A Baptist among Jews

When we get to know persons of another faith, our perspectives shift and we learn fuller truth.

By Molly T. Marshall

I grew up in a church which shared a block with a small synagogue. Our town did not have a rabbi, so these families depended upon Jewish clergy from a larger city nearby to provide leadership for this congregation. Our pastor gently referred to this body as the "Old Testament wing of the church." I did not think much about it since it was not said derisively.

Later when the big Baptist church wanted to expand, it built a new synagogue across the street with the consent of our Jewish neighbors. This event surely made the news; it somehow seemed too collaborative for our conservative part of the world. In a convention whose president later claimed "God does not hear the prayers of a Jew," I knew instinctively this was wrong.

For the past week and a half, I have been studying with a cohort of Christian leaders at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The Institute functions as a scholarly resource for Judaic studies as well as interfaith pursuits. Our cohort, comprised primarily of seminary professors and administrators, has engaged with renowned scholars who have taught the tenets and foundations of Jewish life from their lived experience.

What most impresses me is how seriously they take God. Unafraid of confronting God about the burden of suffering or what "chosenness" means, the 3,000-year-old conversation among the rabbis and the people is marvelous literary deposit. The Tanak (Jewish Bible), which Jews and Christians share, is followed by commentary and expanding insight in the Talmud and New Testament, respectively.

Americans usually have a binary approach when it comes to thinking about Israel. We are either uncritical Zionists who love everything it does, or we believe that justice demands that we stand with the Palestinians. There is truth on both sides, of course, but on the ground issues of land and security are laden with historical challenge and competing visions. It does not help that much of the negotiating process proceeds without theological or spiritual considerations.

Jews tend to approach religion from the perspective of what one does rather than what one believes. It is a practical approach, and it soon smokes out those whose faith is only theoretical. I have been struck by the "obligations" faithful Jews pursue: study of Torah, honoring parents, doing charity, keeping Sabbath and instructing their children. It seems that Christians are rather minimalist in our expectations of what it means to be a practicing believer.

Balancing the ritual and ethical dimensions of faithful practice is crucial to the Jewish worldview. Their understanding of the particular rather than universal character of their identity and faith is a challenge to Christians who have assimilated culturally to the extent that we hardly retain any identity markers.

A spiritual encounter with other ways of faith is bracing and luminous. That we can pursue pathways of conversation is transformative as we see ourselves through the eyes of our interlocutors.

I am persuaded that one of the areas in which the Holy Spirit is nudging the church is toward strengthening interfaith relationships. When we get to know persons of another faith and see their transparency to the Holy, our perspectives shift and we learn fuller truth. Christianity has not cornered the market on saints; the Jewish tradition has surely produced its share along the way.

Two formative impulses for engaging God drawn from the spectrum of Jewish insight will strengthen my theological thinking and prayer.

First, I will seek to acknowledge the mystery of God better and allow the deep silence where God dwells to suffuse my life.

Second, I will unflinchingly interrogate the ways of God more regularly. A good argument with the Sovereign of the Universe is a Jewish form of intimacy!

I trust by following these practices I will honor more fully the Jewish roots of my faith as a Christian. Perhaps I can still build upon the faithful example of my home church.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.