In Parsha Bo, we learn that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”went up with the Israelites to worship YHVH (Ex. 12:38). Nice, right? We can rejoice in our diversity (there from the get-go!) and take all sorts of self-congratulatory pleasure in pointing to Tanakh to confirm it.
What follows in Parsha B’shallakh? A celebratory, militaristic text. YHVH repeatedly declares his intention to win glory in the battle against Egypt (Ex. 14:4, 17, 18). He* can prove, now, that he is the biggest and most powerful deity by taking down the biggest, baddest nation around, one with a ruler who imagines himself a god. The Egyptians will die horribly – either sinking like lead in the water (Ex. 15:5, 10) or, after a divinely-induced tsunami, left dead on the seashore (Ex. 14:30). The triumphal notes sounded here are part and parcel of midrashic treatments, too, which claim that neither the sea nor the land wanted to take Egyptian bodies.
The Egyptians can be accepted only so long as they adopt the Israelite project, it would seem.
I’ve been the Egyptian, victim of attempts to defeat and erase me with the better god. If I expressed any interest in a Christian friend’s theologies and practices, I was assumed to be an unhappy Jew. Conversion attempts ensued. As a rabbi invited to speak to a local church, I had to be prepared for comments and questions which either a) told me I was simply wrong to be Jewish or b) reminded me that my job at the church was to provide some magical historic reenactment of the Way Jesus Lived. I could be accepted if I supported, somehow, the Christian project.
And so… I’d be asked: do Jews believe that Jesus was crucified? (If I did, I wouldn’t be Jewish, right?) I was asked if I had read the New Testament in order to be certain I had made the right choice. (Ditto.) If I taught a song in Hebrew, the minister might intone later: “Now we have learned a song such as Jesus might have sung.” (In this case, the song was Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, which was composed in the 20th century.) Then there were the seders I was asked to lead in order to teach Christians how Jesus celebrated Passover.
And… reading militaristic, self-congratulatory texts of Torah is tough if I take a moment to be the Egyptian to be beaten and erased. I don’t want to be reminded that texts that are foundational to my Jewishness can be painful, even ugly, reeking with something like the self-righteousness and ignorance that have hurt me when I experienced them as a Jew.
Recently, I spent two hours teaching nineteen graceful individuals at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Concord, NC. I’ve been teaching there for at least a decade or so, and usually several times each year.
My long-standing relationship with All Saints took years to create. At the time my little congregation was founded, the then minister at All Saints and I had a painful conversation when he told me that Jewish friends of his were coming to the church to teach Christians about the seder. He was speaking about several Jews for Jesus who were known to harangue Jews for purposes of conversion to Christianity.
But just a couple of years later, the next minister, The Rev. Nancy Cox, invited me to have lunch with her. And during that lunch I felt safe enough to say yes to coming to her church.
Year in and year out I have gone to All Saints** and repeatedly deconstructed biblical texts for a Christian audience. I have talked about humor – even burlesque – at work in texts Christian parishioners grew up taking very seriously. I have turned Levitical texts used to harm LGBTQ+ folk on their heads (I hope). I have introduced the deity of Tanakh as he often can be found in the Hebrew text: neither omnipotent nor omniscient but very certainly male and, often, bumbling, grumbling, and fumbling.
I recently discovered that the classes and lectures I offer every year fall under a particular rubric at the church. It’s called “Christian formation.”
When I heard this, I laughed out loud. The local rabbi forming Christians?
And then, suddenly, I was so utterly delighted and happy to imagine such a thing. I had the most wonderfully naïve and loving moment of pure joy. What if we knew for certain that every interaction would be free of any expectation or demand? What if anything other than growing our Selves in the light of what we could learn together were our goal?
No winning glory at anOther’s expense. No self-congratulation about our own readings, our own interpretations. No othering.
What kind of (healthy) mixed multitude could humanity become?
*I am deliberately choosing the third-person masculine form; that’s the deity we encounter her.
**This blog post is actually a love letter to All Saints and the folks therein. I owe them more than I could actually explain for their patience, their welcome, and their trust in me.