For Jews and Christians, a holiday 'season of rapprochement'

The Hanukkah and Christmas holidays coincide amid a season of Jewish and Christian bridge-building, as evidenced, in part, by a recent surprise bestseller on Amazon.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
This Dec. 1 photo shows the National Christmas Tree after it was lit by President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha Obama and mother-in-law Marian Robinson, at the Ellipse across from the White House in Washington. The National Christmas Tree is a 26-foot Colorado blue spruce.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew (c.) is assisted by Rabbi Levi Shemtov (l.) and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, as they light the National Hanukkah Menorah during a ceremony on The Ellipse in Washington, Tuesday, marking the first night of Hanukkah.

This year’s Hanukkah and Christmas seasons coincide amid what many scholars and religious figures alike are calling a notable period of reconciliation and bridge-building between Jewish and Christian communities.

“The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” written by Jewish scholars and warmly received by top religious scholars and general readers alike, was a surprise bestseller earlier this month, selling out on Amazon, and is still hovering among the top recommended reads.

Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, a Vanderbilt University Bible scholar, says the book, which puts the writing and writers of the New Testament into a Jewish context, has led already to substantial conversations between Jews and Christians, including seminars and high-profile interfaith meetings.

This caps at least a decade of mutual Christian and Jewish outreach, during which The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore sponsored an event that led to what Professor Levine calls a remarkable statement, entitled “Speak Truth” and signed by nearly 170 rabbis and Jewish professors.

The document, first published in The New York Times, affirms eight major areas of agreement between Christians and Jews, including the assertion that both accept the moral principles of the Torah, both seek authority from the same book and both believe in the same God.

“Speak Truth,” or “Dabru Emet” in Hebrew, “was followed up by ‘A Sacred Obligation: A Christian Statement on Jews and Judaism,’ ” Levine points out.

“This is a season of rapprochement,” says Alan Brill, chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, New Jersey. This increased dialogue has been fueled in part by information from recent archeological findings, including the Dead Sea scrolls dating back to 1947, finally working its way into mainstream Jewish and Christian scholarship, points out Professor Brill.

There have been pivotal, historic moments, such as the decision of the Second Vatican Council – the three-year gathering (1962-65) to address the Catholic Church’s relationship to the modern world – to officially absolve the Jewish people for any responsibility for the death of Jesus, as well as Christian expressions of support for the state of Israel. These moves have paved the way for greater shared respect for mutual history as well as different traditions. “It is an exciting time,” Brill adds.

Christian scholars share an interest in understanding Jesus in the context of history, says Silviu Bunta, assistant professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of Dayton in Ohio, who says there is a growing convergence of the current Jewish and Christian understanding of Jesus.

In ancient Judaism, he says, there was no single way of reading the Torah and Jesus’ manner of interpreting the Biblical text does not fall outside of Jewish interpretations at the time. Christian students of the same period have come to rediscover Jesus’ humanity and Jewishness, he says, adding, “Christian scholars are becoming more and more comfortable with viewing Jesus as a product of Judaism.”

Growing cultural trends such as interfaith marriage support this growing openness, says Rabbi Yitzchak Wyne, founder of Young Israel Aish, an Orthodox Jewish community synagogue in Las Vegas, and author of, “Life Is Great!: Revealing the 7 secrets of a more joyful you!”

“We have a greater level of interfaith marriage today than at almost any other time in history,” he says. With the advent of Israel, “we are in a much more liberal time, with Christians being more accepting of Jewish traditions and families celebrating many traditions,” he says, adding that he just finished counseling a woman married to a non-Jewish man. “They will go home and light the menorah this week and then on Sunday head over to his mother’s house for Christmas dinner.”

Concern over watering down of religious observances and principles must be balanced against tolerance for different beliefs, he says.

“Christian and Jewish traditions are coming closer together,” says Chaplain Paul Fullmer, Religion & Philosophy professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn.

“Particularly as Christians begin to appreciate the value of reading Christian teachings ‘with Jewish eyes,’ community-based celebrations of a Seder meal, Purim, or Sukkoth are becoming opportunities for education, understanding, and on-going relationship,” says Professor Fullmer, noting that he sees the shifting attitudes among his students as they are exposed to newer ideas.

“ ‘How can a Jewish person not believe in Jesus?’ a student asked me recently,” he says. “ ‘Haven’t they read Isaiah 52 to 53?’

“At a Seder meal held on our campus, that student came to understand how the Suffering Servant in these passages is understood by many Jews as representing the Jewish community as a whole,” he says. Jewish-Christian celebrations and other opportunities through which Jewish and Christian community grow closer together matter, he says, “to the extent that they help Christians to appreciate the Jewish approach to faith, and vice versa.”

And in his forthcoming book, “Kosher Jesus,” Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, also reexamines the historic Jesus, suggesting that a better understanding of his actual historic role helps both faiths.

“We need to rediscover the humanity of Jesus,” he says, adding, “we need to understand more about what he actually said about how we should live and act.” 

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