A Cross-Faith Conversation
Project Genesis in Greenport Encourages New Thinking on Old Texts
All religions share a common thread of ideas about walking a moral path in the world, and when you find a group of disparate theologians in conversation, you will often find a fascinating dialogue about the parallels different religions share.
For the past four years, such a dialogue has been shared by North Fork religious educator Dr. Don Russo and Rabbi Gadi Capela of Greenport’s Congregation Tifereth Israel, who debate monthly, before a packed crowd in the auditorium at Peconic Landing, about the meaning found in books of both the New Testament and the original five books of both the Jewish and Christian theologies.
“Four years ago, we were becoming friends, and Gadi said ‘I want to learn the New Testament. Will you teach me?’” said Mr. Russo after their April discussion on the Book of Revelation. “We got into it for a couple months, and he said ‘Let’s go public.’”
The First Universalist Church of Southold offered them space for a meeting in their community room. They’d been hoping 30 people would show up, but more than 90 came.
Though the First Universalist Church burned down not long after their first session, St. Patrick’s R.C. Church across the street quickly offered them a space for their talks. John May, then the Chairman of the Board at the Peconic Landing retirement community, had attended every session, and he invited the duo to bring their talks to Peconic Landing, where they’ve been ever since.
Rabbi Capela’s journey into this discussion, dubbed Project Genesis, began seven years before he met Mr. Russo, when, while still a rabbinical student, he began a dialogue with Father Roy Tvrdik of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Manorville, where the Catholic church has held a model Passover Seder to help its congregants understand the Jewish roots of their traditions.
They spent seven years at the shrine discussing the book of Genesis, going deeper and deeper into the text, eventually naming the discussions “Project Genesis,” and creating a website, project-genesis.org, where they post videos of the discussions.
“We never rehearse. We know the boundaries of what we believe, and we go a little deeper,” said Mr. Russo.
“We’ve been able to create, for 13 years, a community of people who want to learn from each other,” said Rabbi Capela.
Their April discussion, on Revelation, was an apt one to explore the depth of their scholarship and faith. The final book of the New Testament, with its militaristic and apocalyptic imagery, bears room for ample debate.
Mr. Russo’s take is that the book is good news, a vision of salvation. In many parts of the world, he said, where people are living in poverty, Revelation is seen as good news. It was originally written, he said, as a letter to be read to seven new Christian churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the First Century.
“One dimension of how God loves his people is God acting against what harms his creation,” he said. “Evil bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”
The book, he said, refers to just 144,000 people — 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel who will be ‘sealed,’ or saved, as servants of God. This number, he said, must be a metaphor. The number 144 is 12 squared, he said, and 12 is the number of perfection.
“That’s four square blocks of Manhattan,” said Mr. Russo. “Come on. That’s all that’s gonna be saved? God is trying to protect his people on behalf of the tribes of Israel — the believing community.”
Mr. Russo said the salvation of the faithful in the Book of Revelation echoes the rescue of the Jews from slavery in Egypt found in the Book of Exodus.
“It’s about the rescue of the underdogs from slavery,” he said. “Salvation, not destruction, is the focus.”
“When I read this book, it feels like I’m reading a Jewish text,” said Rabbi Capela. “It’s so esoteric. It’s a realm where we’re all there. Our traditions all merge there.”
“How can it affect our lives today?” he asked. “I say the Messiah will come when we stop waiting for him and start a conversation here. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Levitticus 19:18. That’s the heart of the matter, which is in the middle of the Torah.”
Rabbi Capela added that the lamb to be slaughtered at Passover as part of the strictly regulated meal of the Passover Seder, is about “bringing people together,” as Christ’s role as the Lamb of God is seen by Christians. The order displayed in the Seder, as well, is a defense against evil.
“The worst punishment, in Judaism, is to be detached from your roots,” he added. “The work of the lamb is about bringing people together.”
“Politics gets its power from separating people,” he added. “Creation overcomes chaos, and evil is chaos…. That is the definition of terror, the separation of the self from the self. That’s the definition of evil.”
Mr. Russo added that the concept of “judgement,” so often used in connection with the Book of Revelation, is often seen by people as ‘punishment,’ when in fact God’s judgement is an act of protecting his creation from harm.
“There is no past with God. Everything is present. We have the responsibility to know who we are and what the boundaries are,” he said. “You and I will judge ourselves…. We are always looking for a scapegoat when it comes to judgement, but it’s only up to us.”
“Even individual kernels on a corn on the cob are attached,’ he added. “When we talk about judgement, we are looking at ourselves as we confront absolute goodness and love.”
This central idea, said both men, is embodied both in Jesus and in the Passover Lamb.
“Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God, and the decisions he made brought him to Calvary,” said Mr. Russo.
“The lamb is about bringing people together,” said Rabbi Capela. “The blood of the lamb on the doorposts in Egypt is a covenant that seals us together.”
After the talk, Mr. Russo and Rabbi Capela talked for some time with the group in attendance, many of whom had gone with Rabbi Capela on a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel earlier this year, where their guides were a priest, a rabbi and a Palestinian Christian leader, each of whom gave their perspective on the holy sites they visited.
“We’re meeting peacemakers in Israel and having an interfaith conversation,” said Rabbi Capela. “The conversation started here, and went there, where we learned with our feet.”
The group plans to return to Israel again in February of 2019.
Project Genesis meets once a month, on a Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., in the auditorium at Peconic Landing. Their next meeting is on June 24.