Methodist group has rabbi on staff

He'll lead seder for church, helping put faith's Jewish roots in context

April 02, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

When Methodist clergy and congregations around Baltimore have questions about Jesus' Jewish heritage, they can turn to their conference rabbi.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel last year to help put the Jewish roots of the Protestant faith in context through Bible study and demonstration.

The Jewish observance of Passover begins at sundown tonight. Siegel will lead a seder, or commemorative feast, for a Methodist congregation in Hyattsville as it celebrates Holy Thursday. On that day, Christians mark the Last Supper, Jesus' observance of Passover as described in the Gospels.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions about the rabbi hired by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church incorrectly stated that Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel founded Columbia Jewish Congregation. He was the group's first rabbi.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Our folks at first were curious and interested at the same time," said Rev. Joan E. Carter-Rimbach, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville. "It is indeed a part of the story of Jesus. Why not ask the rabbi to come?"

Like many churches, the Hyattsville congregation will offer a foot-washing and Holy Communion service Thursday. But first, Siegel will lead the seder for more than 75 people using parts of a Haggadah, or guide to the Passover story, that he wrote for Christian audiences.

During the meal, which recalls the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt, they will eat ritual foods, such as bitter herbs, that serve as symbols of that experience.

"Because ... Passover and Easter come together, it just brings it to the forefront of people's awareness," Carter-Rimbach said. "What an opportunity to have a rabbi to teach this, and to learn from him."

Experts on Jewish and Christian relations say that in recent years many Christians are growing more aware of the connections between Judaism and Jewish culture and their own faith. Some Christians have attended seders like the one planned for the Hyattsville congregation; Christian groups have brought in Jewish scholars for lectures or workshops.

But to have a local Methodist organization put a rabbi on staff is an uncommon approach, said the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church's General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

"It's a unique way of approaching spirituality, and I think it also helps Christians understand the relationship we have with the Jewish faith," Pickens said.

The rabbi leads a weekly study session on Bible readings. He also acts as a spiritual adviser for conference employees and writes a column for UM Connection, the conference's newspaper.

Bishop John R. Schol, the conference's leader, agreed that understanding the background of Christian texts is important. Usually "we look from a 21st-century lens," he said. "That is a very dangerous thing, if that is the only lens we use."

The Rev. Roderick J. Miller, the conference's director of connectional ministries, first suggested hiring a rabbi last year. Several years ago while pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, Miller began taking classes led by Siegel.

The two later taught a class together, and Siegel led a Shabbat service as well as a Passover seder for Miller's church.

When Miller took his new position at the Baltimore-Washington Conference, he introduced Siegel to Schol. Siegel addressed clergy at the beginning of Lent last year and held a seder for conference members. Then, at the general convention, Schol announced to members of the conference's approximately 700 churches that he had appointed Siegel as conference rabbi.

Siegel graduated from a Jewish seminary in Cincinnati and led congregations in Wheeling, W.Va., and Long Island, N.Y., before moving to Howard County in 1972 and starting the Columbia Jewish Congregation, which for most of Siegel's tenure was unaffiliated with any branch of Judaism. He served as its rabbi for a quarter of a century, retiring in 1997.

He's taught spirituality for people from many different faith backgrounds - both Jews and Christians. He's also written a number of books on spirituality and Jewish life.

Siegel said it would be difficult to draw the depth of the meaning from the Christian Scriptures without a Jewish perspective.

"I say, you can't really understand the New Testament unless you know the context out of which they came," he said. "The people who wrote them were Jews; the people who lived them were Jews; the people they venerate were Jews. It all comes out of the Jewish framework."

Miller said Siegel brings the Methodist conference a sense of the Jewish cultural tradition that is not easily accessible to Christians because they don't live it daily.

"A lot of this is gleaned wisdom. It's as much oral as it is written," Miller said. "My experience is that it's not easily attained.

"It's not that it's not really part of our tradition, but for various reasons we have not embraced this. We have not been in touch with this as we might have been."

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