We Go Together in Israel

xNCTouR7QfqQSsMjqmk5LgAt the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

As Christians and Jews we are on this journey together.

In the best of all worlds, I would not have chosen for us to travel to Bethlehem on Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Nor would I have picked that day to walk the Via Dolorosa and visit the Stations of the Cross where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus stopped before his crucifixion.

Although I would have chosen another day, those are vital spots for us all to visit. 

The next day we did what I would have wanted to do on Yom Ha-Shoah, visit Yad Va-Shem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.  On Yom Ha-Shoah I am sure Yad Va-Shem was overrun with visitors. And the day after when we visited, it was very crowded too.

In Bethlehem I recalled the memory of my 1975 attendance at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (See my essay, “Andrea”) and my last tour of the Via Dolorosa in 1996.

I had a special reason to hire a Palestinian Christian guide to take me on a personal tour of Via Dolorosa that year. My good friend and tennis partner Rev. Steve Hancock had invited me to speak from his pulpit at the Second Presbyterian Church on Good Friday.

Now, Rabbis being invited to preach in churches is not unusual, but in those days a rabbi speaking in a Church on Good Friday was all but unheard of.

Why? Good Friday is the day the most anti-Jewish passages from the Gospel of John are read in churches. Historically Good Friday was the day when Christian preachers incited the population to pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and other places.

Good Friday was a day when Jews hid in fear of their lives.

It was not a day when Jews were welcomed to deliver sermons in Christian pulpits. It was also not a day when Christian Pastors followed their own worship by attending Passover Seders as Rev. Dr. John Danner and Rev. Deborah Kunkel of our partner church, Sanibel Congregational UCC did as most welcome guests this year.

How glad I am that we live in these days and not those.

But no one should ignore the ominous events of recent days. The shooting in Poway, California at a Chabad synagogue came six months after the horrible attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Ours and many other congregations hire off duty police as a security detail during our worship services.

A few days ago, the International Edition of the New York Times published the most blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon one could ever imagine.

It depicted a blind President Trump with a kipah on his head led by a dog with a Jewish star around its neck, a dog with the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That the New York Times published such a thing is an abomination. Their apology and their withdrawal of the cartoon do not undo the damage. These gestures are too little and too late.

But the trip shared by Bat Yam Temple of the Islands and Sanibel Congregational UCC is right on the money.

We know that anti-Semitism in particular and hatred in general are on the rise around the world.

We also know that our job is to understand, respect and affirm our legitimate differences.

But we also have the sacred obligation to forge our shared values into a force — greater than the sum of its parts — that works to build a better world for our children, grandchildren and all the generations to follow.

A Rabbi Reflects on Good Friday

(With special thanks to my good friend, Rev. Dr. John H Danner for his review and critique of this essay)

Many years ago, my family vacationed in the Ozarks, and I took my nine-year-old son Leo to see the Passion Play performed on the estate of the late Gerald L.K. Smith.

What a magnificent and costly production! Live horses, camels, even elephants cavorted across the huge amphitheater stage. When Pontius Pilate protested to the Jewish masses that he found no fault with Jesus, the Jewish leaders shouted, “Crucify him!”

Then Pilate washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

“Crucify him,” the Jewish leaders screamed again. “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

As we left the vast and magnificently kept grounds of the estate, Leo turned to me and asked, “Did we really crucify Jesus, Daddy?”

“No, my son,” I answered,” we did not.”

“If we didn’t,” he responded, “who did?”

Crucifixion, I pointed out, was a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution, and I do not believe that the Roman governor would allow his subject Jews to convince him to do anything that he did not wish to do.

“More important,” I said to my son, “neither you, I nor any of the Jewish people who have lived for the past 2,000 years were there, let alone involved.”

Times have changed

The anti-Semitic Passion Play, after years of diminishing attendance, saw its last performance in 2012. I continue to cherish the invitation of my good friend, Rev. Steve Hancock in 1996 to speak from the pulpit of the Second Presbyterian Church of Nashville on Good Friday. And this year Rev. Dr. John Danner and Rev. Deborah Kunkel will spend part of their Good Friday, after their own services at Sanibel Congregational UCC, as welcome guests and participants in the Passover Seder of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.

These wonderful realities of Good Fridays present stand in stark contrast to Jewish memories of Good Fridays past. Good Friday was once a day when Jews hid for fear that Christians would attack them. In some places Christian authorities compelled Jews to attend Good Friday worship to listen to readings and preaching about their guilt and stubbornness for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

On Good Friday I feel the weight of Jewish history as at no other time. I close my eyes and see the victims of Good Friday pogroms. I hear voices of those killed over the years for no reason except that they clung to their Jewish faith. I hear their voices crying out to me, “Do not betray us!”

On one of my trips to Jerusalem, I walked slowly along the Via Dolorosa with a Palestinian Christian Guide who explained the 14 Stations of the Cross and that on Good Friday 40,000 pilgrims jam the road to Golgotha to identify with the significance of the crucifixion.

Although I am not a Christian, I am moved by Luke’s** account of Jesus’ utterances from the cross. Beaten, mocked, scourged, crucified and near death, Jesus exclaims, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24) Would that we all could display such compassion to those who have wronged us.

What I find most remarkable about Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross is his absolute immunity to public opinion. Whether the crowds were with him or against him, Jesus did not alter his course.

A week before his death, Jesus threw the crowds into a frenzy of ecstasy. The next week his own disciples denied knowing him. Such abandonment would devastate an ordinary person, but Jesus remained unshaken. Would that we all had that kind of courage of our convictions.

Make no mistake. Jesus is not the messiah for Jews that his is for Christians.

There are profound theological differences between our faiths. I have no desire for us to become one religion, but I have an intense desire that we learn to accept and respect our religious differences and appreciate the values we can learn from one another.

Years of history have blinded Jews to the meaning and inspiration even non-believers can find in Christian Scripture. Years of history have blinded Christians to the richness of the Jewish heritage from which Christianity sprang. If we have not yet done so, let us, as Good Friday moves into Passover, remove our cataracts and behold the beauty and wisdom we can find in another’s faith.

**I recall with gratitude the learning I gleaned from the Seminar I audited on Luke at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1996, with the permission of Professor Amy Jill-Levine,