A few weeks ago I attended the annual dinner of the National Bible Association, which admirably seeks to promote the reading of the Bible across the United States. I was placed at a table with a group of Orthodox rabbinic colleagues, one of whom had kindly invited me. Things did not go smoothly. One of the honorees was a Jewish-born Christian chaplain from the armed forces who spoke of his conversion away from Judaism and how he had chosen Jesus as his personal messiah. Fair enough. People are free to believe whatever they want and, sadly, there are many Jews who, not having been schooled in the faith of their ancestors, find their spiritual home in Christianity.
But what bothered me more was how one Christian clergyman after the other got up and spoke of their admiration for the "Old Testament." It had a bad ring to it. "New" connotes vibrant, alive, and fresh. "Old" brings to mind stodgy, musty, and out-of-date.
I am a rabbi who enjoys an extremely warm relationship with the Christian community and has the highest admiration for my Christian brothers and sisters. And I had, of course, heard and read the phrase "Old Testament" on countless occasions. But that night something about the phrase grated. To be sure, Christians have used the expression for millennia in an effort to portray the Hebrew Bible as antiquated and having been replaced by the superior and more relevant "New" Testament. The Jews, in whose stubbornness Christ was rejected, represent God’s old, forsaken people, while Christians, who embrace the savior, are the "new" Israel. But this organization’s mandate was to promote a love for the Bible and instill within the American breast an appreciation for its wisdom and values. Would these people be successful if they referred to 70 percent of it as something turgid and dreary? Were the speakers who lauded the wondrous values contained in the "Old Testament" not aware of how they contradicted themselves by referring to the Hebrew Bible as obsolete?
The time has come for our Christian brothers and sisters to finally retire the "Old Testament" pejorative and begin referring to Jewish scripture as the "Hebrew Bible," in contradistinction to the "Christian Bible," which is what the New Testament is. We live in an age where we have begun cleaning up language of so many past slights. We no longer call twentysomething women "girls" or "gals." We no longer insultingly refer to Native Americans as redskins or to African-Americans as Negroes. Why, then would our Christian brothers and sisters unnecessarily refer to our Bible as "Old"?
Can we really be successful in promoting biblical values in America, most of which are based on Hebrew Scripture as opposed to Christian Scripture, when we look at those scriptures as having been rejected because of their irrelevance? You can’t have it both ways, insisting, on the one hand, that America is based on the principles of the "Old Testament," which suggests an eternal relevance, while describing those same scripture as archaic and prehistoric.
This follows a much broader need for Christian re-examination. Christianity is one of the world’s greatest religions and has brought the knowledge of God and the Bible to more people than any other. But it has always suffered from a critical flaw, namely, its claim to a copyright on all spiritual truth. No doctrine has done more harm to Christianity than its insistence on the uselessness of other religions. And this doctrine of bigoted exclusivity lies in stark contrast to the incredible humanity one otherwise finds among believing Christians.
In New York City on Dec. 8, our Jewish Values Network hosted a high-powered discussion featuring leaders in politics, media, and the arts debating whether religion is a blessing or a curse to America. Truth be told, it is both. On the one hand, religion is the source of America’s most cherished values, none more so than religion’s emphasis on the infinite value of human life. The Bible is what inspired a faith-based army to fight on behalf of a severely mentally-handicapped woman named Terry Schiavo. The elders of Sparta would carefully inspect newborn infants and, if they were found to be weak, would cast them into a chasm off Mount Taygetos. The Romans behaved similarly with adults of significant mental disability, throwing them from the Tarpeian Rock. By contrast, a godly America declared on its most famous monument, the Statue of Liberty, that it embraced the "poor, your huddled masses … the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." But somehow, in a rejection of biblical values, Terry Schiavo’s life did not even rise to the level of "wretched refuse" and she was condemned to the monstrosity of death by starvation in this, the richest country on earth. Such are the consequences of rejecting religion and its values system.
On the other hand, religion has become the single most divisive issue in our country, inspiring a culture war of right and left. This was never necessary. People can disagree on abortion and gay rights without assassinating each other’s character. Religion can use the power of rational argument and win over its critics, but not when it insists on wholly irrational and immoral doctrines like the belief that whoever lacks belief is going straight to hell. That our evangelical brothers and sisters continue to insist that irrespective of a non-Christian’s righteous actions, he or she is going to burn forever because that person held the wrong belief seems utterly incompatible with the lofty ideal of Christian love.
Jews can be guilty of the same sin. We sometimes hear Jews speak of "goyim," a word that, while meaning "nation," has also assumed a pejorative connotation and should therefore likewise be retired. We even sometimes hear religious Jews speak of the superiority of the Jewish to the non-Jewish soul, this in direct contradiction to the biblical declaration that all humans are created equally in the image of God. Chosenness has never meant that Jews are better than any other people. Jewish chosenness is humbling. It makes the purpose of the Jewish people the dissemination of God’s light, as a reminder that God loves and values all His human children and wishes for them all to share in the bounty and glory of His light. That is the cornerstone of all religious belief. It comes from the Hebrew Bible and there is nothing old about it.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s book "The Broken American Male" will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. He lives in Englewood and has just launched "One World: The Jewish Values Network."