This past Sunday I went to my church to hear a rabbi talk about Advent. Though that doesn’t happen at all in most churches, it wasn’t the first time in mine, as it’s become a bit of a tradition at Cross Creek Community Church for us to invite a local rabbi to speak during December. In the past we’ve had Rabbi Judy Chessin of Temple Beth Or; this year our Jewish guest was Rabbi Bernard Barsky of Beth Abraham Synagogue.
Rabbi Bernard Barsky
In the times that I’ve heard Rabbi Chessin speak, I’ve quite enjoyed her, so I have to admit to being a bit disappointed beforehand that she wasn’t going to be our guest again this year, but diversity is good, and Dayton is lucky to have not only multiple Jewish congregations and religious leaders but also more than one willing to be associated with a radical church like Cross Creek. Indeed Rabbi Barsky stood with Cross Creek in 2004 in speaking against Ohio’s “marriage protection amendment.” So, although it would have been easy enough for me, having given a party the night before his visit, just to have slept late, I got myself up and to church on time to hear him (at the 11:00 service).
I’d remembered one of Rabbi Chessin’s messages at Cross Creek as being rather apt for the Advent season, which is one of waiting, and looking back at my blog entry mentioning her visit, I see that I wrote that “it was our similarities, not our differences, that Rabbi Chessen wanted to stress,” that whether we were Jews waiting for the first appearance of a Messiah or Christians anticipating the annual birth or the eventual Second Coming of one, we shared that sense of waiting.
Rabbi Barsky, too, started by noting a similarity between Christianity and Judaism, specifically that each religion has a liturgical calendar, but he did so in order to point out some differences between Christians and Jews. That the Jewish liturgy does not include anything from the New Testament is obvious, but Jews also treat the Hebrew Bible differently than do Christians, placing an emphasis on the Torah, the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch, all of which Jews read every year over the course of their liturgical calendar. The second part of the Hebrew Bible, the Nev'im or Prophets, is not read each year in its entirety, and the rabbi said that most Jews look to the writings of the Prophets not as texts predicting the future, as texts to which later events must be tied, but rather as commentaries on the times in which they were written. Our liturgical text for the service included a passage from one of the minor prophets, Micah 5:2-5a. Portions of Micah are included twice a year in the Jewish liturgical calendar, but this particular passage—predicting the coming from Bethlehem of a ruler of Israel, one of peace, who shall be great to the ends of the earth—is not one of them and thus is not read by or known by many Jews.
Although the writer of the Gospel of Matthew found this passage in Micah to be so important that he quoted it in his writings, Rabbi Barsky implied that the author of Matthew was being rather disingenuous, picking prophetic verses that augmented the story he was telling. The reason Jews don’t normally care about Micah 5:2-5a is, Rabbi Barsky said, not only that Jews ordinarily care more about what prophets’ writings say about the prophets’ own rather than future times but also that normally Jews aren’t very messianic and don’t worry much about the coming of a Messiah. There are exceptions to this, he said, particularly during times of adversity, such as that faced when under Roman rule around the time of Jesus’s birth, times during which Jews have in desperation sought a Messiah who might save them, but determining who the Messiah might be is not a dominant part of Judaism.
Indeed, Rabbi Barsky pointed out that asking him whether he thought Jesus was in fact the Messiah would be asking for a Jewish response to a Christian question, a question of concern to Christians but not to Jews. Instead, the rabbi suggested it would be better for him to give a Jewish response to the Advent story. To do so, he returned to the Gospel of Matthew, still in the second chapter but after the part in which the Gospel writer used Micah as a proof text (not a phrase the rabbi used but appropriate, I think), to Matthew 2:16-18.
The story in the second chapter of Matthew is at once both familiar and unfamiliar to Christians. We, of course, remember that Magi came from the east to worship the baby Jesus and bring him presents, for that is a part of the Christmas story we hear each year. We may also remember that King Herod felt threatened by this baby king and that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt, thus allowing Jesus to escape the fate befalling all other boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger, namely death by King Herod’s henchmen. You did remember that a part of the Christmas story was the mass slaughter of baby and infant boys, didn’t you?
Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t remember that, since most Christians don’t, and most of us certainly could not tell you the passage to which the author of Matthew turned to show that this slaughter was predestined, Jeremiah 31:15, about “[a] voice […] heard in Ramah, […] Rachel weeping for her children [who] are no more.” Talk about a mighty example of proof texting! By pulling a single verse referring to a town eight kilometers away from Jerusalem, where conquered Israelites were staged before their exile into slavery in Babylon, the Gospel author can dismiss mass slaughter as fulfilling the words of an ancient Jewish prophet. You see, Jeremiah wasn’t really talking about slaves being gathered in Ramah for exile but instead was talking, without even mentioning it specifically, about a future attempt to kill a baby king of Israel in his crib.
Rabbi Barsky was not as willing as the author of Matthew to gloss over the deaths of so many innocents and suggested that this tragedy might well have been something which Jesus also would have had a difficult time putting away. Jesus would surely have learned how close his escape was from being murdered as a baby and would probably have wondered why he was spared when so many of his peers were not. That Jesus would have been concerned about the memory of his murdered neighbors might be more apparent to those who know of a Jewish custom which Rabbi Barsky pointed out to us. The rabbi explained that when Jews speak of the dead, they often say something along the lines of “may their memory be for a blessing” (this practice of uttering honorifics for the dead is something Judaism has in common with Islam). Jesus might well have wondered whether he owed anything in his life to honor the memories of those who had not been so lucky as he.
Having given something of a Jewish response to a Christian question, Rabbi Barsky turned, though he didn’t term it as such, towards asking for a Christian response to a Jewish question. The rabbi said that Jews ask themselves how their convenant with God is made apparent through the actions they take. Addressing us Christians at Cross Creek, he asked how we make it apparent in our lives that Jesus is indeed our Messiah. How may Jesus’s memory (or His continued presence in our lives, if you prefer to phrase it that way) be a blessing?
How we answer that question can show whether or not our Christian faith is in fact similar to Rabbi Barsky’s Jewish faith. If, as many conservative Christians are apt to do, we point towards particular passages in Hebrew scripture as having been fulfilled by Jesus (proof texting), then our faiths are more different than similar. If, instead, we look at what prophets and Jesus had to say not as prophecies to be fulfilled but as commentaries on our communities, as challenges for us to make our communities better places, bringing about the kindom of God here on earth (that’s not a typo of “kingdom” but rather a phrase I learned from former Cross Creeker Lisa Wolfe), then our faiths are more similar than different.
That the faiths of us Christians at Cross Creek and of Rabbi Barsky and his congregation are more similar than different is something we’ll have more opportunity over the coming year to examine. Both Beth Abraham and Cross Creek have been involved in the efforts to organize a Dayton-area affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a grassroots community organizing network which has worked on justice issues across the country. The next meeting of the Dayton group will be in January at Beth Abraham; for more information, visit the new Cross Creek IAF team’s new webpage.