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A few weeks ago I attended the annual dinner of the National Bible Association, which admirably seeks to promote the reading of the Bible across the United States. I was seated at a table with other Orthodox rabbis, one of whom had kindly invited me. Things did not go smoothly.
One of the honorees was a Jewish-born Christian chaplain from the armed forces who spoke of his conversion from Judaism and how he had chosen Jesus as his personal messiah.
Fair enough. People are free to believe what they want and, sadly, there are Jews who, sometimes out of ignorance of their own faith, find their spiritual home in Christianity.
But what bothered me more was how one Christian clergyman after another got up and voiced admiration for “the Old Testament.” It had a bad ring to it. “New” connotes vibrant, alive and fresh. “Old” brings to mind stodgy, musty and out of date.
I am a rabbi who enjoys an extremely warm relationship with the Christian community and who has the highest admiration for my Christian brothers and sisters. And I had, of course, heard and read the phrase “Old Testament” on countless occasions. But that night something about the phrase grated.
To be sure, Christians have used the expression for millennia to portray the Jews, who rejected Jesus, as God’s old, forsaken people; while Christians, who embrace Jesus, are the “new” Israel. But this organization’s mandate is to promote a love for the Bible and instill within the American breast an appreciation of its wisdom and values. Would they be successful if they referred to 70 percent of it as something turgid and dreary?
Were the speakers who lauded the wondrous values contained in the “Old Testament” not aware of how they contradicted themselves by referring to the Hebrew Bible as obsolete?
The time has come for Christians to finally retire the “Old Testament” pejorative and begin referring to Jewish scripture as “the Hebrew Bible,” in contradistinction to the “The Christian Bible,” which is what the New Testament is.
We live in an age when we have begun cleaning up the language of so many past slights. We no longer call twenty-something women “girls” or “gals.” We no longer insultingly refer to Native Americans as Redskins, or to African-Americans as Negroes. Why, then, would our Christian brothers and sisters unnecessarily refer to our Bible as “Old?”
Can we really be successful in promoting biblical values in America, most of which are based on Hebrew Scripture (as opposed to the New Testament), when we look at those scriptures as having been rejected because of their irrelevance? You can’t have it both ways – insisting, on the one hand, that America is based on the principles of the “Old Testament,” which suggests an eternal relevance, while describing those same scriptures as archaic and prehistoric.
This follows a much broader need for Christian reexamination. Christianity is one of the world’s great religions, and it has brought knowledge of the Bible to more people than any other. But it has always suffered from a critical flaw – namely, its claim to a copyright on all spiritual truth.
No doctrine has done more harm to Christianity that its insistence on the uselessness of other religions. And this doctrine of exclusivity lies in stark contrast to the incredible humanity one otherwise finds among believing Christians.
In New York City on December 8, our Jewish Values Network will host a high-powered discussion featuring leaders in politics, media and the arts debating whether religion is a blessing or a curse to America. Truth be told, it is both.
On the one hand, religion is the source of America’s most cherished values, none more so than religion’s emphasis on the infinite value of human life. The Bible is what inspired a faith-based army to fight two years ago on behalf of a severely mentally handicapped woman named Terry Schiavo.
The elders of Sparta would carefully inspect newborn infants and, if they were judged to be weakly, cast them into a chiasm off Mount Taygetos. The Romans behaved similarly with adults of significant mental disability, throwing them from the Tarpeian Rock.
By contrast, America declared on its most famous monument, the Statue of Liberty, that it embraced the “poor, your huddled masses … the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
But somehow, in a rejection of biblical values, Terry Schiavo’s life did not even rise to the level of “wretched refuse,” and she was condemned to the monstrosity of death by starvation in the richest country on earth. Such are the consequences of rejecting religion and its value system.
On the other hand, religion has become the single most divisive issue in our country, inspiring a culture war of Right and Left. This was never necessary. People can disagree on abortion and gay rights without assassinating each other’s character.
Religion can use the power of rational argument and win over its critics, but not when it insists on wholly irrational and immoral doctrines, such as the conviction that whoever lacks belief is going straight to hell. That evangelicals continue to insist that irrespective of a non-Christian’s righteous actions he or she is going to burn forever because of a wrong belief seems utterly incompatible with the lofty ideal of Christian love.
Jews can be guilty of the same sin. We sometimes hear religious Jews speak of “goyim,” a word that, while meaning “nations,” has also assumed a pejorative connotation and should therefore likewise be retired.
We even sometimes hear religious Jews speak of the superiority of the Jewish to the non-Jewish soul, in direct contradiction to the biblical declaration that all humans are created equally in the image of God.
Chosenness has never meant that Jews are better than any other people. The Jews are chosen to bring the light of God to all nations as a permanent reminder that God loves and values all His human children and wishes for them all to share in the bounty and glory of His light.
That is the cornerstone of all religious belief. It comes from the Hebrew Bible, and there is nothing old about it.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, popular speaker and bestselling author (his upcoming book is “The Broken American Male”), has just launched The Jewish Values Network. His website is www.shmuley.com.