue in north London offers a critique to some of the arguments employed in Ekklesia's piece and that social justice Christians often employ when debating these issues - setting up Jesus over and against the Judaism of his time.

In the process James attempts to point the way to some alternative methodologies for reading Biblical texts which may help open up new spaces for innovation, study and dialogue, and likewise advance the cause  of  both same-sex marriage and gender equality.

I have read with interest Ekklesia's response to the Church of England statement opposing same-sex marriage.

Whilst I support the cause which Ekklesia seeks to advance, I am intrigued and rather disturbed by the emphasis on Jesus as a reformer who "redefined" the "legalism" of marriage as understood in the "Old Testament". As in so many areas, the implication is that the religion of the Old Testament was something rather nasty and was replaced by something thoroughly nice in the form of the changes introduced by Jesus. This is a very common model and maybe it helps advance Ekklesia's cause and its concerns, but I don't like it - and I don' t think it's accurate.

The truth is that the "Old Testament", whether legalistic or not, says nothing about marriage or weddings. There are no words in Biblical Hebrew for "marriage", "to marry", "wedding", etc. No weddings as such are described. Instead, men simply "take" (or sometimes "lift", "pick up") women - often more than one (consider the example of Jacob - or Abraham). Accordingly, a man was also able to "dismiss" or "send away" a woman. This is what we encounter at least in the Pentateuch. To my mind it sounds rather far away from what we call marriage. And frankly, I think it's a pity that we forget this. On both sides of the current debate (if that's what it is), Christians eagerly cite the Bible and Biblical teaching - but sometimes I wonder how much they actually read it. At any rate, I think that it would be quite helpful and quite liberating if people accepted that the Hebrew Bible simply doesn't know "marriage" and doesn't even have a word for it. This creates a blank space - a space in which people had to and have to respond to the needs of their times and create new institutions, new possibilities, new practices.

Additionally, I am not sure it is very helpful or very truthful to tell people additionally - as Ekklesia does - that the "Old Testament" view of "marriage" was marked by "power and legalism". Really? Legalism? Where are there laws about marriage in the "Old Testament"? I will gladly accept that there are plenty of laws, precepts, rules, judgments - but not in connection with marriage.  Secondly, why the emphasis on power? We have a number of interesting man-woman relationships, indeed partnerships in the Hebrew Bible: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Tizippora, Hannah and Elkanah, David and Bathsheba. They are described in different ways. And of course, they often existed in the context of arrangements which we would call polygamous. But the women are full characters and powerful agents. Deborah, after all, is a judge, a prophet, and a military leader - her husband Lapidoth scarcely registers. Was Deborah subject to some sort of "legalism" or "power" which was then radically reformed by Jesus? I'm not so sure.

With regard to what's seen as the "religion of the Old Testament" as known today, namely Judaism, please note that Liberal synagogues in this country - i.e. the Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues dating back to 1902 - have been fully in favour of same-sex marriage for quite a number of years and already responded very positively to the government's most recent proposals.  The Reform Synagogues (the "Movement for Reform Judaism") likewise support same-sex commitment ceremonies and indeed marriage equality in law.

Personally, I do not see Judaism of the past 2000 years as the successor to the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Bible, but that's another issue. Ekklesia in its statements clearly seeks to depict history in this way - with Jesus as a reformer who rejected the "legalism" and "power" of the "Old Testament". I am not comfortable with this characterisation - and I do not think it serves this particular cause very well.

There are times, perhaps, when it is in order to speak of "legalism" or extreme "power" imbalances in the Hebrew Bible, and Jews do not shy away from them, I would say. However, I often find that when Jesus is brought into the picture, the emphasis is placed in some startlingly odd places - which seem wrong to me.
Above all, I feel that there is a notable gap in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), an absence, around the subject of what we now call "marriage".

And we may contemplate this gap as something positive:  We have an important open space before us - a space where Jews and Christians who really love and really read the Bible can meet and arrive at some, well, new insights.

Anyhow, the next part of my reflections: with regard to what we call "homosexuality", there is again no such word in the Hebrew Bible - nothing even close to it. And this is not splitting hairs - we all use the term "homosexuality" (and "gay sexuality", "lesbianism" etc) to speak of identity, orientation, relationships, community allegiance, love, desire, and yes, certain sexual acts. And therefore it is vitally important to accept that the Hebrew Bible knows nothing about this complex combination of elements which we call "homosexuality". Instead, two verses in Leviticus, in the midst of a text focusing on the duty of the ancient priests of Biblical/Israelite religion and the threat posed by the idolatrous cult of Baal, specify that an individual male should not "lie" with another male mishkavei isha - literally "in the places where a woman lies", "in the lying-places of a woman".

Our Judaism of these past 2000 years is of course not the Israelite religion of the Bible - we have no priests, no Temple, no altar, no rite of sacrifice, no pilgrimages, no incense. For two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism has been built around rabbis, synagogues and prayers - the first two never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the third little touched upon. Thus Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of these past 2000 years, is in not the "religion of the Old Testament"; it is far more the creation of the rabbis of antiquity, the sources quoted in later (post-Biblical) foundational texts such as Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash.  These rabbis who created Rabbinic Judaism were very intrigued by this explicit qualification in the verses in Leviticus. Clearly, the two verses did not simply say "you must not lie with another male" - that would have been adequate, the obvious way to prohibit male-male sexual activity.

So what did the additional words mean? Some thought that they described real places where a woman has actually lain with a man; others thought that they related to the hermaphrodite, the tumtum, a person with two sets of genitalia, two sets of sexual "places [or ways] to lie". Additionally, we could say that half of what we now understand by "homosexuality" is female homosexuality, lesbianism, and there is absolutely no Hebrew Bible text which can be construed as even mentioning it. Again, we have a void, an empty space.

Yes, the rabbis (and here I am thinking principally of the sources named in the Talmud) did take a dim view specifically of male-male sexual acts leading to orgasm, but they seem to have related this to the story of Onan and their more general opposition to non-procreative sexual acts. They did not cite Leviticus 18:22 as their proof-text. Across its 30 to 40 volumes, the Talmud makes very little mention of Leviticus 18:22 - and the ancient Midrashic text accompanying the book of Leviticus, Sifra, completely ignores the verse.
Again, my point is to say that there is a gap, an empty space, a silence here; and to refute the ubiquitous claim that "homosexuality" has been condemned and forbidden in all our sources since - well, Since Time Immemorial.

Once we see that there was this absence in the text, this gap, this free and open space, we can see that various inspired figures with questions in their minds - and I believe, driven by a desire to help real human beings - stepped into it and began to create and innovate. One was Jesus. The others were the early "Sages" before the era of the rabbis, and then those subsequent rabbis of the ancient world - the "Tannaim" of the Mishnah and the "Amoraim" of the Talmud.

Here I think the example of "divorce" is a good one. But I feel the decisions of Rabbi Jesus and of the founders of Rabbinic Judaism went in rather different directions. However, their concern was the same: they wanted to help women - and they knew that Biblical Scripture authorised a man to send away or dismiss a female companion. As I see it, Jesus dealt with the dilemma by appearing to abolish this "right" of men, insisting that the union of man and woman must be permanent. The other rabbis, however, addressed the issue by creating a new "right" for women: they did not give a woman the right to dismiss her male partner, no - because this was not explicitly allowed for in the Bible - but they did give a woman the right to demand and secure a "divorce" from her "husband": that is, the woman acquired the absolute right to be freed from the union, and though the man was the one doing the severing of the bond, releasing the woman, he was required in certain circumstances to carry out her demand. They saw that there was a gap here in the Biblical text - the situation of the woman, her needs and her welfare, were simply not addressed - and they created something new - something new which in no sense ran against the existing Biblical text: they added to it.

And to support them in their efforts, they had the clear evidence from their Hebrew Bible that women, however much they appeared to be treated as the property of men, transferred from father to husband, were nevertheless powerful independent agents, in numerous cases possessed of a strength equal to that of a man - able to be queens, judges, military commanders, and prophets. As I say, Debora embodied several of these roles - whilst her husband Lapidoth was a bit of a cipher. Thus it was clearly in order to enable women to obtain their release from unsatisfactory unions.

Personally, I prefer a "legal" view and indeed perhaps a "legalistic" view which allows for divorce - and this is based utterly on my own knowledge of life and my dealings with my fellow human beings and the reality of relationships. But I think that Jesus was offering a "counsel of perfection", maybe - his own way of being helpful and dealing with the difficulties which many women faced. But in this case, I prefer the decisions of the rabbis in favour of divorce, rather than the perfect vision of permanent marriage.

At any rate, I feel strongly that when we look back to the time when both Christianity and our form of Judaism, namely Rabbinic Judaism, came into being - roughly 2000 years ago - we find this open space, this place where wise and inspired teachers were grappling with ways to deal with the real problems and real needs of real human beings - and confronting a text which did not "legislate" for all cases or answer all questions. Instead, that text left gaps, gaps for others to fill in - in their different ways. 

To my mind, this is a very freeing and empowering way to look at the Biblical text and to understand our own situations in relation to it today. Plenty may disagree with me on that - but I feel that what I have just offered is a very neutral and accurate summary of what is in the Hebrew Bible: no one can jump in and tell me that there really is a discussion of "homosexuality" in the Bible - or that there really are "laws about marriage". There is simply silence. Jesus and the rabbis tried to fill that silence with some helpful and innovative opinions and decisions - as do we today.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Spirit of Peace at The Friendship Cafe

Last Monday I returned to my hometown of Gloucester to speak at the fantastic  Friendship Cafe in Barton Street at an event organised by the Gloucester and Stroud activists of the Spirit of Peace Network.

Jane Ozanne Director of Spirit of Peace introduces the evening

The Friendship Cafe is a community centre run by a group of local Muslims alongside social enterprise initiatives in partnership with others in the community.

Regularly the Friendship Cafe hosts a Bring and Share meal and discussion with a speaker invited by their partners in these events, Spirit of Peace.

 Telling stories of encounter to explore the spirituality of inter faith engagement.

Participants discuss together  the issues raised in my stories

It was a great evening with 70 or so folk present Muslims, Christians, Jews and seekers. Spirit of Peace who had organised the meeting had asked me to speak on Muslim - Christian relations and my book A Heart Broken Open - Radical Faith in an Age of Fear.

Selling & signing books at the end of the evening

Speaking at this meeting was part of my developing relationship with Spirit of Peace particularly in the work they seek to support in Israel and Palestine. In July I hope to be helping to organise events with different faith communities in Birmingham to hear of the work of one of Spirit of Peace's partners Sheikh Ghassan Manasra from Nazareth who will be visiting the UK.

Watch out for further details.

Thanks to Reyaz Limilia and David Bennett for photos