Pete Buttigieg has called upon his progressive religious belief in his run to become the Democratic candidate for president. Until Wednesday, April 17, to Jewish complaints, his faith included calling out Mike Pence and others on the religious right as “Pharisees.”
The complaints come because the term refers – inside the church – to hypocritical Christians who legalistically betray the love in Jesus’s teachings but, also beyond it – antisemitically – to Jews whose rigid adherence to the Old Testament betrays Jesus and the New Testament.
Yehuda Kurtzer is President of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
The Pharisees of the first century are front page news, thanks to a Presidential candidate – Pete Buttigieg – who has made his faith, and faith-based rhetoric, a critical vehicle of his public political persona, and who – until he made the deliberate decision to stop doing so just before Passover – regularly tarred his political opponents using the name “Pharisee” as an epithet. This eruption of history into contemporary political discourse creates an opportunity for us to consider how, as Christians and Jews, we relate to our complicated shared past, and how our changed circumstances in the present should obligate us going forward.
The Pharisees are historical figures – members of a politically influential sect, perhaps of a school of thought, perhaps of a social class – but their main legacy in the memory of the West has been as the hostile interlocutors of Jesus in many Gospel traditions. That’s why they remain the symbolic representation of those who would stand in opposition to the righteousness of the Christian message.
The specific characteristic of the Pharisees that is meant to stand in contradistinction to Christ is their emphatic insistence on legalism and an obsession with the picayune matters of purity and other laws which make them, in the Gospels’ portrayal, the foil to Jesus’ concerns for actual justice and righteousness. Though the criticism makes sense in the context of the messy sectarian politics of the first century, it is clearly a hostile portrayal.
The term becomes problematic when this historically specific term gets appropriated later in Jewish and Christian history as a means for Christians to project their continued hostility towards Jews who they identify as the heirs of the Gospel’s Pharisees.
The historical afterlife of the Pharisees has been more significant perhaps than their own lives, and it has been an ugly one: despite not using it to refer to themselves, Jews were often tagged with the term and subjected to violent persecution. So I understand why so many Jewish leaders are uncomfortable with Mayor Buttigieg deploying this epithet, and why they consider it a form of trafficking in antisemitism.
But I am not convinced that this conservatism is the right approach for the current and future state of Jewish-Christian relations in America.
For people of faith, one of the key variables in how we express our faith – and how it is experienced by others – is the measure of sincerity. We seek to become authentic inheritors of the texts and traditions that we consider to be sacred. One of the ways we do this is through a hermeneutic that relates to sacred text in a totally different way than other forms of reading, with the conviction that sacred text can be read in the present tense even as it describes ancient events. When Jews read the story of the Exodus on Passover, we are bidden to see ourselves departing Egypt, among the Israelites of old; when Christians read their scriptures, they can only make sense if Jesus is rebuking his and our contemporary Pharisees, now and forever. My theological reading of earliest Judaism and Christianity is incompatible with that of my Christian friends; knowing that, and staying in relationship with people of faith whose experience of the world, as mediated through their faith and their sacred text, is radically different than my own, is an essential mechanism of the interfaith encounter.
Moreover, one of the key essential hermeneutics in our post-Holocaust world is to respond to one of the great failings of religious tradition, making ourselves responsible for the characters we find our present-day readings of ancient sacred texts. So when I celebrate the triumph of the Israelites over the Egyptians at the Reed Sea, I do not imagine contemporary Egyptians — I imagine the enemies of God’s will, the present-day enslavers, the legacy of those who would stand in the way of the march to freedom. And I expect the same of Christians: they are entitled to their scriptures, with all their complicated reception history, while I see the recognition that I am not the object of their religious scorn. I am not a Jew as seen through Pharisee-tinted glasses.
The failings of Christianity towards the Jews, ultimately, were not failures of Scripture; they were failures of reading, the lazy slippage that enabled leaders and followers in a faith tradition to look for present-day representations of their scriptural theological enemies.
And of course, ever since the actual Pharisees, the Jews never have been Pharisees. The rabbinic tradition has no love for the Pharisees, indicting them as did Jesus with suggestions of hypocrisy, and actively working to disconnect itself from a movement that it sought to leave behind as part of the destroyed sectarian Jerusalem. Early rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity are born of a shared historical context, in dialogue and often in competition with one another; they also evolve over time using the other as a foil. To take offense at the assumption that “Pharisee” is a stand-in for “rabbinic Jew” is paradoxically to corroborate an anti-Jewish claim made about Jews that Jews have long since actively denied.
This modern American moment offers an unprecedented opportunity for an interfaith encounter that privileges sincerity while also creating accountability. As I am no Pharisee – not in real life, and not as the object of the derisive imagination of anyone looking for the heirs of Jesus’ enemies – I am eager to be in relationship with Christians who grant me my scriptures with all their flaws ripe for misinterpretation and appropriation, and I am willing to grant them their scriptures as well. The true interfaith encounter is one of honest hermeneutics in the presence of the other; not the censoring of scripture due to the mistakes of our forebears.
I am prepared then to give Buttigieg his Pharisees. Religious vocabulary in political discourse is an essentially American stock-in-trade, and it is refreshing to see politicians on both sides of the political aisle talking openly about faith. All we must demand is accountability. Cheap genealogies and weak hermeneutics create lazy correlations and, married to power, those can become dangerous. In a religious American public square, it is the continued work of the interfaith encounter that can create that accountability – and it could not be more urgent.
Rev. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, PhD, is the Duncalf-Villavaso Professor of Church History at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas
In my social media circle, the excitement over Pete Buttigieg has been building over the past month. I am an Episcopal priest and have been teaching at Episcopal seminaries since 2005. My social media feed has lots of clerical collars and non-ironic religious imagery in it. Politics shows up a lot — overwhelmingly of the progressive strand. The Episcopal Church in many ways has made the generational shift from being the Republican Party at prayer to part of the coalition of the Religious Left, for good and ill.
So when Buttigieg came on the scene, I and my fellow social media Episcopalians were excited that he was one of us. It was not just that he checked all of the boxes that so many found compelling but that in his media appearances the way he talked about his faith grounded in the Episcopal Church fit so well with what many in my circle hoped others would see us for: loving, merciful, faithful, and just.
I reposted articles that played up Buttigieg’s progressive Christian bona fides. I watched his speech announcing his presidential candidacy with a sense of history being made. An openly gay man was running for President. And he was one of us. It almost made all the trauma and schism the Episcopal Church has experienced in the past two decades over human sexuality seem worth it for this moment.
I was aware that Buttigieg had gotten into an argument with Mike Pence over human sexuality. But I was not aware that Buttigieg had repeatedly called Pence and others like him Pharisees until my friend Rabbi Neil Blumofe asked me for my take on this potentially offensive usage on the Monday before Easter and Passover.
My first thought was how much of a bubble my own social media feed had created. How had this news not fed through my algorithm, given my efforts to follow Jewish media and institutions? How had I not heard the complaints that a public, progressive Episcopal figure was deploying as criticism for Evangelicals a term used to derogate Jews for a millennium? Here in microcosm was an example in which American culture has come to live within their own echo chambers. In this way, Pete Buttigieg’s Pharisee problem became my Pharisee problem.
I write and teach in the world of Jewish-Christian relations. Neil Blumofe and I co-teach a class called “Undoing Anti-Judaism” at Seminary of the Southwest, the Episcopal Church seminary where I teach. This information about Buttigieg arrived right before our class session. I felt betrayed and let down by one of my own. And so I am also relieved now that the Buttigieg campaign has announced he will stop using the term Pharisee.
Which brings me to the question of why and how does this matter. I am struck by Yehuda Kurtzer’s move to let Buttigieg (and other Christians) have the Pharisees in the gospels the same way Jews have their Egyptians in Exodus and for the Passover seder. I respect his reading of Jewish history and rabbinic literature. It is helpful to say “Pharisee” can’t always be a synonym for “Jew.” I appreciate the willingness to allow space for difficult texts and representations as part of the price for religious pluralism in the United States.
On the other hand, I tend to agree with other Jewish colleagues and commentators (and now, apparently Buttigieg himself) that Buttigieg’s language about Pharisees mattered. The reason why I think it mattered is that he used the term Pharisee to open a front in the culture wars between evangelical and progressive Christians.
Buttigieg made this strategy clear back in January when he posted a Twitter response to Mike Pence’s defense of his wife teaching at a Virginia school that bans LGBTQ students. Pence accused the media of attacking a Christian organization. Buttigieg wrote in response, “I am a product of Christian education. At no point in that (excellent) education was I taught that gay employees should be fired or gay students expelled. But we did learn a lot about Pharisees…”
Often “Pharisee” is used a synonym for “hypocrite” in Christian circles. But there is something more troubling here. Buttigieg accused Pence of intolerance and rigid legalism when he used the word Pharisee. This is amplified in another Twitter post by NowThis. Quoting an embedded video clip of Buttigieg it says: “‘The scripture I hear has to do with protecting the poor, and spending time with the prisoner, and healing the sick, and caring for the stranger.’ — 2020 candidate @PeteButtigieg says that Christianity belongs to progressives as much as it does to the right.”
Here Buttigieg is summarizing Matthew 25:31-46, the famous parable of the sheep and the goats. The thrust of that parable is that there are true and false followers of Jesus. Only those who exercise mercy will be deemed righteous. Immediately after this parable, the narrative in Matthew shifts to the plotting of the priests and elders to have Jesus executed.
Buttigieg’s language about Pharisees and use of the New Testament matters because it reveals, as David Nirenberg shows, how Christian culture consistently uses Jews and Judaism as objects to think with and define themselves. As a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, I am not sure that Christianity can ever fully escape this dynamic because of the Jewish matrix out of which the New Testament emerges. But it is important to be aware of how political discourse by Christians essentializes Judaism for its own purposes.
On the political right, Christians will often essentialize the State of Israel as an extension of the United States as “The New Israel.” The rhetoric of America as Israel goes all the way back to John Winthrop and continues to this day. In political Christian evangelicalism it gets bound up with millennialist theologies that see the State of Israel, and so also Jews, as vehicles for instantiating the return of Jesus and his rule over all people.
On the political left, Christians fall into a dynamic of essentializing the prophetic tradition of Israel and contrasting it with the priestly traditions. This move goes back to the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here the priests of the temple and the Pharisees stand in for rigid moralism and hypocrisy. In this light, the prophetic tradition culminating in the work of Jesus emphasizes the necessity of mercy over sacrifice, or an ethic that transcends legalism and hypocrisy. Buttigieg is at the moment the new standard bearer for the religious left.
Christian political discourse inevitably draws in representations of Jews and Judaism, often unwittingly. Part of what makes America a unique place is the breadth of religious pluralism it can encompass. Thus it is incumbent on people of faith to preserve space for the use of religion in the public square by ensuring that religious speech is expressed carefully.
Alongside this, as a culture we also need to permit critique of religious speech. It is both entirely appropriate for Buttigieg to appeal to his deeply rooted religious principles and for him to listen when Jews asked to be left out of his talking points.
Buttigieg can continue to criticize religious hypocrites, but he no longer has the Pharisees in his sights.