Don’t Try This at Home
by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
, April 17, 2006
More than 15 years ago I received a telephone call from a young rabbinic colleague whoclearly found herself in a situation of great discomfiture. At the time, I held a position for theReform Jewish movement not unlike the position I hold today at the Anti-Defamation League,directing interfaith relations. As a newly ordained rabbi serving solo in a rural community, myyoung colleague had received an invitation from a local church to come and explain thePassover.As she walked into the church basement, she found the room filled with round tables set in fullPassover regalia, with seder plates, matzos, glasses of wine and church members holdingacopy of the Passover prayer book at each seat. At the front of the room was one long table,13 chairs filled by 12 people wearing white tunics and a large empty chair at the center of thetable. Her host pointed to the chair and asked the rabbi to take her place.The church members wanted to experience a Passover “just like the one Jesus experienced.” The young rabbi did her best to stumble through the event, but was clearly caught up inanxiety produced by the feeling that her holiday had, somehow, been co-opted. She knew thatthe way that the Passover had been celebrated 2,000 years before was quite different from itsmodern iteration. She needed my reassurance that she had done the right thing by telling theparticipants so.
Beyond ‘Getting to Know You’
In the past 40 years, since the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s document
(“Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”), there hasbeen a great explosion of interest in the “Jewishness” of Jesus. Much effort has been put intounderstanding the religious environment in which Jesus and his disciples began their ministryand mission. The revolution reached its zenith under the church stewardship of Karol Wojtyla,Pope John Paul II, whose formative years in Poland were shaped in part by his friendship withthe Jews of his town and his personal love for the cantorial music of Jewish liturgy. Thisinterest has been maintained by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, whose keenscholarship and theological writings have daringly taken on the difficult issues that arise whentrying to balance the belief expressed in
(recalling Paul in Rom 11:28-29) that “God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues,” with the belief that thechurch has become the “New Israel.” Indeed, the growing dialogue of the past 40 years may have finally allowed Jews andChristians to move beyond simple platitudes and “getting to know you” sessions to take on, asPope Benedict said to the Jewish community in Cologne (Aug. 19, 2005), “those areas inwhich, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in thoseareas, we need to show respect and love for one another.” Church documents since
have addressed these issues in serious ways. Even the way the Bible itself has beenread and studied was taken up by the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s
The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible
(2001). It is vitally important to understand howthe writers of much of the New Testament employed language, imagery and textualknowledge to create works that could be heard and understood first by their almostexclusively Jewish audiences. It is also critically important to study how the church fatherslater read the texts without knowledge of the Jewish people and their beliefs and practices,and created a new overlay of understanding, which helped to found a church quite separateand distinct from the religious community from which it sprang.