Ask the Rabbi

March 2020 QUESTION:

I am a new member of Beth Israel, and I was shocked to see that you have been
teaching the New Testament to members of this congregation. Why?

March 2020 ANSWER:

I have taught a few classes here on the subject of “Christianity for Jews” because I think it behooves us, living in a community where the dominant religion is Christianity, in its various forms, to know about the religion of our neighbors and friends.

I have also learned over the years that many Jews are very poorly informed about Christianity, and have lots of mistaken ideas about it as a result. The best way to learn about something is to engage with it directly (driving a car is a better way to learn about handling a car than reading about it). So rather than simply lecture about this subject, I have chosen to use the Gospel of Matthew as a teaching instrument.

This particular Gospel is considered “the most Jewish” of the four canonical Gospels, because Matthew clearly wrote for a Jewish audience, citing all kinds of instances that connect his subject with Jewish texts, beliefs, and practices. It is also the Gospel which initiated the long-held Christian belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, which, in turn, led to millennia of antisemitism. I think it is important for us, as Jews, to know these materials first-hand, rather than just via reportage.

In this class, I ask people to avoid two terms which are problematic for Jews. The notion that the Hebrew Bible is the “Old” Testament implies that it can (and has been!) superseded by the “New” Testament. Instead, I ask that we refer to the Hebrew or Jewish Bible, and to the Christian Scriptures.

And I ask people to refer to Jesus by that name, and to avoid using the term “Christ”, which is the Greek translation o the Hebrew term, mashiakh, rendered in the English as “messiah”. Since we as Jews reject the claim that Jesus is the messiah, we should not use that term in any language to refer to him.

But we owe it to ourselves to be informed about what Christians believe, both because it can help us identify what we believe, and because it ccan help us understand what we do not believe. Moreover, this knowledge can help us interact with our Christian friends and neighbors with respect and courtesy, which is what we want from them in return.

I hope this explains why I have taught about Christianity at the temple. I encourage you to discuss these classes with the many members who have participated in them. And, of course, I invite you to attend these classes…the discussions are lively and wide-ranging, and a lot of learning is going on.

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