How a Rabbi Made Me a Better Christian

I learned more about being Christ-like from a Rabbi than any Christian I know.

While I grew up in a very diverse church (five of the seven continents were represented among the congregants), I wasn’t really exposed to many different religions.

Sure, I had the occasional atheist or Catholic friend (in my upbringing, Catholicism might as well have been a different religion), but I wasn’t really exposed to many different beliefs. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I met a Jewish person — at least so far as I knew.

For most of my life, I believed that Christians had the monopoly on “goodness.” I thought in order to be motivated to serve others and truly love them, a person had to first know Jesus.

I didn’t understand how an atheist could have a strong moral code. In light of this, I never imagined I could learn about my own Christian faith through relationships with non-Christians.

Then I met Rabbi Mark Goldman.

A non-Christian more like Jesus

My junior year at Flagler College, as a religion/philosophy major and youth ministry minor, I met Rabbi Mark when I enrolled in his “Intro to Hebrew” course. I’d never met a rabbi before, so I was excited and curious. I even briefly thought this would be my chance to convince a Jewish leader that Jesus was and is the messiah.

Rabbi Mark was the most engaging professor I ever had. He spent more time promoting dialogue than he did actually teaching Hebrew — or so it seemed. It was evident that he was most interested in his relationships with his students, and he seemed to be teaching us how to communicate with each other across differences.

He patiently answered all of our questions about Judaism, no matter how small — and he always did so with humor. Rabbi would even sing songs in class to teach us more about Hebrew.

Before forming a relationship with Rabbi Mark, I assumed that everyone (religious or not) was interested in convincing others that their perspective was the right one.

But Rabbi Mark was more interested in making me a better Christian than making me a Jew. He regularly brought up Jesus in class as a way to connect to his Christian students, but not in a cheap way. He often mentioned his admiration for Jesus because of what a great Jew he was. He would even lift up Jesus as a great example of Judaism embodied.

As I got to know Rabbi Mark, it became evident that he was more like Jesus than any Christian I knew. I found this baffling. I always knew Jesus was deeply devoted to God and loved others more than humanly possible — but Rabbi Mark embodied these two things more than anyone else I’d known.

If someone in class was having a difficult time in their personal life, Rabbi would stray from the lesson in order to unpack the student’s troubles, calling on the class to support that student. It also was not uncommon for us to stray from the Hebrew lesson because Rabbi spent so much class time asking for our life stories.

It was evident that he really wanted to know us for who we were. Amazingly, he somehow turned our life stories into Hebrew lessons. I couldn’t help but think of how often in the Gospels Jesus stopped what he was doing to care for those who needed him. (Think of the hemorrhaging woman who touched his cloak.)

Seeing Rabbi as an example of Christ’s love challenged me. If Christians had the monopoly on righteous living, how could a non-Christian remind me more of Jesus than any Christian I knew?

Tikkun Olam: Repairing the world

One Hebrew term that Rabbi taught me really informed my thinking about my own faith: “Tikkun Olam.” Tikkun Olam means “repairing the world,” and Rabbi said that instead of waiting for a messiah, he believed that it was up to individuals and communities to take the actions necessary to create more peace and wholeness in the world.

When he talked about Tikkun Olam I thought about the Kingdom of God and how Christians believe the Kingdom (when the world will be at peace, healed of all oppression, and where all people are equal) is both here and not here.Through Jesus, the Kingdom is present in the world, but will not be here in its fullness until Jesus returns again.

As Christians, it is our responsibility to live as though the Kingdom is here and to create a world that reflects the Kingdom of God. The action-oriented concept of Tikkun Olam taught me to focus more on the “present Kingdom” and creating a world that reflects that Kingdom — rather than solely on the “coming kingdom.”

In light of this, my commitment to Christianity and to Christ was deepened. It may seem counterintuitive, but Rabbi Mark inspired me to be more like Christ — to be more deeply devoted to God and to love others more unconditionally.

His understanding of his faith made me want to have a deeper understanding of my own faith as a Christian. Through that class I also engaged with Jewish students on a relational level. Their knowledge of their religious history inspired me to better know my own — truth be told, I was pretty clueless. Through these relationships I felt more accountable to my identity as a Christian.

Up until this point, I had done a really great job of being in peace with my brothers and sisters in Christ, but hadn’t made much effort to build relationships otherwise outside of trying to convert others to Christianity. While I still believe evangelism is important, I also believe building relationships with people who believe differently is important for Christian living.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Rabbi Mark’s holiness (the way in which he was “set apart”) enabled me to see the Lord in a different way, and I knew that as a Christian it was essential that I do that for others.

Do more than keep peace — create it

Talking to people about faith is challenging — especially talking to people who believe differently than you. But real peace is also challenging. I’m not talking about the peace we keep by avoiding conflict and hard issues — I’m talking about the peace we create by learning how to be in relationships with people of other faiths (or non-faiths).

Christian love is a relational love. It is unconditional. It is supposed to be Christ-like. Being in relationships with people who are similar to us is easy, but we more fully live in love when we learn to care for those who are different from us. Think about how different we are from Jesus — yet he reaches out to us, meets us in our differences, and embraces us fully. We need to do that for others.

I hope you meet your own Rabbi Mark and enrich your understanding of yourself, the world, and others by talking to a human and engaging with someone who believes differently than you. We can’t just keep peace — we must create it.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rachael McNeal
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  • Joe DeCaro

    The hyphen separating Judeo-Christianity is not very wide at all.

  • bakabomb

    The hyphen separating Judeo-Christian Zionism is even narrower, but the gap between Judaism and Zionism is vast; the first being a religion, the second being a political philosophy. Tikkun Olam and Rabbi Mark exemplify the timeless virtues of the former. Today’s headlines highlight the modern dangers of the latter. We allow ourselves to conflate the two at our grave peril. Shalom and salaam!