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'Beginning to work together'

Theologian David Novak on Jewish trends, holidays, and ideas

'Beginning to work together'
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According to a study I've done, newspapers tend to have stories on Judaism at three times during the year: at Passover in the spring, at the "High Holy Days" early in the fall, and now, at Hanukkah time (this year, Dec. 7-15). Press coverage rarely explains key distinctions among American Jews or notes the burgeoning alliances between Orthodox Jews and evangelicals. Stories also commonly overestimate the importance of Hanukkah and almost never mention a key work in the life of Judaism for nearly two millennia, the Talmud.

David Novak, who holds both a rabbinical diploma and a doctorate in philosophy, is equipped to explain both basics and nuances. Currently a distinguished professor at the University of Toronto and a faculty member of the Institute of Traditional Judaism, he is the author of numerous scholarly books and articles, including Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory (Princeton University Press, 2000). He also served as a rabbi in Maryland, Oklahoma, Virginia, and New York City from 1966 to 1989.

WORLD: What is the fastest-growing group in American Judaism?

DN: Orthodox Judaism is the fastest-growing group among religiously identifiable Jews today, not only in North America but throughout the world. To be sure, Orthodox Jews only comprise some 15 percent of American Jews. (In Canada, I would say it is more like 30 percent.) Nonetheless, if one were to count the number of Jews who, let us say, attend weekly Sabbath services in the synagogue, then the percentage of those Jews who call themselves orthodox (or traditional) would be well over 50 percent.

WORLD: Why do you think Orthodox Judaism is growing and the more theologically liberal groups-Reform and Conservative-are not?

DN: Orthodox Judaism, like more traditional forms of Christianity (both Catholic and evangelical), is growing much faster than the more liberal forms of Judaism because it enables Jews to live in the world, yet to have a point of unchanging reference beyond the world. It is able to present a coherent way of life, in relationship with God and other humans, that enables its adherents to withstand the moral and religious chaos that one finds in the world today. If religion is like a language, then Orthodox Judaism enables its adherents to speak the language called "Judaism" more grammatically than the liberal alternatives and with a richer vocabulary.

WORLD: Are Orthodox Jews and evangelicals working together more now than 20 years ago? On what issues?

DN: Orthodox Jews and evangelicals are just beginning to work together on some significant issues. First, there is the solid evangelical support for the right of the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Orthodox Jews are beginning to understand that this evangelical "Zionism" is because of the centrality of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament in evangelical thinking and action. Evangelicals believe that God promised the land of Israel (whatever its present borders might be) to the Jewish people. Many evangelicals believe that God is keeping His promise to the Jewish people here and now. Also, Orthodox Jews are beginning to find some common ground with evangelicals on issues of public morality such as opposition to same-sex marriage. Orthodox Jews can understand why evangelicals must proclaim their faith to the world. But we ask evangelicals not to target Jews for special proselytizing efforts. When any faithful Jew, Orthodox or not, senses any Christian effort to target him or her for conversion, no positive relationship can be developed with those Christians who do not separate their interest in cooperation with Jews from proselytization.

WORLD: Many Christians do not understand the significance of the Talmud in Orthodox Judaism. This is a big subject, but what are the most important aspects to grasp?

DN: The Talmud is the body of Jewish literature that interprets, applies, and even supplements scriptural revelation for Jews. Without it, Scripture would not be truly operative in Judaism. In a way, the New Testament functions similarly in Christianity. Just as the New Testament doesn't assert anything without some sort of warrant from the Old Testament, so the Talmud doesn't assert anything without some sort of warrant from the Hebrew Scriptures (what Jews call the Tanakh). Indeed, Christians from time to time have learned much from the Talmud in terms of biblical interpretation, and in learning about Christian origins from the ancient rabbis who were the contemporaries of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

WORLD: Many Christians think of Hanukkah as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. What is its importance among Jewish holidays?

DN: Hanukkah is not the equivalent of Christmas in any way. Whereas Christmas is one of the two most important Christian holy days, Hanukkah is quite minor when compared to Passover, let us say. Nevertheless, Hanukkah celebrates how the Jews under Judah Maccabee were able to defend themselves from the attempt of their Greek-speaking rulers to force them to abandon Judaism and adopt their idolatrous ways. For that reason, while not actually celebrating Hanukkah, Christians can appreciate how they have and still have to defend themselves from the idolaters who would have them give up their faith. Hanukkah means "rededication." That is something those who consider themselves to be the people of God have to do from time to time, even by political or military means. But the most important feature of Hanukkah is not the military victory of the Maccabees but the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple after it had been turned into a pagan shrine.

WORLD: What other misunderstandings do you most often encounter?

DN: Unfortunately, many Christians still think that Jews regard them with contempt. But that is not what Judaism teaches. Thus the great 12th-century Jewish theologian, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, stated that Jews should see divine providence in the fact that millions of gentiles have been brought to the worship of the Lord God of Israel because of the mission of Jesus to the world. While we have enough differences to keep us apart in separate communities, I believe that when the final redemption of the world is brought by God, faithful Christians will be present there together with faithful Jews. We should all pray that this day will come speedily, even in our own lifetime.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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