Building a bridge by studying the New Testament

Every Saturday morning, I take my Torah to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where over the course of 71/2 years of in-depth study, Rabbi Janet Marder has guided us through Genesis.

Once a month, I bring my old Revised Standard Version of the Bible, last used in a college comparative religion course, to All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, where we parse the Gospels and the letters of Paul.

How did I get involved in New Testament study? For the same reason that Episcopalians and other Christians attend Torah study at Beth Am. Experiencing texts through other lenses widens our perspective.

For me, the catalyst to New Testament study was Building Bridges, a five-session interfaith dialogue that began in 2013. The group was launched by Bob and Diane Frankle, members of both Beth Am and All Saints.

Bob is Jewish, the religion in which their two sons were raised, and Diane is Episcopalian. Before they decided to marry nearly 37 years ago, they discovered their commonalities outweighed their differences. Their hope was that liberal Jews and Christians would come to the same conclusion.

“More than anything, I wanted Beth Am members who only knew Christians with rigid and predictable beliefs to learn about progressive Christian values and faith,” Diane said during a 2013 High Holy Days talk. “I wanted our Beth Am participants to share their love of being Jewish and of Judaism with Christians who wanted to understand a different way of looking at God.”

Since then, three additional Building Bridges groups have been formed. We have come together to discuss differing concepts of atonement, sin and forgiveness, and we have compared the Jewish concept of the Shechina (the feminine or in-dwelling presence of God) to the holy spirit in the Trinity. We have run Passover seders that honor the Jewish texts while welcoming all.

What we have learned through Building Bridges and the New Testament study group at All Saints is that liberal Christians are no more monolithic than their Jewish counterparts. We also have learned that the persona of Jesus provides Christians with a corporeal being on which to focus their prayers, in contrast to the purely spiritual God of Judaism. That has given me a better understanding of the appeal of Jesus.

In the New Testament study group, lay leader Phillip Palmer welcomes the questions of those who see the texts through Jewish eyes. He also shares the commentaries of Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University and co-editor of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament.”

Before each study session, Phillip sends participants a “Dear Scripture Scholars” email, posing pithy questions. In the latest, he asks whether a passage in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (3:28) — one implying that there are no distinctions between Jew or Greek, male or female in “Christ Jesus”  — can be interpreted to mean that there are no distinctions between gay and straight people in Christianity? And, he asks, regardless of your position, do you believe the passage supports the argument for gay rights?

Jewish friends have asked me, “Wouldn’t you be better off learning about your own religion?” or “Why study that anti-Semitic book?”

I am learning about my own religion, and I continue to learn. Yes, there are passages in the Christian Bible that trouble me: Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy … Luke’s description of Jews shouting “Crucify him” … John 14:6, in which Jesus is reported as saying, “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” However, there are also troubling passages in the Jewish Bible, including the binding of Isaac and Simeon and Levi’s massacre of a tribe of newly circumcised men.

But the Christian Bible also contains poetic phrases that are part of our literary lexicon: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). Or “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Or “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).

Understanding the differences in our sacred books is a good first step to building bridges.