Tag Archives: interfaith

The role of non-Jews in the synagogue

An intermarried couple joins the synagogue. What are the boundaries for participating in services?

Temple Beth Abraham

For comparison, having no boundaries is a characteristic of another, non-Jewish, monotheistic religion, Unitarian-Universalism. Not allowing any intermarried couples to join a synagogue removes the question entirely – which is the common Orthodox approach – but also drives the children of such couples eventually to other faiths.

Orthodox Judaism

Many Orthodox synagogues won’t allow intermarried couples or join. For those that do, a gentile may not become a member of a synagogue, nor serve on synagogue committees. For both halakhic and theological reasons, they may not lead prayers or recite a berakhah. Gentiles, however, are warmly welcomed to prayer services and communal events.

Conservative/Masorti Judaism

For both halakhic and theological reasons, non-Jews may not lead prayer services or recite a berakhah. They are welcomed to prayer services, and communal events. Conservative synagogues recognize that many intermarried families exist, and has created roles for non-Jewish parents/grand-parents who wish to participate in life-cycle events for their Jewish children/grandchildren.

This could include the recitation of a personal prayer, a relevant section from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible.) The booklet “Building the Faith”, from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, notes that non-Jewish family members may be given honors to open and close the ark that contains the Torah scrolls; they may dress the Torah in its cover, and may lead the congregation in various English readings. Many Conservative synagogues are now creating support groups for intermarried families.

Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism

In many Reform Temples gentiles may serve on Temple committees, and may count as full members of the movement. “In many congregations…non-Jewish choristers and soloists have occupied positions which seemed to make them into shelichei tsibbur [cantor, leader of prayer services].”

Various Reform teshuvot (e.g. “Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual 5754.5”) offer guidance limiting the role of gentiles in Reform prayer service, but leadership is not obligated to follow.  Surveys show that 87% of Reform congregations allow gentiles to serve on synagogue committees; 22% allow gentiles to have an aliyah to the Torah.

Survery conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, noted in “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America”, Jack Wertheimer

Reconstructionist Judaism

Allows rabbis to officiate at intermarriages, and accepts patrilineal descent. Children of a gentile mother are considered Jewish; despite official policy, in many congregations this does not matter whether or not they are raised as a Jew. As such, non-Jewish children raised as Christians may nonetheless be accepted as “Jews” in Reconstructionism. [Feld]

Gentiles may become members of Reconstructionist Temples, they may serve on Temple ritual committees. They may sing prayers on the bima during prayer services. The JRF has issued a non-binding statement limiting the role of gentiles in services, “Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in JRF Congregation.” However these issues are ultimately decided by local lay leadership.

  • From “Can Halakha Live?” by Rabbi Edward Feld, “The Reconstructionist”, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p.64-72



Responding to American Gods

Monotheism is incredibly different from polytheism (“paganism”). In Judaism, all forms of polytheism are understood as avodah zarah/idolatry. Monotheism is even more different from paganism when we have a non anthropomorphic view of God.

Still, in polytheism there are some interesting stories told about the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse gods. For the most part we don’t have anything like that. Since we are interested in truth, and believe that God is unitary, that makes sense. But we miss out on some of the storytelling.

Is anyone familiar with the book “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman? It was recently made into a TV series ( it is very well-reviewed, but has some graphic themes which are not family friendly) In this story pagan gods of ancient times are actually real, and were somehow created by human thoughts and belief. To continue their existence, these gods need belief and sacrifice from human worshipers. The show revolves around a conflict between the classical ancient gods, and newly-created deities, gods based on media and the internet and modern-day beliefs.

As Jews, how do we respond to the show? Is it theologically permissible to watch such a show? If so, is there anything we can learn from it? Does it illustrate why we need to be monotheists? Does it offer points or counter points that offer interesting discussion?

We’re discussing this book on our forum Coffeehouse Torah Talk: A havurah for Jewish learning.

American gods

Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism

Like other faiths, Judaism has no one, precisely defined theology: rather, there are a diversity of views on the nature of God, how God interacts with the world, and what the essential principles of Jewish faith should be. There are many rationalist interpretations of Judaism, viewed through the lens of philosophy, and many mystical interpretations, viewed through the lens of kabbalah and mysticism.

However, there are also theological boundaries, beyond which a person’s belief would be deemed heresy.

What are the boundaries of Jewish theology?

Judaism forbids avodah zarah/עבודה זרה, idolatry.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has many statements against avodah zarah, written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry includes any of these:

the worship of idols/images
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols even in the worship of God

The Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol or image could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form.

It is true the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these are poetic, not literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for avodah zarah/idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), “things of naught” (Lev. 19:4), “vanity” (Deut. 32), “iniquity” (1 Sam. 15:23 ), “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29 ), “the dead” (Ps. 106:28 ), “carcasses” (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), “a lie” (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)

What was the idolatry/paganism described in the Bible?

A classic work is “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile”, by Yechezkel Kaufmann. It’s Hebrew title is תולדות האמונה הישראלית, (Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit.) English readers know this book from its translation by Moshe Greenberg.

Clearly, the Bible condemns the external practices of idolatry – worship of figures/idols. But the Bible’s description of idolatry is overly literal – most pagans didn’t really believe that their idols were gods; historians have shown that pagans believed that their idols were just representations of their deities. So Kaufman asks, why doesn’t the Bible directly attack the theology of paganism itself? Page 20 of The Religion of Israel states

It seems incredible that Israel should have been totally unaware of the nature of pagan beliefs. For Israel was always in contact with its pagan neighbors, and moreover, had believing pagans in its midst. Certainly there were circles who knew about paganism more than is reflected in the Bible. What is shown by the fact that the Bible bases its whole polemic on the argument of fetishism is that the chief influence of foreign beliefs on Israelite religion did not involve mythological materials and that the age-long battle of the Bible with idolatry did not involve mythological polytheism.

This compels us to examine anew the conventional views regarding foreign influences on Israelite religion during biblical times. Moreover, we shall have to re-examine fundamentally the nature of Israelite “idolatry” during this period.

It is clear now that the question as to the origin of Israelite monotheism has been erroneously formulated. We cannot ask whether it was during the preprophetic or prophetic age that the religion of YHWH came to deny the reality of the foreign gods. The Bible nowhere denies the existence of the gods; it ignores them.

In contrast to the philosophic attack on Greek popular religion, and in contrast to the later Jewish and Christian polemics, biblical religion shows no trace of having undertaken deliberately to suppress and repudiate mythology. There is no evidence that the gods and their myths were ever a central issue in the religion of YHWH. And yet this religion is non-mythological. Fossil-remains of ancient myths cannot obscure the basic difference between Israelite religion and paganism. It is precisely this non-mythological aspect that makes it unique in world history; this was the source of its universal appeal.

The Bible’s ignorance of the meaning of paganism is at once the basic problem and the most important clue to the understanding of biblical religion. It underscores as nothing else can the gulf that separates biblical religion from paganism. A recognition of this gulf is crucial to the understanding of the faith of the Bible. Not only does it underlie the peculiar biblical misrepresentation of paganism, it is the essential fact of the history of the Israelite religion.

Kaufman concludes that little relationship existed between the ancient Canaanites and Israelites. In his view, the influence of ancient near-eastern pagan religions existed only prior to the time of Moses.  Monotheism was an original development of the Israelites themselves. After the Israelites became monotheistic, their theology no longer was related to the mythological pagan ideas around them -to the extent that the Scriptures do not even understand paganism.

“Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism.”


Examples of ancient idolatry

Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) attacks those who worship the pagan deities Baal and the Queen of Heaven; the pagans believed that these deities has sexual intercourse; their religious followers taught that humans here on Earth should have sex, even with pagan temple prostitutes, in order to stimulate the deities into heavenly sex.

Ironically, these ideas persisted through history through Gnostic texts, and somehow became embedded within the Zohar – a core text of Jewish mysticism.  On this, Yehudah Ilan writes

The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), [Hasidic Jewish] husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings.

Major Problems with the Kabbalah: Forthodoxy

Jewish view of Christianity

Some places in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same literal sense as pagan idolaters in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints.) (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin, 13b)

Other rabbis held differently, and by the middle ages a new consensus was reached in which Christianity was generally not held to be idolatry.
– “Exclusiveness and Tolerance”, Jacob Katz, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10

Maimonides writes that Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and that Mohammed was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews had as a result of persecution from followers of these new faiths that attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world. In his Mishneh Torah, he writes:

Jesus was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God’s ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for the King [[Messiah]] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart.(“Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides, XI.4

This paragraph used to be censored from many printed versions of the Mishneh Torah because it contained verses critical of Jesus.

“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People” Menachem Kellner, State Univ. of New York Press, 1991

Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Excerpted from chapter 4 of “The Root and the Branch”, Rabbi Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.

We have seen that the ideal of religious liberty has deep roots within the Jewish tradition. It is an even more pronounced feature of the spiritual landscape of American life. It is noteworthy that the First Amendment to the Constitution is dedicated to safeguarding freedom of religion, even before all other rights are set forth.

This emphasis upon religious liberty, imbedded deeply in the law of the land, has developed the unique American doctrine of the separation of church and state. It informs and complicates every discussion of the status of religion in society and of the extent and limits of the rights of organized religion in such fields as education and public morals.

Upon this platform of religious freedom, the American people has sought to build a structure of religious understanding and mutual respect. No phenomenon on the social scene is more characteristic of the optimism and basic good will of the American people than the “interfaith movement.” Thirty years have elapsed since the interfaith movement was launched with genuine idealism and high hopes, and in the interim it has grown in prestige, program, and personnel.

Yet, today, one seems to detect a widespread recognition that much more needs to be done, that there has been too much concern with the shadow rather than with the substance of intergroup relations. It will not do to content ourselves with affirmations of good will and mutual admiration. It is not enough to stress “the things that unite us,” genuine though they be, unless we also come to grips with the controversial issues – which is to say, the live issues – that divide Americans of various religious persuasions and of none. If our religious and ethical tradition is to prove a blessing and not a curse, we cannot evade the problems, both ideological and practical, that bedevil intergroup relations in twentieth-century America.

The conviction that a new approach is needed is now widespread. Some of the leading agencies in the area of interfaith work are therefore reaching for new goals and new techniques. From all sides, the American people is being called upon to cease repeating avowals of brotherhood and to begin practicing it in the field of ethnic relations, both at home and in our relations with other nations abroad. In the area of religious differences, a Christian theologian has expressed the growing recognition “that Christians need to reopen discussions with the ancient people of God as well as with the other great faiths of the world.”

There undoubtedly exists a genuine need for a fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, the two religions of the Western world that are linked together in a unique embrace of kinship and difference. It has been repeated time without number – and yet it remains true – that there are substantial areas of agreement between these two faiths, which share a common historical background and revere the same Scriptures as the Word of God. No theological subtlety should obscure the similarity of outlook between Judaism and Christianity with regard to the nature of God, the duty of man, and many other aspects of their respective world views.

It is, however, necessary to recognize that similarity is not identity. As we have already noted, each tradition possesses a varying emphasis, a difference in timbre that gives even to the elements they have in common a well-marked individuality. Hence what is dominant in one religion is frequently recessive in the other, and biblical texts of unassailable sanctity in both traditions occupy widely different positions in the hierarchy of values in each.

There is no need to add further examples. The Christian-Jewish dialogue, if it is to be fruitful, must reckon with the elements of similarity and of difference – and with the subtler and more significant aspects that partake of both. The enterprise therefore requires high resources of mutual sympathy, insight, learning, and candor.

It is this last-named quality that suggests the importance of some ground rules, if we are to have a true dialogue between the participants and not merely a monologue moving in one direction. In order to advance this significant enterprise, it is essential to keep in mind five principles that should be self-evident but all too often are ignored.
1. The time is overdue for abandoning the well-worn contrast constantly being drawn between “the Old Testament God of Justice” and the “God of Love of the New Testament.” Every competent scholar, Christian and Jewish alike, knows that the Old Testament conceived of God in terms of love as well as of justice, just as Jesus’ God manifested himself in justice as well as in love, for justice without love is cruelty, and love without justice is caprice. Professor J. Philip Hyatt of Vanderbilt University has been particularly articulate in emphasizing the attribute of love in the Old Testament conception of God.

It is, of course, not enough to use a biblical concordance to find the word “love” and to use the statistics of its occurrence as a proof. Often it is necessary to penetrate beneath the vocabulary to the meaning. Thus, in pleading with God for the wicked Sodomites, Abraham calls out, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). The term that is used as “justice,” not “love,” but the God who is prepared to spare the sinful city of Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men is manifestly a God of love.

In the Decalogue itself, God is similarly described as punishing evildoers to the fourth generation but as showing mercy to his loved ones to the thousandth (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10). Central in the Hebrew tradition is the theophany which follows upon God’s forgiving the Israelites for the grievous sin of the Golden Calf. In phrases echoed throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is praised as “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” and the same distinction is drawn: “He keeps mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and not destroying utterly, though He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

When we move from the Mosaic age to the period of the later prophets, the emphasis is even stronger. The prophet Hosea had suffered a deep personal tragedy; his affection for his wife and trust in her were cruelly betrayed by her unfaithfulness. But his love triumphed over his indignation, and he saw in his relationship to his erring wife a prototype of God’s love for his people, which he expressed in the language of the marriage covenant:

And I will betroth thee unto Me forever,
Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and justice,
In loving-kindness and compassion.
And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness;
And thou shalt know the Lord [Hosea 2:21-22].

God’s love for his wayward children finds expression both in his affection as well as in his exasperation:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son….
I drew them with cords of a man,
With bands of love….
And I fed them gently [Hosea II: 1-4]

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee?
O Judah, what shall I do unto thee?
For your goodness is as a morning cloud,
And as the early morning dew [Hosea 6:4].

Amos is conventionally described as the stern prophet of the God of justice. That he stresses divine justice is true, but that he ignores divine love is not. One has only to penetrate beneath the surface of his prophetic soul to sense the love that he knows God feels for his sinful children:

Hate evil and love good,
And establish justice in the gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of hosts,
Will have compassion on the remnant of Joseph [Amos 5:15]

O Lord God, forgive, I beseech Thee;
Now shall Jacob stand, for he is small?
The Lord repented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” saith the Lord [Amos 7:2, 51.

That same spirit lives in Amos’ vision of national forgiveness and restoration:

In that day will I raise up
The tabernacle of David that is fallen,
And close up the breaches thereof,
And I will raise up his ruins.
And I will build it as in the days of old [Amos 9:11]

And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel,
And they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them;
And they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine;
They shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit [Amos 9-14].
To cite one more instance, the Book of Jonah reaches its poignant climax in God’s own words to the Hebrew prophet, spoken with reference to the capital city of the archenemy of Israel, the Assyrians:

And the Lord said: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” [Jonah 4:10-11].
Finally, the Hebrew word for “righteousness,” zedakah, is frequently joined in the Old Testament to that most tender of all divine and human virtues, hesed, the full depth of which eludes the most skillful translator. Even the renderings “loving-kindness” and “steadfast love” seek in vain to transmit its meaning. No wonder that zedakah, “righteousness,” became the Hebrew term for “charity” as well.

In order that the dialogue be genuine, let it be remembered that the God of both components of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the God of justice and of love.
2. Closely related to this unwarranted distinction is the widespread practice of contrasting the primitivism, tribalism and formalism of the Old Testament with the spirituality, universalism, and freedom of the New, to the manifest disadvantage of the former.

This contrast between the Testaments is achieved by placing the lower elements of the Old Testament by the side of the higher aspects of the New, but the process is as misleading as would be the results of the opposite procedure. Thus, one of the most sympathetic and appreciative students of the New Testament, Claude G. Montefiore, writes in an eloquent passage in his Synoptic Gospels (11, 326):
Such passages as Matt. XXV: 41 should make theologians excessively careful of drawing beloved contrasts between Old Testament and New. We find even the liberal theologian Dr. Fosdick saying: “From Sinai to Calvary – was ever a record of progressive revelation more plain or more convincing? The development begins with Jehovah disclosed in a thunder storm on a desert mountain, and it ends with Christ saying: ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth’; it begins with a war-god leading his partisans to victory, and it ends with men saying ‘God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him’; it begins with a provincial Deity, loving his tribe and hating his enemies, and it ends with the God of the whole earth worshipped by a ‘great multitude, which no man could number, out ot every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues’; it begins with a God who commands the slaying of the Amalekites, ‘both man and woman, infant and suckling,’ and it ends with a Father whose will it is that ‘not one of these little ones should perish’; it begins with God’s people standing afar off from His lightnings and praying that He might not speak to them lest they die, and it ends with men going into their chambers, and, having shut the door, praying to their Father who is in secret.” (Christianity and Progress, p. 209.)

Very good. No doubt such a series can be arranged. Let me now arrange a similar series.

“From Old Testament to New Testament – was ever a record of retrogression more plain or more convincing? It begins with, ‘Have I any pleasure at all in the death of him that dieth,’ and it ends with, ‘Begone from me, ye doers of wickedness.’ It begins with ‘The Lord is slow to anger and plenteous in mercy’; it ends with, ‘Fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.’ It begins with, ‘I dwell with him that is of a contrite spirit to revive it’; it ends with ‘Narrow is the wav which leads to life, and few there be who find it.’ It begins with, ‘I will not contend for ever; I will not be always wroth’; it ends with ‘Depart, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire.’ It begins with, ‘Should not I have pity upon Nineveh, the great city?’; it ends with, ‘It will be more endurable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for that city.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord is good to all, and near to all who call upon him’; it ends with, ‘Whosoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, there is no forgiveness for him whether in this world or the next.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord will wipe away tears from off all faces; he will destroy death for ever’; it ends with, ‘They will throw them into the furnace of fire; there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”‘

And the one series would be as misleading as the other.

3. Another practice which should be surrendered is that of referring to Old Testament verses quoted in the New as original New Testament passages. Many years ago, Bertrand Russell, whose religious orthodoxy is something less than total, described the Golden Rule “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as New Testament teaching. When the Old Testament source (Leviticus 19:18) was called to his attention, he blandly refused to recognize his error. This, in spite of the fact that both the Gospels and the Epistles are explicit in citing the Golden Rule as the accepted Scripture. Jesus refers to it as “the first and great commandment written in the law” (Matthew 22:38; Luke 10:27), and Paul describes it as “a commandment comprehended in this saying” (Romans 13:9).

In an excellently written tract (“I Believe in the Bible,” published by the Congregational Christian Churches, p.7), the author contrasts the God who “orders Agag hewn to pieces before the altar” with the God “who taught through St. Paul, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’ (Romans 12:20).” If Paul were citing chapter and verse in his labors, would he have failed to point out that he was quoting Proverbs 25:21 verbatim?
4. Moreover, the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity can be mutually fruitful only if it is always kept in mind that Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament, though obviously rooted in it. To describe Judaism within the framework of the Old Testament is as misleading as constructing a picture of American life in terms of the Constitution, which is, to be sure, the basic law of the land but far from coextensive with our present legal and social system. Modem Judaism is the product of a long and rich development of biblical thought. It possesses a normative tradition embodied in the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as the Responsa and the Codes of the post-talmudic period. By the side of this dominant strand are the aberrant tendencies, sectarian and heretical, that were never without influence and cannot be ignored. These include the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, recently enriched – and complicated – by the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Middle Ages, building upon their biblical and talmudic antecedents, created the strands of philosophy, mysticism, legalism, and messianism, all of which contributed to the character of modern Judaism.

In the modern era, as every informed observer knows, the various schools, conventionally subsumed under the headings of Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform, do not begin to exhaust the variety of religious experience and approach which are competing for attention in the market place of ideas in the Jewish community.
5. Finally, it is necessary for modern Jews to rise above the heavy burden of historical memories which have made it difficult for them to achieve any real understanding, let alone an appreciation, of Christianity. It is not easy to wipe out the memories of centuries of persecution and massacre, all too often dedicated to the advancement of the cause of the Prince of Peace.

Theological discussions inevitably raise the ghosts of the compulsory religious disputations so beloved of the medieval church. In these debates, the Christian defender was often a convert from Judaism, deeply hostile to his ancestral faith, and generally ignorant of its contents. Eager to display the proverbial zeal of the neophyte, he attacked Judaism with all the weapons of malice and ignorance at his disposal. The Jewish protagonists, on the other hand, were often rewarded with exile or other punishment for statements that could be construed as critical of Christianity.

More than medieval memories enter into this heritage. The extermination of six million out of the seven million Jews living on the European continent was actively carried out by Hitler, but the process was not actively opposed by the free nations of the world who fought him in the name of Christianity and the ideals of Western civilization. Moreover, there are cynics who maintain that anti-Semitism is not yet totally dead in the free world almost two decades after Hitler. It is therefore no easy task for Jews to divest themselves of the heavy burden of group memories from the past, which are unfortunately reinforced all too often by personal experiences in the present.

Nevertheless, the effort must be made, if men are to emerge from the dark heritage of religious hatred which has embittered their mutual relationships for twenty centuries. There is need for Jews to surrender the stereotype of Christianity as being monolithic and unchanging and to recognize the ramifications of viewpoint and emphasis that constitute the multicolored spectrum of contemporary Christianity.

Christian dogmatics are perhaps at the furthest possible remove from the viewpoint of Jewish tradition and are totally unacceptable to the committed devotee of Judaism. Yet the Jew should see in Christian doctrine an effort to apprehend the nature of the divine that is worthy of respect and understanding. Moreover, he should recognize that the dogmas of the Christian church have expressed this vision of God in terms that have proved meaningful to Christian believers through the centuries. These have ranged from the most simple-minded to the most profound, and each has found it possible to find his spiritual home within the framework of Christian thought.

The Jew will not surrender the conviction that the emphasis upon the Unity and Incorporeality of God which is basic to Judaism must ultimately prevail. At the same time, he should seek to understand the complexities of life and human destiny which have led Christianity to evolve such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection. The Jewish alternatives cannot fairly be presented to the world unless the Christian understanding of the human situation is fairly grasped. It should be added that the full Christian tradition, like its Jewish counterpart, includes those whom the church stigmatizes as heretics and not merely those who are glorified as its heroes.

Moreover, there are basic emphases in Christianity that can perform a highly useful function for Judaism. For they compel a perpetual re-examination of the content of Judaism and an unending vigilance against the perils that are inherent in its world view, as in any other. The dialogue between the two faiths might well address itself to the tension between law and freedom, the relationship of the material and the spiritual, or the dichotomy between the letter and the spirit, issues with regard to which there is a difference of emphasis in Judaism and in Christianity.

The Christian doctrine of Original Sin, particularly as reinterpreted by such contemporary thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr, has already influenced the thought of many exponents of Judaism. It has served to reveal the dark depths within the human soul, which an easy and superficial optimism has tended to overlook. In the area of human relationships, the Christian stress upon universalism vis-a-vis particularism, or the ethics of self-abnegation as against the ethics of self-fulfilment, which will be discussed below, can contribute significantly to the spiritual health of Judaism by helping to guard it against the exaggerations which threaten every valid human insight. Contrariwise, the Jewish approach to these issues, as the present work seeks to make clear, can be of inestimable value to the Western world, the roots of which are Christian and, by that token, Hebraic in substantial degree.

Thus a rational dialogue conducted on the basis of knowledge and mutual respect between the two components of the religio-ethical tradition of the Western world can prove a blessing to our age.

But the dialogue can be fruitful only if it is fair. It is true that if we reckon with the full dimensions of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of the dialogue between the two faiths is immeasurably complicated. Yet without such an understanding the enterprise is stultifying. Men were not promised that the truth would be simple – only that the truth would make them free.


Personal Thoughts on Noahides
Noahide rainbow
Noahidism is a monotheistic faith based on the Seven Laws of Noah, as interpreted within rabbinic Judaism. According to Jewish law, non-Jews are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah.
Non-Jews who agree with this are referred to as B’nei Noach (בני נח‎‎), Children of Noah, or Noahides.
The seven laws are found in the Tosefta, and in the Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 56a
Do not deny God.
Do not blaspheme God.
Do not murder.
Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
Do not steal.
Do not eat a live animal.
Establish a legal system & courts.
There have always been gentiles who rejected their faith, and accepted the Jewish Bible and God, but who did not want to, or were unable to convert to Judaism. Non-Jews who accepted our faith without conversion often informally became Noahides, and in many Jewish communities they were known to worship in Jewish synagogues.
In the 20th century, however, a new phenomenon developed, in which a small number of Orthodox Jewish rabbis began systematically reaching out to disaffected Christians, and offered the option to become Noahides, under their tutelage.
Some in the Jewish community have mixed emotions about this: If an individual chooses to educate themselves about rabbinic Judaism, they may end up becoming monotheists, and good friends of the Jewish people. But for many, core aspects of their theology, or methods of Bible interpretation, are still Christian. Often their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible skew fundamentalist. I’ve noticed that some became hostile to any forms of Judaism that are not ultra-Orthodox. So, for this group, instead of becoming friends to the Jewish people, they actually become hostile to those of us in rabbinic Judaism, such as Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, or Reform Judaism.  For this group, they only become friendly to right-wing conservative, Haredi Jews, which is only a small percent of the Jewish people. One would hope that someone who wanted to learn about Jewish views of God would be friendy to all of Klal Yisrael, not just 10% of it.
Noahides generally aren’t invited to rabbinic Jewish study groups: They aren’t in a position to have fun discussing Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud , because they don’t yet understand Judaism’s oral law, especially in it’s historical context. Many just know what they hheard from an ultra-orthodox rabbi, who himself may know little about historical Judaism.

If one wants to become a Noahide and a friend to the Jewish people at large, it would be advisable to learn about the historical development of Judaism’s oral law, and how it is the basis of how all denominations read our Bible; and learn about the wide range of theological and social beliefs that historically have existed within the Jewish community.

Religion in public schools

Addressing misunderstandings about the role of religion in public schools in the United States

Teaching about religion in schools

This graphic is from the article Religion in public schools: America is religious, but also illiterate of religion by David Ward, Deseret News, Dec. 1, 2012. An excerpt from this article:

Part of the problem is widespread misunderstanding regarding U.S. law. According to a 2010 Pew Forum survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans erroneously believe that the Constitution forbids public schools from offering a course on religion.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said courts have ruled that schools must be neutral, but that doesn’t mean they must ignore religion. On the contrary, ignoring religion gives preferential treatment to a strictly secular worldview, he said.

Haynes, a leading expert on the issue of religious education in public schools, argues that all high school students should be required to take a world religions course. To him, it’s simply a matter of constitutional neutrality, educational necessity and civic fairness.

In his book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t,” Boston University professor Stephen Prothero wrote, “None of the classic events in American history — the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution — can be understood without some knowledge of the religious motivations of the generals, soldiers, thinkers, politicians, and voters who made them happen.”

Haynes concurs. “For better and for worse, religious convictions play a central role in shaping events in America and throughout the world,” he wrote in Kappan magazine earlier this year. Kappan is published by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

“For students to be given the impression in 12 years of public schooling that they can learn everything they need to know about almost everything, and learn nothing about religion, and be educated people, is simply a bad education, and it’s unfair,” Haynes said.

Click here to open a guide which outlines the reality behind many misunderstandings: Schools indeed are allowed to teach about religion (they just may not pick one, and indoctrinate students in that faith) and students indeed are allowed to pray (but on their own, in or with their friends: students and teachers may not force a class to listen to group prayers)

Public Schools and religious communities A First Amendment Guide


Prayer Was Never Banned From Our Public Schools


A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools is published by the First Amendment Center. Click here to open: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

Guide to religion in the public schools (1)

The guide has been endorsed by the following organizations:

American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Christian Educators Association International
Christian Legal Society
Council on Islamic Education
National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National PTA
National School Boards Association
Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Each day millions of parents from diverse religious backgrounds entrust the education of their children to the teachers in our nation’s public schools. For this reason, teachers need to be fully informed about the constitutional and educational principles for understanding the role of religion in public education. This teacher’s guide is intended to move beyond the confusion and conflict that has surrounded religion in public schools since the early days of the common school movement. For most of our history, extremes have shaped
much of the debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate promotion of religion (usually their own) in school practices and policies. On the other end are those who view public schools as religion-free zones. Neither of these approaches is consistent with the guiding principles of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, however, there is another alternative that is consistent with the First Amendment and broadly supported by many educational and religious groups. The core of this alternative has been best articulated in “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,” a statement of principles issued by 24 national organizations. Principle IV states:

“Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”

The questions and answers that follow build on this shared vision of religious liberty in public education to provide teachers with a basic understanding of the issues concerning religion in their classrooms. The advice offered is based on First Amendment principles as currently interpreted by the courts and agreed to by a wide range of religious and educational organizations. For a more in-depth examination of the issues, teachers should consult Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools
A Teacher’s Guide To Religion in the Public Schools: First Amendment Center


The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide

Published by: The Bible Literacy Project, Inc., and The First Amendment Center

The Bible and Public Schools

Some excerpts: (click the following link for the full text)

Ending the confusion and conflict about the Bible and public schools would be good for public education and for our nation. But finding common ground will not be easy because Americans have been divided about this issue since the early days of the common school movement. “Bible wars” broke out in the 19th century between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Bible would be read each morning in the classroom. Lawsuits in the 1960s led to Supreme Court decisions striking down devotional Bible-reading by school officials. More recent conflicts have involved differences about the limits of student religious expression and the constitutionality of Bible courses offered in the curriculum.

Two Failed Models

If school districts are going to move from battleground to common ground on issues concerning the Bible1 in the schools, they must move beyond the extremes that often dominate the debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate what might be called the “sacred public school” where one religion (theirs) is preferred in school practices and policies. Characteristic of the early history of public education, this unconstitutional approach still survives in some school districts.

In more recent decades, there are those on the other end of the spectrum who push for what looks to some like a “religion-free zone” where religion is largely ignored in public schools.

A Third Model of Fairness and Respect

The sponsors of this guide reject both of these models and offer another approach – one in which public schools neither inculcate nor inhibit religion but become places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. In this third model, public schools protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. And schools ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion as an important part of a complete education. This is a vision of public education that is both consistent with First Amendment principles and broadly supported by many educational and religious organizations.

The advice offered in this guide draws on this shared vision and relies on recent consensus statements about the role of religion in public schools under current law. The focus here is on the Bible because of the need to address the conflicts and confusion surrounding the Bible in the public-school curriculum. There are, of course, scriptures of other faith communities important to millions of Americans and worthy of study in a well-balanced curriculum. The constitutional and educational guidelines offered below apply to study about these scriptures as well.

Many Americans continue to hold the mistaken view that the Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s concerning prayer and devotional Bible-reading prohibited students from expressing their faith in a public school. Actually, the Court did not eliminate prayer or the Bible from public schools; it barred state-sponsored religious practices, including devotional use of the Bible by public-school officials….

….Educators widely agree that study about religion, where appropriate, is an important part of a complete education. Part of that study includes learning about the Bible in courses such as literature and history. Knowledge of biblical stories and concepts contributes to our understanding of literature, history, law, art, and contemporary society.

The Supreme Court has held that public schools may teach students about the Bible as long as such teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”…

Click here to read “The Bible and Public Schools” (PDF file)

The guide has been endorsed by the following organizations:
American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Anti-Defamation League
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Christian Educators Association International
Christian Legal Society
Council on Islamic Education
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National School Boards Association
People for the American Way Foundation
Union of American Hebrew Congregations


National PTA (Parent-Teacher Association)

Parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education. For this reason, parents need to be fully informed about school policies and practices, including all issues concerning religion and religious liberty in public education.

The following questions and answers are intended to help parents understand the religious liberty rights of students and the appropriate role for religion in the public school curriculum. A number of recent documents represent a growing consensus among many religious and educational groups about the constitutional and educational role of religion in public schools. This pamphlet is designed to build on these agreements and to encourage communities to find common ground when they are divided

PTA: A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools


Teaching about religion in public schools: Where do we go from here?
Sponsored by The First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Abington Township v. Schempp made it clear that public schools could not engage in devotional teaching of religion, but the Court also noted that academic teaching about religion was not only constitutional, but also desirable, within these same classrooms. On the 40th anniversary of the Schempp decision, teachers, administrators, policymakers and advocates gathered near the nation’s capital to consider the progress and potential for the movement to teach about religion in our nation’s public schools.

Convened by the First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, this conference was designed to take a close look at how religion is currently treated in the public-school curriculum and explore what should be done in the future to address the place of religious studies across the curriculum. In short, we asked: How well are public schools including study about religion? Today this question is more important than ever as the United States confronts expanding religious diversity — and an urgent need for understanding religious differences in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001

Teaching About Religion In Public Schools




Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity

By Rabbi Charles Arian,  of Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD


Pope Benedict XVI, Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, are pictured in 2011 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Photo from Jewish-Catholic Dialogue 65 Years after the Founding of the State of Israel


Rabbi Charles Arian writes:

Despite the fact that interfaith prayer has been going on in this country and elsewhere for some time, it remains an area of some controversy. There are traditionalists in both Christianity and Judaism who will not participate in interfaith prayer. Others participate, but wonder how appropriate and meaningful such activity really is. Can Christians and Jews pray together in a meaningful way? Can they do so with theological integrity?

…One of the core principles of our work is respect for the integrity and legitimacy of both Christianity and Judaism. Because we are aware of the many issues surrounding interfaith prayer, participants at ICJS events often talk and study about prayer but our events do not, as a rule, include having the participants pray together.

….I want to limit my exploration tonight to the specific question of Christian – Jewish interfaith prayer. There are a number of reasons why this is a unique issue. First, the majority of Christians and Jews believe that both religious communities worship the same God. Second, they have certain sacred texts in common – what Jews refer to as the Tanach and what Christians refer to as the Old Testament….

Services that bring together Christians and Jews have been taking place in America for well over one hundred years. Throughout most of that time, the ground rules have called for a “neutral” service. The content of the prayers was meant to be something that everyone present could affirm.

This meant that Christians were expected to omit any Christological or Trinitarian references. Jews were often, though not always, expected to omit Hebrew …On a theological level, Jews were also expected to omit the many references in Jewish liturgy to Israel’s chosenness and the Jewish sense of a unique mission and destiny.

These neutral services may not offend, but what do they accomplish? Rabbi Donald Berlin, rabbi emeritus of Reform Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, notes, “I am invited (to participate in these types of services) because I am a rabbi but then I am told to say something which has nothing to do with the fact that I am a rabbi.”

Participants may leave the room feeling that they have done something positive in demonstrating good will towards people of other faiths. But is that what prayer is for? Is that even authentic prayer?

In other words, a neutral service requires Jews and Christians to check their distinctive identities, and their distinctive ways of praying, at the door to the sanctuary. Christians and Jews, under this set of ground rules, can pray together only by temporarily suppressing the fact that they are Christians or that they are Jews.

We have said we want to have Jews and Christians pray together, but in order to do so, Jews cannot pray as Jews and Christians cannot pray as Christians.

…What, in fact, makes a Christian prayer authentically Christian, or a Jewish prayer authentically Jewish? A couple of years ago, while spending a year studying the issue of interfaith prayer in depth, our Institute brought together a group of rabbis and Christian clergy of various denominations to help us examine some of these issues… the Christian participants identified the following characteristics of Christian prayer:

  • The prayer is offered in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Trinity. (This qualification is not mandatory, since the Lord’s Prayer has neither a Christological nor a Trinitarian focus.)

  • The prayer is informed by Christian theology and/or by the Christian story.

  • If the person praying the prayer is a Christian, then the prayer is a Christian prayer.

The rabbis who participated identified the following characteristics of Jewish prayer:

  • Prayer is communal (a minyan is required).

  • Prayer is commanded, and it is a response to the covenant relationship.

  • Prayer is time-bound rather than space-bound: It is commanded at certain times of the day and on particular occasions.

  • Prayer involves the establishment of a dialogue: Prayer speaks to God and bounces back to the community.

  • The formulation of the prayer makes it Jewish; it begins and ends with certain words. There is a set liturgy that involves actions as well as words.

  • There is a “uniform” for prayer: tallit and tefillin.

  • Prayer is not mediated.

  • Hebrew and Aramaic are used in prayer.

… it becomes clear that if certain of the characteristics are considered absolutely necessary for Christians or Jews to participate, then Christian-Jewish interfaith prayer becomes impossible. Jews, of course, will not participate in prayers that invoke Jesus or are Trinitarian. Most Christians are not conversant or comfortable with prayers in Hebrew. Moreover, I suspect a lot of Christians might be surprised and not a little bit hurt to discover that they are not included in the “we” or the “us” that most Jewish prayers contain: “Blessed are You O Lord our God, who has chosen us from among the nations and commanded us . . .”

So we are faced with something of a conundrum. We want to pray together, but we want to pray as Jews and Christians, not as generic human beings. There is something deeply unsatisfactory about the expectation that in order to pray together, we suspend our religious particularity and identity. …

…A relatively new innovation for interfaith services is the model which Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, calls the “Service of Mutual Affirmation.” While this type of service contains some “neutral” prayers, it also makes space for specifically Jewish and specifically Christian prayers, which are meant to be said only by members of that particular community. During those faith-specific prayers, the participants are not praying together, but they are coming together to pray, or praying their own particular prayers in the presence of the other community.

I see this as having a distinct advantage over the older model of the neutral service. It does not require Christians to suppress their Christianity or Jews to suppress their Judaism. It allows members of each community to pray for at least part of the service in their own idiom and their own style. …

…For now, Christians and Jews who want to be involved in interfaith prayer have two choices: they can opt for “neutral” prayer which fully expresses neither community’s identity, or they can adopt Hoffman’s “Mutual Affirmation” model, conscience of its limitations. Liturgy that allows Jews and Christians to worship together as Jews and Christians does not yet, at least to my knowledge, exist.

See his full essay here:

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity – Rabbi Arian