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Temple Beth Sholom

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San Leandro, CA 94577
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Thursday, June 01, 2000

Rabbi is working for interfaith unity

By Lisa Gardiner

SAN LEANDRO -- Rabbi Harry Manhoff's hobbies -- Superman comics and baseball -- aren't nearly as surprising as the person he's been studying for the past few years.


Manhoff, a Reform rabbi who leads Temple Beth Sholom, is writing a doctoral dissertation on the New Testament, the book of Christian scriptures that includes the life story and teachings of Jesus.

Although Jesus was Jewish, the New Testament isn't read in the Jewish tradition. And because Jews don't consider Jesus divine -- as Christians do -- his teachings aren't considered relevant in Manhoff's religion.

But while he was working as a rabbi in San Luis Obispo, Manhoff began teaching a class called "Jesus and the Jewish Teachings of His Time" with a Christian minister. Manhoff figured he'd teach the Jewish part, and that the minister would talk about Jesus.

Instead, the hours they spent preparing for lectures uncovered obstacles.

"I realized we were speaking two different languages," he said.

Manhoff also realized that there was another way of reading the New Testament -- one that looked at it as the story of a Jew named Jesus, written by Jews and for Jews.

Many Christians believe that Jesus rejected Judaism for a new religion called Christianity. Manhoff instead sees Jesus as a charismatic healer who was continuous with the Judaism of his time.

"I realized that if I looked at it as if Jesus was considered a messiah, but not divine, I've got a Jewish document here," he said.

His dissertation for the University of California, Santa Barbara, includes examining the use of the phrase, "kingdom of heaven," in the scriptures -- a widely used Hebrew term in his time, Manhoff said.

Although Manhoff recognizes that his work could offend some people, his goal is to bring Judaism and Christianity closer together, he said.

It's also opened doors to interfaith dialogue.

Besides teaching a class on Jesus at his synagogue, Manhoff has been involved with discussions with the Roman Catholic diocese of San Jose and spoken to a number of Christian groups. He said he's been warmly received.

"I think they're pleased that a rabbi would take the New Testament so seriously," he said. "And I like Jesus."

Manhoff said he identifies with Jesus' egalitarian politics, his concern for the poor and his attitude toward Judaism. He likes to think of Jesus as a Reform Rabbi and a pacifist -- like himself.

Manhoff also doesn't think the New Testament is anti-Semitic -- a charge that has been leveled against the text even by some Christians.

Instead, he thinks it as polemic against the Judeans, who primarily were members of the upper class. Jesus' followers primarily were Galileans and farmers, he said.

Manhoff believes the separation between Judaism and Christianity didn't occur in Jesus' time, but with the second and third century church fathers.

It isn't the first time Manhoff has devoted time to interfaith work. While he was in San Luis Obispo, he hosted a radio call-in show with a Christian minister on interpreting scripture.

He also has been involved in healing Palestinian-Jewish relations, with a group called the East Bay Palestinian Jewish Living Room Dialogue Group.

He said he would be lying if he didn't admit his religion was the best path for him. But he also concurs with the words of a famous rabbi: "He who is wise is one who learns from every person."

Lisa Gardiner covers health, religion and community life. To reach her, call (510) 293-2479 or e-mail, lgardiner@angnewspapers.com.

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