I took the last available seat around a large dining room table, in the not-so-large California home of an average sized Jewish man who was somewhere in his 60′s. Approximately twelve to fourteen men and women had already seated themselves and I felt their glances as I scooted around a large easel and took my seat. My friend and I had been invited to attend a Bible study on the book of Judges being held by a group of Jews. I grabbed my Bible and said: “Sure, I’m in.”
(It’s like a Christian policy; Anytime God’s Word is studied, we’re “in”)
As an Evangelical Christian I attend Bible study with great expectation, craving an experience with God and hoping to gain insight into the ancient and complex writings. Looking for “Ah-ha moments” and expecting to receive “take aways” to apply the following week is what we evangelicals do.
But no matter how many times I’ve read the stories, or how many verses I memorized, there’s a barrier—a disconnect. I’d heard (and even sang) Isaiah 54:17 in church:
“…No weapon formed against you [me] shall prosper…”
. . .and received the 2 Chronicles 7:14 emails at least a hundred times (especially prior to any American election):
“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
. . .but training my brain to retrofit these scriptural promises of Israel’s to America, “The Church”, and my non-Jewish-self, took lots of effort and I always felt like I was missing a key element as to when, how, and where the Gentile Church replaced Israel. Perhaps I was just dull, like The Office’s Michael Scott in “The Surplus“ episode, where he keeps asking for yet another, simpler, explanation.
But seriously, how different could Bible study be?
Let’s just say nothing about it was “Christianly” familiar. For example, some people, including the leader, had heavy Israeli accents; I’d have to pay close attention to fully understand her. Yep, that’s correct, a female was leading a mixed group. However, I do live in “Cali”—as New Yorkers say—so that’s not too shocking. There was also a fee to join the study, but it was graciously waived for our first visit.
The biggest differences, however, were yet to come.
The leader began by saying she’d introduce herself, state her religious beliefs, why she’s taking part in the study, and then give everyone an opportunity to do the same.
Ugh! I HATE group introductions. Say too much and you’ll seem full of yourself. Say too little and you’ll seem standoffish. The truth is I’m a painfully shy person who’s done everything I can to pretend I’m not, but that’s another post entirely.
I know from past experience that Christian jargon doesn’t “land” the same way in a Jewish setting. I also know our zeal and eagerness often perplexes Jews, who usually don’t say much in response, which leaves us feeling self-conscience in a hurry. The topic of “God” between Christians and Jews can be uncomfortable, so I wanted to craft my intro to avoid obvious pitfalls, and not make anyone uncomfortable. A classic over-thinker, I really needed to gather myself…
Okay, I reasoned, this is Bible study, we’re all “one family” gathered to honor God and study His Word, and kumbaya and stuff… (and more Christian jargon). But then I remembered:
Toto, we’re not in
Kansas Church anymore.
I created a strategy: since I was going last, I’d wait to hear what everyone else said, and then say something innocuous to blend in.
The leader began promptly: A married Israeli Jew, working at a nearby University, she was teaching the book of Judges because of the historical aspects of that book for her people and country, and because of the strong female characters within the narratives. Although her grandfather was Orthodox, she was not religious and didn’t believe in God.
Wait a minute, our Bible study leader doesn’t believe in…
Moving right along, she immediately turned and gave me the floor.
Oh dear God, NO! I screamed inside my head, I knew exactly two people in the room, and hadn’t figured out what the hell I was gonna say (ooops!), and I had to go first? Really Lord? Why?
Fine! I would white-knuckle it and just tell the truth, straight from my heart, and hopefully not look too stupid. I said something like:
“Hi, I’m Ruth, I’m an American, I’m married, and have 2 kids. I’m here because I love the LORD, and I love studying His Word any time I can. I’m so grateful that He’s preserved it for us to read and I look forward to joining all of you to gain deeper perspectives on His Word.”
Nooo reaction. Just steady gazes…
My friend went next saying much the same thing: She loved the Lord, His Word, and was excited to study it with the people He gave it too.
And, more non-reaction and steady gazes.
Next everyone else gave their marital and parental status, what country they called “home” and then their religious status, and reason for attending, (paraphrasing):
- “I’m here because this is the history of our people. I don’t believe in God, I’m not religious, but I keep Passover and some traditions.
- “I was raised religious but I don’t believe in God. I don’t like how the Orthodox are in charge in Israel. I want to study the Bible because it’s our story. I keep Passover and the cultural aspects.”
- “I’ve opened my house to this study because it’s our ancient history. Also, Christian art is based on our Scriptures but I don’t understand how they make their connections. I want to understand Christian art when I see it in a museum. I’m not religious, and don’t believe in God.”
Just as my friend and I had similar “testimonies”, so did these Jews. They were interested in the study because it’s their history, they kept the cultural aspects of being Jewish, but so far everyone at this Bible study was an atheist, and no one was “religious.” (How did these become separate categories, you may wonder.)
Basically it was: “ditto”, “ditto”, “ditto.”
Then came the kicker: A white-haired woman, easily in her 70′s, she listed her basic info—which I totally forgot as soon as she said:
- “I just left a meeting with Rabbi. . . [pertinent stuff I forgot in my amazement] I serve on the board with him at Synagogue. I’m somewhat religious, but like the Rabbi, I’m atheist.”
We were down to the last two and both were females. The one in her 30′s went first, but I was still, uhh…cogitating on what the “somewhat-religious-atheist-Synagogue-board member” said, so I missed her opening. I tuned in to hear:
- “I came because my friend invited me and I feel a bit strange that I’m the only non-Jew here tonight.”
Immediately, her Jewish friend said:
“No you’re not, those two are goys” (Gentile), gesturing to me and my friend. For several seconds everyone around the table nodded their heads and chimed in, assuring the Gentile she wasn’t alone; it was obvious to all of them that my friend and I were Gentiles too.
I could sense uneasiness growing in my friend, she wasn’t sure how to take all of this and it was a lot to process, if for no other reason than the last thing a Christian expects to encounter at Bible study is a room full of atheists.
Or Jews, for that matter.
Or Jewish atheists, “somewhat religious”, or otherwise.
I worried how we would pull off a Bible study without acknowledging God!? I mean, have you ever read the book of Judges? God is all over it! We’re not talking about the book of Esther where God is never mentioned!
Gentile atheists I know scoff at the mention of God and show utter disdain for those who believe in Him, so, were we supposed pretend not to notice references to Him? Was anyone gonna get twisted if He was mentioned? Were we going to make up a word to reference Him, without really referencing Him? Oy…
The short answer is that we did mention Him, and no one became “twisted.“ And, like my experience with Passover, Atheist Style?, a bigger picture began to unfold in the company of these Atheist Jews and their Bible study. Instead of confusion created by unnatural retrofitting of scripture, a bit of clarity actually emerged. After all, it was literally their history, their story, their ancestors, and their scriptures.
I felt a mixture of emotions that night. Humble and grateful for the knowledge of “The God of Israel”, and sad at the unbelief of these children of His. At the same time, their brand of atheism wasn’t arrogant, disdainful, or condescending. Rather, it was reminiscent of one who’s estranged from their parent, yet they continue with their family identity and traditions. Being around such a person always makes me long for healing and restoration for the relationship, and seeing them acknowledge their familial connections gives me hope that someday it will happen.
Thankfully, the Bible is chock full of such promises of precisely such a restoration between the loving Father and His beloved children.
“May it be soon, and in our days.”