Jewish and Mennonite leaders and scholars gathered May 8-10 in Elkhart, Ind., for conversations on Scripture, faith and theology at a symposium hosted by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
“Jews and Mennonites: Reading the Bible After the Holocaust” brought together eight rabbis and Jewish scholars and 14 Mennonite pastors and scholars seeking to grow in mutual understanding, build relationships and counter antisemitism together.
“This symposium broke new ground in Mennonite-Jewish dialogue with compelling content, relationship building and frank discussions,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “Even as we learned more about one another, there was no avoidance of the most challenging issues.”
The event was the second in a series of gatherings following the 2017 adoption of the “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine” resolution by Mennonite Church USA delegates in Orlando, Fla. One of the resolution’s commitments is to “seek deeper relationships with Jewish communities and actively oppose antisemitism.”
A first conference, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” was held March 16-17, 2018, at Bethel College and resulted in the 2021 publication of European Mennonites and the Holocaust, edited by Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Discussions are underway about potential future gatherings.
Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, AMBS associate professor of Hebrew Bible, appreciated being able to strategize with rabbis and Jewish scholars about ways to avoid anti-Jewish readings of Scripture.
“I have no doubt that this remarkable symposium will serve as a touchstone for AMBS going forward as we pursue and prioritize interreligious dialogue,” she said. “What we learned in our three days together is already helping us develop additional strategies for training our students to call out and condemn latent and overt antisemitism in some streams of Christian biblical interpretation and in our communities.”
Rabbi David Sandmel, chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, expressed hope that Mennonites will continue the symposium’s work.
“It is heartening that some in the Mennonite Church are seriously addressing these important and difficult matters, and especially that they have chosen to do so in a dialogic process with representatives of the Jewish community,” he said. “The biggest challenge is ensuring that the fruits of these discussions are disseminated and come to inform the daily life of the entire Mennonite community.”
Amy-Jill Levine opened the symposium with a public plenary address, “Misunderstanding Judaism Means Misunderstanding Jesus and Paul.” Levine is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace and professor emerita at Vanderbilt University.
Levine presented reasons why Christian sermons and teachings continue to perpetuate antisemitic impressions and discussed common mistakes Christian preachers and teachers can make about the Jewish contexts of Jesus and Paul. She encouraged Mennonites to profess a “high Christology,” in which Jesus’ uniqueness is expressed for Christians in terms of his divine identity more than in terms of his ethical teachings, which can be found in Jewish sources as well. She told Christians they “need not make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good.”
John Kampen, distinguished research professor at Methodist Theological School, presented “Neighbors, Strangers and Tragic Consequences: Background to Jewish-Mennonite Dialogue.” He traced the relationship between Jews and Mennonites from the 16th century to the present and referenced a meeting held in 1980 at AMBS, “The Shalom Consultation of Jewish and Christian Pacifists.”
The symposium addressed topics for dialogue and provided opportunities for conversations. Sarah Tanzer, professor of New Testament and early Judaism at McCormick Theological Seminary, and Ted Hiebert, Francis A. McGaw Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at McCormick, led a discussion on the Law versus grace/faith based on a course they have co-taught, “Biblical Foundations of Jewish and Christian Difference.” They invited participants to consider how and why Paul polarized the Law and faith. They also discussed the roles that Torah, or the Law, played for the writers of Deuteronomy and the rabbinic interpreters.
John D. Roth, project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptist Community Bible initiative, said the gathering was an opportunity to get acquainted with Jewish scholars and “to be reminded of the Jewish context of the New Testament and the various ways that Christian interpretations of the New Testament can easily slip into antisemitism.”
Barbie Fischer, executive director of Restorative Encounters in the Philadelphia area, moderated a panel on Jewish and Mennonite expectations for the future of religion in North America and beyond. Fischer participated in the symposium as a Jewish Mennonite.
“As someone raised in the Anabaptist tradition with Jewish heritage who found a home in the Mennonite church, this symposium was the first time I have ever felt there was true hope that I could be wholly accepted as a Jewish Mennonite,” she said. “My biggest joy in being interfaith is the complexity and beauty my Jewish heritage brings to understanding Christianity and Christian Scripture.”
The symposium concluded with discussion about future conversation topics for Jews and Mennonites, such as messianic Judaism; Mennonite and Jewish understandings of Israel, Zionism and the land; what Mennonites and Jews can do to combat the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States and beyond; how Mennonites can reckon with their history of involvement in Nazism; and how to include more Black, Indigenous and other people of color in conversations between Jews and Mennonites.
“The issues discussed in this symposium have direct implications for pastors and congregational life,” said Joel Miller, pastor of Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio. “Understanding Jewish readings of Scripture, the significance of Israel for Jewish peoplehood and ways Jews are engaging their local communities helps us be better Mennonites.”