The rise of the Enlightenment and its accompanying Emancipation of Western and Central European Jews changed all of that. For the first time in history, Jews were permitted to live amongst their Christian neighbors, compete with them for the same jobs, study at the same universities, etc. Our communities mixed in other ways, as the phenomenon of interfaith dating (and ultimately marriage) came to be.
Today, even as we strive to authentically maintain the traditions of our ancestors by passing Judaism on to our children in every successive generation, we can celebrate the remarkable degree of acceptance (and some would say 'assimilation') that American Jews have achieved, vis a vis our relations with our Christian friends and neighbors.
And yet...even though we have such a high degree of comfort regarding relations with individual Christians, American Jews continue to keep Christianity (as a religion) at arms length. Some of us are still suspicious of Christian tradition, and to what degree contemporary Christianity embraces the anti-Jewish attitudes that were a part of the Christian past.
One result of this suspicion is our shocking lack of knowledge about Christianity! Jews (many of whom were raised to think that "Jesus" was a word that shouldn't be uttered out loud) hear John and Paul and think about the Beatles first - without even realizing the significance that those names bear to early Christianity.
Thankfully, the last few decades have marked the arrival of a new genre of non-fiction: excellent scholarly books on Christianity written by Jewish scholars for a Jewish audience. I would call your attention to two titles in particular:
- A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament by Samuel Sandmel - This is a great source to begin with. I appreciate this text because it is an excellent introduction to "Early Christianity 101" and the New Testament.
- Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment by my teacher, Michael Cook - Dr. Cook's volume serves as a more advanced resource for those who already have some background in Christianity. The text is also excellent for knowledgeable Christians who are curious about some of the longstanding Jewish concerns that have been raised about Christian scripture and theology over the ages.
The volume contains a full English version of the New Testament. But every margin in this volume is filled with thought-provoking and engaging commentary offered up by Jewish scholars. This volume is safe for Jewish readers, who are now free to read/learn the New Testament and be guided by commentary, free from any suspicion about the accuracy of the commentary/its religious agenda. (Read a recent New York Times article about the book here.)
For those who are puzzled as to why a rabbi would encourage Jews to become more familiar with the New Testament, all I can say is that we live in a Christian world. I guess I'm presuming that your life is not all that different from mine: I have very close friends who are Christian. My neighbors are Christian. I have made peace with the fact that I live in a Christian world, surrounded by Christians. Shouldn't we Jews who find ourselves in that reality want to learn everything there is to know about Christians, so that we can better understand the people who surround us, and who play such important roles in our lives?
Just as we should want to respectfully share the very best about our own Jewish identities, so do we have the responsibility to learn about the traditions of others. Levine and Brettler's new book most certainly helps us do so.