Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships

It was my privilege and delight last evening to participate in a program sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. (The Jay Phillips Center is a joint project of University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville.) The program featured a lecture given by my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen and a response by me.

The title of Rabbi Cohen’s lecture was Jews and Christians: Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships. In his lecture, he talked about the history of Christian-Jewish relationships, the improvement in dialogue between the two and the need to make further progress in that dialogue. He believes that much dialogue has “consisted only of cautious attempts to find common ground, to determine and emphasize the things we share,” risking an unintended syncretism and a failure on the part of both Christians and Jews to develop greater understanding of the “distinctive flavors” of the other’s faith. He talked about some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague the efforts of both Christians and Jews to grow in their relationship with each other.

Ultimately, Rabbi Cohen believes that “only the concept of a God who is so great that covenant can be created with more than one people and in different ways, is the road to better interfaith understanding.”

I began my response to his lecture by talking about why I believe greater understanding between Jews and Christians is important. I then shared some observations about some of the points he raised in his talk, starting with observations about Christian perceptions of Judaism and, more briefly, raising a couple of thoughts about Jewish perceptions of Christianity. I ended with some observations regarding both Christians and Jews that affect how we view each other, including my strong agreement that we cannot (using his words) “be so bold as to think that our God is so limited that God chooses only the Jews or has replaced the Jews with the Christians.”

Because Rabbi Cohen’s lecture is a part of a larger writing project in which he is currently engaged, I can not post a text of his lecture. However, I have posted on my website the text that formed the basis of my response. You can find that text here.

Following our talks, there was a lively questions and answer period. One of thing on which we all agreed is that these sorts of conversations are important and that we need to find ways to bring them to larger audiences.


Jews and Christians and Their Views of Each Other

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.



L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu

Last evening was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. Rosh Hashana begins what are referred to as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance, a 10 day period that end with Yom Kippur.

As the new year begins, attention is focused on themes of judgment, repentance, memory and the divine presence in the world. At the same time, Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to celebrate birth and creation. The Rosh Hashana liturgy commemorates the creation of the world. Many Jewish families will dip apples in honey to emphasize the sweetness of starting the cycle of seasons once again, and eat round challot as a reminder of the cycles of life.

On Thursday, I’ll be speaking to our Weekly Manna group about the repentance and reconciliation aspect of this period.

For now, though, I simply wish all of my Jewish friends L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, which means, “May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.”

Interpreting the Law in Judaism

Yesterday was the first part of a two-part Mid-Day Dialogue on Faith on the subject of Interpreting Scripture and Ascertaining Religious Law. Our speaker yesterday was my friend Rabbi Norman M. Cohen, the senior rabbi at Bet Shalom congregation in Minnetonka, who I have mentioned in several previous posts.

Rabbi Cohen began by talking about our need for law. In Jewish thought, because there is and always will be a tension between the good inclination and the evil inclination – an ongoing battle for the human will – we need to pay attention to and follow the teachings of our tradition as they can be found in the evolving system of law. He then talked about how the evolving development of Jewish law.

There was so much packed into Rabbi Cohen’s talk, but let me highlight only two thoughts. First, is the misconception that Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament and Christianity the religion of the New Testament. That phrasing, he suggested, runs the risk of a philosophy of triumphalism which suggests that “Christianity’s beginning marked the end of Judaism,” as though Judaism is “the roots, the purpose of which is only to provide sustenance for the tree that grows above it.”

Instead, he suggested, the better image is that or “roots nourish[ing] more than one tree growing out of that fertile ground, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity…both of which developed in the centuries following the Roman’s destruction of the ancient Temple.”

The second has to do with interpretation of the Bible. Judaism is a dynamic religious system. Rabbi Cohen talked about the ancient rabbis who adopted a creative approach to Biblical understanding and interpretation. “They insisted that every text, every sentence, every word, and eery letter has various potential levels of meaning, all of which are valuable and precious, but none of which should have claim to be the sole explanation.”

This has the obvious implication that a literal reading of the Bible can never yield full truth and also provides a response to those who poke fun of Bible stories that can’t possibly be literally true to modern minds. Giving the example of Gulliver’s Travels, in which we easily see both a fanciful children’s story and a story with deeper levels of sophistication and meaning, Rabbi Cohen suggested that to “summarily dismiss certain Biblical stories, ideas or concepts indicates only our inability to appreciate the many layers of meaning intended by Biblical redactors.” I think he is quite correct in saying that we “often grant them less respect than we do Jonathan Swift. And it is we who are the poorer for our missing the opportunity to see beyond the superficial meaning of the text.”

At the second session of this program, which will be on March 28, Rabbi Cohen will return for a dialogue on the issue of how we read the Bible and ascertain religious law that will include me and my colleagues, Mark Osler Fr. Dan Griffith. (UST Friends: feel free to join us even if you missed yesterday’s gathering; just let Bethany Fletcher know you will be there, since lunch will be served.)