Learning About Christianity

One thing that always strikes me about my Christian friends is how curious they are about Judaism. But the reverse doesn’t hold true for my Jewish friends. Very few are particularly curious about Christianity–indeed, ignorance of Christianity is almost a badge of honor among Jews.

I’ve always attributed this willful ignorance to anxiety. Anxiety over our minority status, and anxiety over what it means to be Jewish. We (and I include myself) have a hard time explaining how we are Jewish, but we know how we are not. We may not read the Torah, but we definitely don’t read the New Testament. We may not keep Shabbat, but we definitely don’t celebrate Easter. We may not believe in God, but we definitely don’t believe in Jesus. We modern secular Jews are often defined more by what we aren’t than what we are. And since we know so little about Judaism, it would seem almost like a betrayal to learn about Christianity.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Enter the Anti-Defamation League and the Archdiocese of Boston. For 16 years, the two groups have sponsored a program called New Directions, which teaches Catholic school teachers about Judaism. Now the program is expanding to educate Jewish school teachers about Christianity. Says The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson:

Previous attempts at engaging Jewish educators in learning about Christianity have failed. But interest in Christianity among Jewish educators has been growing in part for one simple reason: the high rate of interfaith marriages. Many Jewish educators now teach children who have a Christian parent or grandparents.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the populations in our Jewish schools become more diverse,” said Daniel J. Margolis, the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston. “We should try to educate our educators, so they feel more comfortable when these issues arise normally in the classroom.”

Grand Rabbi Y.A. Korff, the former publisher of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate, disagrees vehemently with this program, arguing that it allows Christian religious education to infiltrate our Hebrew schools and takes precious time away from Jewish education. In an editorial he distributed to editors of American Jewish Press Association publications, he says:

Is it not enough that others target Jews for conversion to Christianity–do we have to help them do it by laying the groundwork and exposing our children’s fertile and impressionable minds to it with the same deference given our own heritage?

This claim strikes me as faintly ridiculous. Does Rabbi Korff honestly believe that Hebrew school teachers are going to teach Christianity better than they teach Judaism? Does he think that having the ability to respond to questions about the differences between faiths will somehow lead to children adopting Christianity? It seems to me that having Hebrew school and day school teachers learn about Christianity will actually strengthen students’ understanding of Judaism.

This isn’t about the value of diversity and learning about different religions. It’s about being able to answer basic questions that most students will have, whether they are from interfaith backgrounds or not. Was Jesus a Jew? Why don’t Jews do confession? How did Christianity emerge? If Hebrew school and day school teachers are able to knowledgeably and accurately respond to these kinds of questions, students will have a better understanding of their own religion: what it is, and what it is not.

It’s often said that in contemporary America, every Jew is a Jew-by-choice. We can freely adopt any religion we care to. It seems to me that Rabbi Korff’s resistance to teaching Jewish educators about Christianity stems from his own anxiety–anxiety over whether Judaism can compete with Christianity in the marketplace of ideas.

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