What Jews need to know about the Christian Bible

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The closest most Jews ever get to a Christian Bible is in a hotel, where the Gideon version sits in a drawer next to the bed, collecting dust.

"It's seen by many Jews as the forbidden fruit," says Rabbi Evan Goodman at Peninsula Temple Beth El. That's why Goodman and several other local teachers are giving Jews an opportunity to study the Christian Bible in a Jewish setting.

Two years ago, Goodman taught his first class on the topic, "Through Jewish Eyes: A Look at the Christian Bible," — and it was one of the most popular classes at the Peninsula Academy of Jewish Education, drawing 35 to 40 people. So the rabbi taught another session at PAJE and offered an additional three-session class at his San Mateo synagogue last month.

Goodman decided to teach the course because he believes Jews should understand the allusions to the Christian Bible that are omnipresent in American culture. They should also be aware of the biblical roots of anti-Semitism, he says, and have enough knowledge to counter Christian missionaries who try to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

First, Goodman defines his terms, like the word "Bible."

To a Jew, the Bible means the Hebrew Scriptures. To a Christian, it's all of the Hebrew Scriptures plus additional books known as the New Testament.

"If you open a Christian Bible, 80 percent of it is identical to a Jewish Bible," says Goodman. "The way I look at it and present it is that [the New Testament] is like a lens through which Christians view the Hebrew Scriptures."

Goodman cautions against ever using what he considers the prejudicial term Old Testament, which might be big news to Sunday school teachers of all persuasions.

The term Old Testament implies that the older text "has been superseded," he says. Another semantic point: Goodman is adamant that Jews should never use the term "Christ," which means Messiah. Since Jews don't accept Jesus as the Messiah, his first name will do.

These are some of the points that tend to surprise Goodman's students, who he says are often unaware of biblical allusions in daily life. When President Clinton was running for office in 1988, for example, he used the term "new covenant" to describe his plan for renewing America. Goodman says the term is a synonym for New Testament.

In an more obscure biblical allusion, when people talk about good Samaritans, they are actually referring to what Goodman calls an "anti-Jewish parable" in the Bible. The story discusses two Jewish priests, a Kohen and a Levi, who pass an injured person on the road without helping him. A Samaritan, a member of a Jewish offshoot group that still exists in Israel, bandages the man, while the two mainstream Jewish priests leave him behind.

This story is one of the "seeds of anti-Jewish thought" Goodman says in his class. While he stresses that Judaic and Christian texts share many "beautiful teachings" in common, such as the Ten Commandments, he also wants Jews to understand how stories such as this led to Jewish oppression.

Learning about the beginnings of anti-Jewish thought was the most riveting part of the class for retired newspaper publisher Ellen Fuchs.

"This is one of the reasons it is so disturbing and fulfilling to take this course. I wish it were offered more widely, to younger kids in Hebrew school. It answers so many questions," says Fuchs.

Fuchs, who lives in Redwood City, has taken every class on the Christian Bible that Goodman has taught at PAJE, and at his synagogue. Over the summer, she plans not only to study the Christian Bible, but to read related books.

Alfred Lieberman is newer to the subject, having just finished Goodman's last class in May.

"I felt there was a gap in my religious education. Certain religious subjects were taboo," says Lieberman, a 68-year-old San Mateo salesman.

Goodman hopes that filling that gap will give Jews the education necessary to refute the claims of Christian missionaries. The best way to do this is to be knowledgeable about biblical requirements for a Messiah, he says.

"Many [Christian proselytizers] can convince Jews that they should accept Jesus as the Messiah. He was supposed to establish the Kingdom of David in Israel, gather all Jewish exiles, usher in the end of days, resurrect the righteous." But "Jesus didn't do all of these things," adds Goodman.

However, the class does not focus on teaching Jews how to counter Jews for Jesus or other evangelists, says Goodman. What most students want is to understand the dominant religion of the society they live in. In order to do that, Goodman plans to continue teaching his class next year through PAJE in conjunction with Lehrhaus Judaica.

"We live in a world in which we deal with other people," says Lieberman. "We ask for their understanding, and we need to understand where they come from."

For information on next year's PAJE classes, call (415) 349-1610.