My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, who is often a speaker on interfaith dialogue, has been working on a book on Stereotypes and Misconceptions Christians and Jews Hold About Each Other. Last fall, I invited him to come to speak to the law school community on the subject. During that visit, he only addressed half of his project: stereotypes and misconceptions Christians have about Jews. Today we had him back for a lunchtime presentation on the second half: stereotypes and misconceptions Jews have about Christians.
The following are some of the misconceptions Rabbi Cohen identified as ones Jews have about Christians. (He had 11; I’ll just mention 5.) He was very clear that not all Jews think all of these things, but that these is some prevalence to these views.
1. That Christianity is monolithic. Just as Christians often fail to appreciate the enormous differences within Judaism, Jews often do not appreciate that there are differences, not only between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics, or between Southern Baptists and UCC folks. He feels the need to sometimes remind members of his congregation that you don’t understand “Christianity” by watching a few TV evangelists on Sunday morning.
2. That Christians mean the same things as Jews do in using certain terms. A good reminder for all of us that words we take for granted like “Bible”, “Messiah”, “sin” and “salvation” mean different things to people of different faith traditions.
3. That Christians only care about heaven and hell and not about his world. Rabbi Cohen noted that his response is to point out how many soup kitchens and other works of mercy and charity are performed by Christian churches. The commitment of especially the Catholic Church to social justice is, he believes, apparent to anyone who looks objectively at their actions.
4. That the New Testament is nothing more than anti-semitic blaming of Jews for killing Jesus. This is one I sense Rabbi Cohen loves to talk about with Jews, as he has become convinced from his own experience of the value to Jews of studying the New Testament. He believes it is source from which Jews can better understand their Christian friends, what first century Jews were like, how a young Church develops, and so on. This is a subject I’d love to hear him elaborate on.
5. That the Holocaust is totally the fault of Christianity because it took place on a Christian continent and the Church did not prevent it from happening. This strikes me as one of those over-generalizations that have some germ of truth. It clearly is a misconception to place the blame of the holocaust on Christianity. However, it is also clear that the Catholic Church could have taken more decisive action in challenging the Nazi regime, something it itself has acknowledged.
There was much more in his talk, but this gives you a few highlights to think about. I am grateful to my friend for taking time with us.