By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus and Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
The Society of Biblical Literature founded in 1880 is recognized in Academia as the primary scholarly address for the study of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Certainly, its longevity is a telling sign of its mandate and success. That is to say, it interprets the Holy Writ objectively, insightfully, critically, creatively, theologically, and respectfully. For better not for worse, controversy permeates the rooms and conferences of the SBL annual meetings (and its publications) as divergent positions and persuasions are Solomonically argued. And for the most part harmony in diversity prevails under the tent of Sinai and Calvary.
In the summer of 2010, however, a tearing occurred. Prof, Ronald S. Hendel (UC Berkeley) published an opinion piece, “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” (Biblical Archaeologiical Review 36.4 [July- August 2010] pp. 28 and 74), where he critiqued the inability of SBL to separate effectively faith and reason from its current direction and affiliate organizations and thus falling into “dissension and hypocrisy.” SBL responded to this charge (and others, including, covert proselytizing activity and supersessionist scholarship) that to the best of its knowledge and ability, it stimulates the critical investigation of biblical literature and encourages critical biblical scholarship, inquiry and discussion. Further, it welcomes confessional-based affiliates that endorse humanities-based scholarship. SBL has referenced Hendel’s article and discussion on faith and reason on its web site. Go to www.sbl-site.org, and link to Society archives.
For years I have organized and coordinated the sessions of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew (NAPH) at the SBL annual meetings. An affiliate of SBL, NAPH has not been affected by the brew at SBL. Revelation and Reason are not an issue. NAPH sessions at SBL focus on Biblical Hebrew linguistics and methodology. Thought sessions permeated by traditional exegesis benefit by encountering rationalist thinking and modernist categories of thought. When biblical exegesis and rabbinic eisegesis encounter Western modes of thought, holistic learning transpires. And isn’t that what it is all about? Nonetheless, in the vineyard of NAPH, a fissure of geographical, seasonal, thematic, and human proportions is detected. For the most part, Fall NAPH Annual Meetings relate to Scriptures cum Rabbinics, with American and European scholars presenting in English. The Spring NAPH Language and Literature Conference is primarily conducted in Hebrew with many Israelis presenting and in attendance, Yesh va-Yesh: frustration of the non-Israeli among the Israelis. A He-brew in the making?
For more than a biblical generation, I have attended annual and regional meetings of SBL (and AAR, NAPH) and can frankly say that parochial ecclesiastical rules are broken at the annual meeting. It is not unusual to see the religious without their outward religious garment or faith attitude walking into forbidden places, eating forbidden foods, and drinking forbidden drinks. Party not prayer is the norm at the conference hotel. Of course, all done with derekh ‘erets, civility and respect. Is not social interaction, meeting old and new friends under relaxed conditions not an attraction – some would say, an axiom -- at the conferences? Simply put, relax, dress down, schmooze and choose, and if this is not your cup of tea or brew (beer, liquor, smoke), go forth to another crew or return home to campus, community, and church.
I am no prude nor am I an ostrich with his head in the sand. After all, colleagues across Academia have labeled the Festschrift in my honor, Maven in Blue Jeans (Purdue University Press, 2011). Under the aegis of SBL, sessions of scholarship are to live up to its mandate – scholarly presentations without limitations for the advancement of biblical knowledge and its related disciplines. I endorse this policy and I understand and accept the restrictions that are found at gatherings sponsored by university and seminary for affiliate alumnae and friends, publishing houses, and denominational groups. There is grace at church-sponsored breakfast sessions, lack of grace but kosher food at Jewish seminary evening receptions, and neither grace nor dietary supervision at the NAPH annual breakfast and business meeting. So why the shock, disappointment, and sadness at the “MJTI Center for Jewish- Christian Relations” reception at the SBL 2010 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA (Nov. 21)?
The invitation to attend in the SBL Program Book reads:
The MJTI Center for Jewish-Christian Relations was established in 2009 to facilitate a Messianic Jewish contribution to Jewish-Christian relations. Our center seeks to (1) build relationships with scholars and leaders in the Jewish and Christian worlds, and (2) sponsor events that model a new conversation between Jews and Christians in which the Messianic Jewish presence plays a constructive role. Our SBL reception is an opportunity to learn more about the vision of the center and the activities we have planned for 2010-2011.
I lecture and write on matters of Christian Scriptures – for example, my chapters in my edited The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (Purdue University Press, 2011) recently featured in “Bible and Interpretation” – and I participate actively in post-Shoah Christian-Jewish dialogue; and so I anxiously looked forward to attend the aforementioned Jewish-Christian reception. The confessional based Messianic Jewish sponsorship did not sink in until I crossed the threshold of the Hong Kong room at the Hyatt Regency. On a table at the entrance, I noticed books and other literature advocating Jewish life in Yeshua and advancing Messianic Judaism. Attendees and announced events advocated Messianic Jewish outreach and also projected dialogue encounter with practicing Christians and Jews. Indeed the reception was enmeshed with Jewish messianic missionary advocacy; however, by the virtual absence of the Talmud Jew and Conventional Christian, I was baffled in how the Trialogue would begin. After a while, emotively, I felt uncomfortable. Why so? I came to a reception at a scholarly conference looking for friendship and learning in a new place, and I walked from the gathering disappointed and sad. In a converse way, I felt like Paul reverting to Saul, walking from the table of Messianic Jewish Christians in righteous conflict.
Overkill, underplay, backbiting, misrepresentation, polemics, unfortunately, are staples at annual meetings. More than most of my Jewish colleagues, I can understand Messianic Jews attempting a foothold at the SBL conference. And that is why the sponsors ought to be very concerned about the state of the empathetic visitor who felt as the stranger in their midst.