Of Pharisees, Sadducees, Manatees, and Memories
On this occasion of the 70th Holocaust Remembrance Day, the following is a reworking of some thoughts I’ve offered in presentations over the last several months.
A simple, familiar camp song has become for me a symbol that even though Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago, Christianity is itself not yet liberated from its embedded dis-ease with, and distaste for, Jews and Judaism.
Here’s to hoping that I’m wrong, or hoping that if I’m right, we can one day sing a different song…or at least stop singing this one.
Most anybody who has been to any Church camp, any Vacation Bible School, has sung or heard the tune, “I just wanna be a sheep.”
You know it: “I just wanna be a sheep [Baa Baa Baa]. I just wanna be a sheep [Baa Baa Baa]. I pray the Lord my soul to keep! I just wanna be a sheep.”
Apologies that the song is now embedded in your brain for the next 24 hours or so.
Like it or not, you hear it, and you end up nodding your head or tapping your toes to the tune.
So then it goes on for several verses, until we get here: “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. They’re just not fair you see. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee.”
My toe-tapping slows.
Now comes the sheep chorus of course (they follow absolutely anything), and then one last verse: “I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. They’re just so sad you see. I don’t wanna be a Sadducee.”
At this point, my toes want to walk away from the fire pit, walk away from the worship space, walk away from the guitars, walk away from the Baa-baa-baa-ing.
It’s a song that is immensely troubling.
Have not we read Luke 18? Have we not heard the story there, the one about the Pharisee who said, “I give thanks that I am not like them?”
And yet, here we are, teaching our children to sing just like that Pharisee, “I don’t want to be like them!”
“Ach,” I’ve been told. “it’s just a song, Anna! And they aren’t even around any more, unfair and sad or not!”
Makes me think of the anecdote about David Preus who once began a Churchwide Convention by saying that, given the new appreciation about inclusivity, he agreed that we ought not make fun of groups of people.
And so, out of this newfound sensitivity, he decided that he would tell a joke about people who were no longer with us, so as to no longer offend anyone.
So, he said, once there were two Hittites. Ole and Lena.
So, we think, there are no more Pharisees and Sadducees.
Except there are.
There are, at least by way of extended religious tradition, in the form of the Jewish faith.
When people hear the terms “Pharisee” and “Sadducee,” they think Jews.
With that in mind, who wants to join me in this verse?
“I don’t wanna be a Jew. I don’t wanna be a Jew. Their whole faith is askew. I don’t wanna be a Jew.”
Suddenly, the drum of toes tapping is quiet.
Put that way, you see, it becomes clearer that when people hear the terms “Pharisee” and “Sadducee,” they think Jews…unless one is a kid, or has never learned much about the Pharisees and Sadducees as a kid or an adult.
See, when my daughter, my amazingly, powerfully, stunningly wise and bright and All Good Things daughter, when she and I were dissecting this tune, she was shocked.
“Mama,” she whispered, because we may or may not have been dissecting the tune during the actual singing of tune. “I didn’t realize that they were people!”
My turn to be shocked.
“Really?” I whispered back.
“Nope,” hushed Else. “I thought that they were animals.”
I stared at her. “Animals.” “Animals?” I asked myself. “Why, baby girl, why, um…why animals?”
“Well, you know when we go down to Florida for Karl and the dolphins? I always thought that it was like manatees, pharisees, and sadducees!”
See, while I do think that most adults, anyway, know that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were Jews, I do not think that most people–kids or adults–know who they really were, and what they believed.
Do they know that the Pharisees are considered to be the foundational tradition for modern Judaism? That they believed that the 10 Commandments were open to interpretation, giving rise to the rich Jewish tradition of the Talmud? Do they know that they believed in life after death, and in a Messiah who would bring world peace? Have they heard that they encouraged broad education for the Jewish people?
Are they aware that Jesus did not disdain all Pharisees? That, just as in all religious traditions–Christianity included–there are leaders who need to be called out, as Jesus called out some Pharisees–and would some Christians?
Do they know that the Sadducees were priests, and were instrumental in keeping the rituals and traditions of the Jewish people intact?
(As an aside, this fellow, a rabbi in Atlanta, writes really well and clearly about the Jewish tradition, not least of all about the Pharisees and Sadducees).
What is unfair, what is sad, is not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, but is rather that Christians continue to sing a song that maligns both of these groups, and thereby the Jewish tradition and faith.
At its best, the song demonstrates profound insensitivity.
At its worst, the song contributes to a tradition of Christian anti-semitism grounded in select texts and selected misinterpretations of Judaism and its history.
It’s a song that forgets, it’s a song that misremembers, it’s a song that places new and false memories in the minds of everyone who sings it, it’s a song that risks giving these perilous and counterfeit memories new life, new form, new motivations for hate, and hurt, and harm.
On this day, January 27, we remember the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel has made the memory of the Holocaust his life’s work. In a wrenchingly moving interview with Richard Heffner, Wiesel has this to say about memory:
In memory you are not alone. You are surrounded by people. Those who are not here anymore, naturally, but they are there in your memory. They live. And you hear them and you speak to them. And when you need a presence it’s their presence. Of course, it’s a dead presence, but still it’s a presence. The presence of the dead is also a presence. And without memory, then what is worse than to live without a future? It’s to live without a past. And I think memory is that past.
This song, of course, in and of itself, this song is nothing stacked against the horrors of the Holocaust.
But this song is a symbol of the subtle tenacity of suspicion and distortion and contempt.
And so this blog is about this song, but is about so much more than this song.
This blog is a testimony against false memory.
It is a testimony of the hope of never forgetting the painful memory of the Holocaust.
It is a blog yearning for faithful memories, memories that could be antidotes to new Holocausts.
It is a blog about remembering the past, of creating new futures, of honoring the memories of the dead, and of hoping that by faithfully remembering, no more unnecessary deaths born out of distrust, of hate, or in gas chambers will need to be remembered again.