Toward Jewish-Christian Understanding
I want to honor the 60th anniversary of Israeli Independence on May 18th.
I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia. My family was in the Christian minority. This unusual milieu colored my thinking forever. When I was a young boy, people rode joyfully through the streets, honking car horns and waving blue and white flags. It was Israeli Independence Day, and it was filled with tears and laughter. The long exile was over.
I saw pictures of Auschwitz when I was an impressionable child. The holocaust was not distant fact; I knew people whose families in the old countries were affected, who had lost members in this firestorm from hell. I saw the tattooed numbers on friends’ parents’ forearms.
For these reasons, and many others that developed as I matured, entered college and seminary and the Christian ministry, I have always been committed to discovering and stressing the relationships between Judaism and Christianity.
This search becomes especially focused each year around Easter, so rich in Jewish background on one hand and so tainted historically and psychologically with anti-Jewish sentiment on the other.
Christians can become better acquainted with the Jewish background to their faith. A sentence like “Jesus was a Jew” can still shock some people, as if such an obvious comment did not compute. We have lost so much. We have so much to gain by re-visiting our roots.
Christianity is an eastern faith, at its heart, grounded in Semitic understandings of God and humanity. We tend to ignore that background in our American milieu. American Protestantism is very westernized, but if you belong to an Orthodox Church you can hardly forget the ancient near eastern background. It surrounds us in worship, hymnody, symbols, and readings.
Christianity and Judaism share background and consciousness. Much of the ritual developed from worship at the time of Jesus, locally centered in the development of the synagogue and nationally centered in the Temple at Jerusalem. John’s Gospel would not open with “In the beginning was the Word” had Genesis not opened with “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The New Testament is drenched in understandings and images derived from the Hebrew Bible, separated from which they make no sense.
What most Christians have relinquished is the connection to the land, and this is why Israel is so important: for Judaism, the Land is essential to community.
Christians say that Jesus came in answer to prophecy. Who were these prophets, if not Jews whose task was to discern the presence of God in everyday events?
So often this awareness is lost. Of course, “lost” is not the right word. We have to face centuries of what scholars Jewish and Christian now refer to as “the teaching of contempt.” This contempt became part of the message of the church, sometimes covert but often overt, during the centuries after the parting of the ways between church and synagogue.
Rabbi Leo Baeck survived Auschwitz. His book The Essence of Judaism discussed what he called classical and romantic forms of faith. He warned that Christianity would become airy and disconnected from the practical side of life if it became detached from its roots in Judaism. We need his reminder constantly.
My homage to the 60th Anniversary of Israeli Independence is based in a practical commitment to rehearse and restore the Jewish background to my own faith, on one hand, and on the other to understand the struggles Israel faces, with a sober eye that neither glamorizes nor demonizes this contemporary State, so fragile in its locale and yet so strong in its commitment to survive.