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Jewish in a Christian world: Scholar's talks draw crowds

A professor deciphers evangelical Christians, Christmas symbols, the Antichrist and conversion attempts.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The title of the weekend program was "Living as Jews in a Christian World."

Rabbi Michael J. Cook, professor of Judeo-Christian studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, arrived for the program at Temple Beth-El armed with humor, handouts and even a movie clip. It was evident that the 175 people who attended his first lecture, scheduled after Friday night Sabbath services and dinner, were both fascinated and entertained.

Cook, who regularly lectures to Jewish and Christian audiences, took the time to remind Temple Beth-El's congregation, however, that it has been no joke for Jews living in the majority Christian world.

Friday night's lecture, "Armageddon and the Jews -- Terrorism and World Turmoil in Evangelical Scenarios," marked the start of a Scholar in Residence Weekend organized by the temple's adult education committee. Saturday and Sunday's topics were "A Jewish Understanding of the Christmas Stories of Jesus' Virgin Birth," "Symbols of Judaism in Famous Christmas Art: Why They're There, and What They Mean," and "Praying FOR and Preying ON the Jews: Why Such Brazen Offensives to Convert US."

Each subject holds particular significance for Jews, Temple Beth-El's rabbi, Michael Torop, said.

"These are issues that I believe our community faces day in and day out," Torop said.

"We live in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish environment, and trying to help our congregation understand some of the nuances of that world in which they live, I think, helps us to better negotiate it."

There are about 40-million "right-wing evangelical Christians" in the United States, Cook told his audience. Members of this group, he said, believe that recent events, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Middle East conflict, presage the apocalypse, which will be followed by Jesus' much-anticipated return. These Christians also are strong supporters of Israel and view its 1949 establishment as a watershed year before the "end times."

"Right-wing evangelical Christians believe that Jews are God's odometer in history. This explains their tremendous love for Israel," said Cook, who has addressed leading scholars of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Episcopalian presiding bishop's advisory committee on Christian-Jewish relations.

Furthermore, said Cook, right-wing evangelical Christians are Israel's most fervent supporters, surpassing even American Jews. For instance, he said, these believers have continued to travel to Israel despite the current wave of violence. They also are spending millions to convert Jews, he said, because of the belief that Jesus won't return until the world has been Christianized.

Cook, whose rabbinic Judaism courses at Hebrew Union College attract Christian clergy and seminarians, went on to talk about the Antichrist. He told his audience that the Rev. Jerry Falwell recently said that the Antichrist was a living Jewish male. The Antichrist, Cook explained to his Jewish audience, is supposed to appear as the agent of Satan on Earth and help Jews rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It is believed, Cook said, that initially the Antichrist will appear to be the world's savior, but eventually his reign will become brutal and lead to the battle between good and evil at Armageddon.

Cook, who has served as textbook consultant for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, also spoke of the rapture, believed by some Christians to be a time when they will be spirited toward heaven. To illustrate the concept, Cook showed a film clip based on the best selling Left Behind series of religious novels by Tim LaHaye.

Torop, Temple Beth-El's rabbi, believes the weekend was a success.

"There were four very diverse presentations," he said, "each one really offering something quite different."

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