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Professor/rabbi works to build bridges among faiths, perspectives

Elizabeth Goldstein brings speaker on Jewish context of Jesus.

Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein, assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, seeks to be a bridge person—between Gonzaga and Temple Beth Shalom, between Christians and Jews, and in discussions on Israel and Palestine.

At Elizabeth’s Bat Mitzvah in a progressive synagogue, the rabbi called her, as someone who had attended an Orthodox day school, a “gesher,” which means a “bridge.”

Today, she seeks to find ways for people who have different perspectives and are from different communities to talk with each other.

“I believe the spark of God is in every human heart, and we have more in common than we have different,” she said.  “As a rabbi and teacher, I find the spark in others and in myself.” 

In her work Gonzaga for six years, she has had regular opportunities to do bridge work between faith communities and among people with different viewpoints.

“There is space at the table for all voices,” she said.

Aware that this is the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the papal encyclical, “Our Time,” on Catholic relationship with and acknowledgement of Jews, Elizabeth raised funds to bring Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, to lecture at Gonzaga.

Amy-Jill is a scholar who explores the shared heritage of Christianity and Judaism, studying Jesus in light of his Jewish roots.

Her books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, The Historical Jesus in Context, Feminist Companions to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.

Elizabeth, the first person in Gonzaga’s Religious Studies Department to teach from a Jewish perspective, said she has gone to Mass and listened to New Testament passages on Jews in Jesus’ time.

“There is something I can learn and something the Christian community can learn from this scholar,” she said, finding the Jesuit setting conducive to that possibility. 

So she invited Amy-Jill, as a New Testament scholar, to situate Jesus in his first-century Jewish context. 

The day after the public lecture on “Of Pearls and Prodigals: Hearing Jesus’ Parables through Jewish Ears,” at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 4, there is a lunch on Friday, Feb. 5, for more than 50 Christian clergy on “Misunderstanding Judaism Means Misunderstanding Jesus.”

“The more people understand Judaism of the first century, the more they can understand Jesus in his time,” said Elizabeth.

“Catholics read the text through the lens of a long history of interpretation, not just what the text says to them in an unmediated encounter,” Elizabeth said.

“I have been able to help Gonzaga University and the Jewish community collaborate,” she said, “for example, raising funds at Temple Beth Shalom for the lecture.”

Amy-Jill will stay through Sunday and also offer presentations at Temple Beth Shalom on “How Jews and Christians Read Scripture Differently,” “David and Bathsheba/ Sex and Politics,” and “How Jews and Christians Misunderstand Each Other.”

Elizabeth will talk with members of the Gonzaga and Jewish communities to find how opinions shift after hearing Amy-Jill.

Elizabeth, who was ordained in 2001 after completing studies at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, grew up in New Jersey and majored in religion at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H.  Both her undergraduate and her rabbinical studies included time studying in Israel.  In 2010, she completed her doctoral degree in biblical studies at the University of California in San Diego.

There, while she was involved with a Jewish-Christian group that read Scripture together, she realized that “we have different ways of understanding Scripture and our roles in the world.”

At Gonzaga, she has continued to intersect with people on understanding Scriptures.

“I have learned much from my colleagues, as I hope my colleagues have learned from me,” she said.  “My colleagues are my friends.  I have found a home here and feel valued for the diverse approach I bring,” she said. 

She has also valued her interactions with hundreds of students who have taken her classes at the University and at Temple Beth Shalom.

“I have learned what questions to ask to increase my learning, and I have learned to be a more effective teacher at reaching students both in classes and the congregations.”

Living in community with Catholics who faithfully attend Mass and take Eucharist, Elizabeth said she was struck to witness communion at a recent funeral service for a member of the Gonzaga community.

“It was beautiful that the bread is blessed and the whole community partakes, not just each as individual persons connecting with God, but also people connecting with each other as part of the community and responsible for one another,” she said.

“We are not in the world alone,” she said  “It reminds me of the saying that every Jewish person is responsible for other people and for the whole of Israel.  In the recent funeral for one person, there was something larger at work that is part of the tradition and part of being there for each other.”

Elizabeth, who teaches biblical Hebrew, Judaism, Hebrew Bible, Jewish and Christian comparative feminism, recently published a book, Impurity and Gender in the Hebrew Bible.

In addition to teaching at Gonzaga, she teaches classes and helps lead services once a month at Temple Beth Shalom and once a month at the Jewish Community of the Palouse in Moscow.

In applying for tenure, Elizabeth said she has been reflecting about her role at Gonzaga.

On campus, she said she is perceived as progressive, so people of progressive perspectives come to converse with her. 

For example, some Protestant women, studying to be ordained in their denominations, come to her to talk about ordination. 

She also listens to people and is open to those with many different perspectives.

“I meet people where they are on their faith journeys,” she said.

Elizabeth would also like to contribute to Gonzaga by leading a study trip to Israel and by encouraging Jewish students to think of Gonzaga as a place to study in the humanist Jesuit tradition that is open to dialogue. 

She also seeks to connect Jews and non-Jews to The Third Narrative for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s an initiative to hear the voices between the narrative of staunch pro-Israel groups and the narrative of those who support boycotts, divestment and sanctions in solidarity with Palestinians.

“We tend to hear one narrative to the exclusion of the other,” Elizabeth said.

“Whether Jews and Christians agree or disagree, conversations need to continue.  It’s about relationships, because religion is about relationships,” she said.

“Judaism is infused with teachings of love and acceptance, and acknowledgment that we all share a deep spiritual yearning,” said Elizabeth.

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