The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”
I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.
I’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.
I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.
Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.
Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.