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Church on Sunday

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A casual email forwarded to me by a colleague thrust me into one of the more interesting and stimulating experiences I have had in quite a while.
Roughly a month ago, I arrived at Eastside Christian Church, a megachurch in the heart of Orange County, to represent Judaism on an interfaith panel with a projected audience of over 10,000 people. Eastside Church, in a series of lectures and panels titled “Explore God,” decided to begin their series by inviting a panel of religious leaders from a multiplicity of religions to answer fundamental questions about their faith and worldview. Facing questions such as my view of God, heaven and the New Testament, I did my best to answer these questions in a way that was befitting to both my own worldview, as well as that of the Jewish community.
After about six hours (we did a few different panels throughout the day) I left with a massive smile on my face regarding the unique nature of what had just transpired.
Now, the truth is that Jewish-Christian public dialogue is by no means new. The Talmud is full of stories between rabbis and early Christians, especially in the earlier days before the two traditions made a complete separation. Most Jewish day school children grow up hearing stories of public debates between Jewish and Christian leaders all throughout the Middle Ages, perhaps most notably the famous disputation between Nachmanides and the Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani. Even the famed Jewish philosopher and poet Judah Halevi wrote a Jewish philosophical work in the format of an interfaith debate taking place in front of the king of the Khazars.
The difference, however, between the Jewish historical experience and my own cannot be overstated. Many of these historical public discussions and debates ended with increased persecution, demonization, and hatred of the Jewish community. Jewish books, most frequently the Talmud, would be burned in the city center with the powerless Jews unable to defend their holy books from the flames. Furthermore, Jews would often be forced into defending themselves against ridiculous and baseless allegations. Questions about the Jewish murder of Jesus, Christian babies, and other anti-Semitic tropes were often made the center of debate - resulting in a lose-lose scenario for the Jewish representative.
Fast-forward to my experience roughly a millennium later.
“What is the Jewish position on Jesus?”  I was asked in front of an audience of thousands of Christians.
Knowing the history of this question I took a deep breath and began. I gave my best possible explanation of the Jewish view of Jesus, who we think he was, and why we reject him as the messiah and divine/prophetic figure.
After I finished speaking, the pastor, who was moderating the debate, thanked me and moved on to the next panelist. No attempt to challenge my view or even offer answers to my implicit questions. A church organized event, run by a pastor, had just allowed a Jew to give a five minute speech about why Jesus isn’t the messiah and subsequently move on leaving my points unaddressed and ringing in the air. When I walked offstage after the event I was thanked by dozens of people, both folks who work at the Church, and its congregants. Not one individual said anything that was less than absolutely flattering.
In hosting this discussion Eastside Church truly expressed the two most important values that any religious group can embody. First, the sheer desire of this Church to reach the truth was immediately evident from the entire event. By inviting a multiplicity of religious opinions into their Church and allowing everyone to freely express their opinions, Eastside displayed that their true goal is to aid their congregants in their own search of truth. A goal only obtainable through the consideration of multiple viewpoints.
Second, Eastside’s event was a true promotion of the peace/co-existence that we desperately need in our world today. All of the different religious leaders presented their opinions and worldviews and everyone else listened in order to truly understand, not to retort. I, as a Jew, was invited to speak about the Jewish view on many fundamental issues because the Church, the other panelists, the pastor, and the congregants truly wanted to learn more about Judaism.
About an hour after the event ended I found myself in the neighborhood Albertsons shopping for lunch. An older woman approached me by the checkout aisle and thanked me for being on the panel at her Church. She had lived in Orange County her entire life and had never really learned much about Judaism, nor ever had the experience to have a conversation with a Jew. After a few respectful follow-up questions about my various answers, she thanked me again and headed on her way.
This is truly the way to move forward in a society that is rapidly increasing in divisiveness by the day - listening to, inviting, and respecting opinions that are radically different from your own. This is an idea that is deeply rooted in Judaism and Jewish literature, and I thank Eastside Church for embodying this value.
    Moshe Daniel Levine is a reglar contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.

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