Miracle at Eastern University

Earlier this year, I experienced a miracle. But first, some background.

I have the good fortune of teaching a class at Kohelet Yeshiva High School popularly known as the “Tikvah” course. It was originally funded by the Tikvah Fund, but when the Tikvah’s high school program was discontinued, Kohelet opted to continue the course. Through his connection to the Tikvah Fund, a previous teacher of the course introduced me to two individuals who have since become dear friends: Professors R.J. Snell and Jonathan Yonan. R.J. and Jonathan are Christian scholars who are true Judeophiles. As a small example, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ writings are a core part of the curriculum at the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, a local interdenominational Christian college where Yonan serves as dean. Indeed, the first time I ever heard Rabbi Sacks speak was at Eastern.

Given our friendship, I wasn’t all-too-surprised to receive an invitation from Yonan to participate in an armchair conversation for Templeton students on the subject of Jewish-Christian relations. I gladly agreed. (For the purposes of this post, we’ll leave aside the questions regarding interfaith dialogue.) Jonathan sent a list of wide-ranging questions, including: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a chosen people? Is antisemitism fundamentally similar to other forms of bigotry or does it have a unique valence unto itself? What concerns you about the Jewish future and what gives you hope? Indeed, even before I stepped foot onto Eastern’s campus, I learned much from the questions, two in particular.

First, Jonathan asked, how could Jews not see the Crucifixion in passages such as the binding of Isaac, the suffering servant in Isaiah and similar biblical texts? This one seemed like a curveball; it had never occurred to me that reading the binding of Isaac as prefiguring the Crucifixion might be the plain reading of the Bible. Given our different prior assumptions about the larger significance of the Bible, however, I realized it was inevitable that we would end up reading some of the same passages in radically different ways. This helped me to recognize the extent to which our prior assumptions color our interpretation of any text or event.

During the armchair, I made the point by citing one of my favorite childhood novels: C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The first time I read the book, when I was around nine or ten, I explained, I had no idea as to the significance of the mighty lion Aslan being sacrificed on a stone table and rising from the dead. It was just a fun fantasy. Only later, when I learned more about Lewis, did I recognize the story’s overt Christological overtones. Our frame of reference, in other words, profoundly influences how we react to any text we encounter. (Linguists and psychologists refer to this as schema theory.)

Of course, in the case of Lewis’ novel, the Christian references obviously were present. Still, the fundamental point is applicable to other texts, including the binding of Isaac. If we grow up learning that the Old Testament contains scores of allegories for Christ’s Passion, we will see Jesus’ death and resurrection everywhere. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the face interpretation of the text. In the case of the binding of Isaac, in fact, unlike The Chronicles of Narnia, quite the opposite is true.

The other eye-opening question was about replacement theology or supersessionism, the view that Christians have succeeded the Jews as God's chosen people. The query ran as follows: when Christians read the Bible, it’s difficult for them to locate themselves. After all, once Abraham arrives on the scene, gentiles are overwhelmingly ignored and/or vilified for much of the remainder of the Bible. It’s no surprise that Christians instead choose to view themselves as the “new Jews,” interpreting major sections of the Bible as prefiguring Jesus’ suffering and Second Coming. Here too I found the question intriguing; I had never really stopped to think about how Christians’ experience of textual exclusion might lead them to radically reread the Bible. Although I had ready answers, the question certainly inspired my empathy. Without modifying any of my positions - after all, the working assumption of the armchair was that we would agree to disagree - I was able to gain a new appreciation for the assumptions that other faiths communities bring to the biblical text.

But the experience, I suspect, was equally broadening for the students, who listened respectfully and attentively throughout the public discussion. Most remarkable was the unending stream of students who stayed afterward to ask questions and share their perspectives.

The first student was a young woman who was participating in an interfaith fellowship with a Reform temple. I had mentioned Maimonides’ 13 principles in the course of my remarks, and she was surprised to learn that Judaism involves doctrines of faith. It was a great opportunity to give her a fuller sense of modern Judaism’s breadth, as well as an Orthodox Jewish perspective.

Next, a young man approached, wearing a necklace with the Star of David. I noted his jewelry, and he explained that his mother is a Jew for Jesus. He added that although we likely disagree about many things, one point I made resonated deeply with him. The first question Professor Yonan had posed concerned the nature of Jewishness. As part of my response I had explained that one who joins the Jewish people commits not only to Jewish faith but also to the Jewish people. As Ruth exclaimed to Naomi, “Your nation is my nation and your God is my God.” The messianic Jew explained that he feels, in a profound way, that we are part of the same people.

A third student earnestly asked how I could have possibly spoken positively about Israel, a genocidal state. She explained that she grew up in the Middle East next door to a Palestinian family that had fled the West Bank because the Israeli army was targeting another family’s home in their apartment complex. With an earnest expression, she explained that she couldn’t understand, for the life of her, how I could see the matter differently. I answered by asking her to engage in her own act of empathy. Imagine yourself, I said, in the shoes of an Israeli member of government or military officer. Your people are being stabbed in the streets. They face rockets raining down on them, launched from U.N. hospitals or by people hiding behind human shields. How would you respond? As she mulled over that relatively obvious point and wasn’t able to muster much of a response, I realized the extent to which so many people walk around with negative impressions of Israel based on sheer ignorance, never having been exposed to an intelligent alternative narrative.

Finally, in a humorous coda, a student walked me out, bemoaning the tremendous acrimony in the Catholic community regarding women’s liturgical and leadership roles. She wondered whether there were any debates along these lines in the Jewish community, or whether women’s roles in liturgy and leadership were clear-cut and had been fully resolved? Since my time was tight, I simply chuckled and said it was good to know we weren’t the only ones struggling with these issues.

In so many ways, the armchair at Eastern was enriching for all involved. For me, perhaps most compelling were the sentiments I shared with the students toward the beginning of the event. I emotionally explained that the entire event, to my mind, was a miracle. If my Holocaust-surviving grandparents had learned that I was walking onto the campus of a Christian university to engage in a cordial dialogue with a Christian friend in front of 150 respectful Christian students, they would have probably tried to warn me of the dangers of setting foot on campus as a kippa-wearing Jew. After nearly 2,000 years of Christian antisemitism, my experience at Eastern University was nothing short of miraculous.

It is not yet clear what will be the next steps in my relationship with R.J. and Jonathan. And the next chapter in Jewish-Christian relations, which remains complex and sometimes fraught, has yet to be written. But if I learned anything, it is this: in a world in which we constantly feel besieged simply for being Jewish and proud supporters of Israel, the new landscape in Jewish-Christian relations generates a tremendous responsibility. It is critical that we identify and seize opportunities for increased collaboration between our communities. We must never take for granted the miracle of Jewish-Christian relations in our generation.