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Michael Cook Explains His Focus on the New Testament

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

Rabbi Michael Cook, Ph.D., this year’s Goldstein/Leibson Scholar-in-Resi-dence has been teaching New Testament and early Christian Literature on the graduate and rabbinical seminary level for several decades. He currently holds the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professorship in Judaeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati.

He will deliver this year’s Goldstein/Leibson Lecture on Sunday, March 27, at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center.

To many of us, hearing about a rabbi who has spent a good deal of his life studying and lecturing on the New Testament might sound like a contradiction in terms. However, Cook believes that such study can actually lead Jews out of the very anxieties that have plagued them throughout their history and enhance their sense of well-being in a Christian world. HUC-JIR shares his feelings and, in fact, was the first rabbinical seminary in history to make substantive training in the New Testament text and technical dynamics a requirement for ordination.

So how did a nice Jewish boy become interested in such a controversial course of study?

During a college course he took on medieval church art in Europe, he became interested in a sculpture that seemed to exemplify the contradictions in beliefs between the synagogue and the church. Tracing the sculpture’s origin led him to explore the New Testament – his first such contact with that text. He was able to overcome his initial resistance, and the result helped shape the life’s path.

At the seminary where he teaches, he says such reluctance by newcomers still remains the norm, but so too is watching it disappear once the value of the venture becomes evident. “In this respect,” he notes, “I have seen students repeat my own experience in a process I hope to see carried on by readers of my latest book, Modern Jews Engage The New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.”

His primary interest lies with educating lay people because the history of Jewish-Christian relations is NOT between clergy and scholars. Therefore, he took great pains to ensure that his book would be utterly unique – user-friendly and accessible to the general public.

“I teach this literature and commend Jews who bring themselves to read it,” Cook notes, “but I also realize that many Jews simply cannot muster any incentive to read the writings that have caused their people to become the ‘chosen victims’ of events in Western history.”

However, he sees Jews learning Gospel Dynamics (strategies that early Christian traditions used to resolve the Church’s religious, social and political problems) as essential so they can answer knowledgeably when Christians pose theological questions. This knowledge would provide Jews with a genuine sense of empowerment. Apparently his message has been heard since book sales have been brisk among Jews and Christians (who account for more than half the sales being made).

According to Rabbi Stanley Miles, Cook is not only the leading Jewish scholar in the field of Christian Scriptures, he also is a compelling speaker. “He is not afraid to speak his mind,” says Miles, “and to take on issues of controversy and sensitivity. Generations of rabbinic students and graduate students have benefited from his high standards and superb scholarship.”

Cook is a member of several scholarly organizations, has served on the advisory boards of a number of institutes for Jewish-Christian Understanding and on the Joint Commission on Interreligious Affairs of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, HUC-JIR. Aside from his newest book, Cook has been published in a long list of scholarly journals and publications.

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