The Familiar Stranger

A Jewish assistant professor of religious studies at SCU, Baker has found a fit between Jews and Jesuits. She reflects on her experiences in this personal essay.

The Familiar Stranger

“There’s a word for us, you know,” my counterpart at Boston College told me shortly after I had joined the faculty of SCU. “We’re ‘Jewsuits,’ we Jews at Jesuit institutions.” The moniker, (pronounced “JEW-su-it”), at once amusing and bemusing, encapsulates rather aptly something of the “fit” between Jewish teachers of Jewish studies and Jesuit higher education. Jews and Jesuits are both heirs to valued intellectual and spiritual traditions and have produced prominent advocates for social justice and human rights. This commonality creates a promising compatibility between the two in the realm of education—especially education that encourages intellectual curiosity about spiritual matters and an activist orientation toward social justice. This potential “fit” between Jew and Jesuit is part of what brought me to SCU in the first place.

A more bemusing aspect to the moniker, however, is the way in which it evokes the Jew’s singular position within a self-consciously Catholic setting. The “Jewsuit” is the quintessential familiar stranger: familiar insofar as Jews and Judaism bear a strong “family resemblance” (for historically obvious reasons—Jesus being the most prominent) to Christians and Christianity—and to Society of Jesus Catholicism, in particular—while at the same time standing as their particular stranger, their necessary but largely repressed and misrepresented “Other.”

Occupying the role of familiar stranger, as a publicly visible Jew and teacher of Jewish studies at SCU, provides distinct pleasures and pedagogical possibilities, as well as serious challenges. Often the pleasures predominate; at other times, the challenges are daunting.

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching Jewish studies at this Jesuit university is the opportunity, again and again, to “riff ” on themes of religion, faith, and belief in a radically different key from the dominant Catholic one, with people who are genuinely engaged and intrigued by these themes. For Catholics and other Christians, and Americans in general (the majority of my students and colleagues), Judaism seems familiar and nonexotic enough to be grasped, but once explored at greater depth, it is found to be peculiar in ways that blow open space for true reflection, dialogue, and insight.

Introducing others to classical rabbinic texts and attitudes—one of my favorite areas of study—is sheer delight. The audacity and multiplicity of Jewish commentaries preserved for a single biblical verse is often breathtaking, and the traditional Jewish practice of encouraging questions and honoring a vast range of (sometimes conflicting) opinions and voices on any given issue is a model of piety so at odds with standard conceptions of “unquestioning faith” and uniform doctrine that its discovery inevitably unhinges all manner of unscrutinized assumptions about religion and religiosity. When that happens, real learning on a number of levels becomes possible. Seeing the Bible and other familiar elements of religion rendered “exotic” through the eyes and words of rabbinic Jewish strangers usually enables people from culturally dominant communities to begin to see their own traditions and practices from an “outsider” perspective. Such a perspective is useful for gaining a greater sense of what being an “other” or “stranger” might actually feel like, as well as for better appreciating the particularities of one’s own religious heritage or cultural assumptions. Skills like these are valuable assets for interreligious dialogue in an increasingly global culture. Having a hand in their development is not only gratifying, but often great fun as well. And learning, in turn, from those who learn with me: what more could a teacher ask?

Nonetheless, familiarity can breed contempt.

One of the reasons why Jews and Judaism seem familiar, and therefore accessible, to many Christians is that they are present throughout the New Testament. Yet the sectarian disputes that infuse every page of that fascinating document (for example: in portrayals of nasty and deadly Pharisees, slippery and dangerous Sadducees, priests as conniving executioners, the Jewish mob forcing the hand of the reluctant Roman governor, John’s “spawn of Satan,” and Paul’s “bewitched” opponents and benighted “Judaizers”) have fed a cultural legacy of unselfconscious contempt for Judaism, on the one hand, and an unreflective, triumphalist sense of ownership of Israel’s “true destiny” on the other—a legacy that rears its head with some frequency in my courses. In courses that examine Judaism on its own, this is rather rare. Students are always intrigued by and generally receptive to the study of “Modern Jews and Judaism” or “Gender and Judaism,” for example. But in other, “close encounter,” courses, such as “Religions of the Book” and, especially, “Jesus the Jew”—courses in which the shared origins of and bitter conflicts among our closely related religious communities are the focus—expressions of the difficult legacy of New Testament rhetoric are an almost daily occurrence.

Confronting and deconstructing these dynamics is tricky business. Although many students will censor themselves out of fear of saying something offensive, others will readily, and often unselfconsciously recount how they were taught such “lessons” as: Christians have to be better than Jews, just as Jesus was better than the Jews of his time; the God of Christians is a God of love, whereas the God of Jews is an angry and vengeful God; one feels sorry for the pathetic Jews who are still anxiously awaiting their Messiah because they didn’t recognize him when he came; Christianity is the “pure” version of Judaism; and so on. Although there are simple and effective rejoinders to misrepresentations like these (as well as to more modern slurs and stereotypes), the work of encouraging Christians to critically assess other, more cherished aspects of their religious training in light of both historical scholarship and the millennia-long history of Christian antipathy to Judaism is much more complicated and painful.

When I was invited to write this essay, I was teaching “Jesus the Jew” for the second time. In this class, we periodically reflect together on the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual challenges posed by the material with which we work and the backgrounds we each bring to its study. Toward the end of the quarter, I told the students about my own “writing assignment” and asked them to discuss with me the ways in which our work together realized or failed to realize the potential of cross-cultural understanding and meaningful interreligious dialogue. Throughout the conversation that ensued, I was impressed with the candor and thoughtfulness exhibited by these Santa Clara students: some Catholic, some Evangelical Protestant, some unaffiliated.

They described how “hard but rewarding” our work on interreligious understanding had been—especially insofar as it had required them to turn their questions about others back onto themselves. “When you stay within a single religious community and never explore beyond it,” offered one student, “you don’t learn as much about it. You’re like a fish in water—so you don’t know what water is.” Another observed how “questioning your own tradition opens you up to other people and their traditions and makes you realize that other people struggle with their religions in the same way. Seeing that creates a kind of bond between people of different faiths.”

he historical study we undertake in this course—the close examination of origins, social contexts, and rhetoric—revealed, according to one student, “where some of the butting of heads today comes from”; while, to another, “the Christian-Jewish dialogue of the early centuries could be a stepping stone to contemporary dialogue,” with potential to “facilitate interreligious dialogue, but it could also make it much more challenging.” I confided to the students that this course is much more difficult for me to teach than other courses, that witnessing their personal struggles with the material is often painful for me as well. They assured me that their struggles, as well as mine, are well worth it in the end. “Hey, Professor Baker,” one said, “‘No pain, no gain,’ right?” You’ve got to love students like that.

Being a familiar stranger, then, brings with it both the pain and pleasure of being “family” and the freedom and isolation accorded the “outsider.” Embracing this role as a teacher involves working conscientiously and imaginatively to bridge the divide between familiar and strange in compelling ways. It requires listening to and learning from my students while pushing them to the limits of—and even beyond—their comfort zones in religious exploration. Being a “Jewsuit” means being deeply committed to interreligious dialogue and the potential it holds for authentic social transformation: transformation that moves beyond “tolerance,” beyond “inclusion,” and beyond a well-meaning but nonetheless marginalizing “ecumenism” that congratulates itself on its multicultural sensitivity but leaves its own self-understanding untouched. It means risking hurt and misunderstanding, even anger, on all sides, while trusting that the commitment to greater comprehension is genuine and mutual.

Ultimately, being a “Jewsuit” at SCU is a gesture of faith: in the fundamental goodness of my students and colleagues, in my own capabilities as a teacher and scholar, and in the vitality of the institution that brings this community together and makes possible our shared endeavors.

– Cynthia Baker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University

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