It’s common for parents of young children to dream about their children’s futures. I can easily imagine a new father looking through a glass of wine and smiling about his newborn’s vast potential. “Perhaps my son will become a world-renowned doctor – the chief physician to the head of state. Or maybe he’ll write groundbreaking books about medicine. Of course, I wouldn’t complain if he devoted his time instead to law and became a great judge. Or if he turned out to be a statesman with vast political and administrative powers, which he uses to guard the people against tyranny. Then again, maybe my son will become a religious figure, a revered teacher of the Holy Word, who will so brilliantly and concisely summarize the laws of his faith that his work will become the standard for centuries. Or perhaps he’ll be a respected mathematician. Or ... I know, he’ll become a great philosopher, one of the foremost synthesizers of religious and secular philosophy that our species has ever known.”
Or maybe he can be all of the above. It’s possible – if his name is Maimonides.
“From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.” So read the inscription that was erected on the grave of Moses Maimonides in the Galilean town of Tiberias, where he was buried. To many Jews, Maimonides is no more of a secret than the other Moses – the one we call “Moshe Rabbeinu,” which literally means Moses Our Teacher. But the interesting thing to me is that in the so-called “Judeo-Christian” – aka “Western” – world, every educated person knows a lot about Moshe Rabbeinu even if they don’t know him by that name. By contrast, only a small percentage know much about the second Moses, the one known as Maimonides. Unlike his predecessor, the second Moses wrote many books, and contemporaries wrote about him. In fact, unlike the earlier Moses, archeologists will tell you that this second Moses definitely existed. And yet, most educated westerners don’t know much about him – they might know the name, or the fact that he was a famous Jew from history, but that’s about it.
Let me tell you the dirty rotten secret about the term “Judeo-Christian.” It’s a misnomer. It really refers a whole lot more to Christianity than it does to Judaism. Obviously, insofar as this term involves the so-called “Old Testament” (a Christian term), then sure, it takes into account a portion of Judaism. But whatever religiously Jewish teachings or teachers came after Christ are pretty much absent from “Judeo-Christianity” as that term is commonly understood. That’s why Maimonides, who lived most of his life in the 12th century, is just another dead philosopher who even educated western Christians know little about. Isaac Luria? Another non-entity. The Baal Shem Tov? “What the hell language is that? Is that a person?”
Muhammad? Now yes, that’s a well-known name throughout the occident. But the sad truth is that despite the fact that Muhammad entirely located himself and his teachings within the family of Abraham, he and his followers are explicitly excluded from the “Judeo-Christian” world. If you ask me, that latter term belongs in the scrapheap of history; it may claim to talk about the world view pioneered by father Abraham, but in truth it excludes not only Islam but post-Biblical Judaism too.
Each of the names I’ve referenced above ought to matter to all of us -- whether your background is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. I would say the same thing about figures like Jesus, Paul, Aquinas or Martin Luther – figures I learned a fair amount about when I was a kid but only because “Western” ears inevitably hear about them, not because I actively sought them out.
Fortunately, as an adult, I have opened my mind to teachings about great men and women from faiths other than my own. Religious Christian voices were the last ones from whom I was willing to listen because I resented the way they strawmanned my own (Jewish) faith and the way their followers claimed to have transcended it. Even when I recently read the New Testament from start to finish, I was shocked by all the nasty references to the Pharisees, who I had been taught were deeply moral teachers. I still don’t like all those nasty references. But damned if that’s going to keep me away from learning what the Christian Bible has to offer – or at least from trying.
During my upcoming summer vacation, I’ll be privileged to spend time with Christians delving into Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Thirty years ago, I would have hardly wanted to read, let alone discuss, that book. Now, like the rest of the New Testament, it fascinates me. I look forward to learning in a safe space that encourages me to be both critical and inspired, depending on the portion we’re discussing. Indeed, the beauty of interfaith learning is that adults can study a great teacher with almost childlike, awe-filled interest because we probably didn’t have the best kind of exposure to that teacher when we were kids. In the case of Paul, few Jewish children are taught anything but distrust for what he had to say. I was no exception.
If I may speak primarily to my Christian friends and family right now, my concern here is not just with my own learning. It’s with yours, too. So allow me to ask the question: have you studied Maimonides? Or Isaac Luria? Or the Baal Shem Tov? Because they are three of the greatest people that Judaism has to offer, and if I can learn from Paul (with all his nasty statements about our beloved Jewish rabbis), you can learn from them. They all lived a long time after Jesus. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Remember – Jesus didn’t come to supersede Judaism. Nor did he render it antiquated. Judaism – like all of the great religions – is a living, breathing organism. It lives through the men and women who taught us in centuries past. It lives through those of us who are alive today. And it will continue to live indefinitely through our children and grandchildren who are lucky enough to emulate Maimonides – as a doctor, a lawyer, a statesman, a mathematician, a theologian, a philosopher, or above all else, a mensch.