I knew something fascinating was coming when my friend and co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, sent me an e-mail saying, “Gentiles do not have the monopoly on religious intolerance and stupidity.” (Our book is “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.”)
Jacques had just read one of the regularly e-mailed Torah commentaries he receives from a prominent Orthodox Jewish source. In it, the author, a rabbi, had recounted the story of another rabbi who once told a student this: “There is a source for April Fool’s Day. If you count 8 months and 25 days after April 1st you arrive at December 25th. April Fool’s Day is the day on which the world is deceived and made a fool of that there was some sort of ‘immaculate conception,’” the rabbi’s reference to the day Jesus was conceived.
Jacques, a Reform rabbi who draws on learning from a wide range of Jewish traditions, including Orthodox, was outraged that someone slammed Christmas, and by implication Christ and Christianity, just to make a pro-Judaism point.
So he fired off an e-mail to the Torah series editor that said, among other things, “Mocking other people’s beliefs does not enhance mine.”
To the editor’s credit, he responded apologetically, saying the author of the commentary had made an “error of judgment” and that “if we had caught this message, we would have removed those two paragraphs that you found offensive.” But then he added to the original insult: “But please don’t overstate the magnitude of the crime. According to their theology, all of us should be going to Gehinnom because we don’t believe in their human god!”
At this point Jacques was beside himself. So he wrote to both the editor and the original author saying the “distasteful April Fool’s story had the same flavor as some of the anti-Jewish trash that has come from parts of Christianity over the centuries. And [the editor’s] admonition that I not ‘overstate the magnitude of the crime’ because [Christians believe Jews are eternally doomed] is both a misrepresentation of Christianity as a whole and a distortion of what traditional Christianity teaches about Jesus.”
He then explained how Christians believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, not just a “human god” and that not all Christians believe Jews will go to hell. (Plus, he noted that the Immaculate Conception refers to the birth of Mary, not of Jesus.) Jacques has studied Christianity and understands it pretty well, including the reality that there are many divisions within the faith as there are within Judaism.
All of this was a good reminder that, as Jacques wrote, we should “avoid thinking that there must be something wrong with someone else’s religion for there to be something right with mine.”
And it was a reminder that if we are to comment on someone else’s faith, we are obligated to describe it accurately.
More to the point, the whole incident shouts that we should get to know people of other faiths personally. Then maybe we’d be less likely to tell offensive jokes about them.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.