The term, righteous gentile, is usually and rightfully reserved for a hero, one who had risked her/his life and the lives of loved ones in order to rescue Jews from certain death during the horrors of the Holocaust. So grateful are the Jewish people for these courageous souls that a special orchard has been planted at Yad V'Shem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, Israel, as a place of perpetual memory and honor.
Without any intention of demeaning the sacred memories and remarkable efforts of these extraordinary/ordinary people, I would like to consider the spiritual status of a gentile our synagogue was privileged to listen to and engage with during a two part series dealing with the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity.
Phil is a devoted Baptist who attends church regularly, teaches Sunday school, provides lay leadership to his congregation and is never without his Bible. Each Saturday morning, however, Phil takes his seat alongside the members of Kol Ami synagogue in Annapolis, Maryland. He devotedly follows the Hebrew service by reading the English translation and has learned to enthusiastically chant the Hebrew melodies of popular Hebrew prayers. As a student in my Bible class, he has been an invaluable asset to the depth and range of our studies and conversations.
Soft-spoken and of gentle manner, Phil requested the opportunity to address our congregation on the topic of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Frankly, my visceral response was one of discomfort , one of a gnawing suspicion of his motives and intentions.
"He's a lovely man," I thought. " But, could I trust him? After all, he wouldn't be the first very nice gentile who wished to convert the Jews? Was he a disguised Jew for Jesus?"
The fear was momentary, fleeting , and we proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for his presentation.
Today I am grateful to this sincere and loving man who not only educated my congregation about Christianity but in some most enlightening way conveyed how central faith and religion are to the experience and challenge of being Jewish. As a man in search of God, he was witness to a spiritual process that is open to all human beings, especially Jews. His words were not only scholarly and the product of many hours of careful study and examination, but they reflected a genuine and open hearted love for the Jewish people and for the the faith of Judaism.He reinforced my belief in the capacity of differing faiths to engage in a worthwhile and spiritually meaningful dialogue and conversation as long as the foundation of such discussion was one of honest mutual respect , open mindedness and humility. Phil enriched our congregation, and added a touch of sanctity to the holiness of the Sabbath, the day on which he shared his understanding and love of God and the Jewish people.
Did Phil take a risk that would endanger his life, and as such earn him the distinction of "righteous gentile?" Of course not. But he did stick out his neck , or rather his soul, in exposing his innermost thoughts and feelings to a group of people who adamantly disagreed with his core belief and commitment. To say the least, this kind of encounter had the makings of intimidation and difficulty.
And so I would like to consider Phil a righteous gentile for our time, one whose love for our people and willingness to share and be part of our community, on our terms, is more than enough reason for a deep sense of gratefulness. Thank you, Phil.