It takes a certain chutzpah for a Jew to lecture believing Christians about the New Testament’s spiritual message; even more so when church officials are in attendance. Yet that’s the core of an experiment in spiritual cross-pollination involving one of the nation’s leading Protestant denominations and a Maryland rabbi with a long and unconventional career.
The rabbi is Joshua Martin Siegel, the recently hired “rabbinic adviser” to the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
“This is significant,” said Rabbi Siegel. “It’s an opportunity for people with a serious interest in religion, in a culture that’s becoming increasingly secular, to work together and learn from each other in an ongoing way instead of just being suspicious of each other.”
Rabbi Siegel’s part-time staff position began officially in September, and aspects of his role are still being worked out.
In essence, however, his job is to provide the conference with what church officials admit is a desperately needed spiritual shot in the arm. Moreover, he has been asked to do it from an unabashedly Jewish perspective.
“We don’t want him to pull any punches,” said the Rev. Roderick J. Miller, the conference’s programming director. “Much of what is American Methodism has become more cultural than anything else. We want to go beyond that. To be a Christian means to go deeper and wider in furthering our knowledge of God and in living it out.
“Rabbi Siegel can help us recover some of the spirituality that has been lost here.”
Rabbi Siegel’s hiring appears to be a first for the UMC, the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination with more than 8 million members, albeit one that has suffered decades of shrinking congregations and budgets. As near as can be determined, Rabbi Siegel, 73, also represents a first for any leading American Christian denomination.
“I don’t know of any other situation where a rabbi or a Jewish layperson has been attached so formally to a prominent Christian body,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior inter-religious affairs advisor to the American Jewish Committee. “Plenty of Jews teach at Christian schools and universities. But this is different. So far as I know it’s a first and I’d even call it a breakthrough. It’s a pioneering effort.”
Rabbi Siegel will deliver talks and organize discussions for conference headquarters staff, for pastors, for youth groups, and for others. Plans are also in the works for joint Methodist-Jewish community social action projects and other activities.
Human Action Vs. Faith
Every Thursday Rabbi Siegel leads lunch-hour Bible study sessions held at conference offices, which are tucked into a non-descript suburban commercial strip in this small central Maryland city, built in the 1960s as a socially progressive model community.
The discussions begin with Rabbi Siegel coaxing spiritual meaning from the church’s designated Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament in Christian parlance) and New Testament weekly readings.
One recent Thursday, Rabbi Siegel - who calls Christianity “Judaism for the gentiles” - linked teachings about humanity’s ability to advance spiritually through individual action from passages in the New Testament books James and Mark and the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ruth. Along the way, he managed to quote Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The passage from James included a directive “to confess your sins to each other.” Rabbi Siegel used that to expound on the Rosh HaShanah tradition of asking forgiveness of others, as well as God. That, in turn, triggered a general discussion on the difficulty of confessing and its relationship to the community ideal preached by Jesus and the 18th century founder of the Methodist tradition, John Wesley.
At times, Rabbi Siegel’s decidedly Jewish emphasis on human action as the prime spiritual tool seemed to conflict with Protestant understandings of the primacy of faith. Rabbi Siegel later said he is aware of that theological difference. “My job is to be me,” he explained. Despite any differences, the half-dozen or so church officials in attendance showed no hint of discomfort.
It was Miller, the program director (his official title is director of connectional ministries), who brought Rabbi Siegel to the attention of Bishop John R. Schol, the Baltimore-Washington conference’s presiding cleric. Miller said that some eight or nine years ago, while pastoring a local church, he began attending classes on spiritual healing led by Rabbi Siegel at a Baltimore senior citizens center.
“What I heard from Rabbi Siegel were things I had not learned in the seminary,” Miller said. “His ability to synthesize head knowledge with life experience and a depth of heart fed a hunger of mine.”
About a year ago, Miller assumed his job with the Baltimore-Washington conference. Soon after, he mentioned Rabbi Siegel to Schol.
“Judaism and Christianity share deep commonalities, which takes on a particular importance in a world that wants to separate people,” Schol replied when asked why he brought Rabbi Siegel onboard. “Rabbi Siegel has a lot to offer to us in the richness of biblical understanding. We need to get that wherever it is available.”
The Baltimore-Washington conference and Rabbi Siegel seem well matched.
The Rev. Erik J. Alsgaard, conference communications co-director, called Baltimore-Washington “one of the most, if not the most racially and culturally diverse conferences” in the UMC. The conference - encompassing most of Maryland, a slice of West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and two congregations in Bermuda - is also “more liberal than most” UMC regions, Alsgaard added.
Additionally, he said, Schol is known as an innovative leader willing to try the untested.
‘God Speaks To All People’
Rabbi Siegel, ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, began his career traditionally enough in the 1960s as the rabbi of the Reform congregation Temple Sinai of Long Island in Lawrence. He was, for a time, prominent in New York liberal rabbinic and political circles.
That all came to a sudden end in the early ‘70s with the release of “Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel.”
The book was a best-seller. Following a diary format, it documented a particularly difficult year in his life, personally as well as professionally. It read like a full-blown attack on the spiritual emptiness, rampant racism, selfish materialism and general insensitivity that Rabbi Siegel believed defined his congregants. Not surprisingly, he was fired.
His bridges burned in New York, the city of his birth, he moved to Maryland, where he led the unaffiliated, progressive, and much smaller Columbia Jewish Congregation. He stayed there for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1998.
During those years he was active on homelessness issues at the federal level in Washington and regionally in Maryland. After leaving the Columbia congregation he became a spiritual counselor at an inner-city Baltimore shelter for homeless ex-felons, drug addicts, and the emotionally troubled, incorporating basic Kabbalistic principles into the self-help materials he wrote and distributed to clients.
His attraction to Kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism in general, prompted Rabbi Siegel to begin visiting Mea Shearim, the haredi Jerusalem neighborhood, where he spent months at a time studying the teachings of the legendary early chasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav. Back home in Columbia, he began sending Jews wanting a more traditional Orthodox lifestyle to local Chabad rabbis. Gradually, he also became ritually observant.
Today, Rabbi Siegel sees himself as post-denominational. “I don’t really think of myself as being part of a specific category. I just try and go where HaShem sends me,” he said.
Few questions have been raised so far within the Baltimore-Washington conference as to why the church would hire a non-Christian as a spiritual mentor. But Rabbi Siegel, Miller and Schol expect such murmurings to eventually surface.
“There are always some people who will complain, but I would say they would be a minority, a very small minority,” said Schol. “Part of the challenge we face in religion is that we tend to operate in isolation and only in terms of what we know and are comfortable with. This is an opportunity to go beyond that…And the last time I checked God was speaking through the Hebrew Bible to all people…Rabbi Siegel knows more about the Hebrew Bible than anyone else on our staff. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of that?”
Another potential problem area is Israel.
On a national level the UMC was not involved in the recent moves by other mainline Protestant denominations to divest church funds from corporations deemed to be helping Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. However, pro-Palestinian sentiment does exist within the UMC (two UMC conferences, in Virginia and New England, passed local resolutions urging divestment), and Rabbi Siegel hopes to lead a church “mission” to Auschwitz and Israel.
“This can’t help but have political implications for some,” said Rabbi Siegel, who called himself “a strong supporter” of Israel. “But I see it as a spiritual journey from sin to redemption, which if you think about it is at the heart of Christian theology…I’m not looking to turn these people into Christian Zionists.”
Schol said he foresees little criticism on this issue. “Anybody who interprets this politically totally misinterprets what we are doing,” he said. “This is very much a spiritual initiative.”
Rabbi Siegel said he is comfortable as a Jew providing spiritual succor to Christians - despite the historical animosities and theological disparities that have divided the faiths.
“God gave his wisdom to the Jewish people within a certain tribal structure,” he explained. “If he truly is the God of the universe, it makes sense that he would need to express himself in different ways to different people. Christianity is Judaism for the gentiles.”