FRANKLIN – Rabbi Michal Woll and scholar Jon M. Sweeney are the new co-directors of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, where they will work to change how future priests are taught.
The Lux Center is a project of the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Franklin.
The married couple started Jan. 3, with an office at the seminary and a mission to teach about Judaism to priests-in-training. Woll will also continue to serve as spiritual leader for Shir Hadash, the east side Reconstructionist congregation, and Sweeney will continue to write books that appreciate and explore Catholicism.
(For more on their personal interfaith journey, click here “Book Review: ‘Mixed-Up Love.’”)
The Lux Center was founded in 2010 by Richard Lux, a decades-long professor of Biblical studies at Sacred Heart seminary. The center was named for him because he has a reputation for caring deeply about Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Lux retired as director in 2015, followed at the Lux Center by Bonnie Shafrin as director for several years, then followed by Sweeney briefly as interim director. Now, Sweeney is co-directing with Woll.
The Center is embedded in the Sacred Heart seminary, and Woll and Sweeney head down to the cafeteria for lunch, where they rub shoulders with administrators, instructors and priests-in-training.
It’s not clear whether anything like the Lux Center exists in any other seminaries. At a minimum, it’s fair to say that an institution inside a Catholic seminary, inviting in Jewish educators to teach future priests, is significantly uncommon, according to those involved.
And yet this unusual project is changing under new management.
One key change will be that Rabbi Michal Woll will guest lecture in multiple required and elective courses taken by the Catholic priests of tomorrow, bringing Jewish perspectives of history, text, and practice. Previously, the Franklin-based seminary offered a small number of elective courses on Judaism, which were taught for years by Dr. Sherry Blumberg, who is also a Lux board member.
The new approach, Woll said, will be “bringing Judaism into the curriculum, bringing a Jewish perspective into the history class, into the scripture class, into the Old Testament class, and working with the entire faculty ….”
In history, “Catholicism is developing at the same time as is Judaism,” Woll said. Her message is “that we share so much and that we need to understand more, because that’s really where the understanding comes from, is the shared roots.”
Jews and Catholics have cultural similarities, too, she said.
Defeating antisemitism with understanding
Sweeney, editor and contributor for the 2020 paperback, “Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent,” sees Lux Center work as an important hurdle to antisemitism.
“That is the core bullseye purpose of the Lux center, to impact those who are studying to become priests, so that when they go out from here to Wisconsin or beyond … they’re sensitive to the liturgy on Good Friday, which has a history of antisemitic acts (associated with it),” Sweeney said.
“This is pretty basic stuff. But it’s stuff that most who are studying in a Catholic seminary don’t get or don’t get enough of.”
While Woll can approach her seminary work as a Jew, for example explaining Jewish history or modern Jewish life, it is Sweeney, as a Catholic scholar speaking with other Catholics, who may at times be in a better position to shed light on some issues.
Sweeney noted he was soon to do a program about Ash Wednesday. The Ash Wednesday scripture can be misunderstood, and not in a good way, “if you don’t keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew talking about his fellow Jews in a synagogue,” Sweeney said. “He was basically arguing with other Jewish leaders of his time, which of course is a Jewish thing to do, right?”
Woll seeks to “try to allow Jews and Catholics to recognize each other, as siblings and as folks who are both living their valid and appropriate religious lives.” After all, much of Jesus’ key lessons come from the Torah, Woll said.
Another change in the program will be that the new co-directors would like to have the Lux Center engage more with the community. The Lux Center will co-sponsor events in the community, including both lectures and events where people are at a table together. Woll noted that Christianity can be “scary” for Jews, but the couple agree that “the relationship part is important.”
An event planned for Sunday, Feb. 19, 2 p.m., is an example of that, they said. Dr. Richard Lux is visiting Milwaukee and will be part of a program at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid.
“Interreligious dialogue is a high value,” said Rabbi Joel Alter, spiritual leader for Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. “Learning with brothers and sisters from other faith traditions teaches us to exercise great care in examining our own tradition so we may represent it faithfully – accurately and well. Further, in this polarized time, finding partners where we might expect to simply go our separate ways, or worse – be adversaries, is especially sweet. Finally, any opportunity to learn from Richard Lux is worth taking. Truly, a gentle man and a scholar.”
Sweeney made a pitch for Jewish community attendance at this event and events to come. “Please come. There’s no way we’re going to build these relationships unless we have Catholics and Jews both there together.”
It will help with education and understanding, which can go both ways. At one point, at the seminary, Woll unrolled a Torah and showed it to a group. They gathered around.
“We talked about High Holy days in the Jewish calendar, and I introduced them to Torah,” Woll said. “Most of them had not stood close to and seen a Torah before. And so I taught Torah and it was really sweet and most of the staff was there as well.”