The Jewish-Evangelical Interface
Albert and Tony were best friends who grew up in each other’s homes. Albert’s Jewish mother sent him off to school each day with the question, “Albert, do you have your books?” Tony’s Italian mother sent him off to school each morning with the query, “Tony, do you have your lunch?”
I heard this true story last week at a gathering of evangelical and Jewish leaders in Washington, D.C. Tony shared this charming childhood tale to introduce his presentation on how Jews and evangelical Christians view the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I share it to illustrate the commonalities and differences of two faith communities. Jews and evangelical Christians share a holy book in common – the Hebrew Bible, aka. the Old Testament. And we share a belief in the efficacy of interfaith dining--the bonds of friendship and fellowship that develop when we “break bread” together.
Over the course of two days, participants in the fourth Evangelical-Jewish National Conversation discussed and debated a range of scholarly and practical topics. We analyzed faith affirmations and the threats to religious liberty in America. We surveyed evangelical theological positions on the Jewish people and its covenant with God. We devoted two sessions to the Middle East conflict and the hot-button issue of how to and not to criticize Israel. While many evangelical pastors and their congregants are strong supporters of Israel, our conversation focused on evangelicals who are critical of Israeli policies. The discourse was heartfelt, honest and at times raw and intense.
We also explored the seminal Jewish Annotated New Testament and its emerging impact on Jewish and evangelical readers. This session reiterated a theme that I hear frequently when I speak to Jewish audiences: Why would a group of distinguished Jewish scholars write essays about the books of the New Testament? Why should Jews learn about Christianity? Who cares what “they” believe and practice?
My answer is quite simple--do the math! I have always marveled at our proclivity for math and the astonishing number of Jews who have won prizes in mathematics and allied disciplines. Do the math in our nation: According to the latest Pew Forum “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 1.7 percent of American adults identify as Jewish, while 26.3 percent of adults call themselves evangelicals. Nearly one-half of all Protestants in the United States self-identify as evangelical Christians. Whether our interfaith outreach is prompted by self-interest, altruism or both motivations, we serve the Jewish people well when we engage our evangelical neighbors in meaningful dialogue.
As Jews, we often lament that Christians do not understand our practices and beliefs. If we expect Christians to respect us, then we need to know much more about Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity. To that end, we must appreciate the following:
The wide variety of evangelical flavors and their respective theologies and belief systems. Evangelicals dislike being painted in broad brush strokes just as much as Jews recoil when non-Jews do this to us.
Unconditional love of Israel is a core tenet of many evangelicals; others do not share this belief. Many evangelicals promote domestic agendas that put them at odds with large swaths of the Jewish community; others do not. We need to be thoughtful, nuanced and strategic to decide when and how to partner with evangelical Christians on complex matters of religion and politics.
Catholics and Jews have had nearly five decades since Vatican II and Nostra Aetate to refine our theological and inter-group relations; Jewish-evangelical dialogue is in its infancy. One lesson we have learned from other interfaith partnerships is that there will be numerous bumps and obstacles along the way. The challenge we face is how to respond to these setbacks and foster a healthy, evolving relationship with evangelicals.
Faith communities and their leaders have multiple agendas and reasons for doing what they do. Jewish relations and concerns are not always at the top of the evangelical agenda. Believe it or not, it’s not always about us! As we engage in interfaith work, we must never forget the first 19 centuries of relations between Christians and Jews. They were marked by anti-Semitism, persecution and hatred, much of it religiously induced and carried out in the name of the Prince of Peace. They were filled with blood libels, accusations of well poisoning, devil worship, host desecration and other acts that led to pogroms, murder, rape and the forced conversion of entire Jewish communities. This is a bitter legacy whose logical and terrifying conclusion was the systematic destruction of six million Jewish men, women and children at the hands of the Nazis and their henchmen.
My experiences with evangelical Christians convince me that they are painfully aware of this history and yearn to do teshuvah (repentance) in word and deed. It is up to us to respond to their quest with faith, understanding and above all sekhel (practical wisdom). The rabbinic sage Ben Azzai taught that the most important verse of the Torah is Genesis 5:1: “These are the generations of Adam. When God created human beings, God made them in the divine image.”
Christians and Jews alike affirm that we are all created in the image of God. Each of us is a child of God. To love God is to act with love, kindness and compassion towards God’s children. This is what the Holy One requires of us. This is what our respective faiths demand of us. This is what our fellowmen and women expect of us. This is both the promise and the challenge of Jewish-evangelical relations.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Journal, June 13, 2012.