Interfaith brothers (from left): Bishop Doug Fisher, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, and the Rev. Tom Callard, priest-in-charge of Christ Church Cathedral

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In a rare decision to hire a non-Christian for a church teaching position, Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield, Massachusetts, will welcome its first rabbi-in-residence in September.

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Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro will begin his retirement from Sinai Temple in Springfield by teaching and preaching at the Episcopal cathedral on topics related to Christianity’s Judaic heritage. He plans to guide the Christian faithful into the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry, offering a rabbi’s perspective on New Testament texts, such as the Gospel of Matthew, that are rich in references to the Hebrew Bible, said the Rev. Tom Callard, priest-in-charge of the cathedral.

“Knowing the engaging way that he can converse with Christians about faith was a big part of the appeal and the idea,” Callard said.

Learning the Bible from Jewish scholars is not entirely new for Christian communities. For several decades, students at mainline Protestant seminaries have been studying the Hebrew Bible with Jewish professors.

Today the list of Jewish women teaching New Testament to future Christian clergy includes Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt Divinity School), Rachel Mikva (Chicago Theological Seminary), Sarah Tanzer (McCormick Theological Seminary), Paula Fredriksen (Boston University) and Adele Reinhartz (University of Ottawa).

On the congregational level, pastors and rabbis occasionally take turns in one another’s pulpits, but crossing faith lines for a job is much more unusual. Doctrinal differences tend to pose a stumbling block. Christian leaders teach that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. Rabbis regard him as a historical figure who was human, not divine, and even blasphemous to the extent that he made claims to divinity. Teaching in church is usually entrusted to believers in the divinity of Christ.

“A rabbi in a Christian seminary, yes, I’ve heard of that,” said Rabbi Gil Rosenthal, former executive director of the National Council of Synagogues. “But a rabbi at a church? That’s a new one for me.”

Other interfaith observers have likewise been hard-pressed to recall any such case. Tony Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, said he has never heard of another church hiring a rabbi. Likewise, Rabbi Harold Berman, new executive director of the National Council of Synagogues, said he has not heard of such a case and would expect the rabbi-in-residence role to be limited to teaching, not ritual.

“If you’re talking about someone who would be an academic consultant, teacher, someone doing research as a rabbi, helping people understand ancient Judaism and get a perspective on ancient Christianity through that, then it makes a lot of sense,” Berman said.

While extremely rare, hiring a rabbi for church work is apparently not unprecedented. At least two other churches have had a rabbi-in-residence, said the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, Bishop of Western Massachusetts. Still, he regards the appointment as historic for his diocese.

“We need to do more than talk about unity, bridge-building, and ‘choosing community over chaos.’ We need to do it,” Fisher told TLC via email. “At a time when our country and our world are so divided, breaking down into smaller and smaller units consisting only of people who agree with one another, this is an important symbolic action of what reconciled relationship looks like.”

The new partnership between Shapiro, a rabbi in Judaism’s Reform branch, and the Episcopal cathedral is rooted in personal relationships. In his 27 years at Sinai Temple, Shapiro participated in interfaith events, including monthly meetings of the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts, where he came to know Callard. He and Fisher have collaborated for years on causes from gun violence to climate change and the unsuccessful quest to keep casinos out of Springfield.

Appointing a rabbi-in-residence marks the latest step for a congregation that stresses interfaith work and worship. Last Spring, Christ Church Cathedral hosted a series called “Three Faiths, One Hope,” in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders taught about hope from their respective traditions. It culminated in an interfaith worship service at the cathedral. At this year’s diocesan convention, Rabbi Shapiro and an imam will offer prayers with and for the diocese, Fisher said.

Observers find the move potentially significant beyond Springfield. It suggests Christian openness to Jewish perspectives on the Scriptures might be trickling down from seminaries to the congregational level, according to Rabbi Ruth Langer, associate director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. That can be important for affirming Jews’ value in God’s eyes as Jews, she said, and building a bulwark against a tendency in Christian history to believe that Jews need must be converted to become righteous.

“It shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Langer said. “We always need to work on it because of the embedded Christian heritage of anti-Judaism. … As long as Pharisees in the New Testament are associated with Jews today, we have the potential for misunderstandings to rise to the surface very, very easily.”

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