A Brotherly Exchange – A Review of Five Years With Orthodox Jews: How Connecting With God’s People Unlocks Understanding of God’s Word, by Bob O’Dell with Gidon Ariel

Question: if Christians and Jews each claim to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and each revere the same body of authoritative writings (namely, the Bible, or at least those books of the Bible each holds as scripture), then why have they been opposed to one another for nearly two millennia?

It seems that people on both sides are beginning to wrestle with that question. No one denies that there are fundamental differences in the beliefs of Christians and Jews, but in recent decades a growing number of people have made a concerted effort to look beyond the differences and see if there might be common ground on which to build enduring relationships.

Bob O’Dell and Gidon Ariel are two of those people. In 2014, they collaborated to established Root Source (https://root-source.com/), a forum in which Orthodox Jews and Christians of many streams come together in an attitude of mutual respect to learn from one another. The success of Root Source is what moved them to collaborate on Five Years With Orthodox Jews: How Connecting With God’s People Unlocks Understanding of God’s Word.

The book flows from O’Dell’s growing appreciation and understanding of the Orthodox Jewish approach to the scriptures. Most of its forty chapters were originally published as articles on the Root Source website. In these articles, he shares what his friendship with Ariel has taught him about the thought processes and perspectives of an ancient culture rooted in the Torah. To his great surprise, the Jewish perspectives not only coincide with his own evangelical Christian perspectives, but add depth and breadth to his Christian beliefs.

Looking at the same question from a different angle is revealing, as he relates in his chapter on Bethel, the site about ten miles north of Jerusalem associated with the vision of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10-16). Christians traditionally view Bethel as the place where Jacob slept and had his dream of the heavenly ladder, but Jews believe that the Patriarch had this dream on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. O’Dell presents not only a synthesis of the two views, but a spiritual application derived from the biblical account and the history of ancient Israel in later centuries. Specifically, he notes that Bethel was also one of two sites where Israel’s apostate Northern Kingdom built altars for the golden calf idols whom they held as representations of God. O’Dell describes Bethel as representative of the “conservative values of the Northern Kingdom,” while Dan, the site of the second golden calf, “would be the place to go if you were naturally biased towards liberal values.” The problem with both, of course, is that they were not Jerusalem, the place God had chosen for His temple and altar. Therefore, Bethel and Dan, while reflecting aspects of good things from the revelation of YHVH, are still not quite right. As O’Dell says, “But let us be clear, both liberal and conservative values have the potential to be defiled by idolatry.”

These are points O’Dell would never have grasped without the relationship he and Ariel cultivated over the years. Hence the point of the book: five years of learning and growing with Gidon Ariel and with other Orthodox Jews. This is where the book presents a fresh perspective on relations between these two halves of God’s people. O’Dell and Ariel not only demonstrate how Christians and Jews can find common ground, but where that common ground can take them.

This brings up another beautiful aspect of the book: Ariel’s commentary in many of the chapters. In essence, we get to read an Orthodox Jew’s thoughts about what a Christian has learned about Orthodox Jews. This is where we find input from the many sources that Jews consider Torah. Ariel gives us an explanation early in the book:

It includes the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses), the entire Tanakh [Old Testament], and the orally transmitted laws, stories and ideas given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai together with the Written Torah. It also includes any idea that any student comes up with related to any of these, from the time of Moses some 3,400 years ago to this day.

That definition alone is essential in Christian-Jewish understanding and cooperation. As we read what O’Dell shares, along with Ariel’s commentary, we find that neither is offended nor threatened by what the other holds as authoritative. Each seems equally comfortable referring to the other’s sources (the New Testament for Ariel; the Mishnah and other Jewish writings for O’Dell) to make or enhance a point. The lesson for the reader is that we can still regard as reliable and instructive those sources which the other person holds as authoritative (scripture, in the Evangelical sense of the word) even though we may not regard them on the same level of authority. Moreover, we can respect the other person’s regard for those sources, as well as the beliefs that flow from them. This certainly does not resolve our differences, but it does strengthen and broaden the foundation on which we can get along.

What happens when we do that? As Bob O’Dell relates in his 40 chapters, each side grows more confident in their own walk with the Creator, and the family of God is immeasurably strengthened. For example, he has several chapters under the heading, “A View Too Small,” in which he compares the traditional Christian views of Resurrection, Torah, Community, Secularism, Prophecy, and Punishment with corresponding Jewish perspectives. What he finds is that there are aspects to the Jewish perspectives that help Christians understand much better the basic tenets of their own faith. Readers may be surprised to learn not only how close the Jewish and Christian views are, but how the Jewish views tend to take in a much broader scope. While there is no perfect overlap, these chapters (in fact, the whole book) indicate that we can and should be engaged in intentional relationship building.

Where will this lead? Ideally toward the Kingdom of Heaven manifested on earth. That is the ultimate hope of both Jews and Christians. What has been lacking up to now is an environment where they can compare notes and make ways to work together toward that shared hope. Bob O’Dell and Gidon Ariel have demonstrated that this is possible. Five Years With Orthodox Jews is the report on their progress so far. Having demonstrated the potential of Christian-Jewish cooperation and understanding on a personal level, they point the way toward replicating their results on a much greater scale. Let us hope that their readers take up the challenge of doing so. The world is sorely in need of the healing that this will bring.

Bob O’Dell

Five Years With Orthodox Jews: How Connecting With God’s People Unocks Understanding of God’s Word is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. It is also available through Root Source at https://root-source.com/.

Author: Albert J. McCarn

I am a lifelong disciple of Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth, an avid student of the Bible, a devoted husband and father, a 29-year veteran of the United States Army, and a historian who connects people with their own stories.