On the evening of Aug. 21, 18 people gathered in the West Loop. They were students and young adults: some Catholic, some Jewish, some neither.
They joined with Rav (Rabbi) Ezra Balser and Father Jamie Mueller for the first session of “In the Beginning,” an interfaith encounter hosted by Base: LOOP and Chicago Theology on Tap. In the Beginning includes six sessions during which the group will study and discuss the Book of Genesis.
Mueller is director of the Office of Young Adult Engagement for the archdiocese; Balser and his wife host Base: LOOP, part of the Hillel organization that works with Jewish college students and young adults.
The two clergymen were introduced by Rabbi David and Emily Soloff, who are active in interfaith relations, and hit it off. They’ve been working on In the Beginning for about a year, they said.
“I thought we would each get up and give a brief presentation and then answer any questions,” Mueller said when he made his introductory remarks. “Rav Ezra said that’s not how we’re going to do it.”
Balser suggested the group use a more common Jewish method for studying and analyzing texts: dividing the group into twos and threes, who would read the passages aloud together and then discuss them before coming back to the larger group to share their thoughts and insights.
On the first night, the group started with two short passages from rabbinic texts, and excerpts from a book on how Catholics interpret the Bible.
But first, the leaders said, they had to give a little background and vocabulary about how each faith understands and interprets Scripture.
Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, relies on centuries of rabbinic thought, written down in the Mishnah and in the Talmud, Balser explained.
“It’s seen as a continual unfolding of the revelation on Mount Sinai,” Balser explained. “We are unfolding revelation as we learn Torah.”
The important thing to remember is that Catholics interpret the Bible in light of the magisterium, or what the teaching authorities of the church, says, Mueller said.
The Catholic Bible includes 46 books of Jewish Scripture in its Old Testament, he said, although some of the books are not exactly the same as their Jewish counterparts.
“We pretty much accept everything up to Jesus as it was handed down by Judaism,” Mueller said. “But we read it with a different interpretation and lens. We would say Jesus was foreshadowed by the Tanakh.”
Mueller also pointed out that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that the earliest followers of Jesus thought of themselves as good Jews. That’s something that was not emphasized enough in past generations, he said.
The Christian Bible, with its Old and New Testaments, did not come together until 400 years after Christ, Mueller said.
Some of the Catholic participants said they wanted to learn more about Judaism and Jewish interpretation of the Bible to better understand their own faith.
Maricela Fajardo said she heard about the series during a Theology on Tap presentation Mueller made at St. Clement Parish.
“I wanted to know more about Jesus, and Jesus was Jewish,” she said.
Aleksa Masyuk, a Ukrainian Catholic whose husband is Jewish, saw a notice about the series on the Theology on Tap Facebook page.
“Theology is a very deep passion of mine,” she said. “I’m always interested in learning about the foundations of my Catholic faith, and that leads to Judaism.”
Sylvester Alonc, a religious studies student at Loyola University Chicago, said he traveled to Israel with Balser last year on a university-sponsored trip. Alonc said he enjoyed learning from Balser, and he’s especially interested in interfaith work.
“I think the value of interfaith work is that you learn a little bit about how to be human,” he said. “You learn how to meet other humans where they are.”
The remaining sessions of In the Beginning are Sept. 11, 17 and 24 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. They are free and open to all as long as space is available, but registration is required through the In the Beginning Facebook page. For more information, visit facebook.com/events/484611872103566/.