A rabbi says Christians and Jews need each other in the new cultural battle
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Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, is an Orthodox rabbi who says he used to propagate “untruth” about Christians but is now “addicted to the goodwill of Christians.” I met him at a ceremony commemorating the legacy of William E. Blackstone, a pioneer Christian advocate for the Jewish community. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation in his West Los Angeles office: It took place before recent desecrations in Jewish cemeteries.
As director of interfaith affairs, what kind of interactions have you had with other religious communities? We have been available to all kinds of religious groups to talk about the Jewish experience as a minority. I’ve spoken to many Korean, African-American, and Latino Christian groups, and I also speak to Muslim groups—sometimes people with whom we don’t always see eye to eye politically, as some hate Israel as much as I love Israel. But as long as they’re not endorsing terrorism, we will talk to them.
How do you assess the response to persecution of Christians? When we see hard-core religious persecution, we as Jews have to be the first to respond. We’ve succeeded in raising consciousness to the persecution of Christians around the world. Christians are being persecuted for their faith in the Middle East, yet the State Department has in the past refused to call it religiously motivated. So we kept on pushing back, writing pretty condemning letters to State. Until recently, we’ve been more aggressive about this issue than other Christian groups.
Are these efforts motivated by empathy or self-interest? Both. People would surmise that it’s the latter. I can’t prove it to them, but I can tell you it’s not. It is primarily an issue of principle. These endangered Christian communities in the Middle East whom we are trying to protect often do not like Jews or Israel. However, as people who were victimized by the Holocaust, we recognize that we can’t tell the world or our kids and our grandchildren, “Where was the world when they were silent about the killing of Jews?” and then be silent when the world is doing the same thing to Christians.
‘Ironically, traditional Christians and traditional Jews are now in the same boat. Not only politically, but culturally: How do you keep the next generation committed to the Word of God?’
What was your previous perception of Christians? I had a deep-seated revulsion to anything Christian. When I was growing up in Manhattan, I got beaten up by Irish Catholics after school. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. I believed Christians were either evil or out to convert me.
What changed? Along came a Catholic woman who started attending my Torah classes. After a while, she pointed out all the mistakes we were making in our publications in regard to Christian beliefs. Because of her, I researched more of Christianity: I read lots of articles, parts of the New Testament, and spoke to Christians from a variety of denominations. Since then I’ve learned that the strongest supporters of the State of Israel are Bible-believing Christians.
What did you think about the New Testament? I think Romans 9 to 11 is crucial, because that’s the section where Christians leave room for Jewish significance.
And what have you found is the biggest difference between Christianity and Judaism? You expect me to say Jesus. And that’s true—that’s a huge one. And yet! While it’s true we reject the divinity of Jesus, when we listen to you talking about Jesus, we think, “Oh, you mean God!”—without abstracting that into a Triune godhead.
No, the real difference is how we look at the Bible itself: Christians look for messages and deeper understanding in the Bible. Orthodox Jews see the Bible—particularly the first five books—as law. One consequence of this difference in outlook is that Christian seminary students study the Hebrew Bible a chapter at a time, but Orthodox Jews dissect it three words at a time, convinced that every letter, every nuance, is pregnant with meaning and instruction.
How do you study the Torah? I’m usually at the synagogue by 6 a.m. Then in the evening I study the Torah and Talmud some more. I am an addict of the Torah, particularly the Talmud—they’re my daily dose. Jews who don’t digest their daily dose of Torah can be just as ornery as males are reputed to be before dinner. My wife will warn the kids, “Don’t talk to abba before he’s fed!”
What most attracts you to your daily dose? We’re in the presence of God when we study the Torah. It’s engaging the mind of God and applying it to the human situation in all of its nuanced details. It’s absorbing it in a way that you can pass on to your children and build a sense of community.
If only more Christians studied the Bible as seriously as you do. Something I’m most concerned about is that too many Christian millennials just don’t have the same interest, intensity, and love for the Word of God as the older generation did. They say, “Just give me a message! Put it on a six-second Vine, a 140-character Twitter, a three-minute YouTube.” They just want to know what the “message” is—and they want it to be social justice and tikkun olam (a Reform Judaism phrase meaning “world repair”).
So … That’s not going to work! If people say the message is, “just be a better person,” what happens when you spot a Buddhist who’s doling out soup to homeless people with the same passion? You’ll start wondering, “He’s doing what I’m doing ... so what does my faith have to do with it?” Even doing good things can be self-serving: It makes you feel good. If your beliefs are not related to the rest of your lifestyle, you can’t really hope to build lasting community and transfer your beliefs from generation to generation.
Why do you as a Jew care what’s happening to young Christians? Christians and Jews need each other. Today, America is not only looking down upon religion, but sees it as a countercultural force. American Christians have become vaguely aware that they’re no longer a cultural majority, but a minority. I won’t use the word “persecuted” just yet, but we’re getting there, and in some places, that’s true. Evangelicals are now waking up to the idea that they can’t afford to lose anything more. Ironically, traditional Christians and traditional Jews are now in the same boat. Not only politically, but culturally—which is the more important battle: How do you keep the next generation committed to the Word of God, committed to the idea that there are some things in culture that don’t change?
Many Jews are committed to secularism. If we Orthodox Jews had to choose between a Christian America and a hedonistic secular America ... well, that’s not even a contest. I don’t have an invested interest in Christianity, but I have an invested interest in preserving human reverence for God, both because I don’t want to live in a society where God becomes a joke, and because I do believe it’s my Jewish mission—just as you believe it’s part of your Christian mission—to bring God-consciousness to as many people as possible on the face of the earth. ‘Ironically, traditional Christians and traditional Jews are now in the same boat. Not only politically, but culturally: How do you keep the next generation committed to the Word of God?’
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