The hardest chapter to write for my book on the Jewishness of Jesus was the one on resurrection. I tried to avoid it, but my editor insisted. Resurrection of the dead is not a topic we discuss much in synagogues.
In fact, many Jews and Christians today believe Jews have never believed in the resurrection of the dead. Yet, the Talmud says faith in resurrection is one of the three core ideas of Judaism. Look at chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel.
In it the Prophet Ezekiel envisions a valley full of dry bones. He speaks to the bones. He tells them God will breathe life into them. They will have skin and flesh and become a great army.
The bones symbolize the people of Israel, who will rise again and return to their land. The text is not purely a symbolic vision of rebirth. It is physical, with the spirit giving life to the bones of the dead. The text is traditionally read during the week of Passover.
One of the world’s best-selling books this year is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Aside from the clever title, it struck a chord in our psyche. We have too much stuff.
Yet we resist parting with it. We struggle for ways to “tidy up.”
Sadly, reading about this book didn’t help me do so. It did, however, help me understand a difficult part of the Bible.
The Bible was never meant to be studied alone. This past year, a Christian colleague and I gathered periodically to study. He suggested we explore Deuteronomy.
The study expanded us both. While we differ in our view of the Old Testament, we both came to see Deuteronomy as strikingly modern. The God it describes is accessible and universal.
The moral vision it presents challenges and enlarges us. The society it reflects resembles our own.
If you are Christian or a Jew beginning to study the Old Testament, I suggest starting with Deuteronomy.
Here’s what you might discover.
I just finished writing a book on Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. One of the parts I struggled most with is Pharaoh's violence and God’s hardening of his heart.
Recall the setting: It is Exodus chapter nine, and Moses and Aaron have urged Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Thus far, Pharaoh has refused, and God has responded by inflicting five plagues on Egypt.
The Egyptian people are miserable. They want Pharaoh to just let the people go. Even Pharaoh’s top advisors are urging him to relent and tell Moses the Israelites can leave.
Yet, we then read “But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them.” (Exodus 9:12)
What is the Bible Trying to Tell Us?
This week and next, 40 high school students from Israel and the Palestinian territories are gathering in Chicago for serious dialogue. I will be addressing the group this Friday evening. Here is the gist of my remarks.
As you gather here this evening, your homeland is engulfed in war. Your families live in fear. A rocket or bomb could fall at any time.
Yet here you are—talking with one another, building a community of true diversity. You are addressing, unpacking and learning about the differences that really matter.
You are having the kind of dialogue Martin Buber envisioned when he wrote his classic book I and Thou: conversation driven by a willingness to be changed, to shift points of views, to open up to the truths of another.
Does It Matter?
Can it work? Can we listen to each other? Does what we are doing here matter to what is happening over there? Absolutely.
In the 1970s Alex Haley wrote the best-seller Roots. He sought to find the roots of his life as an African-American. Where did he come from? What experiences shaped who he was?
Pope Francis and one of his best friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka
We all ask these questions. We seek not only geographic roots and ethnic roots. We look for spiritual roots. Where do we come from? Why do we believe what we believe?
For Christians much of the answer lies in Judaism. Pope Francis recently put it bluntly when he said, “I believe that inter-religious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism… Inside every Christian is a Jew.”
Last year I attended the Irish Fest in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The music and ambience make it one of most unforgettable days of the year.
Listening to a concert, I struck up a conversation with someone standing next to me. I told him I was a rabbi, and once we got past the usual incredulity and discussion of why I don’t have a beard, he turned serious.
“I’m Irish,” he said, “And I love Irish music. I’m here celebrating being Irish. But I don’t plan to move to Ireland. I don’t talk about it all the time. Why do Jews care so much about Israel? It’s all I hear—Israel, Israel, Israel.”
Every year I lead a session with my confirmation class on “hot topics.” Inevitably someone asks about tattoos. Specifically, they asked me whether it is a true that a Jewish person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
A tattoo of the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means “peace.”
The answer, as is the case with many such questions, is “it depends.” There is no blanket prohibition on tattoos. Such a prohibition would prevent any survivors of Nazi concentration camps—whose arms were branded with a number—from residing in a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish view of tattoos is more nuanced. It reflects the purposes skin markings filled in ancient culture and the reverence with which we are to treat our bodies.
What is Wrong with Tattoos?
The Book of Psalms tells us “Number our days so we gain a heart of wisdom.” The Jewish sages took this verse literally. They instructed their communities to count the days between the holiday of Passover and festival of Pentecost.
We count the days by saying a blessing over each of them. This little-known tradition has its roots in the agricultural cycle.
To best understand the Old Testament, we need to consult the original Hebrew. Every translation is an interpretation.
Now some translation are better than others, and the vast majority of both Jews and Christians do not understand Hebrew. Yet, sometimes momentous ideas are lost in translation.
Among the most important ones is found in God's encounter with Moses at the Burning Bush.