When he was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1990s, Rabbi David J. Fine developed a particular interest in Christianity.
“The development of the synagogue occurred at the same time as that of the church,” he said, noting that his interest in Christianity dates back to his studies of ancient Judaism, “particularly the influences that go back and forth between the rabbis and the early church fathers. A lot of newer scholarship points more to mutual cross-fertilization between the two.
“We need to understand Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism, and rabbinic Judaism as an outgrowth of the same core culture,” he said. In addition, “I don’t think you can understand the origins of Christianity without understanding Judaism — though sometimes the Jewish origins of Christianity are not as well known to the Christian population.”
To spread that understanding, beginning on October 19 Rabbi Fine — who is the religious leader of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center — will offer a series of six lectures on “Judaism and Christianity: The History of a Challenging Relationship” for the CSI Scholar Fund of the JCC of Fort Lee. (See box.)
This is not the first time that Rabbi Fine, who holds a doctorate in modern European history, has brought his interest in religious interchange into the public arena. In 2010, he attended the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany as part of an American Jewish Committee effort to engage in interreligious dialogue. (Passion plays show the last hours of Jesus, and frequently include anti-Semitic tropes.) Led by Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, the trip included a meeting with the play’s directors, among others.
“My reaction was positive,” Rabbi Fine said, adding that he was favorably impressed by the “significant changes” from previous passion plays. “This was not Mel Gibson’s movie,” he said. The most significant change from past versions, he said, was stressing that Jesus and his followers were Jewish. “He’s constantly referred to as ‘rabbi,’ and he says brachot at the Last Supper,” Rabbi Fine said.
The play, he continued, “had Jesus and the disciples wearing tallesim.” That is not the traditional iconography. That reminded the rabbi of a comment by a JTS professor that Jesus was the first historical rabbi, or at least the first person in literature to be called rabbi. “The New Testament is older than the Mishnah,” Rabbi Fine said. “It’s the oldest source where someone is referred to as a rabbi.”
Acknowledging that more changes must be made to the play, Rabbi Fine said they necessarily will be incremental. “It’s an inherited story,” he said. “It has to end up the way the New Testament tells the story.” The problem remains “how to deal with legacies of Christian stories where Jews are on the negative side.”
Closer to home, Rabbi Fine has been the president of Ridgewood’s Interfaith Religious Council for five years. Last Sunday, he spoke at the town’s St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church. That was the second time he gave a guest sermon there. “It’s important to talk about Judaism at a church,” he said. “Talking about our common heritage is important.”
For his upcoming lecture series, Rabbi Fine “will focus on those areas I find more interesting “ — for example, “the ways the rabbis in the Mishnah deal with Christianity. Some passages that exist are fascinating because they were all censored out,” something Rabbi Fine learned from researching older manuscripts. “They were all excised.” In addition, “sometimes you have to read between the lines, or look for code words.”
Rabbi Fine said that Jews should know about Christianity because, especially in the current political atmosphere, “It’s important to understand that the ties that bind us are greater than the differences.
“We tend to focus on differences. They’re not unimportant, but especially in this day and age, with the polarity in politics, if we can focus on what ties us together, that’s critically important in terms of our broader society.”
Also, he continued, “It helps us understand the early development of Judaism and the long and complicated relationship” with other groups. “Anti-Semitism is not quite the same as anti-Judaism in the medieval period,” he said. In earlier days, “they loved to convert Jews.” Modern anti-Semites condemn people with Jewish blood. “There’s a big difference there,” Rabbi Fine said. “Sometimes we don’t focus on that important differentiation.”
The medieval experience is complicated, he said. “Part of church doctrine was that Jews should be allowed to exist,” albeit as second-class citizens. “They had a right to be there.” He added that the church often protected Jews against popular uprisings. For example, during the First Crusade, Jews were attacked in the archbishop’s palace. “He was trying to protect them. The mob surrounded them. They didn’t respect sanctuary.”
And during the Holocaust? “We’ll never get a complete answer because of the nature of the material,” Rabbi Fine said. “Certainly it was the case that there was more that the pope could have said, and that church leaders could have said, but we have to understand that in that context, nobody understood quite what they were up against. “ With many Jews, themselves, blind to the extreme danger, “we can’t blame others as well for not seeing the handwriting on the wall.”
As for the church’s decision to try to influence the Nazi’s “behind the scenes, it’s hard to say whether at the time that was the right decision.” Still, he pointed out, “Many brave pastors spoke out and were arrested and put in camps.” Of course, “there could have been more. We do know that when the church spoke out against euthanizing people with disabilities, the government pulled back.” Perhaps, had they spoken out more for the Jews, more lives could have been saved, he said.
“We’re still looking for resolution because the wounds are still there,” Rabbi Fine said. “We want to find bad guys and the church is still around.”
Rabbi Fine would characterize Jewish-Christian relations today as strong, though “there are still things we have to work on.” Israel is another complication, because “we have more of a natural relationship with mainstream churches,” and many of them endorse the BDS movement. “In terms of Jewish-Christian relations, that is not helpful,” he said.
“We have wonderful work happening on the national level, but I’ve always felt that we needed more on the local level, to get these issues into the pew,” he added. “We’ve always been involved in interfaith efforts locally, but we have to move beyond planning a joint Thanksgiving service and have real dialogue, focusing not on finding a common denominator with platitudes but being able to appreciate each other’s unique traditions.”
Who: Rabbi David Fine
What: Judaism and Christianity: The History of a Challenging Relationship
When: On Thursdays, Oct. 19, Nov. 2, 9, 16, and 30, and Dec. 7 . Refreshments will be served at 12:30 p.m., the lectures will follow at 12:45.
Where: JCC of Fort Lee/Congregation Gesher Shalom, 1449 Anderson Ave., Fort Lee
Information: Call 201-947-1735 or go to geshershalom.org