The Hebrew Union College (HUC) community expresses profound sorrow at the passing of Dr. Michael Cook on March 30, 2021, at the age of 79. Associated with HUC for 45 years, first as a rabbinical and Ph.D. student, and thereafter as a beloved member of the faculty, he served as the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at the Cincinnati campus until his retirement on July 1, 2019.
Dr. Cook’s first encounter with his future academic field was during a freshman course on medieval Church art in Europe at Haverford College when he chanced upon a sculpture of a blindfolded woman oddly captioned Synagoga (“Synagogue”) and sought out dozens of other such examples, most often found outside or within churches where the blindfolds suggested Judaism’s opaqueness to the truths of Christianity. This image was often paired with the female Ecclesia (“Church”) in depictions of Jesus on the cross, with the favored Ecclesia on his right, holding the chalice catching Jesus’s blood, and Synagoga on his left (“sinister” in Latin). This launched an academic specialization in New Testament, a rarity for Jews, for Dr. Cook, whose mission was to empower Jews with a mastery of this text that was unfamiliar to most of them.
Following his rabbinical ordination at HUC in New York in 1970, he entered the Ph.D. program at HUC in Cincinnati to study Intertestamental Literature with a concentration in New Testament with Dr. Samuel Sandmel. Years later, Dr. Sandmel encouraged him to become his successor and he remained at the HUC, becoming the only American rabbi with a full-professorial chair in New Testament. He was pleased that upon his retirement, he was passing this mantle of scholarship onto Dr. Josh Garroway, his beloved student, mentee, successor, and friend, who now bears the Bronstein Professorship at the Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.
Dr. Cook’s prolific career brought forth publications, including one that is especially important for both scholars and laity, entitled “Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.” He keynoted 215 Institute for Christian Clergy conferences in roughly 40 states, and delivered almost 250 academic papers at universities, seminaries, conferences, and art museums, in addition to several hundred Scholar-in-Residence presentations at North American synagogues and in Europe. He facilitated countless Rabbinic kallot for the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ’s) national and regional biennials and Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) conferences.
His books and other publications covered evolving Jewish views of Jesus and Paul and studies on various Gospels, as well as a broad spectrum of specialized subjects, including the history of antisemitism, the actual origin of Jesus’ Sanhedrin trial tradition, the role of Passover in the Gospels and modern Christianity, images of Judaism in Christian art, modern millennialism and its misinterpreted Biblical bases, rabbis as interfaith leaders, and modern lay Jewish study of the Gospels.
When asked to describe his most meaningful experiences as a teacher and mentor to his students as part of the HUC campus community, Dr. Cook replied, “Having taught the New Testament on a graduate school and rabbinical seminary level for several decades, I realize that, by now, more than a thousand of my students have become educators, communal service leaders, and camp directors who are active in North America and abroad. From them continue to come testimonials as to how indispensable training in New Testament dynamics has been, enhancing the wellbeing of their constituents. Our graduates are better able to guide their constituents to live as Jews in a Christian environment, navigating through challenging issues such as intermarriage, blended families, Jews-by-Choice, ministerial associations, interfaith seders, pulpit exchanges, adjunct professorships at Christian colleges and seminaries, Jewish college-student identity, Hillel Directorships, military and hospital chaplaincies, antisemitism, missionizing, millennialism, Christian Zionism, interfaith debates over Israel advocacy, etc.”
Dr. Cook credited the countless alumni for their campaign to institute HUC’s Cincinnati campus as the first rabbinical seminary in history to make substantive training in the New Testament’s textual and technical dynamics (Gospel Dynamics) a requirement for ordination.
Dr. Cook had a powerful impact on HUC, the Reform Movement, and the Jewish and larger world. He explained that his teaching career “coincided with a time in which navigating Christian America had become increasingly difficult for Jews due to the burgeoning of assimilation, intermarriage, blended families, and a declining Jewish birthrate. Public schools were being pressed to teach courses in ‘scientific creationism’ and the ‘New Testament as history.’ Millennialist and end times scenarios, especially at the approach of the year 2000, were spotlighting Jews as the gauge for missionary encroachment. Crises in the Middle East spawned Christian reactions so powerful and orientations so conflicting as to confound and divide the American Jewish community. This time also saw a corresponding upsurge in hours that Jewish professionals (rabbis cantors, educators) must devote to counseling the intermarried; teaching conversion courses; interacting with Christian clergy; speaking in churches and sectarian colleges; and generally guiding Jewish adults and children through life in a predominantly Christian culture.”
He said that the best perspective from which to gauge the impact of such change is in terms of its cumulative effect. Speaking of the Cincinnati campus alone, he estimated over the past 55 years that HUC had secured job placements continent-wide for twenty to fifty graduates annually who, among their wider rabbinical training, are also prepared in New Testament study because they had taken Dr. Sandmel’s and his required course, various electives, or both. These graduates were now, in turn, capable of teaching adult education courses in their own synagogues on New Testament topics that bear on Jewish concerns. For alumni, and also students in their pulpits that are often in remote communities, the enthusiastic response of their laypeople affirms that learning Gospel Dynamics does enhance their wellbeing in their Christian environment. Clearly, this kind of learning empowers.
Summing up decades of devotion to his students, scholarship, and making a difference in the world, Dr. Cook stated, “It is my passionate hope that my career and my many students have had a powerful impact in allowing Jews to enhance their wellbeing simply by helping Christians realize that—far from being ‘blind’—Jews have intelligible as well as intelligent reasons for processing the New Testament in their own way.”
HUC-JIR and American Jewry are indebted to Michael Cook for his decades of guiding students and teaching congregations. His legacy of scholarship, advocacy, and mentorship will endure as a source of inspiration.
We express our heartfelt condolences to his beloved wife Rabbi Judy Chessin, their children David (Helen) Cook, Ben (Iris Rosenstein) Cook, Maia Cook (Ted Crosson), Brett (Liora) Chessin, and Chad Chessin, his brother Joel (Chris) Cook, and grandchildren Sage, Isaac, Clara, Jesse Cook, and Parker Chessin. May they find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
The family will hold private graveside services. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to HUC-JIR or Temple Beth Or in Dayton, OH.