Interfaith soup, or birthright for Catholics

Twenty-three years of teaching scripture in a Catholic high school and it hasn’t gotten old yet

I had just finished explaining exactly what a birthright was, and the significance of Esau giving it up to Jacob, when one of my ninth grade boys raised his hand.

“Wait…he sold his birthright for some soup? Who does that?”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Twenty-three years of teaching scripture in a Catholic high school and it hasn’t gotten old yet. I love stories, and teaching through story, and the Bible is filled with fascinating tales. Too often we miss the humanity of the characters involved out of misplaced reverence; once my students figure this out, they come up with all kinds of insight and questions that even I hadn’t thought of. Earlier we were looking at Abraham’s covenant with G-d, carried out while he was in a trance, walking through the split up animals.

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘cutting a deal?’”

“Ohhh!” (my favorite sound as a teacher.)

A hand goes up: “Is that why circumcision? Cutting a deal?”

Yikes. Is that possible? “Let me text Rabbi Hal.”

The reader is forgiven for wondering up until this point why a Catholic religion teacher is writing a blog post for The Times of Israel. Now perhaps you’re wondering, how did he come to have a text relationship with a rabbi (and on speed dial, and one of four people Verizon says I can call without it costing me minutes)?

The answer lies in a program called “The Holy Land Democracy Project,” the brainchild of members of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In 2004, a handful of Catholic teachers (myself included) traveled to Israel with Federation representatives and returned to our schools and taught a curriculum we had developed together.

The author at Masada (photo credit: courtesy)
The author at Masada (photo credit: courtesy)

The initial meetings were, in retrospect, pretty hilarious. I had a better idea than most what to expect; I had been asked a year earlier to speak to a group of Jewish high school students at a Los Angeles area temple about Catholicism. What was supposed to be a 45-minute presentation turned in to a three-hour question and answer session. Every question from the kids seemed to begin with, “I don’t want to offend you, but…” I insisted they couldn’t offend me; most of the time my answer began with something like, “That’s what Arius said in 300, and we had to call a council to deal with it.”

It was a truly exhilarating experience. I was apparently out of my depth, though; the popular young rabbi running the class seemed upset about something I said; the next time I saw her she gave me the proverbial cold shoulder.

Thus, when we began our meetings in March of 2004, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: a total lack of understanding of one another, a completely different approach to religion, years and years of animosity, and yet a common heritage and common purpose. At one memorable moment, Elaine, Ardeth, and Marlynn — three Jews in the group — were exchanging worried glances, while we Catholics waited patiently. Elaine finally spoke up.

“We have this video we want to show you, but we’re not sure how you will all feel about it…” she trailed off.

“Well, what is it? What’s the problem?”

“Well, these four Israeli teenagers are, well, arguing about God and religion and we were afraid…”

She never made it further, because we had all looked at each other and burst out laughing. The idea that Catholics just believe everything they’re told, and that no disagreement is tolerated is… well, you know.

We have more than our share of misconceptions of Jews. The first time I told my class I was going to text Rabbi Hal, there was a palpable silence in the room. Finally, Josh spoke up:

“Rabbis text?”

Yes, they do. Hal, with whom I work closely on HLDP, texted me back right away on the question of Esau, Jacob, soup, and “who does that?”

“It was really good soup.”

Lentil soup
(Lentil soup image via Shutterstock)
About the Author
John is a Catholic high school Religion teacher from the Los Angeles area. He is also the master teacher for the Holy Land Democracy Project, a joint venture between The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, Orange, and Bakersfield counties. He has visited Israel four times, so far.