Mennonites and Jews discussing Mennonites and Jews

Wednesday evening I got back from a three-day symposium titled “Jews and Mennonites: Reading the Bible After the Holocaust.” Much of the credit for this gathering goes to John Kampen who some of you know as the former Academic Dean of Bluffton University and Methodist Theological School in Ohio.  John’s longtime scholarship and relationship building within American Judaism made this long-overdue conversation possible and brought in remarkable Jewish leaders like New Testament scholar (Yes, there are Jewish New Testament scholars) Amy-Jill Levine, and the current and former chairs of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations – David Sandmel and Noam Marans

There were eight Jews in total, representing the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox traditions.  There were 15 Mennonites, mostly professors. 

As you can imagine from the title, the symposium was rich, intense, necessary, and, at times, difficult.  My head is still spinning a bit from all that was covered.  To avoid saying too little by saying too much, here are a few two-sentence summaries. 

Reading and Preaching the New Testament 

Our understanding of Jesus as a liberator can often lead to inaccurate portrayals of first century Judaism as mired in legalism, violence, misogyny, and exclusion of outsiders.  To complicate matters, many New Testament texts themselves, especially Matthew and John’s gospels, present non-Jesus-following Jews in a distorted and polarizing fashion.   

Shared Historic Experience

“As the two main religious minorities in Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, Anabaptists and Jews experienced similar forms of persecution by European authorities.  Both experienced exile, martyrdom, loss of property, lack of citizenship, inability to own land, and being barred from holding public office.”

The Dangers of Emphasizing Common Ground in Dialogue

Naming and clarifying differences can be just as if not more helpful than finding common ground.  As one Jewish leader cautiously noted (I’m paraphrasing): “Common ground tends to get colonized, and building bridges is what armies do before they invade.”

Mennonites and the Holocaust

We are still coming to terms with the extent to which ethnic German Mennonites sympathized with Nazi Germany, including participating in the Holocaust.  What has taken us so long?   

Israel and the Land

For each of the Jewish leaders present, the nation of Israel is integral to contemporary Jewish peoplehood, which includes being critical of the policies of the Israeli government and seeking justice for Palestinians.  Mennonites have emphasized the latter without careful listening to the meaning of the land for Zionist Jews.   

How To Have Difficult Conversations

Sometimes hard topics need stories that welcome laughter.  An example from a participating rabbi: As a young child on his way to school an adult neighbor once called him a “Christ-killer,” to which he replied in polite ignorance of what this meant, “I’m very sorry, I won’t do it again.”      

The Particular and the Universal

Jewishness is often associated with the particular, with Christianity focused on the universal.  After hearing a Chicago rabbi tell of their outreach to the homeless in his neighborhood, and a Pittsburgh rabbi describe the outpouring of support they received after the Tree of Life synagogue murders, I wondered out loud whether allyship could be a form of shared universalism.

May the seeds sown at this gathering produce fruits of righteousness.