About nine years ago, my synagogue, our local Catholic church, and others in Sharon, Massachusetts held a joint program called "Catholics and Jews Learning Together." Our congregations met and read about the different ways we each understand Scripture.
We began grappling with the different ways Catholics and Jews have historically read the same Bible stories: Is the Adam story about Original Sin or free will? Is the story of Jacob and Esau about a new covenant, or it is about competing tribes? Is Abraham offering up the ram in place of his son a foreshadowing of Jesus or testimony to the faith of Israel?
We had amazing discussions. On the last evening we met, off the cuff I said to my new Catholic friends, "We have Torah study every Saturday morning. If you would like to come and see what it is all about, you are more than welcome."
Since then, members of the church have been coming to our synagogue's Torah study every week. There is no proselytizing or imposing, only respect and friendship. In fact, several years ago, as one Irish Catholic friend headed off to synagogue in the morning, his son casually asked him, "Going to shul, Dad?"
The group has grown over the years. A diverse group from every walk of life now shows up for coffee, a nosh (usually a bagel and cream cheese), and some learning. And the diversity has enhanced the learning, not diminished it.
People tend to get out of studying Scripture what they put into it. We find what we are looking for. Some come with an agenda to learn about the worldview of the Israelites and compare the Torah to other Ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology. Others come to the synagogue's Torah study to find out how the Rabbis derived Jewish ethics and theology from the text. And some come with a more personal agenda, to use the Torah as a spiritual handbook to grow as a person. We use different commentaries for different questions.
More than the commentaries, we learn from listening to each other. It is a fundamental understanding of the group that everyone has something to learn and something to teach. Truth is sought through dialogue. But this only works if we read the Bible as human beings first, and then afterwards as members of our different religions.
For me personally, the Torah is like a deep lake. The waters are made of our collective memories, dreams, and fantasies from our ancient ancestors until today. The sublime and the ugly are all in there. Everything from "Love your neighbor as yourself" and being made in God's image to plagues and biblical genocides are swirling around. And yet the surface of the lake reflects who we are as we gaze into it. The Torah thus contains and mirrors the entire human condition.
We are what we read. And we can read the Bible together - first and foremost - as human beings.