WACO—Evangelical Christians who may feel marginalized in an increasingly secular society should find kinship and common ground with Orthodox Jews, a rabbi told students and faculty at Baylor University.
“We know how to survive as a cultural minority,” said Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
And dialogue between Christians and Jews who take their beliefs seriously can move beyond platitudes and warm, fuzzy feelings, he insisted.
“We can talk about peace, justice and tolerance. But we can do better,” he said.
Adlerstein spoke to a Truett Seminary assembly on “What Baptists and Other Christians Can Learn from Judaism” at the invitation of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
More specifically, he focused on the commonality of “two groups who sat out” most of the ecumenical interfaith dialogues in the latter half of the 20th century—Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians.
Different worldview than dominant culture
“That has changed,” he said, insisting evangelical Christians and “Jews who take Judaism seriously” share a worldview different than the dominant one in the United States.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states cannot deny same-sex couple the right to marry—and the majority of justices seemingly dismissed as irrelevant religious arguments to the contrary—many evangelicals “woke up to realize they are a cultural minority,” Adlerstein asserted.
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That ruling brought into focus the reality that conservative Protestants who had shaped American society and its values at one time no longer hold that position, he noted.
Lessons to learn
Orthodox Jews have millennia of experience as a cultural minority, and they have lessons to teach evangelical Christians, he insisted.
While evangelicals boast about their growth in comparison to Mainline Protestant denominations, their retention rate of young people is about 69 percent—compared to more than 90 percent for Orthodox Jews, he noted.
“If we were losing 31 percent of our young people, we would be taking to the streets in sackcloth and ashes,” he said in an interview.
Equally serious about faith
Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews differ theologically, but each group has deeply held beliefs and traditional values based on Scripture.
“We have a common vocabulary,” he said to the assembly at Truett. “We are serious about our belief. So, we are not threatened by each other. We understand the power of faith and are comfortable with it.”
In contrast to some interfaith dialogue that seeks to synthesize beliefs—“put it all in a blender and come out with a religion smoothie”—Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians have no intention of surrendering their distinctive beliefs, Adlerstein said.
But they can work together in areas of shared concern, he noted, such as advocating for the rights of persecuted religious minorities overseas—particularly Middle East Christians victimized by the self-described Islamic State.
Shape the cultural conversation
They also can help shape the conversation in a culture that devalues religious belief and stereotypes religious people as unenlightened, he asserted.
“The subliminal suggestion is that people who really understand don’t need religion. Why do we let Americans believe that?” he asked.
Out of necessity, cultural minorities learn to sharpen their thinking and hone their arguments in ways the majority culture does not, he noted.
They also develop strategies for training their children in their faith and values, rather than defaulting that responsibility to society at large, he added.
Support for Israel
Adlerstein noted one area where evangelicals and Jews found common ground in the past has diminished in recent years—support for Israel.
“That scares the living daylights out of me,” he confided in an interview. “The Palestinians have put on a full-court press, and that has led to an erosion of support for Israel.
“If we are going to make it work among young people, we will have to be able to make the justice arguments for the existence of Israel.”
Learn the Hebrew Scriptures
Because evangelical Christians take the Bible seriously, Adlerstein also invited them to learn from what Orthodox Jewish scholars could teach about the Hebrew Scriptures. Apart from familiarity with Psalms used in worship and a passing knowledge of the historical narratives, many Christians find the Hebrew Scriptures—particularly the Law—inaccessible, he insisted.
“God is not arbitrary, and there is meaning behind every law. There is beauty, inspiration and structure there—especially structure,” he said. “We have it worked out, and there is much in what we have that you could explore and value.”