Ecumenicism on Hilton Head Island shined a beautiful light into the hearts and souls of Jews and Catholics.
Congregation Beth Yam and St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church joined together recently to present two days of communal education and music. Not often does a Jewish scholar come to a community who has the academic credentials of being an ordained rabbi and seminary professor whose specialty is the New Testament.
Rabbi Professor Michael Cook of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our guest scholar in residence, presented two community lectures in both the church and the synagogue. In addition, he led a Bible study session and afterward a study session luncheon for local clergy.
At both lectures, in addition to Rabbi Cook’s presentations, we listened to the music of each congregation’s choirs singing together the sacred music of their religious traditions. The work that the joint committees invested in these events certainly made a difference in demonstrating that diverse religious communities can collaborate and appreciate the beauty of each other’s sacred texts.
New friends between both congregations and clergy leadership will continue to work together and educate themselves in the future. Catholic brothers and sisters were truly intrigued to listen to an authentic Jewish scholar who is a rabbi demonstrate such fluency and intimate knowledge of the New Testament.
Not only that, but a Jewish perspective on the New Testament is surely a phenomenon one doesn’t see too often, particularly in the Lowcountry. The truth is, nevertheless, that we all stretched over the two days in good ways.
Ecumenicism demands stretching spiritual muscles that may have atrophied over the years. Is it true that when we get too comfortable in our own religious world view it becomes hard to open up and hear new ideas or rethink old questions?
Catholics embraced the credibility of a Jewish scholar on the New Testament, and Jewish people heard Rabbi Cook’s message at Friday night sabbath services, which was that Jews should be open to learning about and engaging without fear the teachings of the New Testament.
Dr. Cook lectured on Jewish symbols in Renaissance art, and then “Correcting a 2,000-Year Error” at the Temple. He reminded us that we should refer to the Christian scriptures as the New Testament, and that Christians should not use the term Old Testament anymore. Instead, he taught that the term “Jewish Bible” is a more respectful and historically accurate name.
Today we feel the tremors of so much political and religious discord. News commentators refer to the new tribalism in describing the political culture and the divisions raging on in our nation’s public affairs. If we are disintegrating into political and cultural tribalism and we cannot talk to each other or work together for the well being of our community let alone our nation, then America is in real trouble. The religious community in our country represents inspiration and hope contributing to an ethical base for America rather than tearing down the bonds of friendship and fellowship in our country.
Thanksgiving is a core value and experience that fortifies our American ethos. Families will gather together and offer prayers. Republican and Democrats as well as Independents will sit together at the same table.
Many a family will impose a rule of no political discussions at the table. That is probably a wise restriction. Yet, when we are feasting on the delicious foods we have come to love in the presence of family and friends can we not talk about those in need in our nation and how we can help the less fortunate? Must our political or religious divisions even creep into the prayers we offer and the cuisine we delight in too?
Religious institutions help us to step outside of our comfort zones. Our differences do not threaten our integrity. Differences do not have to make us worry about our membership base or our sense of self as a religion. To study sacred texts from each other’s religions or to sing the songs of our liturgical traditions does not threaten our theology. If anything, it enriches it.
Surely there will be homes where family members of different religions also will sit around the table. Are we going to get tribal and sit in silence? We should not be afraid to ask questions and learn from each other.
Jeremiah said, “Seek the welfare of your community and pray on its behalf, so that all may share in its well-being” (29:7). Thanksgiving is supposed to be about sharing in the well-being of our community and helping others to benefit from our blessings. Our differences and uniqueness as religions communities can be the glue that keeps our nation unified.