I have a new interest: I am trying to educate myself about things Jewish. My wife’s and my recent two-week trip to Jerusalem to visit my daughter and son-in-law significantly reinforced this interest. They are both students at Hebrew University and have spent a lot of time studying and exploring the city, so they were excellent guides. The trip was extremely interesting, educational, and thought provoking. Since then I have read several books and seen several documentaries about Jewish history and Jewish life. I suspect that a fair share of my contributions to this blog will be related to this interest, so it might be worthwhile to explain how this interest developed.
I have long believed that the Old Testament is much more important than Christians recognize it to be. The vast majority of Bible teaching in our churches is from the New Testament. Rarely is the Old Testament taught, and when it is, the teaching is usually based on well-known stories taken in isolation from the surrounding text. Yet, it is clear from reading the New Testament that its authors were steeped in a thorough understanding of the Old Testament. As a result, I have had a long-standing interest in educating myself about the Old Testament in order to better understand the New Testament.
My long-standing interest has been reinvigorated and deepened as a result of my children’s activities in recent years. Three or four years ago, on a whim, my daughter decided to go to Israel and work as a volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces for six weeks. No one in my family had ever been there. Nikole was just looking for an adventure, thought that sounded interesting, and took advantage of the opportunity. Most of the time she worked on military bases, but she was able to travel on the weekends. Although she had many memorable experiences, most significantly she had an opportunity to meet and get to know many soldiers (both men and women are required to serve in the Israeli military). She learned a lot about Israeli culture and the people of Israel. She found Israeli culture to be not without flaws but all in all very attractive, so attractive in fact that she decided to try to return and spend an extended period of time living there. She started saving her money, teaching herself modern Hebrew, and applying to graduate school. A year and a half ago she left to study in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile my oldest son, who had been studying in Germany, decided to travel to Israel to volunteer as his sister had done. Stefan’s experience was a bit more tense than his sister’s—he was forced to spend a day in a bomb shelter when a fire-fight broke out on the border with Lebanon where he was stationed—but his response to his trip was much like his sister’s. He really enjoyed his interactions with the Israeli soldiers.
Then a little over a year ago Stefan and my third child, Noah, went to Israel to visit their sister. Noah had not had the same level of exposure to Israeli culture as his brother and sister had, but he, too, found it very attractive and is currently trying to find a way to return and study there.
I was frankly surprised that Nikole, Stefan, and Noah all had such positive responses to Israel. A few years ago, our whole family had taken a trip to Germany. Nikole, Stefan, and Noah, who all speak German, have spent considerable time in Germany since then, but their response to Germany is mixed. German culture is interesting, and much about it is enjoyable and commendable, but something about German culture is also off-putting. I am sure that my children would all jump at the chance to visit Germany again, but they would all say that their interest in Israel is more profound. Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is special; it has sparked a particularly intense interest.
Conversations with my children, both during and after their experiences in Israel, inspired me to do more reading about the history of the Jews and Judaism. In particular, I read some books about Jewish culture at the time of Christ. As I read, something I ought to have realized long ago struck me. I have long believed that the Old Testament was a storehouse of concepts, imagery, and literary forms that the New Testament authors exploited as they wrote, but I had dismissed all other Jewish writings of the Intertestimental and the New Testament periods because they were not inspired. My recent reading has convinced me that just because these other writings were not canonical does not mean that they did not influence the thinking and the writing of Jesus and the Apostles, who were all immersed in the Jewish cultural milieu of the first century and were interacting with others who were similarly immersed. Of course they brought this cultural background with them when they composed their works. When it comes to interpreting the New Testament, therefore, I now understand that being familiar with the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of Philo, Josephus, and others would be worthwhile.
Meanwhile, as I have been working my way through the New Testament book of Matthew, I have been struck by how Judeo-centric it is. This has dovetailed with my growing appreciation for how Judeo-centric the whole Bible is. And, in fact, from God’s perspective, all of history seems to be Judeo-centric. Of all the peoples of the world, God chose one otherwise insignificant person (Abraham) and decided to make all of the history of mankind revolve around his descendants. So the Jews have played and continue to play a key role in God’s economy.
I recently watched a documentary about the 1967 Six-Day War during which the Israelis fought on three fronts against their Arab neighbors and, without intending to do so, more than doubled the size of their country. They also got possession of Jerusalem, including the temple mount. To see at how many junctures the mistakes of the Arabs combined with the good fortune of the Israelis to produce this result was astounding; it is hard not to see the hand of God in the outcome. It is also hard to look at the history of mankind without being impressed by the disproportionately prominent role that Jews have played in the unfolding of events. And this is just what we should expect on the basis of the biblical data.
If the Jews are indeed the protagonist in the history of mankind, then it seems to me that keeping an eye on them and what is happening in their midst is good to do. For this reason, I want to improve my knowledge of modern Israeli culture and society and better understand where it is going and why. I am particularly intrigued by the religious developments currently taking place within Judaism.
I am convinced, however, that in order to understand what is happening in Jewish culture now, understanding its roots is important. The curriculum at Gutenberg College looks at the evolution of intellectual thought in Western culture in order to better understand our contemporary culture and thought. I have found this very profitable. I am so sold on this approach that I would like to do the same thing with Jewish thought. I am in the process of constructing a list of the “great books” of Jewish thought so that I can read them.
An outstanding feature of Jewish culture is the high regard for the Torah that Jews have maintained; generation after generation of Jews have spent countless man-hours studying the Old Testament. Recently, I met with a Rabbi whose grandfather could recite the entire Old Testament in English or Hebrew. That is the kind of attention to the text that Jewish culture attaches to the Old Testament. So then, the history of Jewish thought is dominated by interaction with the Old Testament text. Every Jewish author brings this background, in one way or another, to his writing. In a sense, therefore, the entire history of Jewish thought constitutes a giant commentary on the Old Testament. In my experience, some Bible commentaries are virtually worthless, but others can be very helpful. Similarly, the commentary of some Jewish scholars is misguided, but I have found some of the most helpful observations and comments regarding Old Testament texts from Jewish scholars. The most helpful commentaries are not necessarily those with whom I most agree but rather those written by people who take the text seriously. Many Jewish scholars take the Old Testament text very seriously. Thus a study of Jewish thought holds promise for better understanding both Jewish culture and the Bible.