Our motto is “Moving Tradition Forward” and my annual Christmas sermon is probably on the “forward” side in terms of Jewish Shabbat teaching but on the “tradition” side when it comes to Ohr HaTorah. I spoke about Chanukah last Shabbat, so this Shabbat I will keep that Ohr HaTorah tradition of a “Christmas sermon”. Here is the background:
Most you know that we rented space for our services and Religious School from Redeemer Baptist Church from 1995 to 2000, and then from Faith Tabernacle from 2000 to 2008 (our undying gratitude to Pastor Rick and Pastor Mike). Every year the sanctuaries were adorned with Christmas trees at this time of the year.
The first year that we were in a church on the Shabbat before Christmas, I made a decision to speak to the topic instead of past it, for a few reasons. First, most Jews have only a caricature understanding of Christian faith. As I have taught over the years, I have constantly heard well-meaning people say less than thoughtful things about Christianity. Since Jews often times think about Christianity and sometimes have a lot to say on the topic, it is well that we think in an informed way and speak accurately.
Secondly, we are blessed to have many Christians in our community (usually, though not always, through intermarriage), and nearly all of us have close family members and/or extended family who are Christian. We have a large number of Jews by Choice at Ohr HaTorah, perhaps up to a third or more of our membership. The topic of Christianity, therefore, has to be treated with informed circumspection.
Third, and probably most deeply, my own spiritual path has been shaped by my readings of Christian thinkers. For example, all I knew about Martin Luther before I began college was that he led the Reformation and that he was anti-Jewish. That was just about all a Jew needed to know, where I came from. Then, I was assigned to read Luther in my history of Christian thought class. I was hit to the bone when I read Luther on grace. I reflected that I knew we had mentions of grace (chen) all over the Psalms, the prayer book, rabbinic literature and so on. But I had never read a treatise on grace from a Jewish perspective. I realized why: grace was “Christian”, therefore we Jews stay away from the topic. I realized that I had to figure out a theory of grace from a Jewish perspective, and that process deepened me as a person immensely.
As my studies progressed, and I read Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and a host of other Christian thinkers, I realized that reading Christians thinkers made me think about Judaism with new questions, with a new set of eyes. My studies of Christianity have been absolutely transformative in how I see Judaism, because those studies made me look at things that were obvious in hindsight, but that I never noticed before. I am a better Jew because of those studies. I want to share some of those riches with you.
I divide my teachings on Christianity the Shabbat before Christmas into two parts. At the morning 9:00 study session, I go over some aspect of the spiritual crises in first century Judea, when various Judaisms became Rabbinic Judaism, and how Christianity was formed in that first century. I also cover aspects of Messianism in Judaism, a concept that certainly had major influence during that time, and afterwards, in both religions. During the second study session, at 11:15, I will speak on some other essential aspects of Christianity that I believe will be edifying for our community. As I write these words, my thoughts are moving toward understanding how experience became dogma in the works of Paul, who laid the foundations for Christian thought. I may move on to something else as I sink back into the topic, but I think you will find whatever I focus on to be not only of interest, but also spiritually important.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Same’ach.