Two Columbus congregations to lead studies on Moral Meaning of the Bible

When Joseph had conflicts with his brothers, and interpreted his dreams as signs from God, was he suffering illusions of grandeur, or did he have humble awareness of his greatness?

Why was Moses chosen to lead the Israelites? What can people in the modern day learn from his example, he who complained to God about a cantankerous tribe?

These are just a few questions to be probed in an upcoming course on biblical ethics — behavior proscribed from scripture — that will be led by two Columbus clergy: one Christian and one Jewish. The course starts Sunday.

Rabbi Max Roth of Shearith Israel Synagogue and the Rev. Doug Hahn of St. Thomas Episcopal Church are teaming up to facilitate discussion on “The Moral Meaning of the Bible: Part II.” This is an eight-class series, with each class held once monthly. The actual lectures are from two renowned scholars: Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman of Brandeis University; and Michael Kane of the divinity school at the University of Chicago.

The course met in Columbus for the first part last fall, and ended in the spring, with Roth facilitating solo at Shearith Israel.

“There is a lot of potential healing in this — to see ‘other’ and if ‘other’ has another way, we can learn from that,” Roth said in a recent interview. He has been the rabbi at Shearith Israel about five years.

“Our two traditions have this same text but we come at it from a different lens,” said Hahn, referring to the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.

The idea for the tag-team course gelled this past year after a St. Thomas seminar on race relations, which Roth and his wife Florence attended. The two congregations are not strangers. St. Thomas and Shearith Israel are partners in the Wynnton Neighborhood Network, which supplies food for the needy; they participate in community Thanksgiving services and Scholarin-Residence weekends; and Holocaust Remembrance services. Temple Israel, located between the church and Shearith Israel, is also a close ally of the two, and participates in many of these same events.

As the description for the course indicates, the focus is on Biblical narratives that struggle with the gray areas of morality. Asking difficult ethical questions, the course “seeks to get the learner to wrestle with the ultimate ethical issues addressed by the Bible, and aims to engage the listener in ethical struggle and moral thinking ...”

“Kimmelman reads the text in such a way to ask, ‘What prompts human behavior? What does it take to become a moral entity?’” said Roth. For instance, Abraham. The patriarch of ancient Israel, Abraham is the figure through whom God made covenant with his people, and thus between one another. “Abraham is an example of a moral force,” Roth continued. “He’s not afraid to challenge God.”

A common mistake people make in their view of the Bible, Hahn added, is that its characters are perfect people who always respond in moral ways.

“We tend to think the Bible is full of paragons of virtue,” said Hahn, St. Thomas’ rector since 1999. “But they are paragons of humanity. They struggle with life. The call of the scriptures is not so much to be good but to be human. The hero of the story is not necessarily the most moral one.”

Take Elijah, for example: He’s a self-centered sort, yet the Jews believe he will announce the Messiah.

Contradictions of personality are rampant, yet time and again the leaders in scripture are called and wooed and chosen by God.

Thus another common mistake, the clergy added, is the view of scripture as humanity’s searching for God, rather than the reverse.

“We tend to think of our prayers as prayers to God but the scripture is full of God’s prayers to us, to be partners in the world,” Hahn said.

The partnership image fits with in this class, as well.

“We thought it’d be wonderful to do this together and develop community and relationships between these two groups,” Roth said.

“We are equally concerned about ethics and morality in this world. ... People tend to get tied up in themselves; I really want to be me, but I will be an incomplete me without you.”