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It’s Time for Jews to Learn More About Christianity, Says Divinity School Professor

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 2002

While Jews often lament that their Christian friends are ignorant of Judaism, the fact is that most Jews remain largely misinformed about the nature of Christianity, writes Professor Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament Studies at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School.  

Writing in Moment (Aug. 2002), Levine declares: “That many Christians have misperceptions about Judaism ... is common knowledge to us Jews. We would like our Christian neighbors to appreciate Judaism as a tradition of spiritual depth, profound practice, rich culture and moral emphasis ... that we do not worship a God of wrath and law as opposed to a God of love and compassion ... But ignorance cuts both ways. It is time for us to learn more about Christianity: not just its history of anti-Semitism, but also its theological depth and system of morality. Most Jews know little about Christianity, and what we know ... is likewise often mistaken ...”  

Dr. Levine notes that, “As a professor of New Testament at a predominantly Christian divinity school, I do get a lot of questions from Jews interested in what their Christian neighbors are thinking ... What do Christians really believe? The response begins with a warning: We can no more claim that ‘all Christians believe’ something that we can claim that all Jews hold to a particular view.”  

She discusses at length the many connections and similarities between the views of Judaism and Christianity. With regard to the idea of the “Holy Spirit,” she writes: “... this is the Jewish ruach, spirit - used in Genesis when God hovered over the face of the deep, according to Bereshit (Genesis I). The idea of the Spirit coupled with the concept of Wisdom, as found in books such as Proverbs, coalesced into the Christian Holy Spirit (the Greek term for ‘spirit,’ pneuma, can also mean ‘wind’ or ‘breath’; hence, pneumonia). Later on, when this Jewish movement intersected with Greek philosophical thought and as its adherents attempted to explain how God the Father, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit were related, the doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ developed.”  

While forms of worship in the church and synagogue differ, Levine points out that, “... we do have shared moral principles. When asked by a potential follower, ‘Teach me the Torah while standing on one foot,’ Hillel responded: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.’ When instructing his disciples, Jesus announces, ‘Whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.’ The point is not to debate which is the ‘better’ formula: the ‘don’t’ of Hillel or the ‘do’ of Jesus; both teachings import the same guideline, that we treat our neighbors as ourselves.”  

Dr. Levine concludes: “A first-century Jew was asked, ‘Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ He responded, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength ... And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The citations are from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18; they are quoted here from the Gospel of Matthew.”

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