US rabbi: Jews are handicapped by not knowing New Testament

Jews should be more familiar with "greatest external determinant of Jewish history," stop "self-imposed ignorance."

bible 88 (photo credit: )
bible 88
(photo credit: )
Of all the texts considered required reading in a thorough Jewish education, one major work with Jewish roots is usually missing from everyone's list: the New Testament. Most Jews shun Christian Scripture. As a result, they can't answer Christians who ask why Jews don't accept Jesus as the Messiah. Reform Rabbi Michael J. Cook says this "self-imposed ignorance" is dangerous. At a time when many Christians are embracing the Jewish origins of their faith, holding Passover seders before Easter, Cook says he has taken on the "Herculean task" of convincing Jews they must learn how the Gospels molded Christian attitudes toward Judaism. "The New Testament is the greatest single external determinant of Jewish history, and deleteriously so in its causing Jews grievous problems," said Cook, who holds the unusual job of New Testament professor at a Jewish seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In a book he plans to publish next year, "Modern Jews Engage the New Testament," he will present an education plan for how Jews can learn enough to answer "why they process it differently from Christians." Many scholars agree that Jews would benefit from studying the Christian texts. They say it could improve interfaith relations, especially on the local level where rabbis are expected to work with fellow clergy from other denominations. It also would help when public debates arise - like the controversy about how Jews were depicted in the Mel Gibson movie, "The Passion of the Christ." Many outsiders viewed Jewish objections to the film as an affront to Christianity, damaging relations between the two faiths. Cook said most Jews had no idea how to explain their concerns about the script - even to their own children. However, the scholars also say there are too many other pressing issues in Jewish education - including the increasing secularization of Jews - to make New Testament learning a priority. Burt Visostsky, a longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution for Conservative Judaism, said many rabbinical students enroll at the seminary without strong backgrounds in their own religion - let alone Christianity and other faiths. "In an ideal world, of course we'd train our students to know something about Christianity and also Islam," said Visostsky, who teaches Midrash and interreligious studies. "But where is it on the triage list? I'm afraid not very high." Jewish aversion to the New Testament is rooted in both religious law and historical experience. Some passages in early rabbinic literature bar Jews from reading the Gospels, Cook said. The Talmud, the compilation of Jewish law, reinforces this point by prohibiting Jews from saving the Gospels from a fire even though the name of God is written in them, said Jacob Neusner, a Bard College professor and expert on Judaism and Christianity. Jewish resentment grew over the centuries as Christians used the New Testament to try to convert Jews - either through evangelism or by force during the Crusades and other violent periods. The belief derived from the New Testament that Jews are collectively responsible for Christ's death has now been rejected by the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations, but the idea persists among some Christians to this day. "The New Testament historically has been a book that has been thrown in the face of Jews," said Rabbi James Rudin, the interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, who agrees that Jews need to learn about the Gospels. "As the years have gone by, it has been seen as the Scripture of the `other' and the other has always been perceived, until recently, as a hostile group trying to subvert or replace Jews and Judaism." The text is now almost completely absent from coursework for rabbinical candidates, students at American Jewish colleges and the many young people enrolled in Jewish high schools. Rabbinical students who study the Hellenistic period learn some history of the New Testament. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania requires a course in Christian history that includes reading the Gospels. Still, Cook says he is the only full professor of New Testament at an American Jewish seminary, and that Cincinnati, Ohio-based Hebrew Union, which trains rabbis, cantors and educators for the Reform movement, is the only seminary requiring technical study of the Gospels for ordination. The idea of New Testament study faces the greatest resistance in Orthodox schools, which strive to provide a liberal arts education within the bounds of a strict reading of Jewish law. Rabbi Shalom Carmy, an expert on biblical thought at Yeshiva University in New York, said the New Testament is part of an undergraduate course in medieval and modern literature, but some students are uncomfortable learning about the Christian text and skip the lectures. "The highest priority for a believing Jew is the study of Torah and its fulfillment," he said. "The study of other religions and cultures may be the source of psychological insight and may help us better to understand others. But these goals are ancillary." Cook says he understands these arguments, but ultimately rejects them, contending it is illogical for Jews who so heavily emphasize education to ignore such an important text. He called lack of knowledge about the New Testament the Jewish "Achilles' heel." "Once Jews catch on to this, most will recognize how valuable this venture can be," Cook said, "and how ... damaging has been their self-imposed taboo."