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Talking About Religion? Watch Your Language!

If there is only one God, as both Jews and Christians believe, that does not mean there is only one way to worship this God or to understand the divine presence in our lives. Communication about religion can be tricky anywhere but especially in an interfaith family and especially when biases are embedded in the terms we use to talk about religion.

When we talk about the Bible and use the terms Old Testament and New Testament, we may be adding a whole level of unintended meaning. Early Christians were the first to use these words as part of a polemical propaganda campaign against Judaism. Old and New, therefore, are not simple chronological assessments but instead reflect a cultural prejudice against the Hebrew Bible so deep even Jews believe it.

shabbat candles
Charlotte's sister is Christian, but she wants to be included in lighting the Shabbat candles. Photo: Flickr/Gerard Montigny.
Why? How could such simple words be anti-Judaism? "Old Testament" seems innocent enough. Judaism is older than Christianity. Christianity is newer than Judaism. What could be wrong with saying "Old Testament God?" But in this case, old does not simply mean old. Think of commercials where brands are touted as new and improved. The insinuation is clear. Old is bad. New is good. Judaism is outdated and Christianity is the improved model, or so argued early Christians who believed that after the coming of Christ the "Old" Testament was indeed out of date. According to these proselytizers, Jesus completed the promise of the Jewish scriptures. He was the Messiah who had come to save humanity.

The corollary to this premise was that the God of the Hebrew Scripture did not save his followers, but instead struck them down if they did not follow his commandments. And so a smear campaign began. The Christian God is a god of love and the Jewish God is an angry, unforgiving deity.

Of course, the idea that the God of the Torah is a crueler god than the Christian God is a fallacy. Yes, the God of the Torah is at times unforgiving and angry, but so is the God of the Christian Scripture whose anger at sinners knows no bounds. "Repent!" God says in the Christian canon, "If you do not, I shall come to you soon and make war upon [you] ... " (John 2:16). In both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures, God can also be loving, compassionate and forgiving. As the psalmist declared, "How precious is Your faithful care, O God! Mankind shelters in the shadow of Your wings." (Psalm 36:8)

In both the Christian and Jewish traditions, then, God has many dimensions and many aspects. God loves, condemns, protects and punishes. This is a point that may seem obvious to some and arcane to others, but in these days of fiery assertions about who is saved and who is not, about who is following the right path, and who the wrong, it is important to keep these points in mind.

Certainly, my family would never be able to get along if we held to the one-way-is-the-only-way-rule. My father was Jewish and my mother is Christian. Of their five children, three of us are Christians and two are Jewish. When we get together we are careful of one another's beliefs. If it is a Friday night, my Christian sister sings the Shabbat blessings with me. If it is Christmas Eve, I go hear my nieces sing solos in their church's service of lessons and carols.

Misunderstandings can happen, though. The first year after I converted to Judaism, my son and I paid a visit to my Christian sister on Shabbat. When the sun set, my sister was busy in the kitchen. We called to her and told her it was time to say the Shabbat prayers, but she did not come join us. I brooded over this for months. Why hadn't she said the blessings with us? Finally, I asked her if she was angry at the path I had chosen.

"Why no," she said, "I think it's great you've converted."
"So why didn't you come the light the candles with us?" I asked.
"Because I never heard you call," she said.

In fact, it turned out that my sister had felt hurt. When I said the blessings without her, she thought I did not want to include her in our celebration of Shabbat.

Inclusion. Exclusion. New Testament. Old Testament. For those of us in interfaith relationships, we need to be careful about the words we use and the assumptions we make. Christians and Jews who would like to help build bridges toward an interfaith understanding could start by helping redeem the reputation of the Hebrew God and refrain from using the term Old Testament. My sister and I have learned to say Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as these words are more neutral. But even more importantly, when I visit her on Shabbat, I go into the kitchen and bring her out to the dining room to light the candles and we always say the blessings together, because she knows them by heart, too.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.

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