c. 2006 Religion News Service
COLUMBIA, Md. _ Each Thursday, staff members of the United Methodist Church’s Baltimore-Washington Conference gather at their offices here for a lunch-hour Bible study class. Lately, those classes have taken on a distinctly different tone.
That’s because they are now led by a Jewish rabbi, part of an unconventional effort to bring to the conference what church officials admit is a much-needed infusion of spiritual renewal. Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel was hired in September to be the conference’s “rabbinic adviser” to provide spiritual guidance from a traditional Jewish perspective to conference staff, pastors and congregants.
“Much of what is American Methodism has become more cultural than anything else,” said the Rev. Roderick J. Miller, the conference’s programming director. “We want to go beyond that. To be a Christian means to go deeper and wider in furthering our knowledge of God and in living it out. Rabbi Siegel can help us recover some of the spirituality that has been lost here.”
As Siegel sees is, Christianity is really just “Judaism for the gentiles” and feels comfortable providing spiritual support to Christians.
“God gave his wisdom to the Jewish people within a certain tribal structure,” said Siegel, 73. “If he truly is the God of the universe, it makes sense that he would need to express himself in different ways to different people.”
Jews have long taught in Christian universities and congregational adult education programs. A few congregations around the nation have also brought rabbis on board as interfaith resources. However, Siegel’s hiring appears to mark the first time a Jew has been officially hired on a long-term basis to provide spiritual guidance to a major denomination at the regional level.
“I don’t know of any other situation where a rabbi or a Jewish layperson has been attached so formally to a prominent Christian body,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior inter-religious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee. “It’s a pioneering effort.”
At St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ladue, Mo., Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom has served as the congregation’s part-time rabbi-in-residence since 2003. “Sometimes it takes a non-Christian to open Christian eyes to spirituality,” said the Rev. James Purdy, the church’s pastor. “The Dalai Lama is the prefect example of that for me.”
In addition to the Bible study lunches, Siegel will deliver talks and organize discussions for conference staff, pastors, youth groups and other church members. He will also organize joint Methodist-Jewish social action efforts. His position is part time.
The Bible study meetings at conference offices, located in a non-descript commercial strip in this central Maryland suburb, feature Siegel coaxing spiritual meaning from the church’s designated Bible readings. At one recent session, Siegel linked teachings about humanity’s ability to advance spiritually through individual action from passages in the New Testament books James and Mark and the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ruth.
The passage from James included a directive “to confess your sins to each other.” Siegel used that to explain Judaism’s Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) tradition of asking others for forgiveness.
At times, Siegel’s decidedly Jewish emphasis on human action as the prime spiritual tool conflicted with Protestant understandings of the primacy of faith. “My job is to be me,” Siegel later said.
The Rev. Erik J. Alsgaard, a conference spokesman, called Baltimore-Washington “one of the (UMC’s) most if not the most racially and culturally diverse conferences.” The conference _ encompassing most of Maryland, a slice of West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and two congregations in Bermuda _ is also “more liberal than most” UMC regions.
The UMC _ America’s second largest Protestant denomination _ has steadily lost members in recent years, slipping from more than 11 million in the 1980s to just more than 8 million today. The pattern is similar for the Baltimore-Washington conference. Alsgaard said the conference has lost “between 5,000 and 7,000 members in the last three to four years alone.”
Siegel, ordained as a Reform rabbi, was once prominent in New York liberal religious and political circles. That ended suddenly with the release of his 1971 book, “Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel,” in which he harshly criticized his large Long Island congregation for what he labeled rampant materialism and spiritual emptiness. Not surprisingly, he was fired.
He moved to Maryland, where he led the independent Columbia Jewish Congregation for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1998. During those years, he was active on anti-poverty issues at the federal level in Washington.
Later, he worked as a spiritual counselor at an inner-city Baltimore clinic for ex-felons, drug addicts and others. An attraction to Jewish mysticism also prompted Siegel to spend long stretches studying in Jerusalem.
Baltimore-Washington Bishop John Schol expects that in time questions will surface within the conference as to why he hired a non-Christian as a spiritual mentor.
“There are always some people who will complain, but I would say they would be a minority, a very small minority,” he said. “Part of the challenge we face in religion is that we tend to operate in isolation and only in terms of what we know and are comfortable with. This is an opportunity to go beyond that.”
Another potential problem area is Israel. Siegel hopes to lead a conference mission to Israel and the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which could upset church members sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
“This can’t help but have political implications for some,” said Siegel, who called himself “a strong supporter” of Israel. “But I see it as a spiritual journey from sin to redemption. … I’m not looking to turn these people into Christian Zionists.”
Schol predicted minimal criticism on this issue as well. “Anybody who interprets this politically totally misinterprets what we are doing,” he said. “This is very much a spiritual initiative.”
KRE/JL END RIFKIN
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