From the Rabbi - March 2012 Print

Dear Friends:

March seems to be a time when non-Jewish groups want to visit our synagogue.  In the next month, I’ll speak with the eighth graders from St. James School and a confirmation class from the First United Methodist Church in Portland.  In addition, I’ll spend an evening with a teenage group at All Saints Episcopal Church exploring the Passover seder and its relationship to the Last Supper.  All of these groups prepare for at least an hour, watching the video created some years ago by our Sisterhood; it’s called “Your Visit to the Temple” and covers a number of basic points so I don’t have to repeat them, but can enter into conversation with the young people rather directly.

I often wonder why these groups are so intent on coming to see our synagogue and our services and why they are so interested in Judaism.  Surely, it is not because they want to become Jewish.  On occasion, I think it’s just a field trip to fill up a hole in the curriculum, but usually it’s more.

For one thing, there is a huge difference between the curiosity about one’s neighbors if one is a minority group member or a part of the majority culture.  As Jews we need to understand what the other people in our community are thinking, what they believe, how they worship, what values are salient in their thought.  The civilization of America is filled with people who are often very different from us, and, if we want to get along with them in harmony, we need to have a pretty good idea about who they are.  On the other hand, members of the majority culture have much less motivation to understand us; they can be more self-sufficient and get along in their own world without paying attention to our small group, if they wish.

The fact that a number of them do wish to know what we are about is a remarkable and wonderful American phenomenon.  There are Christians of immense goodwill who are committed to the concept of cultural pluralism, who want their students to understand and respect difference in American life.  Curiosity about people who live in ways that deviate from the majority culture does not always produce a positive outlook or respect, but I know the teachers of many of these youngsters, and I know the follow-up they have in their class discussions.  They make sure that the point of their visit is never missed.

There is, of course, a second reason to learn about Judaism.  Christianity, after all, grew from a Jewish root, and Jesus was a Jew from his birth to his death.  Only later did a separate religion emerge.  If a Christian is going to understand his or her own faith, the substratum of Jewish beliefs and practices constitutes an essential part of the knowledge base.   Consider just this one (among many) example.  Just down Saratoga Blvd. is a large Catholic Church named “Most Precious Blood.”  It is virtually impossible to understand how this Church got its name unless one realizes that the blood spilled during Jesus’ sacrificial crucifixion is to be seen as the successor to the Torah’s use of blood for atonement in the animal sacrificial cult of earlier biblical times.  To know Jewish parallels and precedents makes Christianity more meaningful to its adherents.

Finally, I think there are some very special elements in what we do that Christians can never have.  Biblical Judaism dates at least back to the Exodus from Egypt, roughly 1250 B.C.E.  Catholic Christianity traces itself back to the first Christian century, so there are nearly fifteen hundred years of history and development that we have that preceded the emergence of the daughter faith.  When we read from the Torah, we are doing something that Jews have been doing for roughly 2500 years, long before any alternative faith was fashioned.  The same is true of many of our practices, even though they take a modern form in today’s synagogue and Jewish home.   This sense of rootedness is remarkable and special – and unique to Jewish life.  Protestant Christianity goes back to Martin Luther, less than six hundred years ago, so its sense of historical connection is even more attenuated.  We represent something that is grounded long ago in biblical history, and that gives our faith a tremendous sense of meaning and value.

I hope you will think about some of the reasons why our Christian neighbors devote a good bit of time trying to understand who we are.  Their interest should remind you of virtues in Judaism of which you should be rightly proud.  Their visits should kindle within you a spirit of Jewish value and a desire to know even more and to be more involved in this age-old but ever-new enterprise we call Judaism.

 Sincerely yours,   
 Kenneth D. Roseman