Amy-Jill Levine sips her coffee and launches into praise of what she experienced during her brief stay at BYU.
“I really have been warmly welcomed here,” Levine said in an interview with the Universe. “The conversations I have had with students and professors here have been diverse and engaging.”
Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She addressed various audiences during her recent visit to BYU on Sept.18.
Levine spoke about Jesus’ parables to a packed audience at the Kennedy Center. She kicked off her red high heels and informed the crowd that she didn’t like to teach with her shoes on. The lecture consisted of plenty of these off-beat jokes alongside profound religious insights.
Levine discussed the doctrinal relationship between Mormonism and Judaism by telling the story of her first encounter with Mormonism.
“I first met Mormon missionaries when I was in college,” Levine said.
She described how as soon as she explained to the missionaries that she was a Jew, they shifted gears and started looking for common ground, instead of starting with Jesus Christ.
“I appreciated that they recognized they had to approach me differently,” Levine said. “I think they were pretty happy because I asked so many questions about the Mormon faith, even though I wasn’t going to convert.”
Levine said she picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon at a hotel and read it to discover more about the Mormon faith. She said because her students have diverse religious backgrounds, she needs to be fluent in a variety of denominational doctrines.
“I don’t believe that any denomination has a lock on truth and revelation,” Levine said.
Levine addressed the harsh criticism that both Judaism and Mormonism are subject to. She said the key is to study other religious traditions and have positive interfaith dialogue in order to gain insight about these religions.
“It’s all about self-definition,” Levine said. “You are who you say you are, and no one with no knowledge of your religious traditions should have the privilege to deny your own self-definition.”
She talked about holy envy, a principle of appreciating another religion while still maintaining one’s religious identity.
Levine said one of her favorite parts of her stay at BYU was when Professor Eric D. Hunstman, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, took Levine to a choir rehearsal.
“The choir was singing about Jesus, and even though I don’t believe he is my Lord and Savior, I felt a beautiful sense of transcendence during the rehearsal,” Levine said. “That’s holy envy. I recognize that another religion has their own truth and beauty, but I also know that it’s not mine, and it gives me more respect for their religious traditions.”
Levine responded to a student’s question about her self-identification as a Jewish feminist with a smile.
“Yankee Jewish feminist,” Levine corrected.
Levine said she was raised by her mother and grandmother, so there were three generations of strong Jewish women in the same household.
“Both my mother and my grandmother made it clear that I should never be held back because I was a girl,” Levine said. “They told me that if I experienced injustice because of my gender, I should not stand for it.”
Levine said she was indeed a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and so she did not have pulpit privileges.
“I am perfectly comfortable with that,” Levine said. “I am respected as a teacher, and I am happy to sit, pray and learn on Saturdays.”
Levine offered advice to women who are strong in their religious traditions but still feel stifled.
“If you’re a little uneasy, that’s probably a good thing,” Levine said. “That is the Spirit speaking to you, and it can help you to grow, as well as helping your religious traditions to grow and develop, without demonizing those individuals who view the religious traditions differently than you.”
Levine has the eloquent vocabulary of a professor, but the easy-going nature of an old friend. She lit up when she began discussing the importance of studying scriptures in their original context.
“I find this so fascinating,” Levine said.
Levine started attending Catholic catechism classes when she was 7, because a student told her that her identity as a Jew meant that she had killed Jesus. Levine said she thought studying the New Testament would give her insight into the source of this anti-semitism.
“I listened carefully in those catechism classes for several years, and I never heard anything anti-Jewish,” Levine said.
Levine said as she got older, she realized that the New Testament isn’t a static text with one meaning, but a text meant to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit.
“We can choose how we read the text,” Levine said. “We can choose to read the New Testament as a text of love and compassion or as a text of war and hate. My catechism teacher chose to read the text as one of love.”
Levine laughed as she addressed religious individuals who refuse to deviate from one specific scriptural interpretation.
“If we say that the scripture has the same interpretation now and forever, we are essentially putting the Holy Spirit out of business,” Levine said. “We need to listen to what the scripture means for us and that will keep us going to church and keep us reading.”
Levine said she thrives on studying complete scriptural context because it offers new insight and a sense of religious inclusion.
She explained that the Talmud is a Jewish commentary that unpacks scripture and other aspects of the Jewish religious tradition.
“Visually, the Talmud is the original scriptural text, then the commentary in the margins, then there are more comments on the first commentary,” Levine said. “When you study these commentaries and then make new interpretations, you really feel that you are adding your voice to the choir.”
Levine grew up in Massachusetts, studied in North Carolina, and now teaches at Vanderbilt.
“I’m very much out of my cultural element, but I still take my roots seriously,” Levine said. “In New England, people are very direct, so I say what I think, and I see no reason to hide my thoughts or my religious views.”
Levine spoke to several on-campus groups during her brief visit to the university. BYU students and faculty responded warmly to her presentations.
“Several people have already emailed me, and I’ve got plenty of positive feedback,” Levine said. “I want the students and professors I have spoken with to think of me as a friend. That’s what these meetings are for, is to develop valuable relationships.”