This is my tenth year at Boston College (BC). When I started to teach in the Theology Department, I was given just one course. Within a year, however, I was already teaching two courses per week, both during the Fall and Spring semesters, one on Bible and the other on Jewish Thought. Even after my retirement from the congregational rabbinate in 2003, I kept my position at BC, and love it.
Boston College is a Jesuit school, and well-known throughout the country. The faculty of the Theology Department is top-notch and highly liberal. There are only two Rabbis on our faculty: Ruth Langer and me. She is full-time; I am only part-time. When, a few years ago, I was asked to teach an Introduction to the Old Testament, they re-named it, “An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” in deference to my being an ordained Rabbi. I appreciated that gesture.
BC attracts students not only from the greater Boston area but from many quarters of the world. Most of my students come from staunch Catholic homes; others are only culturally Christian. I have also had a few Jewish students, but most of them have not done well in my classes; they were surprised to find out that what they knew about their religion was not only minimal but mostly wrong.
For many of my students, whether local or foreign, studying with a Rabbi is a new experience. I am usually addressed as “Professor” or “Rabbi.” But a couple of times, by sheer custom, I was also called, “Father.” Then we all laughed a bit!
Some students, not having dealt with a Rabbi before, are puzzled about what to say in my presence. Last year, a foreign student from Australia, asked me whether it was acceptable to mention Jesus to a Jewish Clergy. The question surprised me. I guess in the back of this student’s mind, it was not appropriate to cite Jesus in a prayer, so as not offend his/her religious sensitivities. But we were in class. I quickly answered, “If the discussion requires, there is nothing wrong with mentioning Jesus to a Rabbi. After all, Jesus was a Jew who lived like a Jew and died like a Jew. We are not praying in class, so it is perfectly OK to deal with his life and message.”
One of the great difficulties my students have is how to deal with Jewish diversity in thought and practice. Coming from the Catholic perspective, where the Pope is considered to have the last word on religious matters, they find it very hard to accept there are so many Jewish opinions on almost every topic, be it God, Revelation, the Bible, life after death etc. I tell my students that there has never been a time in Jewish history when Jews did not disagree with one another, yet we have remained one people and shared the same fate. Little do my students know that there is also a great diversity among Christians, even among Catholics of different bent, as witnessed by the academic discourse that is prevalent at BC and other Catholic institutions of higher learning.
What I have found appalling is how little Christians know about Judaism, on which their faith is based, and how ignorant- I would even say, uninterested- many Jews are about fundamental Christian beliefs and practices. Yet, in the USA and other parts of the world, we live side by side, and rarely do we attempt to find out what our neighbors hold sacred. I think this should be remedied, and more comparative religion courses ought to be made available for peoples of all ages. Some of us are doing our share, but it is still a drop in the bucket.
Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.
Sept. 21, 2009