A rabbi’s new vision for the study of Christianity
Rabbi Dr. Michael Cook believes that Jewish understanding of the New Testament can be a basis for refuting anti-Semitism and overcoming a centuries-old sense of Jewish “victimization” spawned by Christian texts.
“What Jews most need to understand is the fundamental distinction between what Jesus himself may have said and what the later Church only claimed he said,” explained the nation’s only rabbi to hold a full professorship in New Testament.
On April 9-10, Cook will share his insights during the Rabbi Philip E. Schechter Scholar-in-Residence weekend at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan. The endowment fund that supports the program was established by the synagogue to honor its former rabbi, who left in 2000 after 29 years.
Cook, who spoke with NJJN in an e-mail interview, is the author of a new book, Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment. He was one of seven scholars selected in 2003 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to review the advance script for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s reaction to their critical report triggered international controversy.
Cook is also professor of intertestamental and early Christian literatures and holds the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professorship in Judaeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
Cook said he delayed writing this latest book for 25 years in the belief that Jews were not ready for it. However, Gibson and his movie became “the spark” that signaled that the time had come.
“The film instantly alerted me, not that it was a cause of the return of anti-Semitism, but merely a symptom of a downturn that had begun before the film,” he said. “I immediately began lecturing in 2004 on my belief that Jews had already begun a decline into a serious new wave of anti-Semitism, which would aim not at a world without Jews, but a world without a Jewish state.
“While I’m not pleased I was proven correct, I was met with disbelief at the time.”
For centuries, what Cook calls “Gospel dynamics” were used to associate anti-Jewish sentiments with Jesus and lay blame for his death at the hands of the Jews.
This distortion of Jesus, and the Jews’ understandable response, fed “a spiral of negative interchange within the history of Christian-Jewish polemics.”
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the landmark “Nostra Aetate,” dismissing the teaching that Jews were rejected by God and responsible for Jesus’ death and ushering in an era of improved relations. It also allowed Jews to talk about the New Testament in a new way.
“The ability of Jews to detect how the Gospels developed, to explain these processes to themselves and their children, and to ultimately articulate them to Christian friends and to a broader Christian society will allow Jews to exchange that victimization by the New Testament for a strong sense of confidence that they now knowingly control the literature and are thereby free from it,” said Cook.
“I have heard Dr. Cook speak several times and have always thought he was very dynamic,” said the synagogue’s adult education chair, Allen Rothman of Freehold.