Fr. Kevin Bettens
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Reaching Across a Two Millennia Divide

by Simone Cohen Scott, Nov 6, 2017

Two years ago, the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate (Latin for 'in our Time') was celebrated, and was the occasion for three weekly lectures held at Mary Mother of the Church, in Fort Richmond.  Nostra Aetate, passed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), was the document repudiating the two thousand year old charge of deicide against the Jews, affirming that God's relationship with the people of Israel is eternal, and dismissing the necessity to convert Jews. (An influential role in the wording of this document was played by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.)  It is to the great credit of the Catholic people in our city that this Fort Richmond church, back then in October 2015, was filled to capacity all three evenings, indicating a sincere effort to understand, express bottomless regret, and make amends insofar as possible.  This year the outreach was taken even further.   Under the heading “The New Testament from a Jewish Perspective”, three weekly sessions were once again scheduled, just prior to the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, namely the Days of Awe and the Day of Atonement.  How appropriate!


The lectures were given by Dr. Ruth Ashrafi, Judaic Studies Adviser at Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg.  The highly credentialed Dr. Ashrafi has taught Jewish history at universities in the Netherlands, Israel, and Canada, and is a frequent speaker on Rabbinic Judaism, Hebrew Bible, and various other related topics at synagogues, churches, and study groups.  She has recently joined the Manitoba Multifaith Council as Chair of the Education Committee. Besides Mary Mother of the Church, the event was sponsored by the Winnipeg Bat Kol Tri-Diocesan Committee (a collaborative effort of Archdiocese of Saint Boniface, Archdiocese of Winnipeg, Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg), together with the Manitoba Multifaith Council.


In her first lecture “Jesus in the Context of the First Century”, Dr. Ashrafi chose to begin at approximately 63 BCE, with an overview of the various skirmishes between the Romans and the Jews.  Every phrase of her hour-long presentation was so richly informative that processing each new idea in time for the next one, was a challenge.  Here are the salient points.  When Rome initially ended the autonomy of the Israelite nation, taking over and making Judea, Samaria, and Idumea one province, it did not immediately subjugate the Jews or their religion.  By the time of Jesus' ministry, however, (roughly 30 CE) Rome's governance had progressed through gradually tightening stages to, what was for many, an unbearable level of oppression.  The Jewish population began to expect, and was impatient for, a leader (the Messiah) to arrive on the scene and lead a successful revolt, restoring the nation to its former glory.  Young men of passionate temperament (Zealots, they were called) forming an organized resistance, expected a militant uprising at any moment, most certainly not a spiritual revival.  To the disappointment of this group, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he lost no time chastising what may even have been his own sect (the Pharisees), pointing out that they had fallen far short of the law as given in the Torah.  His scoldings, such as the one in the Temple grounds, demonstrated his horror at how badly the Word of God had been corrupted. 


At no time did Jesus suggest a new religion; his intention was to get the old one back on track. His teachings most often emphasized the admonition to ' one another...'.  Being a learned and observant Jew himself, he taught his companions that this was the basic tenet of the Tenach (Bible).  Of course, the 'power brokers' of the time, many of whom were the priests in the Temple, couldn't abide such simplicity.


The second lecture of the three “An Orthodox Rabbi Reads the New Testament”, focused on a book published in 1870, written by a descendent of the revered Volozheiner/Soloveitchik Rabbinic lineage.  Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveitchik was born in Lithuania in 1805. His book, a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew and titled 'Kol Kore' (a calling voice), was ultimately translated into French, German, and English, and given the title 'The Bible, the Talmud and the Gospel'.  Dr. Ashrafi pointed out that the learned Rabbi emphasized common grounds of belief between each of these, what they were, and how their meanings had been misconstrued, or lost in translation.  From his reading of Matthew alongside the Jewish texts, comparing the languages and contexts of each, Rabbi Soloveitchik came to realize it was a later misreading of Jesus' teaching that wrought the gulf between the two faiths. Based on his analysis, from a lifetime of familiarity and experience with writings and languages of Maimonides and other sages, Rabbi Soloveitchik found that in fact the New Testament and the Talmud do not oppose each other.


The third lecture, 'Between Jerusalem and Athens' focused on the language of the New Testament,.....Greek. Of course, the Tenach was written in Hebrew, but the common vernacular in Jesus' time was Aramaic.  Yet the first four books (Gospels) of the New Testament, were written in Greek.   The first, second, and the fourth writers, Matthew, Mark, and John, were contemporaries of Jesus, hung out with him during his ministry, in other words were amongst his twelve disciples (later called apostles). Nevertheless, they did not write their accounts during Jesus' lifetime.  The Gospels were not even begun to be written down until at least forty years after Jesus' death, probably when they began to realize he wasn't coming back anytime soon. And they weren't actually completed until a century later.


Luke, the writer of the third gospel, wasn't on the scene at all during Jesus' lifetime, yet he wrote the largest portion of the entire New Testament.  It is generally believed he reported from eye-witness accounts, decades later, when the message began to be taken to the gentiles.  It is from these accounts that subsequent translations would be made.  Even with the best of intentions, accuracy would nevertheless have given place to interpretation. It is important to keep in mind here that only about 8,000 Hebrew words are used in the Tenach. The Greek language has 5 million words. English, for the sake of comparison, has between 600,000 and 1,000,000. Myriads of choices need to be made.  Familiarity with Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic is a must, as well as a knowledge of the history of the era, in order to understand the nuance of phrases rendered in an ancient vernacular.


In Christian denominations much has been made of Jesus' relentless criticism of the Pharisees. This had been erroneously taken as a condemnation once and for all.  It wasn't; it was an admonition to take stock. Dr. Ashrafi presented on the overhead a chart based on Rabbinic teaching, analyzing seven types of Pharisees, all but one or two having certain combinations of character defects---varying degrees of hypocrisy, self-satisfied, self-righteous, selfish, prideful, to name a few.  As it happens, today's Jews are descendants of the Pharisee sect.  Was that why Dr. Ashrafi brought forward this chart on two of the three evenings? Could it be that similar self-examinations are appropriate today?


Two years ago, the church was filled mostly with Catholics; only a few Jews attended the programs, (except on one of those evenings when survivors of the Holocaust were featured, describing their experiences).  This year, many Jews were in attendance, as well as a healthy cross-section of Christian denominations. Furthermore, the questions that were asked from the floor indicated that sensitive attempts are being made on all sides to understand and reach out. In fact, afterwards, an impromptu twenty minute session broke out, clustered around one Jewish woman, who was responding to several members of the audience, describing how she was actively engaging Christians, encouraging them to feel 'at home' celebrating the Jewish festivals. 


Responders to each lecture were, in order: Father Sam Argenziano, Pastor, Holy Rosary Church; Rev. Dr. Gordon Taylor, Pastor, The United Church in Meadowood; and Rev. Mr. Stepan Bilynskyy, Director, Mission and Spiritual Health Care Services, Misericordia Health Centre. Lovely refreshments were served after the presentations, and lively conversations took place amongst people of the various faiths.  Everyone exuded enthusiasm about our Dr. Ruth's (Father Sam's choice for Dr. Ashrafi) vast knowledge and erudition.  A great deal of credit goes to Belle Jarniewski and to Greg Barrett for facilitating this excellent cooperative venture into a greater understanding and appreciation of each others perspective.  Perhaps one of these years, soon, all the nations will join together dancing with the scrolls, celebrating with the Jews the climax of the Days of Awe, Simchat Torah (the Joy of the Law).


The writer holds a B.A. in Comparative Religion from the University of Manitoba with a Minor in Judaic Studies.


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