David Nekrutman became the first Orthodox Jew to graduate from Oral Roberts University with a Masters Degree in Christian Studies. His studies gave him the tools to create better understanding between Jews and Christians in order to bring the two religions closer in an unprecedented manner.
“If Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) is supposed to be a light unto the nations, to bring the light of Torah to the world, we need to understand each other,” Nekrutman said to Breaking Israel News, explaining his unusual choice of studies. “I don’t have to dilute who I am as a Jew. I need to see the Christian as in the image of God. Of course, that needs to be reciprocal.”
Nekrutman is intensely motivated to spread the light of Torah into the world, and it is toward that end that he established the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, in 2008. The organization is actively involved in creating religious dialogue and cooperation with Christians.
To further that goal, Nekrutman enrolled four years ago in the Oral Roberts University (ORU) Theology program, taking a Masters of Arts in Biblical Literature with a concentration in Judaic-Christian Studies. Last Friday, Nekrutman took his place among the Christian graduates of ORU.
Nekrutman felt that the most effective way to connect with Christians in a deep and meaningful manner was to study Christian theology.
“Learning about Christianity is certainly not for every Jew,” Nekrutman said to Breaking Israel News. “It is not even necessary for Jews who are working with Christians or with Christian donors. I communicate with Christians on theological issues so I need to understand their theology on a deep level.”
Nekrutman believes that Jews and Christians relate to theology on a fundamentally different level.
“If you are a Jew in the world of Jewish-Christian relations, it is important to understand the Christian,” he said. “It is not enough to study their literature, to read the New Testament. Christians come from a theological point of view. Who they are as a Christian is based on doctrine.
“Jews can separate their religion from who they are as a Jew since theology doesn’t necessarily define who they are as a Jew. Christians cannot make that separation. Their Christian identity comes from their theology and their doctrine.”
Nekrutman however, had a strong warning for any Jew considering this course of studies.
“My studies did not affect my Judaism because I went in knowing who I am,” he said. “If a Jew learns about Christianity without knowing himself as a Jew, he will just get confused. To connect with another faith in a constructive manner, you have to be very strong in your faith.”
When Nekrutman first approached ORU, former President Mark Rutland was very encouraging.
“It was huge,” Nekrutman said. “They were allowing me, a modern Pharisee, into their inner circle. He believed in the work I am doing connecting Judaism and Christianity. Their allowing me to study is a testament to how committed they are to connecting to Judaism under a new framework that is not based on missionizing.”
“He said that as long as I was interested in coming to learn, and as long as my Rabbi was okay with my studying Christianity, than I could come and study,” Nekrutman said. “This type of meeting between the religions has never had the opportunity to take place at any other point in history.”
Judaism and Christianity: Some Things in Common and Some Things That Are Not
Nekrutman’s decision to learn Christian studies was influenced by his mentor, Rabbi Dr. Gerald Meister, one of the premiere leaders in Jewish-Christian relations who passed away five years ago. Rabbi Meister suggested that a key to building bridges between Jews and Christians may be the topic of Ruach HaKodesh. Literally translated, it means “the holy spirit” but it is more accurately understood in Judaism as “divine inspiration” and is mentioned in the Bible.
Then they remembered the ancient days, Him, who pulled His people out [of the water]: “Where is He who brought them up from the Sea Along with the shepherd of His flock? Where is He who put In their midst His holy spirit. Isaiah 63:11
Nekrutman believes that the concept of Ruach HaKodesh is parallel to the concept of the Holy Spirit in Christianity and chose this as the subject for his thesis.
It is precisely a confusion of theological terms that Nekrutman believes is the barrier that prevents the two religions from relating in a deep and meaningful manner with each other. As a learned Orthodox Jew, Nekrutman’s experience in the classroom was a process of synthesis, viewing Christian concepts from an Orthodox perspective in a non-judgmental manner.
“When learning about Christianity, I found myself asking how Judaism answers the concepts being dealt with,” Nekrutman explained. “Usually the two religions are asking the same questions, sometimes arriving at the same conclusions but frequently with different answers.”
Perhaps more compelling for his studies were the theological concepts in Christianity that had no counterpart in Judaism. One such concept Nekrutman struggled to understand was what Christians refer to as “Dying daily for Jesus.” This is a concept which requires Christians to “die” metaphorically in order to grow spiritually in the manner that Jesus died to allow all Christians to come closer to God.
“A Jew would never say this,” Nekrutman said. “There is no parallel in Judaism. We talk about living for our faith. But I needed to learn this because it a essential concept in Christianity. It is described as being a totally new being necessary for connecting with God the Father.”
Some concepts Nekrutman studied were divisive, pushing Jews and Christians apart in a manner he found challenging.
“Salvation is a concept that separates us,” he explained. “It is not a common we share and Jews reject it. In its essence it is divisive.”
Nekrutman chose to sidestep that particular issue, and he found in its place some powerful points in common that connected the two religions.
“Sanctification and holiness are the two words that changed the way I relate to Christians,” he said. “We are both mandated through the common scripture to bring them into the world. The Christians and the Jews both understand sanctification and holiness and can come together in them as a universal mission. The question becomes how do we do this as the will of God and for that we both have the Bible.”
“The difference is that we do it as a nation and they do it as a collection of individuals.”
Learning Is a Two-Way Street
The experience was overwhelmingly positive for Nekrutman who felt welcome and accepted from the moment he began his studies and was impressed by his fellow students.
“I love people that are motivated by God to go out and improve the world,” he said. “It is inspiring to me as a Jew. They believe that their only path to God the Father is through Jesus which is certainly not the equation I ascribe to. They see themselves as part of the House of Israel, even a part of the Jewish Nation, but not as Jews.”
The university experience is one of being exposed to new ideas and the presence of an Orthodox Jew on campus was a rare opportunity the Christian theology students were eager to take part in.
“The students all showed a willingness to understand the Jewish roots of their faith,” Nekrutman said. “I became the person to educate these Evangelicals about Judaism. Before I connected with them, their only understanding came from the Protestant perception of Judaism,a gross misunderstanding learned from Martin Luther. Very few Christians interact with Jews on a level that can dispel these Protestant misperceptions.”
“They do not see themselves as replacing us in the covenant,” he explained. “They realize that without the roots of Judaism they cannot be who they are as a Christian.”
Nekrutman explained that Replacement Theology, a belief that Christianity replaced Judaism in the covenant between Abraham and God, has been rejected by much of the Evangelical world, and at ORU, they understand it to be a destructive influence in their belief.
“Replacement Theology divorced Jesus from Judaism and without these Jewish roots, Christianity became a Roman caricature,” Nekrutman explained. “It caused a lot of problems within the Church. Christians are surprised when they understand that Jesus was a practicing Jew, a Pharisee.”
One unexpected benefit of his studies came from attending chapel. Nekrutman chose to attend once and was deeply moved by observing the prayer of the Christian students.
“I could see their desire to have an intimate relationship with God,” he said. “It was a profound experience of prayer. It is different, in that sense, from Jewish prayer. Observing Christian prayer made me a better ba’al tefilla (prayer leader, literally “master of prayer”). Judaism has amazing liturgy. The words are amazing. But now I pay much more attention to what I am saying when I pray.”