The Doonesbury comic strip of this past Sunday has caused a little bit of a stir in some of the rabbinic circles I travel in. It also prompted this letter to Gary Trudeau from Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.
The eight colorful panels depict a young girl (it’s been a while since I’ve read the strip, but my perusal of Wikipedia seems to suggest that she’s Samantha, the 17-year-old daughter of Boopsie and B.D.), reacting to a church service led by the venerable Reverend Scott Sloan. The reading of an “Old Testament” passage about the wrath of God leads Samantha into an extended meditation on the superiority of Jesus, the loving pacifist, over the vengeful deity of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus “only really snaps once,” she concludes, and then it’s in response to “the moneylenders.” “Oh, right, what is it about moneylenders?” her mother asks. “They do seem to set people off, don’t they?” the reverend avers.
Now, what is it exactly about this interchange that might raise Jewish hackles, I ask you? No one has suggested so far that Trudeau is motivated by anti-Semitic impulses, though Ron Kampeas, blogging at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, offers the intriguing suggestion that Trudeau has never been able to escape the basic parameters of his WASPish weltanschauung, and, as corroboration, talkbackers have discerned a tendency to stereotype Jewish characters (Phil Slackmeyer, Sid Kibbitz, Marcia Feinbloom.)
This one doesn’t really fall under the heading of a serious affront, and I hope the Anti-Defamation League will, accordingly, save its resources for another occasion. But I also don’t think Trudeau deserves a free pass, either. He has, let’s say unwittingly, conjoined and perpetuated two rather pernicious canards that still have traction in the contemporary world—all the more so given the current state of the economy, and the extent to which people with names like Bernie Madoff and Lloyd Blankfein have been used to metonymize what has been, in reality, a beautifully multi-cultural clusterfuck. So, if it’s not the occasion for a full-on ritual of public apology, at the very least it’s a teachable moment.
Christians, if you haven’t already, please take some time to recognize that the division of your scriptures into “old” and “new”, with a panting demiurge presiding over the first and a Guevarist lovegod community-organizing his way through the second is a false dichotomy, and a dangerous and frustrating one, at that, when it is used as a thumbnail sketch of Jewish-Christian difference. Your “old testament”, what we call the Tanakh, portrays a God of manifold characteristics—from the friend and confidant of Abraham and, yes, the ferocious goader of the wilderness, to the ironic moral conscience of Jonah and the mystical whirlwind of Job—that have served as the basis for kaleidoscopic articulations of Jewish theology.
There’s a lot in there I could do without, but remember too that the text accreted over at least a thousand years. It is not, like the “new testament,” a concentrated response to a singular spiritual revolution. It is an encyclopedia of images of God, and standard readings of Jesus, by contrast, can seem rather reductionist, and the Christian message of love all too often the mask of a repressed anger with a very strange and public act of sado-masochism at its core.
As for the moneylenders, it’s just pure fun to point out that Trudeau misread the book of Matthew. “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.” The text is not actually about liberating the poor from usurers. (When we start to speculate about what unconscious association of ideas led Trudeau to make this slip—to associate those opposed to Jesus with usury—the game grows a little less fun.) The money changers, who most likely provided a necessary service to pilgrims coming to the Temple from afar, seem to get caught up in Jesus’s frenzy against those who conduct business in the sacred precinct. That is to say, when Jesus gets mad, Mr. Trudeau, it’s not like those vicious “old testament” prophets Isaiah and Amos, who were inveighing against the oppression of the poor.
Jesus, it turns out, is zealous in the defense of that old time religion, a “nice Jewish boy,” as the joke has it, “who went into his father’s business.”