conversation with a rabbi

Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel works for the United Methodist Churches. The following is a transcript of his appearance on an NPR radio show.

NPR: Rabbi, thanks very much for being with us.

Glad to be here.

NPR: What do you do as the house Rabbi for a bunch of Methodists?

Well, I do teaching, I do some advising, but mainly I’m interested in helping to see how religion in our time can be revised or renewed by a new kind of dialog between Judaism and Christianity. I think the real path to Christian renewal is through the Jewish teachings.

NPR: I don’t mean this in a partisan way, but what is your interest in a renewal of Christianity, why would that interest you?

Because the real struggles are not between religions anymore. The real struggles are with the secularists, who think that all of life is around the here and the now and the experience, and those who say there’s something larger, something more eternal, there’s a deeper dimension to life that’s not limited to the here and the now and the experiential, and that’s under attack, so we have to find new ways to deliver that particular message. I think each religion has their own way of doing it, but I think Judaism has many opportunities to present it in new ways that I think the Christians could use in getting their particular message of renewal and spirituality across. The issue is between secularity and spirituality – not between religions.

NPR: A great many biblical scholars and ordinary readers who have read the Bible and the New Testament see a substantial difference between what is sometimes called the God of the Old Testament – calling down plagues on people, he can be quick to anger – and the God of the New Testament seems, if you please, kindler, gentler.

It just ain’t that way. At the heart of the Torah teachings is a God of love. Now sometimes people don’t see that because sometimes the God of love expresses its love in different ways than may be understood. Secondly, there’s two thousand —

NPR: Excuse me, I have to interrupt… You mean the plagues on Egypt were an expression of love?

Yes. The Pharaoh stood for the power of human beings, or of a human being to dominate the world. Pharaoh was stubborn. Pharaoh had a chance to give in, the first time, without any threats, but he thought he was all powerful, and unfortunately had to be taught a lesson. Yeah, sometimes out of your pain and suffering you can find God. Pain and suffering is real. The power of the redemptive God, as expressed by Jesus, as expressed in the Torah, is the capacity to overcome that kind of difficulty and bring people to a different place where they don’t see the world as divided into sons of light and sons of darkness – that there are evil people and good people. Easter and Passover come together, but they talk about the same thing – freeing yourself from your limitations to become who you’re created to be.

NPR: In this past year of working for the Methodist Church – what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Christianity or about Christians?

I’ve learned about how hard it is to be a Christian. They struggle with this image of Jesus and all that he is and all that he was and all that he accomplished, and they’re beset by the secular culture, they’re beset by a lot of things. They’re also beset by this curse of having been all-powerful. You know, they kind of laid over the American landscape like a fog that was everywhere, and they’re so used to being everywhere that they don’t know how to be not everywhere, so they suffer with this new minority status, which is really a whole new ballgame for them, and that’s another way the Jews – who’ve been minorities for a long time – can help. They used to talk about the Christian century. I think this is becoming the Secular Century. But if it’s going to become the Christian century again, it’s going to be a new understanding of, a new presentation of what has historically been called Christianity, which will have a strong element of Jewish teaching associated with it.

NPR: You refer to the fact that Christians and Jews share the aspect of being people of faith in an increasingly secular world. I’m just sitting here thinking… I know Western Europe is increasingly secular according to the numbers, but I guess I had the impression that the rest of the world is not increasingly secular, that it’s on the contrary, more and more members of faith, and that’s sometimes the source obviously of great bitterness.

Well, it could be. I have a little different feeling. The mainstream Protestant religions in the United States and the West are declining, and I think that’s an issue. The Born-Agains sometimes have a kind of absolutism that I think borders on a lack of spirituality. So I think the essence of spirituality is humility – the capacity to truly listen to and respect and love others – you know Jesus said love your enemies and so on. And I think that’s the heart of the issue – who’s at the center? Is it you, or is it something larger than yourself, to which you owe allegiance, and to which you must give deference and try to follow its ways. The religious traditions provide a path, but I think we have to discover new ways, which are really old ways, which allow us to trod that path more effectively, more creatively, but together, rather than each in our own way.

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