US Presbyterian-Jewish relations: steps to 'mend a broken relationship'

Presbyterians and Jews in the U.S. once were long-time partners -- in matters ranging from the Civil Rights Movement to various interfaith and social justice issues. And they evidenced mutual respect.

That began to fall apart when we Presbyterians started considering -- and eventually approved -- disinvestment from companies the church said have been benefitting financially from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some of us Presbyterians in the heartland -- without imagining that we can solve all of our differences -- plan to begin a grassroots effort to try to recreate respectful and warm associations with some of our Jewish neighbors. We will aim to "mend a broken relationship," as former Presbyterian General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada has described the task.

Perhaps there are lessons in this for Catholics and Protestants, too, in their sometimes-testy relations.

We'll begin with help from the great author and New Testament scholar from Vanderbilt University, Amy-Jill Levine, who attends an Orthodox Jewish congregation. She'll be in Kansas City for several days in October for some lectures, and will spend at least part of her time helping Presbyterians and Jews understand how they can create opportunities to sit down with each other and share their hearts. Levine has discussed this process in some of her writing, including her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

That book -- and her latest one, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi -- should be required reading for anyone preaching from any Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox pulpit. For as Levine says, you can't understand Jesus without understanding Judaism.

I've been meeting with a small group that's working on a special project of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council to create an Interfaith Center for Religious Literacy. We now are working in partnership with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, host to the American Public Square (formerly the Village Square), which creates forums for civil discourse about hot-button issues, including religion. Levine's visit and the conversation groups we hope will grow out of that are a first project in getting such a religious literacy center in operation.

The Presbyterian-Jewish conversation we have in mind is not meant to suggest that there need not be Presbyterian-Islamic or -Buddhist or -Catholic or -You-Name-It efforts. But we need to start somewhere. And a Jewish friend of mine has asked if we could start there.

Indeed, what my friend has in mind -- and I agree with him -- is beginning not with all the contentious issues that have divided Presbyterians both among themselves and from American Jews. So we're not going to start by talking about boycotts, disinvestments, sanctions, the future of Israel, the future of the Palestinian people, the occupied West Bank or any such matters.

Rather, our intention is to lead off with our personal stories of faith. What does it mean in our time and place to be a member of a declining Mainline Protestant denomination? What does it mean to be a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist Jew in the U.S. today -- or, just as likely, a Jew who is not connected to any of those branches?

What social traditions that are informed by faith do Presbyterians and Jews value? Why do we celebrate our various religious holidays? What does it mean to be a Jewish minority within a population that's predominantly Christian? Or to be Protestants in a Christian population in which Catholics are dominant in terms of numbers? Why do Christians wear crosses as jewelry sometimes? What are those skull caps Jewish men often wear and why and when do they wear them?

What do we believe about the Bible? What powers do we give to our various clergy? And on and on.

We are not looking for seminary-approved theological answers. We are looking, instead, for each other's heart. It's what ecumenical and interfaith conversation and work together must always be about.

Will this resolve the sometimes-bitter Jewish-Presbyterian relations today? Of course not. But let peace begin with us.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. E-mail him at]

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