Christians and Jews

The congregation I served in downtown Chicago has a unique relationship with a neighboring Reformed Jewish Synagogue, Chicago Sinai Congregation. It began years ago when their congregation was located in Hyde Park, eight or nine miles south of the Loop. Their rabbi called one day to inquire about the possibility of holding Friday evening Sabbath services in the church’s chapel. Many of his members were living in our neighborhood, he explained, and didn’t like making the Friday evening rush hour trek to the South Side. The church Session discussed the request at length. After all, nothing like this had ever happened before, but eventually they approved and issued an invitation. The Friday evening services were popular with our Jewish neighbors, and after several months another request came. Could the worshippers remain after the service for a time of fellowship and refreshments? That request sounded so Presbyterian the Session agreed immediately. The arrangements were satisfactory to all and continued for several years. And then came a major request.

A new rabbi, who would become a close friend, called and explained that Congregation Sinai planned to sell its Hyde Park building and move to our neighborhood. Real estate prices were so steep, however, that the synagogue could not possibly find a building large enough to accommodate the crowds that normally attend High Holy Day observances. So, my friend continued, might it be possible for Chicago Sinai Congregation to hold Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services in our large Presbyterian Christian sanctuary? By now, our people had begun to love the idea that we were sharing our building with our Jewish neighbors who were apparently enjoying our space, so the decision to proceed was easy. Of course: we would be honored to host Jewish High Holy Day observances.  Construction began on a handsome new synagogue two blocks from our church and several days each autumn our sanctuary was, and still is, full to overflowing with Jewish worshippers. My friend Rabbi Michael Sternfield told me that, just like Presbyterians, some of his people had staked out a favorite pew in our sanctuary and could even become perturbed if someone else occupied it before they arrived.

The relationship deepened over time to include some joint programming; a Bible study on the Book Of Ruth the rabbi and I presented together was well attended. As often happens the Q. and A. period took an interesting turn when a question arose from a Jewish participant about why and how Christians call themselves monotheists and yet believe in the Trinity. Congregation Sinai members began to volunteer in Presbyterian mission programs with children and the homeless. And when the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred,  we were able to prepare and present an interfaith neighborhood service of prayer, which was a meaningful experience for many, members of our two congregations, nearby Holy Name Cathedral and other neighbors alike.
When relations between American Presbyterians and Jews became strained around the divestment issue, Rabbi Sternfield and I talked immediately about what had happened and hadn’t happened and what those events meant and didn’t mean, and were able to help our people understand  how and why the issue of justice for the Palestinian people is important for mainline Protestants and how and why the existence and security of Israel is so critical for American Jews.

When I retired from the church last year, I received an invitation to preach at the Congregation Sinai and to attend a lovely recognition luncheon afterward.  I told the congregation that Christians must emphasize more vigorously that Jesus was an observant Jew and although many Christians are doing just that, all need to understand that the one we know as Christ never repudiated the religion of his people, that when he died he was on his way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. I also said that just as Christians must understand what Israel means to Jews, perhaps more Jews could understand what justice for the Palestinian people and a secure, viable state of their own means to Christians. And, I said that we all need to acknowledge that understanding only happens when we talk to one another and listen to one another.

I told the Jewish congregation how my own thinking has been influenced by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. A Harvard Ph.D., Greenberg is a distinguished scholar, professor at Yeshiva University and Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at City College of the City University of New York. He is an Orthodox Jew. I was introduced to him when The Christian Century reviewed his book, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity. In this collection of essays, Greenberg articulates an expansive concept of God and God’s purposes. “Covenants of Redemption” are for God’s purpose of “Tikkun Olam,” healing and repairing the world. He discusses Jewish-Christian relations in ways that for me were new and refreshing. “It was always God’s plan to bring the vision of redemption and the covenantal way to more of humanity… The group that would bring the message of redemption to the rest of the nations had to grow out of the family and covenanted community of Israel. But the [new] community was not intended to be a replacement for Abraham’s family.”

That sounds a lot like what St. Paul says in Romans. Jesus himself said that he had not come to repudiate the religion of his people but to fulfill it. “The new articulation of the faith grew in the soil of Judaism,” Greenberg writes.  “Christianity had to start with Judaism, but it had to grow into its own autonomous existence to preserve the particularity of the original.”

It was an honor to worship with and address the people of Chicago Sinai Congregation and to enjoy lively conversation and delicious food at the luncheon afterward. Irving Greenberg helped me to understand it as a wonderful family reunion, a visit to my original home.

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