Christian and Jewish study groups nourish interfaith understanding--with lunch

July 07, 1991|By Diane Winston

There's one power lunch that corporate attorney Ron Shapiro swears by -- an hour a month devoted to real power, the power that has created and destroyed civilizations, shaped and stymied human culture.

Religious power.

"It's tough to make the transition," said Mr. Shapiro, describing the mental paces needed to make the walk from his capacious office to the corner boardroom of Shapiro and Olander where the monthly meeting of the Jewish Study Group of the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies is held. "But once you get into the room, it's a wonderful break."

The institute is a 3-year-old organization aimed at correcting some of the misunderstandings between Christians and Jews. It has sponsored 10 Christian denominational groups that study the relationship between the two faiths and try to establish theological bridges between them.

Now a new initiative has been designed for Jewish laity interested in what their tradition has to say about the "other."

The Jewish Study Group, which started in April, has drawn 40 to 45 people to each of its three meetings. Starched and suited participants arrive promptly at noon, take a sandwich and grab a seat. The discussion leader begins at 12:05 p.m. -- a rarity since many cultural events routinely start late.

But little here is routine.

Most Jewish groups gather like-minded people. This group has men and women of all spiritual persuasions.

Most Jewish groups either talk about social action and community survival or study Jewish texts. This group examines what Jewish tradition says about Christianity -- not a high-profile subject in most synagogues.

"Most Jews don't know a lot about Judaism, much less how Judaism views non-Jews," said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the associate rabbi at Baltimore's Beth Tfiloh Congregation, who taught one of the sessions. "I think Jews -- partly for historic reasons, because Jews have been discriminated against for so long -- started to close off.

"But now we're living in a different era, and in the last century there has been more interest from Jews about non-Jews. We need to develop ways to do that, and the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies is a prime vehicle for Baltimore."

At the group's last meeting in June, participants spent nearly the entire hour listening to Rabbi Mark Loeb discuss how non-Jews fit into the Jewish vision of the Messianic era. Drawing on sources ranging from Maimonides, a medieval Jewish scholar, to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century theologian, Rabbi Loeb explained the Jewish belief that righteous gentiles have a place in the world to come.

At an earlier meeting led by Rabbi Lehmann, group members learned Jews believe non-Jews are bound by the seven Noahide laws -- the commandments that God gave to the sons of Noah. Jewish tradition holds that these laws, which include prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, sexual immorality, murder and robbery, provide a way for anyone to earn salvation.

"We Jews believe all humankind has a message to offer the world," Rabbi Loeb told the meal-time membership. "If we are faithful to our respective covenants, we are all the children of God."

The institute is up against nearly 2,000 years of nasty relations. Christianity began as a Jewish sect, but the early church rejected its Jewish heritage, saying Jesus superseded

God's earlier covenant with the people of Israel. When Christianity became the dominant religion in many European countries, its leaders often persecuted the Jews.

The institute's Christian groups study the history of the early church and Jesus in a Jewish context. They also examine why the church became anti-Jewish and how its early polemics paved the way for persecutions -- including the Nazi genocide.

The institute didn't create Jewish-Christian study groups because leaders felt the two traditions come to the dialogue from different starting points.

"There's an asymmetry in Jewish-Christian dialogue," said Rabbi Shira Lander, a consultant to the institute who helped set up the Jewish Study Group. "For Christians to understand Christianity out of the context from which it grew is to study Judaism. That's not true for Judaism.

"Furthermore, there was the political empire of Christianity which enabled it to exercise violence against Jews and others."

Helene Hahn, a local businesswoman, said that the Wednesday meeting -- which was designed for downtown professionals -- has exposed her to new information which will help her in daily life.

"We live in a multicultural, multireligious community," said Mrs. Hahn. "By understanding each other's faiths, we can better work together."

Mr. Shapiro, who usually spends lunchtime with business clients, said it's sometimes hard to find time in a hectic day for study -- but well worth the effort.

"It's broadened my understanding of Jewish-Christian relations," said Mr. Shapiro, who is a board member of the institute. "It certainly has helped me understand that the prejudice we deal ** with is rooted in more than just emotions. There are historical origins for it. This helps people understand those origins. It helps break barriers to communication."

Dina Sarbanes, an attorney at Piper Marbury, said her interest in the material is more personal than some of the other participants'.

"This is a fantastic opportunity," said Ms. Sarbanes, a Jew married to a member of the Greek Orthodox faith. "I have been dealing with interfaith issues for a while so I am very interested in this.

"I am interested in learning more on the theological level and exploring how you can reconcile the theology of Christianity and Judaism."

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