There’s nothing unusual about Bible study in a synagogue chapel, except when the biblical passage being explored is from the Gospel of Luke and participants include two Christian ministers.
The Christian Jewish Bible Study group, a partnership of Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex and the Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona and Roseland Presbyterian Church, has been meeting since 2006. The Roseland church joined this fall.
The clergy — including Beth Ahm’s Rabbi Aaron Kriegel — and congregants who take part say the class is a way for them to build bridges by discussing each other’s holy writings.
“We believe Jews and Christians should get along,” said Kriegel. “The New Testament is always speaking in parts of arguments, in the context of the Talmud.”
The class provides a way for Christians to become familiar with the original Jewish context, and for Jews to gain some familiarity with the New Testament, he said.
Since its inception, the group has studied the Parables of Mark, the primeval history in Genesis, the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, the Jewish background to Holy Week traditions, and Jesus’ Last Supper. They alternate between Christian and Jewish texts.
The class provides an opportunity “for us to think about Jesus as a historical figure with the richness of his own religious tradition as interpreted by Jews still practicing,” said the Rev. Lucy Ann Dure of Holy Spirit. “We get the echoes of traditional teachings and also hear the departures — where nobody said anything like what Jesus said.”
It’s also a chance, she said, to hear familiar Bible stories “with fresh ears. Good Bible study generally does this — it strips away what you expect to hear and enables you to find something new.”
She suggested the doctrinal flexibility of her church’s Episcopalian tradition helps the group enter into good discussion.
After four years at Dure’s church, the group moved to the Conservative synagogue in September. Around the same time, the Rev. Laurin Currie McArthur of Roseland Presbyterian joined them.
On a recent snowy Monday morning, the clergy and six congregants — representing the three houses of worship and, by all accounts, a smaller showing than usual — took off from Luke 4:38-44, in which Jesus lays his hands on people and heals them.
The two Christian clergy had an opportunity to interpret the text, while Kriegel offered a contrasting perspective on the idea of Jewish healing. A lively discussion ensued about the meaning and origins of spiritual healing.
While McArthur described his own experience with a faith healer, Dure asserted that Jesus took pains to insist that it was the believers’ faith in God, not his touch, that healed the sick. Kriegel threw into the mix that most Jews don’t entreat God for miraculous cures, but pray that doctors can provide healing. Despite the theological differences, they found common ground around the idea of spiritual wholeness.
The discussion moved to a later passage, and the participants debated why Jesus apparently decided to stop healing individuals in order to preach. Seymour Sobel of Cedar Grove, wearing a bright yellow kipa, suggested that in his quest to bring spiritual wholeness to people, Jesus felt he would be more successful reaching the masses, rather than healing individuals’ illnesses one by one.
Sobel and Dure stayed long after the class ended, continuing their theological discussion.
Sobel is a regular at the study sessions. “I personally have benefitted by not only better understanding and appreciating evolving Christian beliefs, but also my own evolving Judaism,” he related in a message printed in Holy Spirit’s church bulletin last November.
Lorraine Ewing, a member of Holy Spirit, has been coming to the class from her home in Totowa since it began.
“I think it brings us closer together. I understand more of the Jewish religion, and I really feel it’s a thing everyone should know and do,” she said.
Janet Becker of Millburn, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in her hometown, heard about the class through a chaplaincy program she takes part in. She joined the group in September.
“Here, people talk with such camaraderie about multiple religions, while in the [chaplaincy] group, people feel their way is the only right way,” she said. “But we ultimately have the same goals — kindness and helping each other.”
Actually, Kriegel wants the participants to begin to understand their differences. “As part of the great American community, all of the religions should speak together so they know the differences and what divides us,” he said by phone following the Jan. 10 meeting. “The importance of the debates is not to find out why we’re the same, but why we’re different.”
Although it might be expected that some congregants would object to their rabbi’s taking part in discussions that include Jesus, members of Kriegel’s congregation have offered nothing but support. “I’m Jewish. I do not accept Jesus. My congregation does not accept Jesus,” said Kriegel, but “for the first time, they have the opportunity to hear why Jews do not accept Jesus and understand the great divide between Christianity and Judaism.
“Rather than pushback, I have been applauded for standing on my positions in front of Christians, explaining why I am not Christian. People want to know, but there is no place to go for that except this class.”
Kriegel embraced interfaith dialogue while still a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, while rabbi and Talmud scholar Louis Finkelstein, a great believer in interfaith exchanges, was that institution’s chancellor. “We used to meet with all the major Christian groups and debate topics where Jesus was mentioned and not mentioned to show the differences between being Jewish and Christian,” said Kriegel. “This is the same idea that I am continuing with this class.”
The class meets every Monday from 10 to 11 a.m. at Temple Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona.