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Community Blog Why A Thriving Jewish Seminary Matters to this Catholic

By Joshua Polanski
josh and or

I’m a practicing Catholic—and I believe the world is a better place with more well and resourcefully trained, thoughtful, and pluralistically minded Jewish leaders. That’s why I help recruit, inform, and connect future Jewish leaders by working on the marketing team at Hebrew College.

As is well known, for some Christians relationships with non-Christians are often guided by a sense of religious obligation to convert non-Christians. For Christians like myself, the proselytism-or-nothing perspective is myopic and even dangerous—a manipulative way to relate to others in a pluralistic society. “The biblical vision of flourishing is one of creation-wide shalom… it’s a hope of abundance… in which there is no more hunger, no more pain, no more lack,” as James K.A. Smith, a philosopher at my alma mater Calvin University said. He memorably adds, “Christianity is concerned not only with souls but also with bellies.” Put another way, the present flourishing (or not) of our neighbors matters.

Saint Martin and the Beggar by El Greco, c. 1577–1579

The life and religious memory of St. Martin of Tours, a somewhat neglected early Church figure and one of my favorite saints, embodies this pastorally motivated Christian tradition. In the most famous story about Martin—an anecdote often credited as giving birth to the etymology of “chapel”—he tears a cappella (“little cloak”) from his cloak to cover a naked beggar. In the era of the early “Church Fathers” (roughly the 1st through 8th centuries CE), the most recognized and remembered saints—from St. Irenaeus to St. Augustine—are known first and foremost as theologians. There’s nothing wrong with theology—I happen to have two degrees in it—but the primacy of theology has ensured that the pastors—the practitioners—of the early Church, people like Martin of Tours, have been neglected and forgotten in religious memory. And it’s the pastors who care for the meek; the hungry; the lonely; and yes, you and me.

Recalling this episode from Martin’s life, I feel warm and even at home as I read President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld’s words on the College’s website: “As we are buffeted daily by news of violence, cruelty, ignorance, and intolerance in our nation and around the world,” Rabbi Anisfeld continues, “I am grateful to be part of an institution where love of teaching and learning — love of Torah — is at our core, and where we strive to make our study an act of sacred service to a world in need of healing and hope.

In some ways, practical and pastoral work seems a cornerstone of our shared institution. From spiritual caregiving in a local shul to prophetic calls for a world on fire, our students and alumni administer care (of all sorts) to a hurting world daily. The College’s holistic and applied approach to rabbinical formation reminds me of St. Martin’s pastoral legacy. “Making our lives more meaningful, our communities more vibrant, and our world more whole,” reads the second half of the Hebrew College mission statement. To me, that sounds wonderfully akin to filling bellies in the hope of creation-wide shalom.

I’ve even learned more about my own tradition through excellent rabbinical leaders. In Catholicism, for example, “Works of Mercy” refers to sanctifying acts of penance and charity toward others. They are basically steps on the path toward holiness. The works can be divided into two types: corporal and spiritual. The former refers to acts that concern and nourish the physical and material needs of others, whereas the latter refers to the spiritual needs of our neighbors, such as forgiving offenses and comforting the afflicted. Several weeks ago, at the behest of my priest’s admonition to reflect on a model of one of the spirituals acts, I found myself deliberating on the humbling actions of Rabbi Or Rose, whom I work with in the Miller Center. In a staff meeting preceding the High Holidays, Rabbi Rose took the time, mental energy, and spiritual labor to apologize for any wrongs he may have committed to team members over the past year. It was a remarkable moment of leadership and spiritual edification, regardless of any religious differences in the room.

In what I assume was a rather common (though earnest) holiday moment for Rose, I was reminded of the words of Pope Francis: “Those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.” He modeled the spiritual work of mercy of forgiveness to perfection, in the opinion of this Christian, and literally became an image of imitation for me while kneeling on the hassock (or “kneeler”) in a Catholic mass, as I waited for the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. In the most essentially Christian part of my weekly religious life, it wasn‘t a priest or Christian clergy member whose saintly actions I desired to imitate but a rabbi’s, a colleague’s, and a friend’s.

The reason I work to help strengthen and support thriving and creative Jewish education of all sorts at Hebrew College, including the ordination programs, isn’t despite or parallel to my own religious convictions. It flows from these convictions.

In Nostra aetate, a document composed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope Paul VI boldly concedes that truth and beauty are found in non-Christian religions and that these “[Other religions] often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all [people].” The Pope continues, “The Church, therefore, exhorts her [children], that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these [people].”

The keywords here, for me, are to preserve and promote the good of these religions and, by extension, the work of their clerics and institutions. That’s not just permission to look the other way and tolerate the work of a Muslim chaplaincy program, a Jewish non-profit, or a humanist food charity. It’s more than that: it’s an exhortation, an urgent command, to preserve and promote the good work of such other religions and their institutions.

And I believe Hebrew College does a lot of good.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t need to cite theological sources or magisterial texts, however useful, resourceful, or true I think they might be. All that matters to me is this: the world is a better place with thoughtful and engaged Jewish leaders caring for, nourishing, emboldening, and preserving, and occasionally grieving with Jewish communities (and non-Jewish communities) in our ever-so-connected and aching world. We need more of them and Hebrew College ordains rabbis, cantors, and educators that do just that.

As a Master’s student at Boston University School of Theology, Joshua joined the Miller Center team as a contextual education intern where his interest in interreligious education and learning was solidified. His main area of academic interest is political theology in both late medieval Christianity and contemporary Islam. In his free time, he has been learning Turkish and watches too many movies. He joined Hebrew College’s marketing team full-time after graduating from BUSTH.

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