George Bernard Shaw is often quoted as saying that the United States and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. Watching part of the celebrated production of "The Bible" that concludes this Sunday evening, I find myself thinking that Judaism and Christianity are two faiths separated by a common Scripture.
This approach may seem counter intuitive: Surely what separates Jews from Christians must be what Christians refer to as the "New Testament" -- the story of the birth of Jesus and how his life, death and resurrection form the basis for a new religion. However, as a Jew and as a rabbi, I find that many of the stories of Jesus and his followers stand alone as sources that contain wisdom and depth that can inspire people to care for one another and seek closeness to G*d. While I, like many, do not include these Scriptures as a part of my personal faith, I can learn from them as I do the sacred Scriptures of other faiths.
Where the greater challenge arises, however, is seeing my own traditions, beliefs and sacred sources interwoven with Christianity in such a way that they become the prelude and later the counterpoint to the Christian faith. The stories told by "The Bible" are animated by this perspective and the producers in their choices of excerpts, casting and pacing have fashioned a testament to their deeply held belief of the univocity and seamlessness of their account that runs as a record of G*d's interaction in history through prophets from Noah through Jesus, each in turn occupying the same stage and playing of a variation of the same script that begins with the Creation of the Universe and moves inexorably to a Day of Judgment. I have had mixed feelings watching it.
The parts that I saw made a strong impression and caused me to think differently about stories I have studied many times. However, the clarity of the television production is a blessing and a curse. The language of the Bible is often ambiguous, opening up multiple readings and spurring commentaries from scholars of Judaism and Christianity. While "The Bible" could be seen as just one more set of interpretations, the nature of the medium of television is to come across as the definitive version taking the written word directly to the screen. Instead of encountering the mystery and ambiguity that makes the Bible the fertile ground for new interpretations, the viewer is given a whole package that can stand on its own.
One episode, titled "Hope," began with the dark days of the destruction of the first Temple and, after spending a significant time on the story of Daniel, shifted the scene to Bethlehem and the dawn of Christianity. Part of what was skipped was the story of Ezra and Nehemiah who help create the revival of the Jewish tradition after the Babylonian exile. These sections are more than just missing pieces to the picture. The significance of the role of Ezra is that he is seen in Jewish tradition as a precursor to the leadership that eventually will become Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish heir to the Law of Moses and the foundation of Judaism as it is known today. The sages that carry this torch forward though the same period in which Jesus preached were neither automatons, nor monolithic in their understanding of the Law. They gave the world the humility of Hillel who declared, what is hateful to your neighbor do not do; the genius of Ben Zoma, who said that one who was truly wise was the one who learned from each other person; and the piety of Rabbi Akiba, who declared his faith in G*d even as his flesh was raked with sharp combs by the Romans. These sages were among those who are also known as the Pharisees.
Ironically, even as the series comes to an end, this week brings another overlap of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jewish communities are celebrating the Passover holiday, highlighted by the ritual retelling of the Exodus at the Seder and Christians are reaching the pinnacle of a Holy Season with the observance of Easter. This used to be a time fraught with danger for Jewish communities in Europe as a toxic mix of suspicion, fear and bigotry would often spill over into blood libels, pogroms and other assaults on the Jewish minority. Some of this danger had its source in the emphasis on just those elements of the Gospels which focus on the complicity of Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus. However, while enmity between different faiths is by no means wholly resolved, more and more the confluence of Easter and Passover has become an opportunity for celebrants of different faiths to learn from each other. At our Seder, we had guests from all different backgrounds, including friends who wanted to learn about how Jews keep alive the memory of the Exodus and its message of both peoplehood and universal values of freedom. At the same time Easter has become an opportunity to learn more about how my friends and neighbors are inspired by their understanding of the Bible, especially the stories of the Gospel.
There are many ways to be Jewish and many ways to be Christian. My experience has been that we have much to learn and little to fear from exploring each other's tradition. While an event like "The Bible" can be a conversation starter and in that way can initiate bridge-building and meaningful interaction, I much prefer the interaction that grows from being able to learn directly from one another, drawing from what is personally inspiring for my neighbor and sharing what is most meaningful in my own encounter with Scripture and tradition.