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The Hebrew Bible’s Christian Students

In Israel, non-Jews take a growing interest in studying Tanakh—with Jewish teachers

Sara Toth Stub
June 08, 2018
Photo: Israel365
Editor Tuly Weisz at the Jerusalem publishing house in May as the first round of ‘The Israel Bible’ came off the press. The initial run of 1,500 copies sold out in the first month.Photo: Israel365
Photo: Israel365
Editor Tuly Weisz at the Jerusalem publishing house in May as the first round of ‘The Israel Bible’ came off the press. The initial run of 1,500 copies sold out in the first month.Photo: Israel365

When Knesset member Yehuda Glick founded the Lobby for Encouraging the Study of the Bible, his aim was to build support for expanding the Jewish public’s study of this book. But the organization recently found itself co-sponsoring a joint Christian-Jewish Bible study session in the Knesset in honor of Yom Yerushalayim—Jerusalem Day, the day marking Israel’s victory and its subsequent taking over all of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War.

“Here we are, Jews and non-Jews studying together in Jerusalem,” Glick said in his opening remarks at the session.

Someone in the audience yelled, “Hallelujah.”

“Hallelujah, that’s the word,” Glick responded with a smile on his face. “Let’s send a text message to Elijah and tell him the bones are not dry anymore,” referring to a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

Glick continued to speak, citing a string of current events, including talks between North and South Korea, Israel’s bombing of Iranian weapons caches in Syria, the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, and Israel’s Eurovision victory, as signs of an emerging messianic era. A chorus of “amens” echoed through the chamber, which included many American Evangelical Christians.

While this event had a clear political tone—an American-born Orthodox Jew, Glick is one of the loudest voices calling for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and other right-wing causes—it was also a reflection of the growing number of Israeli Jews and Jewish organizations that are catering to Christians who want to learn the Hebrew Bible. There are numerous Jewish-run online yeshivas, organized trips to Israel, and other events tailored to bringing Torah to non-Jews. In April, Koren Publishers’ Menorah Books released The Israel Bible, the first new edition of the Hebrew Bible in two decades and, according to the publisher, likely the first targeted at non-Jews.

“There’s long been evangelical Christians fascinated by Jews and Judaism, that’s not new,” said Marcie Lenk, a research fellow specializing in Jewish and Christian relations at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and director of the institute’s Christian leadership programs. “What I think is new is the Jewish interest in promoting these relationships.”

While Lenk and other observers say the basis for such a relationship has long been common political ground when it comes to Israeli policies, those involved now say such outreach by Orthodox Jews is a sign of wanting to deepen and expand that relationship. “We are working on rebuilding a shattered relationship with Christians, and it really needs to be based on Tanakh, and not just on philanthropy or political support for Israel,” said Tuly Weisz, who edited The Israel Bible, which includes both English and transliterated Hebrew alongside the original text, in addition to notes on the text geared at those who may not be familiar with rabbinic or yeshiva-style learning and sources. The annotations focus mainly on the role the land of Israel plays in the Bible.

The interest in the Hebrew Bible among these Christians stands in sharp contrast to the wave of Christian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land a century ago, a time of increased church construction and even outright efforts to convert Jews. “We come here to learn, not to teach,” Jim Garlow, a California megachurch pastor who runs a Bible-study program with his wife, Rosemary Schindler, in the U.S. Congress, and co-sponsored the Jerusalem Day study session in the Knesset. “You can teach us so much about Tanakh that we don’t know, but that we need to know.”

Most of the programs targeted at Christians have emerged only in the last few years, and are a response to growing demand by gentiles who are seeking to learn more about the Jewish roots of their religion and the role that the biblical land of Israel plays in it. Like the session dedicated to Jerusalem at the Knesset, most programs focus heavily on the role of the land of Israel, end-of-days prophecies, and the study of basic biblical Hebrew. But there are also programs that teach classic Jewish nonbiblical texts, like Pirkei Avot and Jewish history.

Gidon Ariel, a technical writer who lives in Maale Adumim, opened Root Source, an online Torah school for Christians with 12 Orthodox Jewish teachers that now has 500 paying students and a newsletter that reaches 40,000 people. He said he started the school after he heard that more Christians were accessing online yeshiva programs targeted at Jews. “I realized that it was only proper to create something for the audience who wants it, in a respectful manner,” said Ariel, who launched the program four years ago and is looking to hire more teachers to meet growing demand for classes. “Because it is never really comfortable to be a fly on the wall.”

Ariel and others who teach Christians say they have no intention to convert them to Judaism. And Christians who engage in and encourage the study of the Hebrew Bible with Jews say they have no intention to convert Jews to Christianity.

Many of these Christians see Jewish editions of the Hebrew Bible as more authentic—because they include the text in the original Hebrew—and as an opportunity to learn something new.

“Many Christians realize they don’t know the Old Testament,” said Lori Hinze, who teaches Hebrew Bible classes based on videos and worksheets from Yeshiva for the Nations, an Orthodox-run learning program for non-Jews recently launched by Israeli media company Israel365, at Dripping Springs United Methodist Church in Texas. “The bottom line is that Christians are looking for more depth.”

They also want to learn from rabbis, whom they see as having a wealth of knowledge about the Bible from other ancient texts, including the Talmud. “No pastor has the extensive 3,500-year-old relationship with God like any Jew does,” said Donna Jollay, Christian outreach coordinator at Israel365.

The theological impact of Jewish-led Hebrew Bible study varies among Christians. For some it simply deepens and enriches their understanding of the Christian Bible. But for others it leads to taking on Jewish customs, like Shabbat observance, and even questioning previous understanding of their faith.

For Jollay, Hebrew-Bible study changed her understanding of salvation, which she now believes any person can find simply by believing in God, rather than only through Jesus—the typical Christian understanding that she used to embrace. “I’m kind of in a limbo-land between my Jewish people and my Christian people,” Jollay said, a position that has left her without a traditional congregation. “It’s tricky on both sides, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Jollay and others point to the Hebrew Bible’s numerous references to “goyim” or “the nations,” and say those passages are referring to themselves, and that they play an important and necessary element. Ultimately, they say, it is the acceptance of the Torah by these goyim that signifies the dawn of the messianic era. This is why there is no reason to convert to Judaism.

“There is a role for the nations in the geula,” Jollay said, using the Hebrew word for redemption.

It is this role of non-Jews in connection to the geula that provides much of the motivation for the Jews who are teaching Bible to these Christians.

“It’s our mandate and responsibility to teach Torah to the nations,” said Ariel, of Root Source, citing Isaiah 2:3, which implies that many nations will one day recognize the Torah. “And the many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up the Mount of Hashem, to the house of the God of Yaakov; that we may walk in His paths. For instruction shall come forth from Tzion,’” the verse reads. “I’m a very standard religious Zionist, but the more I participate in this the more I realize that I’m fulfilling the prophecy of my time.”

Like their Christian students, some of the Jewish teachers have also changed their own theological understandings and assumptions.

“As Jews, we used to think the Torah was exclusive Jewish property,” said Rivkah Lambert Adler, an Orthodox Jew and former American educator and writer who recently founded Torah School for the Nations, which offers online classes as well as seminars in Israel. “But the Bible has messages for all of the nations of the world. I used to think that the world was binary—Jews and non-Jews. But even in the Bible it isn’t so simple. If you look, you see all along that there are non-Jews in the Tanakh, and that these non-Jews have a role in the geula. We know that at the end of days, not everybody is going to be a Jew. When I first began to understand this, I was shocked.”

Adler, who recently self-published the book Ten From the Nations documenting what she calls this “Torah awakening” among non-Jews, and others like her have dedicated their lives to these projects. Still, the movement is far from the mainstream, even among Israeli religious Zionists hoping for a speedy arrival of the messiah.

Ongoing, regular teaching to Christians is widely viewed as problematic in the Orthodox world because there is a feeling that teachers should not focus on teaching non-Jews on a regular basis when there are so many Jews who are not familiar with Tanakh, said Shani Taragin, a leading Jewish scholar who teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem and Drisha Institute in New York. In an unusual move for her, she actually spoke at the Knesset study session about the significance of the city of Jerusalem in the Tanakh, and received many “amens” and applause from the Christians in attendance.

“Once they are in Jerusalem, to share the Jewish perspective with them is OK” as a one-time thing but not as a routine, Taragin said. She said she learned this from the late Aharon Lichtenstein, a leading modern Orthodox legal expert who headed up Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. “We need to be very cautious and aware that there is halacha relating to the teaching of Torah to non-Jews,” Taragin said, adding that caution about sharing the Torah with others is found throughout Jewish history and textual sources. She pointed out the Babylonian Talmud’s story of the sages not wanting to translate the Torah into Greek, but being forced to by local officials.

Those Jews involved in teaching the Hebrew Bible to Christians realize that what they are doing is unprecedented and controversial in Israel. “Not everyone realizes that this is very much a part of our tradition, to teach those around us,” said Weisz, the Orthodox rabbi who founded Israel365 and recently edited The Israel Bible. He points to the actions of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, hosting guests and telling them about God. “We don’t have anything to be afraid of in reaching out and building relationships with Christians,” he said. “It can only strengthen our faith.”


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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.