Panelists discuss what we know and don't know about the Pharisees


What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us: An Interfaith Dialogue on Combating Stereotypes on the Pharisees

By: Siobhan Cooney

March 6, 2023

In Christian writings and homilies through the centuries, “Pharisee” has served as a label for one who is hypocritical, self-righteous, legalistic, or money-loving. Unfortunately, the image has fed—and continues to foment—negative perceptions of Jewish people. A February 6 program explored what we know—and don’t know—about these teachers of the past who are also in some ways the predecessors of all forms of modern Judaism.

In his opening remarks William Treanor, executive vice president and dean of Georgetown Law, framed the discussion in the context of steadily increasing reports of harassment, vandalism, and violence directed against Jewish people in recent years.

“One of the motivations for this gathering is because of the reality of the hurt around us,” said Treanor. “So the question for me is, what can a Catholic university do? What can a law school do? This is a place where we take seriously how texts are interpreted in a historical context and in the midst of social pressures and challenges.”

The event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Office of Mission & Ministry, Georgetown Law, and Georgetown Law Campus Ministry.

Embracing the Unknown

The event began with presentations from a panel of the co-editors and contributors to The Pharisees, a multidisciplinary volume that examines the question of the Pharisees from historical, theological, and pastoral lenses.

Co-editor Joseph Sievers first emphasized why bringing together specialists with varying expertise and religious backgrounds helps generate insight not only based on ancient source materials about the Pharisees, but their interpretation as well.

“We also have to take into consideration the reception history,” he said, being attentive to “what has been said, and thought, and taught about them.”

Though the meaning of the name “Pharisee” and the group’s origins remain obscure, Sievers said that the work of this volume has widened understanding and contributed to a richer picture of the Pharisees.

“If it is impossible fully to know yourself and the people around you, there must remain many open questions and uncertainties about a group that remains as elusive as the historical Pharisees.”

Challenges in Catholic Preaching and Teaching

Building off this foundation, fellow co-editor Amy-Jill Levine started her presentation with Pope Francis’ May 2019 address to the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In her view, the pope’s message of overcoming ancient prejudice has not completely trickled down into contemporary Catholic teachings.

Levine then presented a series of case studies on particularly “tone deaf” stories from the Bible and posed the question of how one can preach the Gospel material without continuing that type of denigration.

“Do not seek to make Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad, and do not use the Pharisees as a negative foil to score social justice points. If you can do that, we’re closer to that Kingdom of Heaven or the world to come that both Jews and Christians talk about.”

Phil Cunningham, another contributor to the volume, focused his presentation on American Catholic textbooks.

While these sources have largely removed negative or inaccurate references to the Pharisees and Jewish people, according to Cunningham, “What is not gone, or has not been surmounted, is the idea that Jesus and Judaism are somehow fundamentally opposed, and therefore Judaism and Christianity are somehow fundamentally opposed.”

Despite the revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations that has occurred in the last 25 years, this oppositional imagination remains. We have an obligation, Cunningham said, “to learn with and from our Jewish friends and neighbors together. That’s the legacy that we’ve inherited, both the good and the bad, and that’s what we should run with.”

Living the Golden Rule

Harkening back to the idea of the Golden Rule that Sievers presented in his opening remarks, this spirit of collaborative learning extended into the second half of the program. Panelists joined participants for interactive roundtable discussions to explore practical suggestions and pathways for incorporating a nuanced understanding of the Pharisees in preaching, teaching, and catechesis.

One breakout group discussed strategies for opening dialogue with people who were never taught to ask questions. Another group unpacked the challenges of embedding the Golden Rule into classroom discussions, the need for better resources, and the ability to lean into diverse spaces.

“With the roundtable discussions that followed the panel, we were happy to provide ample time for participants to further explore applications of the suggested best practices for working with challenging texts in a variety of contexts,” said panel moderator and event organizer Amy Uelmen, a Berkley Center senior research fellow and director for mission and ministry at Georgetown Law.

Uelmen pointed to the spirit of mutual learning and encouragement she saw as a facilitator for the table focused on preaching.

“I was edified to learn about others’ efforts to foster greater understanding and greatly encouraged in my own efforts to be attentive to counter anti-semitic tropes in a variety of contexts.”

Giovanna Czander, another table moderator and an associate professor of religious studies at Dominican University New York, emphasized the event’s fundamental dialogic message.

“Deeper table conversations helped us push even beyond the Golden Rule, to what some have described as the ‘platinum rule’: ‘Do unto others as they would want to be done to them.’ This formulation emphasizes that we need to become aware of our own biases and prejudices when we interact with others. Otherwise, we end up treating them as we would like to be treated without realizing how our own biases and prejudices are blocking our capacity to truly understand how they would like to be treated.”

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