Separated Siblings: An Evangelical Understanding of Jews and Judaism

An Evangelical Christian book on Judaism and the Jewish people

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Making up 1.6% of the American population, the Jewish community - at a ratio greater than other religious, ethnic, or national groups - invests significant resources developing relations with every other group in American society.

The Jewish Federation of Chicago is uniquely positioned to fulfill this mandate with Christian institutions. Chicago boasts some of the most important Protestant and Catholic seminaries. Wheaton College is the "Harvard" of American Evangelicalism. The Chicago area is also home to the popular mainline Protestant and Evangelical leadership magazines, The Christian Century and Christianity Today .

Two decades ago, a relationship began between the Jewish Federation of Chicago and the editorial staff of Christianity Today . From this relationship emerged the Annual National Evangelical-Jewish Conference that brings together Jewish and Evangelical national leaders. Dr. John E. Phelan, at that time President of North Park Seminary, was an early participant. The conference illustrated that many Evangelicals had limited knowledge of Judaism, Jewish history, and contemporary Jewish reality, including both American and Israeli.

To overcome this gap in Evangelical knowledge, Phelan tasked himself with writing the recently published book, titled Separated Siblings: An Evangelical Understanding of Jews and Judaism (Eerdmans), about Judaism and the Jewish People to educate Evangelical Christians about Judaism and the Jewish People. He immersed himself in the study of Jewish history, theology, classic texts, and the varieties of contemporary Jewish experience, spent significant time studying in Israel, and visited Poland to learn about the great European Jewish civilization and its destruction. It is, to my knowledge, the only book on Judaism and the Jewish People by an Evangelical scholar whose purpose is not to Evangelize the Jewish People.

Phelan does a remarkable job of explaining to Evangelicals why Judaism is not a religion in the Christian sense. He teaches this by focusing not just on belief and practice, but on the centrality of the Jewish people to Judaism itself. He presents the great ideas of Judaism from a historical perspective, describing how Judaism develops from Sinai through the First and Second Temple Period into the Rabbinic Period, and from there into the medieval world and its Ashkenazic and Sephardic sectors, without ignoring the basic beliefs of Judaism. He authentically describes the role of prayer, the demand of God for righteous and holy living, and how exile has shaped Jewish belief.

The author outlines the areas of belief in which Judaism and Christianity differ without trying to resolve them or pass judgement-and brings those differences into conversation with each other. Phelan's wide-ranging presentation of sophisticated theological and historical ideas is written in accessible language that clarifies without being overly simplistic or detailed. Each chapter concludes with questions for discussion, urging readers to pause and sharpen their attentiveness to his ideas in the company of others committed to study.

The book is written with a modest, measured tone that gives weight to Phelan's underlying aspiration that Judaism and Christianity can move forward with greater understanding of one another. He sets forth a remarkably clear and comprehensive description for an Evangelical audience of Jewish philosophy, of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), of the importance of halacha and the Talmud. Indeed, he follows these through to the great ruptures of the modern period that give birth to what we now call Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform expressions of Judaism.

Frankly, this remarkable book about Judaism commends itself not just to Evangelical Christians, but to all Christians, most especially Protestants. At the same time, the book would benefit many members of the Jewish community as well. The publication of this book is a monumental and historic milestone in Christian-Jewish relations.

I close with a story that helps us understand how Phelan came to write such a remarkable book. The Evangelical Jewish Conference highlighted the destruction of European Jewry. Many Evangelicals had a lot to say. When it was Phelan's turn, he said, "Given what Christian civilization enabled, and given the monumental nature of the destruction of European Jewry, in the face of the Jewish People, Christians had best stand in humble silence."

Thankfully, for Christians and Jews alike, Phelan's book demonstrates the value of learned Christians speaking about Judaism and the Jewish people with kindness and wisdom.

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. Poupko wrote the foreword to Separated Siblings: An Evangelical Understanding of Jews and Judaism .

 



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