This past week, I wrapped up a three-week series called, “A Jewish Study of the Christian Bible.” Three weeks is hardly enough time to scratch the surface of a topic so vast. In reality, we went a mile wide and an inch deep. When I first proposed the class, I wrestled with a key question, why teach THIS subject when so much of Jewish tradition deserves our attention? Ultimately, I decided to go ahead with a Jewish study of the Christian Bible because, as Jews living in America, we are surrounded by Christian culture. I say that as a value-neutral statement. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing—it just is. So, as Jews living in a Christian culture, we ought to be familiar with the text that shapes the lives, beliefs, and actions of so many of our neighbors, friends, and family.
We ought to study another tradition’s sacred text is to strengthen our OWN Jewish identity. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive. Next time you’re with a friend or family member from another faith, tradition, another political affiliation, or another country, ask them questions about what they believe. Maybe you’ll be persuaded by their point of view, or, just as likely, you’ll leave that conversation feeling more assured in your own beliefs. That feeling of being more certain in your beliefs might also come with something called “holy envy.” Holy envy is a phrase coined by Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran scholar, Emeritus Bishop of Stockholm, and former professor and head of the Harvard Divinity School. Holy envy is the feeling of admiration you might have for the elements of another faith tradition and the wish that those elements might find greater scope in your own tradition. Since no religious tradition expresses all wisdom perfectly, we can find beauty and respect for the beliefs and actions of another faith while, perhaps, strengthening our beliefs in our own faith.
Right now, we are in a sacred time for all Jews, Christians, and Muslims: leading up to Pesach, approaching Holy Week, and the month of Ramadan. I believe that a shared study of our traditions—where we are similar and where we diverge—will lead us to a greater appreciation of one another. The presence of dialogue and sharing of our respective wisdom traditions is not what will lead us down the paths of animus; rather, it’s the absence of conversation that creates rancor and enmity.
As we approach Pesach, we are called on to welcome the stranger into our home to share our food. May we take this call to heart and invite our new and familiar faces to our seder table: neighbors, our friends, and our family who come from different faith backgrounds to join us. May we increase in what we share with others, may we develop a sense of holy envy, and may we feel strengthened in our identity as Jews.
Max Miller is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.