Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bearing False Witness

Last week David Brooks wrote an op-ed article “The Prodigal Sons.” I responded to his piece with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.  I didn't expect my letter to be published because I wasn’t commenting on the content of his op-ed, but to just one sentence in it.

Thanks to my brother George, I was very familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son found in the Christian testament, Luke 15:1-32.  He recommended the book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Home Coming by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Nouwen is a Catholic priest who wrote this meditation of the meaning of the story based upon Rembrandt’s painting of this story.  For those who do not know the simple story line it goes like this.

A father has two sons.  The younger didn’t want to wait for his inheritance and asked for it while his father was still alive.  The father divided his estate into two equal parts.  He gave one to the elder son and one to the younger son.  The elder son remained home and worked the property, maintaining its value, and taking care of his father.  The younger son took the money and ran away.  After a time he had squandered his entire inheritance.  How so?  I am reminded of an old joke.  A millionaire was asked how he lost his fortune.  He replied.  “I spent ¼ of it on fast race cars, ¼ of it on fast ponies at the race track, ¼ of it on fast women, and the rest I just wasted.”  Now penniless, all the younger son’s false friends abandoned him at best or took advantage of him at worse.  Finally, the son realized that his own father’s slaves fared better than he so he decided to return.

When he returned home, his father welcomed him back with opened arms, threw a big party, and slaughtered the fated calf.  The older brother grumbled how unfair that was.  He remained home and did everything that was correct and right, but his father never threw him a party and killed the fated calf.  But when his brother returned home after wasting all of the inheritance, the father throws him a big bash.  The father comforts the older son says to the effect all that I have is yours.  I am just happy my other son is home. 

It is a great parable of love and forgiveness.  As I learned in Nouwen’s book, there are many different Christian interpretation of this story.  I found fault with David Brooks’ interpretation. To be specific, the context he set the story.  Brooks wrote: “The father’s example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue.  Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society.  In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism.”  He perpetuates that anti-Jewish canard that Judaism is the religion of law and Christianity is the religion of love and grace.  Amy-Jill Levine writes: “…But problems enter when homilists or teachers do not know Jewish history or theology and out of ignorance construct a negative Judaism over and against which they position Jesus, or when they presume that Jesus’ numerous insightful and inspirational comments are original to him rather than part of his Jewish identity.” (“Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism” found in The Jewish Annotated New Testament.) What Brooks doesn’t know about early Judaism can fill volumes.

Here is my letter to the editor:

David Brooks in his op-ed article “Prodigal Sons” (Tuesday, February 18, 2014) demonstrates his lack of Jewish history and theology and out of ignorance continues to use an anti-Jewish interpretation of the Prodigal Sons gospel story by claiming that “Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule bound society.”  By doing so he continues the canard that Judaism is the religion of law and Christianity is the religion of grace.  We Jews have never found the observance of the commandments burdensome any more than people find their country’s laws.  Just the opposite.  We have always seen the commandments as a sign of God’s love for the Jewish people Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashya said:  “The Holy One, praised be He, desired to grant merit to Israel; and therefore has He given them a copious Torah and many commandments.” In reality any modern state today has more laws on the books than there are in all the Jewish sources put together.  As a Jew, Jesus sometimes makes the law even more stringent. For example, he considers For example, he includes in adultery remarriage after a divorce. (Mt 19:9)  Even though Mr. Brooks conclusion may resonate, he should, as the rabbis teach, “be careful in the words he uses.”