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Christians Are Studying Torah — In Israel And Online — To Get Closer To Jesus

‘As Christians, we believe in Jesus and that Jesus was a Jew’

Shelly Jones, a 41-year-old occupational therapy assistant from Melissa, a suburb of Dallas, was sitting in church when she found herself moved to tears.

There was a special guest at First Melissa, Jones’s Baptist congregation that Sunday, about two years ago: Dov Lipman, an American-born Orthodox Israeli Jew and a former member of the Knesset. Jones said she was rapt as Lipman described his decision to immigrate to Israel in 2004. Struck by what she called Lipman’s “obedience” to God, she began to cry. Then and there, she vowed to learn all she could about Israel and the Jewish people — and Torah.

“It was a moment that God just laid it in my heart to study and learn,” she said.

Part of Jones’s study has involved learning the Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament — from Jews. Last April she traveled to Israel with her pastor, her first time abroad. Around that time, she started doing Bible study at Root Source, an online portal offering “world-class Jewish biblical teaching” to Christians.

Curious though she is about Judaism, Jones says she has no desire to convert. Studying the Jewish Bible, with Jews as teachers, is her way of enriching her Christian faith.

“As Christians, we believe in Jesus and that Jesus was a Jew,” Jones said. “He celebrated all the feasts, he did everything according to the Old Testament. When I grasped that and I read the Old Testament from more of a Jewish perspective, it came to life in a whole new way.”

Jones isn’t alone. According to Israeli Jews involved in efforts to teach Christians the Bible, there are thousands seeking such instruction, both from online portals like Root Source and Yeshiva for the Nations and in person in Jerusalem, where the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation offers classes to roughly 7,500 Christians each year. Participants are usually people visiting or working in Israel. It’s a phenomenon, those involved say, that is growing quickly. It has even entered the halls of the Israeli Knesset, where a semi-regular Bible study is attended by high-profile Christian supporters of Israel.

It’s also controversial.

At first glance, these programs look like a bold example of interfaith bridge building: After centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, Christians are now looking to Jews as authority figures who can guide their understanding of one of their holy books. But scratch the surface, and there’s more at play.

Both the Christian students and their Jewish teachers are typically reading the Bible with a focus on the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel. In this shared reading, the foundation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, Israel’s victory in 1967 and even Trump’s recent decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem are cast as realizations of biblical prophecy. Broadly speaking, for the Christian students these events portend the second coming of Jesus Christ; for their Jewish teachers, the arrival of the Messiah.

Critics say these eschatological visions play into the settler project of permanent Israeli control over the occupied West Bank, undermining the possibility of Palestinian independence.

Jill Jacobs, a rabbi and the director of T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights and anti-occupation group, is skeptical of what she calls efforts to “collapse” the distinction between the biblical Land of Israel and the modern State of Israel. This approach leaves Israel off the hook when it comes to international law, which prohibits settlement building in occupied territory.

“We need to separate between the Land of Israel, which is not necessarily coterminous with the State of Israel,” she said. “It is a modern nation-state, not a biblical kingdom, and it needs to fulfill the laws of a modern nation-state, not a biblical kingdom.”

Beyond the political realm, others have raised theological concerns about the Bible study programs. While rabbinic sources differ on whether and in what form non-Jewish study of the Hebrew Bible is allowed, Orthodox Judaism has traditionally frowned upon it.

“The positions of Orthodox Judaism are ultimately defined by the greatest Torah scholars of each generation,” Avi Shafran, a rabbi and director of public relations at the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said in an email to the Forward. “To the best of my knowledge, no such authority has been endorsed to offer encouragement to organized efforts to teach Torah to non-Jews.” This, in his view, makes the Bible study programs “less than legitimate.”

MK Yehuda Glick leads a Bible study session associated with Yeshiva for the Nations, which brings Torah to Christians.

MK Yehuda Glick leads a Bible study session associated with Yeshiva for the Nations, which brings Torah to Christians. Image by Courtesy of Israel 365

While Jewish teachers insist that they aren’t breaking any religious rules, some of them keep a low profile to avoid controversy. Gidon Ariel, co-founder of Root Source, is one of the biggest names when it comes to teaching Christians the Hebrew Bible. But his neighbors in Ma’ale Hever, a West Bank settlement, don’t know about his work. “In the community I live in, it is a gentleman’s secret what I do,” he said.

The number of Israeli Jews teaching the Bible to Christians is small — around just two dozen to three dozen, according to those involved. Many are American born — an asset when connecting with English-speaking Christians — and several live in West Bank settlements.

Looking Toward The End Of Days

In one sense, the Jewish teachers are part of a long lineage of Jews helping Christians to understand the Bible. It is a tradition that dates back to the Protestant Reformation, according to Samuel Goldman, an assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University who is writing a book about Christian Zionism.

A central project of the Reformation was to make the Bible available to everyday Christians through translation. As Christians accessed the Bible in their own languages, some also sought to read it in the original Hebrew as an “aid in interpretation,” Goldman said. That often led them to seek the help of Jews.

The Jewish teachers of yore may have seen potential allies in the Christians they assisted. According to Goldman, such contact between Jews and Christians is connected to the readmission of Jews to England in the 1650s under Oliver Cromwell, after they were expelled by King Edward I in 1290.

Centuries later, Jewish teachers also see potential allies in the Christians they instruct in the Bible. Yet, today’s teachers have a very different mission. Rather than trying to curry Christian favor to protect Jews in the Diaspora, some want to enlist Christians in their pursuit of a maximalist vision of the State of Israel.

Sondra Oster Baras is the Israel director of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, a group building Christian support of the settlements. Baras, who lives in the West Bank settlement Karnei Shomron, began teaching the Hebrew Bible 20 years ago as part of her outreach to Christians. Christians have a “faith-based approach to Israel, and that enables them to be extremely committed and extremely pro-Israel and extremely pro-Judea and Samaria,” she said, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.

Ariel also sees Bible programming as a way to garner Christian backing of Israel. “I think that a good Christian learns the Bible and a Christian who knows the Bible supports Israel,” he said.

Root Source’s material frames settlers as living out a biblical mandate. On the website’s Land of Israel channel, classes are taught by David Ha’ivri, an American-born Israeli activist who advocates full Israeli control over the West Bank. In an introductory video, Ha’ivri shows off his farm in Kfar Tapuach, outside Nablus. It includes olive trees and a vineyard. “Jewish farmers like ourselves who are planting vineyards here in these mountains are fulfilling the word of the prophets,” he said.

In some cases, Root Source veers beyond the Bible, into bigoted territory. Another channel, billed as one of the most popular ones on the website, takes aim at Islam, promising to uncover the “five deceptions” of the faith. In the trailer video, the instructor, Avi Lipkin, an anti-Islam lecturer who says he has spoken at churches across the United States, says Muslims have a “horrible system” in Islam.

Other Jewish instructors say they are motivated by the idea that their work contributes to the coming of the Messiah. Naphtali Weisz, the rabbi who founded Israel 365, the parent company of Yeshiva for the Nations, said that his inspiration for teaching Christians came from the Bible itself, specifically from the Book of Isaiah, which in his reading predicts an international appetite for the Jewish holy texts.

“Yeshiva for the Nations comes from this idea, at the end of days, in order to prepare for the next stage in the journey of Zionism, and the next stage in the redemption that the Tanach describes. And to turn the page from the physical return to the spiritual return, we need to start teaching the Torah to non-Jews,” he said.

Israel 365’s popular online newsletter — it counts some 300,000 subscribers — advances this narrative of the coming end times in its coverage of major news events in Israel. After a recent flare-up between Hamas and Israel that almost tipped the region back into war, one article hinted that this was evidence of Israel’s army preparing for “Gog and Magog,” a biblical war that signals the coming end times.

To be sure, not all the material offered by Jewish teachers is so politically or apocalyptically charged. At a recent Bible study in Jerusalem, hosted by the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, the subject was comparatively benign: the biblical perspective of marriage. David Nekrutman, CJCUC’s executive director, gave an entertaining hour-long lecture, during which he pushed the students — a portion of whom were in Israel working with Christian Zionist groups — to think more deeply about relationships between men and women and the divine.

After one student asked a particularly probing question, Nekrutman joked: “Now you sound Jewish. Very good!”

Nekrutman, who was the first Jew to graduate from the evangelical Oral Roberts University, with a master’s in Christian theology, said he wants to build relationships with Christians as he teaches them the Jewish Bible. “It is more than just Christians supporting Israel,” he said. “It is how do we talk with one other. Where is it that we can come together to do things together?”

Bible study as a point of connection is a way to foster bonds “not based upon guilt of the past,” he said.

Seeking ‘That Authentic Jesus’

Christians interviewed by the Forward said they sought Jewish Israeli instruction as a way to enhance their faith. The Bible was “written from a Hebrew worldview and I want to learn it from a Hebrew worldview,” said Pama Tavernier, a Michigan native who was at the CJCUC class. Tavernier, 65, is in Israel as an employee at Christian Friends of Israel, a Jerusalem-based evangelical organization.

According to Dan Hummel, who is a scholar of Christian Zionism and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christian students are looking for insight into three areas when they read the Bible with Jews — the covenant between the Jewish people and God, the Land of Israel and Jesus Christ’s Jewish roots. For many Christians, Hummel said, the third area is a significant driver of their engagement with Israel and Jews.

“Evangelicals are always looking for that authentic Jesus, and if that Jesus is increasingly seen as Jewish Jesus, then they are going to want to know from Jews what was that background,” Hummel said.

Christians are increasingly seeking out Bible study with Jews, online or in Israel, to get closer to Jesus.

Christians are increasingly seeking out Bible study with Jews, online or in Israel, to get closer to Jesus. Image by iStock

But Jacobs said that this emphasis on Jesus’ first-century Judaism comes at the expense of much of Jewish history. “This casts us as pawns in their story as opposed to being agents in and of ourselves,” she said. “It ignores the tradition of rabbinic Judaism. The way that Judaism was is not the way Jews have lived for the past 2,000 years.”

Christian Zionists and their Jewish teachers typically agree that the modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, a critical step in the timeline leading to the end of days. But they part ways over what the redemption will entail. For Jews, it’s the arrival of the Messiah; for Christian Zionists, it’s the second coming of Jesus Christ, who will establish a millennial kingdom in Jerusalem. According to Hummel, Christian Zionists entertain a wide range of beliefs about what happens to Jews in the end of days. In one scenario, Jews will have to “convert or die,” along with all other non-Christians.

This, of course, is deeply offensive to many Jews. Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi, and author and a vocal critic of Christian Zionism, said that this belief alone should make Israeli Jews wary of teaching Christians the Bible: “The people who are going to learn Torah because they think it will bring the rapture and then the people who have not accepted Christ are going to hell — those people are not going to protect us.”

Not all Christian Zionists believe that the end of days will bring destruction onto Jews and other nonbelievers. Some hold to “dual covenant theology,” in which “Jews have their own covenant with God that is totally separate from Jesus in all shapes and forms,” Hummel said. “If they are good Jews in this life, they will somehow exist as good Jews in the next life.” But these Christians have a narrow definition of a “good Jew,” meaning people who believe in God and follow the Bible.

Jones said that learning about Israel and Judaism has changed her personal theology on the end times question. “I did before believe what I was taught, and what I read was that you have to believe in Jesus,” she said. Through study she came to realize that God “is a covenant-keeping God and it shows over and over and over again, even in the New Testament.” He said, ‘Those [Jews] are my people.’” Now, she says, she doesn’t know what will happen to Jews in the end of days.

Jews and Christians who find common cause around Israel tend to dance around the topic of the end times, Hummel said. “They don’t want to talk about this,” he said. “They would rather talk about covenant and land; this is something they can agree on.”

When the issue does come up, it is often smoothed over with a joke, one that Hummel said was even used by the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin when he met with the famed Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell: “When the Messiah comes, we’ll ask: ‘Have you been here before?’ That is a way of getting past the issue and moving on to something else.”

There are other potential pitfalls in the teacher-student relationship, namely the Christian drive toward conversion. Baras said it is crucial for Jews to lay “ground rules” when teaching Christians. They boil down to a single tenet: “You respect each other’s faith and you don’t try to change each other.”

For Jewish teachers, whose faith demands they don’t proselytize, the ground rules usually pose no challenge. But for Christian students — many them come from an evangelical background — evangelizing, or spreading the word of Jesus, can be a central part of their identity. This is where Baras draws the line.

And yet, she has no problem with the idea that some of her students reject her as a Jew, or that some believe she is going to hell for not accepting Jesus. Belief is one thing, acting upon it is another.

“I don’t expect them to be open to my suggestion that Jesus isn’t divine,” she said, so she can’t expect her students to think she’s going to heaven.

Other Jewish teachers say that proselytizing is extremely rare. Rivkah Lambert Adler, who teaches on Root Source and also independently, said that not once in her three years as an instructor has she encountered a student who sought to convert her. If anything, many of her students are so intrigued by what they’ve learned, and so reverent of the Jewish people, that they begin dabbling in Jewish practice, like keeping the Sabbath. Jones, one of Lambert Adler’s students, is now studying Hebrew.

Christians, Lambert Adler said, “are hungering and they are thirsting for something that the Jewish people have.”

In the near future, Lambert Adler predicts a “tsunami” of Christians looking to study the Bible under Israeli Jews. If and when the storm hits, she and other teachers will be waiting with open arms.

Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s former Middle East correspondent.

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