(RNS) — I remember a conversation I had, years ago, with a loyal member of my synagogue. The topic turned to interreligious affairs, and my congregant said: “Jews don’t believe in Jesus; Christians do. What’s the big deal?”
I politely suggested to him this was a large oversimplification of a huge theological and historical conversation — that there were far more differences between Judaism and Christianity than the “Jesus thing.”
But, no matter, he stuck to his guns.
Back then, I wished I had a clear, accessible book to offer him.
Now, I do. The book is “You Should Know This: A Rabbi Explains Christianity to Jews.” The author is Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen, who is an old friend and colleague, and he is shepping nachas (deriving a great deal of pleasure) from the fact that his new book is one of the most popular religion titles on Amazon.
He deserves it, because “You Should Know This” is a wonderful resource for (forgive me) wondering Jews — Jews who want to know more about Christianity.
You might have thought that by now the subject would have been just a little antique — that almost 70 years of interfaith dialogue, relationships, joint services, not to mention intermarriages — would have served as an effective classroom on the meaning of interfaith, and on the essentials of Christianity.
Sadly, you would have been wrong.
Stephen and I talked about this recently. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you write this book? Who is your audience?
I enjoy writing, but I only write when I see a need that should be met. I write to advance the cause of Judaism and the Jewish people, to which I have dedicated my life. An unpublished book starts with a good idea; a published book starts with a defined audience.
In this case, my audience is all American Jews, and a good portion of American Christians. Jews have so many questions about the religion of our neighbors, and they do not have a reliable place to turn for answers. I have given them answers.
Even though Jews live in an overwhelmingly Christian culture, we do not really understand Christianity as well as we might. Why is that the case?
Jeff, you have defined the problem exactly. There are a number of reasons for our misunderstanding.
First, we get a lot of our information from popular culture — movies, television, popular Christmas songs — and that information is often misleading.
Second, we live in a secular age, and general knowledge about religion is lacking. We can ask a Christian friend a question, but they might not know the right way to answer.
Third, there are still many people out there who want to convert Jews to Christianity, sometimes using deceptive means to reach out to us. This makes Jews defensive and suspicious, and rightly so. Jews need a trusted source for information.
Finally, Jews and Christians often think we are speaking to one another when we are really speaking past one another. We use similar words to mean different things, without realizing it. Interfaith understanding is an act of translation. I am serving as a translator. “This is what you think you heard, but this is what it really means.”
American Jews need to understand Christianity just like a fish needs to understand the ocean in which it swims. This is our environment.
What are some of the most common Jewish misconceptions about Christianity?
If Jews want to understand Christianity and how it differs from Judaism, first they need to know more about Judaism. That is why this book that explains Christianity contains a lot of Judaism. That was not part of my original plan, but as I approached each topic I came to realize that I needed to teach my Jewish audience more about the Jewish background, so they can stand on firm ground while striving to comprehend the religion of our neighbors.
What is the biggest error that Jews and Christians share? The misconception that Christianity and Judaism are opposites. Jews and Christians alike simply assume that if something is Jewish, it’s “not Christian,” and vice versa.
So, for example: If Christians have a religion of love, then it must be that Jews just have a religion of harsh judgment.
If Christians believe in divine forgiveness, then it must be that Jews don’t believe in divine forgiveness.
If Christians believe in an afterlife, then it must be that Jews do not.
If Christianity is all about believing in Jesus, then Judaism is all about not believing in Jesus.
This popular view of Christianity and Judaism as opposites harms Jews and Judaism, and it also misrepresents Christianity. It would be far more accurate to say Christianity and Judaism offer different answers to some of the same compelling questions.
What do you think of the increasing tendency to try to meld these two faiths together and/or to minimize differences?
Everyone wants to get along. And, many households have both Christian and Jewish members. So, people have a stake in minimizing differences.
But, the problem in doing this is that it does violence to both religions. Just as you can only speak a specific language, you can only practice a specific religion. Judaism and Christianity are the “same” — only if you are not practicing either religion in your daily life. If we want to live our religion, it becomes apparent that Judaism and Christianity often contradict each other. That is why they are, in the end, different religions.
Some say we should all forget our differences and just come together. That sounds friendly, but in reality, it threatens the minority faith. It is as if the ocean says to the pond: “Let us merge, and just be one body of water.” If the ocean and the pond merge, the end result is that it will look just like the ocean. But, the ducks, trout and cattails will no longer have a home.
There are good things about staying separate and distinct. That requires Jews and Christians to both respect and understand one another.
An alarming percentage of Americans seem to favor America becoming a “Christian nation” — whatever that means. What does it mean, and why is it dangerous?
Don’t get me into trouble — there are no politics in my book except for interfaith relations! Some people automatically include Jews when they speak of Christian values and others do not. Some people are putting up walls against a feared “Muslim invasion.” I find this idea to be offensive. 1789 was a unique year in history. It would be impossible to pass the Bill of Rights today.
The late Swedish bishop and theologian Krister Stendahl once wrote of “holy envy.” What do you envy in Christianity?
Good question. When I was a boy, I enjoyed the Christmas carol “The Little Drummer Boy.” My father validated my feelings. He told me it was OK to admire and envy the Christmas spirit. It did not mean I wanted to become Christian. It was not disloyal to Judaism. That meant a lot to me.
In our times, the interpersonal is more important than theology. In America, this means many Christians don’t worry too much about Christology, but they love having a relationship with their friend, Jesus. Judaism does not lend itself easily to that kind of thinking about God.
I envy that. I wish we could be like Tevye, the dairyman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who chatted with his buddy, God, as he rode his milk wagon.
What do you wish Christians understood better about Judaism?
Many Christians believe that if you take Christianity and subtract Jesus, the part that’s left over is “Judaism.” No wonder they are mystified that we do not come to Jesus. I want Christians to understand that Judaism is a complete religion.
When Christians ask Jews why we don’t believe in Jesus, Jews — including rabbis — usually respond with a completely irrelevant discourse on who we think Jesus was. The correct answer — and my book explains why this is so — is: “Judaism has the answers to all of my religious questions.”
It is a peculiarity of American religion — and this is a heresy from the historic Christian teaching — to divide God into an “Old Testament Father of Judgment” and a “New Testament Son of Grace.” I want Christians to understand that Jews worship a God who balances grace and judgment — chesed and mishpat. And of course, I want Jews to understand this about our own religion.
My concluding thoughts after speaking to Stephen:
We are blessed to live in a multicultural, multireligious America. Just check out the home page of Religion News Service, and see how many religious voices are included.
And yet, with that, there is still so much that Jews and Christians — not to mention Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Mormons, Wiccans, etc., etc., etc. — simply do not know about each other’s worldviews. In fact, as those world religions keep growing in America, there will be a growing need for more books like this.
So, who is going to start writing them?