Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.
I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I won’t overwhelm you with that here.). Do we get the same messages from these stories? No, but no one does. We all see the words through our own kaleidoscope of different life experiences, as it should be.
I was excited to see how the whole trial run would go, because my rabbi has an unorthodox style of Bible study to begin with, pulling in references from Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Bible commentators, and Christian Bible scholars as well. But there’s plenty he doesn’t know about Christian philosophy and how different denominations respond to the Bible (clearly five years of rabbinical school was not enough).
I don’t know if Methodists in general are as laid back as this particular Methodist pastor, but ours was very friendly, and interested in all of our similarities and differences, especially because our congregations are, in terms of American politics in particular, very similar in our beliefs. He liked to connect the bible stories we were reading with current events, though we were all careful to keep the word “Trump” unspoken in our sacred spaces.
The books chosen for study were: Daniel, Esther, Ruth, and Ezra, though I’m not sure why. They do offer a lot of meaty discussion topics, though, including a lot of strangers-in-a-strange-land references, and conversion, and monotheism versus polytheism. In Daniel, there was a lot of My-God-is-Stronger-than-Your-God stuff, but luckily that’s not a bone of contention between Jews and Christians, since we’re talking about the same God, for the most part.
I tend not to read the Bible as a how-to book on life, more like a learn-from-our-mistakes sort of book. But, the books are written in a very understated style, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, so that what I see as a mistake never to be repeated, someone else may see as a model for how to live a righteous life.
I feel like I could read through these books another hundred times and still find new things, which, as a reader, I love. And I like the feeling of being taken back in time, as if I am living in the desert with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It’s a form of time travel, and visiting my ancestors, that allows me to take a few deep breaths outside of my daily life.
We didn’t read through each book line by line in this seminar, the way we usually do, because we only had an hour and a half per book, so we just touched down in the text every once in a while, ready to hop away from any topic that seemed too heated, if necessary. I’m sure we would have been getting into a lot more tricky conversations if we’d been trying to read from the New Testament, though a lot of my fellow congregants would have enjoyed that, especially because they could bring up the Jesus-was-a-nice-Jewish-boy line of argument. We did hear a little bit about which readings from the Gospels were paired with the readings from the Old Testament, which was interesting, but not especially controversial.
I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this interfaith adventure so far, except that I want it to continue. Whether we study in Hebrew, or Latin, or English, and read the New Testament or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, we are all searching for the same things – each other, and how to be the best versions of ourselves.
The fourth and final session of the Bible seminar was snowed out this past Thursday, so instead of reading Ezra, I was outside in the snow with Cricket and Ellie. And it was perfect, because I realized that snow is, just like the Bible, one more thing we see differently depending on who we are and how we feel at that moment. Cricket was in heaven, catching snowballs and digging tunnels and racing around, and Ellie was more circumspect, especially when she realized that her paws were cold, and getting colder. She ended up waiting on the porch for us, where it was dry and warm(er). Some people hear the word snow and feel oppressed by the amount of snow they will have to shovel, or the slippery commute home, and the layers of clothing they will have to pile on. Others think of hot cocoa and cozy family time indoors, and snowsuits and sleds. And everyone is right.
Except, Cricket is more right, because I agree with her. Snowball fight!
Sounds interesting. I go to a weekly bible study on Wednesdays at our church. Usually interesting. Also, always good munchies to eat.
We need better munchies!
“Whether we study in Hebrew, or Latin, or English, and read the New Testament or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, we are all searching for the same things – each other, and how to be the best versions of ourselves.” This is beautifully expressed, Rachel. Thank you.
Jello agrees – totally into snow! 🐾
Thank you! Snow rules!
What a great opportunity. I have never been with a group like that but would love to. Our friar always stresses that Jesus was a Jew and to understand that he knew his faith inside and out. He always enlarges the texts instead of shrinking them to fit some simplistic view.
That sounds wonderful!
I think this is such a wonderful idea! I think we all could learn something from this kind of seminar. I have been to some Jewish holiday celebrations–like Seder–when I lived in Ohio and had a Jewish friend who wanted to expose me to his faith. These were beautiful and meaningful occasions, and I remember them quite well. Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I hope you will continue to keep us all informed on the progress of this endeavor.
I hope the tradition grows. Thank you!
I think this is wonderful, Rachel. Growing up Catholic, we were schooled only in our own religion. Shame. The photos of the girls are wonderful. Go, Cricket, go!
I love learning about other religions and cultures, somehow it helps me make more sense of my own.
What an interesting idea!
Love the combined groups study group idea and your approach to it. Makes so much sense. And, as always, written so well and so invitingly. Thanks.
I love ecumenical studies. I so agree with your statement: “We all see the words through our own kaleidoscope of different life experiences, as it should be.” And isn’t it enlightening to share those experiences and interpretations?
It really is!
I am not altogether certain that we have ever tried something similar here in this little corner of the world. But then, I have only been here for thirty five years, what would I know. To a great extent it is much like “you in your small corner and I in mine” and yet, having said that, we attend and advertise each other’s special events and services. Only today we announced an Advent Service to be run by the Lutheran Church, and people from our church will attend and a few weeks ago prayers were said for our Hebrew Brothers and Sisters in Pittsburgh. And before you ask, we have never invited anyone of the Hebrew Faith to a service or an event, mainly because we don;t know of any and if there, there have never been a sufficient number to found a Synagogue. Yes well, I miss the snow. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but really, I do miss the snow. PS Our ladies – The Presbyterian Women’s Association – last year invited one of the older Sisters from the Convent to be the Guest Speaker at the Anniversary Service.
I love that! I’m sending you a virtual snowball!
I grew up in the Congregational Church. I have fond memories of my Sunday school teacher during my junior high and high school years. Each term he had us study and learn about a different religion.
That’s a great idea!
Did you hear that, Cricket? I have a snowball, let’s get at it!!
Great piece of writing, Rachel, on so many levels!
Enjoyed your description of the meeting and your thoughts on relations between the religions. Very well written.
I really enjoyed your post. My family comes from all over the world and from three main religions, (plus a few wiccans, athiests, & agnostics) – and we all get along wonderfully. No one sees their faith as anything else but a spiritual part of themselves – (worshipping God is an educated choice in my family – as youngsters, we are encouraged to explore all faiths and find the best fit).
I think that the idea of an interfaith bible seminar is wonderful. Here, in my town, the imans open the mosques several times a year and invite people to come in and visit. (Pastries and mint tea! A carpet is laid out in welcome!) I think people love to reach out – what is harder is opening up and being reached, lol. I’ve always thought that each religion is like a part of God’s body. If you only know one, you only know one part of the whole – but then again, I could be wrong! That’s the nice thing about religion – it is a personal experience and everyone lives it differently (and there are no right answers!) 🙂
Pastries! Baked goods are the right answer to everything!
The priests and pastors in my town have a group that includes all churches but the Seventh Day Advantists and LDS (by their choice). Each year, they take turns speaking at Lenten lunches a different church hosts each week. It is a great opportunity to experience different approaches to faith, to shed a few prejudices, and to have tasty lunches.
As for religious texts and translations, there is a surprising lack of agreement, though.
The Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians also do Good Friday services together, an interesting combination since the Presbyterian service is very different from the other two. Our pastor managed to get very lost in the service! (So did I!)
It’s very difficult to get the different branches of Judaism to agree on anything, except a good bagel with lox and cream cheese. Food is often the best way to bring people together.
Yes, a perfect conversation enhancer, food!
Snow already?We have sunshine and blue skies still, and I dread the arrival of snow.
As I am not religious, it is interesting to see different faiths getting together. Just a shame they can’t always agree, the world would be a more peaceful place if they could.
Best wishes, Pete.
Most of our snow has melted, but it was lovely while it lasted.
Rachel, Lovely post and wonderful suggestion for building greater inter-faith understanding. I believe we hear the Word of God differently every time we read/hear it because we are different every time. The Word of God speaks to us where we are at this moment–it is the beauty of reading/praying/studying the Bible. God is ever new.
You are welcome Rachel
I love snow! I got up earlier the other day when it snowed here. I also have to have hot chocolate!
Hope you and your loved ones (including the furry kind) have a Happy Thanksgiving! ❤
Happy Thanksgiving to you too!
That last picture of Cricket might be entitled “Joy”…because clearly she is. Bounding happily in the snow, chasing the snowballs thrown (?) and just plain being! Man is made for joy too, only I think a lot of us forget that. We can learn from Cricket and our other four foots, can’t we?
That seminar sounds fascinating. I once attended a non-denominational (interfaith) Bible Study. It was interesting to learn the Bible for one, and to increase my understanding. I signed up for a second year, but unhappily two people ruined it. We all kept our religious affiliations to ourselves (as requested by the coordinators), and we were cautioned not to ridicule nor disrespect other religions in any way. A mother and daughter, who clearly were not Christian in spirit (IMHO), although they claimed to be, began to make fun of Mormons and there was a lot of rather nasty talk about them, as well as misconceptions. I was furious and turned that pair into the head person. They were asked to leave until they could better express themselves. I still stopped going. I’m glad your experience contained people truly dedicated to learning about the Bible and not some idiots with agendas.
Good intentions and open mindedness are essential to anything like that, or else we’re just back to screaming past each other.
I briefly studied under Dr. Rebecca Wright, who has a doctorate of divinity from Yale. She is fluent in Hebrew and Greek, and led the class through much of the old testament. One of the most interesting parts to me was learning to understand the Old Testament in the context of the culture of the time it was written. It was so completely different than what we would naturally understand with a casual reading. Oh, and of course the dog you agree with is right!
That class sounds awesome!
It was! I could just sit and listen to that woman teach for hours on end and never get bored.
Love that little running snow dog! The interfaith study sounds interesting. It kind of made me grin, though. Studying with even three or four Christian denominations would be a bit of a challenge at times. We do have our own ways. 🙂
We got a little sense of that from the Methodist pastor when one of my fellow congregants asked him, so, what do Christians think about such and such. He was hemming and hawing for a while and then tried to explain how many different branches of Christianity there are and how bloody the arguments between them can get, even over translations of single words, let alone big ideas. We liked him even more after that, because Jews are the same way.
I hate snow. That is all.
That’s my favorite picture of Cricket.
“I tend not to read the Bible as a how-to book on life, more like a learn-from-our-mistakes sort of book.” — Oh, yes! Lately we’ve been reading the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs from Genesis, and I keep thinking that these people would have been great guests for Jerry Springer. Rachel, I’ve been quiet lately, but I love your blog.
It’s all like a soap opera! No wonder the Bible is the best selling book of all time!
And…had to laugh because I just wrote about the snow last night! I haven’t had much time to get back in my blogging groove (after being away for many years) but as one of the first blogs I’m reading this time around, you’re making this a lot of fun. And I always love talking about God 🙂
First I want to tell you how cute Cricket and Ellie are, they so adorable! Second, I appreciate this honest post. That’s great that you’ve begun to take in different religious perspectives. You mentioned you could read those bible books a hundred times and learn something new each time and I feel the same way. I truly believe that “God’s word is alive” (Hebrews 4:12) and I learn something new no matter how many times I’ve read it. Bible study is always enhanced when you use additional translations and bible study aids. I look forward to hearing more about your experience as this continues.
I loved reading your post and thinking about the bible in context to the time it was written. However, I can’t help feeling that religion is one of the great separators between people, and the source of much cruelty in the world. It seems it is often the excuse for great evil. Well done that your congregation is able to get past that.
I think Cricket has the right idea.
Religion is only as good, or bad, as the people who subscribe to it. It’s like poetry – way too easy to misunderstand.
Reblogged this on Coffee Shop Rabbi and commented:
Rachel Mankowitz is one of the most engaging Jewish bloggers on the Internet. I loved this post about an interfaith Bible Seminar and wanted to share it with you.
I enjoyed your thoughts on this one! Mahalo!
Always a joy to read how others are reading the Word!
Ive been very occupied recently to have time to read many blog posts but today i found the time and lovel to catch up with Ellie and Cricket !
This is so neat to read! I’m planning on starting a bible study as part of the new year with my SIL and go through it chronologically to better understand the background to so many customs and thoughts we see in society. I briefly studied religion in college and the main point I got from the class was there are MANY more similarities than there are differences. We’re all one people and that’s all that matters 🙂
The author G.K. Chesterton (English, early 20th century, Anglican convert to Catholicism) had his priestly detective Father Brown say in “The Sign of the Broken Sword” that he’s all in favour of people reading the Bible as long as they read other people’s bibles too.
This short story is very well worth reading for its ingenious if dark conclusions, but especially because it opens with one of the most vivid and powerful descriptive passages in the language.
Thanks for the recommendation!
“conclusion”, not “conclusions”.