As the world marks the start of 2017 with parties and hopes for a fresh starts, Jews the world over mark the Jewish new year by renewing their dedication to Torah reading with an organized cycle meant to complete the Torah within a year. There is an unexpected group of Torah students which have joined this cycle: Christians seeking to return to the roots of the Hebrew Bible based on teachings available at www.theisraelbible.com.
Dennis Wenzel, a pastor at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Indiana, became interested in Torah when he returned to seminary in 1979. His wife, who worked as a secretary at a Jewish synagogue, introduced Wenzel to the congregation’s rabbi. A friendship grew and the two spiritual leaders began to read and comment on each others’ sermons.
“I have been reading the weekly Torah Portions for about a year and a half,” said Wenzel. “I read them off the website in English, but the Hebrew appears as well.” The Israel Bible website offers side-by-side English and Hebrew text along with an audio player with the entire Bible being read in Hebrew.
“My spiritual journey has led me into seeking further and deeper truth of Creation and Hashem (God),” Wenzel stated. Wenzel appreciates the commentaries available online, and the organizing of the weekly readings into daily segments. He occasionally watches the portion being read on a weekly Shabbat service televised on Jewish broadcasting and learns online. He connects with Israel via the media and social networking, but his interest is not specifically to come closer to Judaism.
“theisraelbible.com has numberous Bible Reading Plans available for free but by far the most popular is the weekly Torah portion reading plan,” said “The Israel Bible” editor Rabbi Tuly Weisz. “Since our readers are primarily non-Jewish, I was surprised at how many Christians were interested in studying the weekly Torah portion. I thought that was just a ‘Jewish thing’.”
Jewish custom is to read the Torah publicly three times each week: an abbreviated reading during the morning prayers on Monday and Thursday (market days in Biblical times when Jews gathered in the urban centers), and a complete reading of the weekly portion during the morning prayers on Shabbat (the Sabbath).
A one-year cycle of readings completes the entire Torah. As such, the Torah is divided into 54 portions with each parsha (portion) named for its first word. Though this is a distinctly Jewish practice, many Christians are beginning to base their Bible study on the Jewish cycle.
Juanita Bequeath from Ohio began studying the Torah about 20 years ago. “We are a ministry of young oxen, called out from a number of different Christian denominations to get back to true Christianity … which of course is Torah,” Bequeath explained. The internet offers her a variety of Jewish sources, but for understanding the Hebrew, she uses a variety of dictionaries and lexicons. “We also study the meanings of the letters,” she added.
Reverend Hopper also uses a Bible software designed to allow Christians to access the original text in Hebrew. This has obvious benefits to Christian Bible scholars, but has an additional benefit. “Learning in Hebrew helps feed my love of Israel,” said Reverend Hopper.
Grace and Richard Knelsen of Winnipeg, Canada also perceive weekly parsha study as a way to connect with Israel. The couple volunteered for Bridges for Peace, a group of Christians supporting Israel and building relationships between Christians and Jews in Israel and around the world, in 2012. This affected their religious practice, and they began to study the parsha with another couple on Saturdays.
“We started studying the weekly portion because we wished to understand the Bible better. In particular, we wanted to get a clearer view of Jewish understanding to enhance our knowledge of the Hebrew roots of our Faith,” explained Richard. “We have always thought of ourselves as ‘Judeo-Christians’ and wanted a more thorough understanding of what those roots were and how that should manifest in our daily lives.”
Two years ago, the Knelsens visited Rabbi Tuly Weisz who presented them with a copy of Genesis from his then yet-to-be completed “The Israel Bible”. The Knelsons have since acquired the remaining four books in the set.
“The Bible is universal, beginning this week with the story of the creation of the world, but the real story is the focus on Israel,” said Rabbi Weisz. In “The Israel Bible” introduction to Genesis, Rabbi Weisz quoted Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the preeminent medieval French commentator on the Torah known by the acronym Rashi.
“God began His Torah with Creation in order to give the people of Israel a response to anyone who accuses them of stealing the Land of Israel, as we are now seeing with the recent UN declaration against the Holy Land.”
Rabbi Weisz emphasized that Israel and the Bible are unifying elements for Jews and Christians. “We both look to the Bible as the source of our connection with God, and that includes God’s promise to give the Land of Israel to the People of Israel,” Rabbi Weisz said. “A connection with Israel is a necessary element of Bible study, for Jews and Christians alike.”