What Jews Can Learn from Christianity

2004 Sisterhood Interfaith Sabbath

Rabbi Barry H. Block

Saturday, February 28, 2004


I have come to describe “The Passion of the Christ” as the “500 pound gorilla that is sitting on my life at the moment.” I am constantly in demand for comment to the press, and have been for weeks, in a way that I have never previously experienced. Yesterday, I actually saw the film. This morning, we all were offered a most sensitive, if searing, appraisal of the film, published in the San Antonio Express-News, and penned by our special guest for this morning, my friend, Rev. Michael Coffey, Associate Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Alamo Heights. In his column, which I urge you to read – it’s found on the op-ed page – Rev. Coffey addresses a number of issues about the film, among them the charge of anti-Semitism. His message is most healing for our Jewish community at a difficult time.

This morning’s program is not about “The Passion of the Christ.” Or is it? The plans for this morning germinated many months ago. First, more than a year ago, Rev. Coffey and I met for lunch, and discussed a wide variety of issues. I was intrigued, in particular, by his suggestion that Christians have a need to reclaim aspects of the Jewish Sabbath. Some months later, I read a book by Harvey Cox. Professor Cox is a leading Protestant theologian at Harvard University. Though still a faithful Protestant, Cox has lived a Jewish life, with his Jewish wife and son, for more than a decade and a half, and has authored an important volume on the subject: Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year.

To be perfectly honest, Cox’s book more explicitly addresses Rev. Coffey’s topic for this morning, “What Christians Can Learn from Judaism.” However, what interested me most about the book was an aspect about which Cox, as a Christian, is far more humble, which is both understandable and commendable. In a few, rather limited contexts, Cox suggests ways in which Jews would benefit from knowing more about Christianity. As I read, I began to realize that, for quite some time, I had been trying to teach my congregation that some aspects of the faith we find in our Christian friends may enrich our own Jewish lives. I even spoke about the subject from the Temple’s pulpit on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year, when every seat is filled, twice. I encouraged Rev. Coffey to read the book, and we met to discuss it together. When I shared some of these thoughts with our Sisterhood leadership, I’m grateful to say that they were enthusiastic. They encouraged me to invite Rev. Coffey to join me this morning, to participate in this dialogue, as our program for our magnificent Temple Sisterhood’s annual Interfaith Shabbat.

And so, this program was planned, months before we knew that Mel Gibson was making a film, which might set off a firestorm of controversy. This morning, we will not be addressing the film directly in our opening comments, though we are mindful of the context in which we speak. After all, less than 24 hours have passed since the rather painful time I spent in the Alamo Quarry cinema. However, just this morning, I read a comment from the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who leads Reform Judaism internationally. He reminded us that our most important work, in response to a film like this, is to step up our interactions with Christian clergy who share our concerns, even if they do not agree with us on every subject. To that end, we could not have a more fitting guest this morning. Moreover, I invite all of you present to join me again, tomorrow night, at 7:00 P.M., with another friend, Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons, at University Presbyterian Church, where the program will be about the film itself; and again, next Friday evening, March 5, at 8:00 P.M. Sabbath worship here at the Temple, where our guest speaker will be the Most Rev. Patrick J. Zurek, Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio, who will speak on “Passion Plays: Guidelines from Nostra Aetate and John Paul II.”

When I consider today’s question specifically, my thoughts revolve around a gross generalization that I make about Jewish and Christian funerals. Like all stereotypes, this vignette doesn’t represent Judaism or Christianity in all of their complexities, but I think it teaches us something, at least about what Judaism needs to learn. I have been in a car, with only my fellow Jews, leaving Christian funeral. Mind you, we have told the minister how moved we were by the service, and expressed our condolences to the family. Now, we’re in the car, windows rolled up, only Jews. Somebody says: “Geez, was that Joe’s funeral? It sounded like Jesus’ funeral. Was Joe so uninteresting that they could hardly say anything about him? All they could talk about was that resurrection stuff.” On the other hand, I imagine Christians leaving a Jewish funeral. They, too, have been polite, both to the family and to the Rabbi. Now, they are in the car, only Christians, and the windows are rolled up. I have never been in that car, so I’m using my imagination. They say: “What lovely things that Rabbi said about Joe. On the other hand, that funeral wasn’t comforting at all. Don’t they believe that Joe deserves eternal life? What do they believe about that?”

The Christian critique of the Jewish funeral is fair. To be sure, I, as a Rabbi, always do try to say a word about our faith that the deceased has achieved immortality in the presence of God. And yet, our funeral services lack a clearly articulated statement about life after death. Certainly, I could explain why the Jewish funeral is spiritually comforting to the Jewish mourner, and if you would like for me to do so during the question period, I will oblige. The point for today, though, is what we can learn from Christianity, and I think this funeral issue points to a larger concern.

Jewish people tend to take our religious identity very seriously. Many of us are diligent in educating ourselves about our Scripture, our tradition, and our history. Some are punctilious in our practice of rituals. And yet, too many of us are lax in the area of personal faith. Christian funerals leave us cold, because we do not share the faith that our deceased Christian friend’s immortality is to be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Fair enough: after all, we are not Christians. And yet, if we are honest, individual Jews often don’t have a very developed theology of our own.

The problem stems from the undeniable fact that our ancient Rabbis were much more interested in practice than in belief. For them, as for us today, the performance of mitzvot, the Hebrew term for Jewish religious obligations, came first. Even if we doubt, we are taught to do. Our actions, we hope, will lead us to faith.

As a result of the ancient Rabbis’ priority, they were most careful to resolve any conflict about how Jewish tradition is to be practiced, down to the smallest detail. On the other hand, when they had differences of opinion about faith, on any but the largest, most obvious issues, they respected each other’s beliefs and did not insist on coming up with only one answer. Therefore, I think it fair to say that any branch of Judaism, however literalist in its interpretations, can’t claim to profess any single monopoly on what Jews belief.

The intended result, I think, is that Jews should continue to struggle with our theology, to debate the various positions, and to find our faith within the variety of Jewish teachings. After all, our name, Yisrael, Israel, means “one who struggles with God.” Unfortunately, though, the unintended, but common, result, is that to many of us avoid the struggle. Yes, we affirm that God is one. Beyond that, Jews tend to be rather agnostic on questions like: “What is the nature of God?” “Where is God when I am in trouble?” “What happens to us after we die?”

On the last question, Jews often proudly proclaim that we concentrate on life in this world. Indeed, the primary focus on repairing the world as we know it is a positive attribute of our religion. And yet, I do worry that too few Jews find a meaningful, reassuring faith in the synagogue or Jewish home.

We can learn from Christianity, not by adopting Christian theology, but by understanding that each of us needs a personal, individual relationship with a loving God. Nurturing this relationship seems to be second nature to Christians, but foreign to Jews.

We do have our own Jewish prayers, stories and traditions, which strive to connect us to personal faith. We are taught that, when Abraham had undergone serious surgery, auto-circumcision at the age of 99, God made a sick call on Abraham. We call that the mitzvah of bikkur holim, the Jewish religious obligation to visit the sick. We practice that mitzvah ourselves. And yet, I think few Jews, in times of illness, experience the presence of God, visiting each of us when we are in need, just as God visited our patriarch.

Similarly, while Judaism does not teach one clear dogma about life after death, our tradition has much to offer. Our prayers affirm that God has endowed each of us with a pure and immortal soul. We learn of a God with the attribute of hen, a Hebrew term best translated as “grace.” God loves us unconditionally. With the faith that God cares for each of us, and loves us, we may affirm that each of us, individually, achieves life everlasting, in the presence of God. We are not alone in this world, and we are not alone in the world to come.

Finally, I think it’s important for Jews to grapple with some of the concepts that Jesus specifically offers to Christianity. We can not accept that a messianic redeemer has come. Judaism requires us to continue to work and pray for the coming of a redeemed world, and our faith is that any messiah would indeed redeem the world. And yet, Christian faith in Jesus can teach Jews lessons that need not be foreign to our own faith, if we would be only embrace them without fear.

Christians believe that God pays attention to this world, that God so loves this world that God would give of God’s self to help human beings repent of sin, to become better people. Jews believe this, too, even though our idea of God’s giving is very different. All too often Jews think that we need to go it alone, that improving our own lives and turning away from sin is entirely an individual pursuit. Yes, we know that we must repent; we must offer righteous acts of giving; we must pray for forgiveness, for so our tradition teaches. At the same time, God is eager to be our divine Partner in the process of forgiveness.

Our partners also include the people around us, our family, our friends, our congregation, our Rabbis. We confess our sins together on Yom Kippur, on our Day of Atonement, admitting not only to our own wrongdoing, but to the evils of our entire community. Similarly, as Professor Cox suggests in his book, we should embrace the idea that our community can help us toward atonement. Jews, like Christians, can benefit from sympathetic atonement, not through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but through the loving rebukes, and the prayers, of those who share the covenant with us.

I could go on and on. Jews have much more to learn from Christians. If I had another five minutes, I might discuss forgiveness, for Jews are not as good as Christians at forgiving our fellow human beings who sin against us. Maybe we’re right about that one, at least to some extent, and that’s an area where we can learn from one another, but more on that another time, or during the question period.

For now, I will conclude, with thanksgiving to our Temple Sisterhood, for making this magnificent day possible; with gratitude to each of you, for coming; with appreciation to my friend and partner this morning, Rev. Coffey, as I am pleased to introduce him, to discuss what Christians can learn from Judaism.