Two longtime Baltimoreans, friends and colleagues, Dr. Christopher Leighton and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, will be leading a program entitled “Sibling Rivalries: Does God Play Favorites” at Beth Tfiloh’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life & Learning.
The program is being done in partnership with the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies and “will explore questions of how Jews and Christians build their identities in relationship to one another and to God,” according to the ICJS website. The program will takes place on the first three Wednesday evenings of November.
“We will be exploring the relationship of character between Christians and Jews,” Leighton, the ICJS’s Protestant Scholar and former executive director, said. “Sometimes Judaism is described as the parent and Christianity as the child, but recently the image which has come up is that of siblings.”
“Our dialogue is about the sibling rivalry between Jews and Christians in the Bible and contemporarily. There was a time when the relationship was adversarial, but in the past 50 years, that relationship has turned into brotherhood,” Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Wohlberg asserted.
“Unfortunately, I think the change was due to the Holocaust, which took place in the heart of Christian Europe. The church had to acknowledge that something had gone wrong, and beginning with the Second Vatican Council [1962-1965], they attempted to right the wrong. That can only be done by working together.”
In the course of the program, participants will be studying a number of biblical stories that Judaism and Christianity share, as well some that are not shared. The stories are those about siblings in sacred text, in both the Bible and the New Testament.
“We’re going to look at sibling rivalries and how to overcome a relationship where one brother is seen as supplanting the other as the ‘favored son’ who receives all of God’s blessings while the other is left empty-handed,” said Leighton. “Then we will look at how that definition is redefined today.”
First and foremost, the most notorious sibling rivalry will be studied, the dynamics between Cain and Abel. The fratricidal relationship between the brothers will be used to look at how Jews and Christians should be related today.
Participants will then look at how the story of Esau and Jacob is paradigmatic of the relationship between these two religions. The conflict that resulted from Jacob’s deception of Isaac in order to receive his older brother’s birthright is analogous to the massive spread of Christianity following the destruction of the Second Temple.
“To Jews, traditionally Esau has been related to Edom, which related to Rome and thereby related to Church,” Leighton explained. “Christians have flipped it and see the Jews as the older brother, and they lay claim to being Jacob on whom the blessings rest.”
“What will be of interest is for people to see how Jews and Christians read the same text differently,” said Wohlberg. “I wonder how many Jews are aware that Christians see themselves as the descendants of Jacob, the younger child, rather than Esau, the elder child. The difference in understanding makes all the difference in the world.”
The third section will look at a more unfamiliar story to Jews, the story of the parable of the prodigal son. “It can be read to reinforce a dysfunctional rivalry, or it can be read in ways that are much more constructive and positive, so we want to explore how that might lead us to analyze the relationship between Christians and Jews in new terms,” said Leighton.
In the series, the two want to confront the sometimes adversarial relationship between Christians and Jews and to foster a more positive and creative dynamic.
Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, explained that they are very excited for the series because Jewish-Muslim discourse has been much more commonplace recently.
“Dialogue is one of our top duties,” she said. “It is such a joy for us at the BJC to have so many people doing interfaith work in the community. I am really excited for an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue as well. It’s a great opportunity with the timing and location to get people with a lot of different backgrounds and experience to get together in the same place.”
The series takes place at Beth Tfiloh’s Epstein Chapel, 3300 Old Court Road in Baltimore on Nov. 2, 9 and 16 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. For reservations or more information, call Noah Mitchel at 410-542-4850 or the Mercaz office at 410-413-2321.