Your support is needed to help ProgressiveChristianityorg. We need to reach our year-end fundraising goal that will determine what we can do for 2023. If you have already donated, thank you! If you have not donated yet, please do so today. There is so much more we can do and offer our readership with your support! DONATE NOW!

Many Voices, One God: The Jewish-Christian Dialogue

I’m glad to be here. I hope that someday there will also be a “Center for Progressive Judaism”. That would be nice; and then we could all get together; wouldn’t that be great?

I’m going to be talking about three things in my lecture this evening. First, I want to talk about Jewish views of Christianity, historically, but with primary consideration of the modern period. And then second, I want to talk about certain contemporary American Jewish problems – what I see as the problems in the American Jewish community because I want you to know about them. And I want you to help us with them. Then I’ll end with something about the state of Jewish-Christian dialog: how it should develop, what we need from you, and perhaps what we would like to tell you in return.

Now, let me begin by saying that it’s my argument in the book that I published, Abraham Geiger and The Jewish Jesus, which is a study of a nineteenth century Jewish theologian in Germany who was very much engaged in questions about the origins of Christianity and its setting within early Judaism. Geiger was a very distinguished, very important figure in Jewish history. He was the founder of Reformed Judaism. He also was very widely read in the Christian theology of his day, and he was widely read by Christians who didn’t like what he had to say, but who nonetheless read his work and found it sometimes difficult to refute. By the way, this includes a range from Wellhausen to Harnack , who wrote on Geiger’s work. So he was a very important figure. It is my argument in that particular book that Christianity has to be understood as having colonized Judaism on the theological level. I don’t mean that simply politically. Take the model of what it means for one country to colonize another, and realize how widespread colonization is. For example, prior to the Second World War, 86% of the land mass of the earth was colonized. How do we translate colonization to the intellectual level, or the theological level?

I would say, first of all, Christianity colonized Judaism by conquering without destroying, by ruling, by taking the indigenous resources for itself, and by controlling the economy, that is, the ability to speak about oneself, to present one’s own case. Now I can describe all of that historically in terms of the middle ages, but that is not what I want to do this evening. I want to move quickly to the modern period, and ask the question: If Judaism was colonized by Christianity – if its scriptures were taken over by another religion, which then declared that Judaism was no longer valid even in its understanding of its own scripture, if Judaism was colonized by Christianity in terms of its central religious ideas such as the messiah – how did it respond to this colonization? How did it respond to being colonized politically and economically as well, by having censorship applied to its texts -by having a society develop in which Jews could not teach and express and describe their own religion? The universities, the publications, the general means of discourse, and the definition of western civilization were entirely in Christian hands and defined by Christian terms. How did Jews respond to that? How did Jews survive as a minority religion under Christian theological colonization?

There are various techniques, which are really quite obvious. How do you respond to something like this? There is, of course, some self-denigration. One finds self-hatred among Jews. On the one hand, Jews may have contempt for Christianity and on the other hand an over-weaning respect for Christianity where it’s elevated way above Judaism. There’s jealousy. There’s rebellion. There are also efforts, at times, of assimilating Christian motifs into Judaism so that Jewish experience comes to be expressed using Christian symbols. I find that especially true in the most recent years of the twentieth century, which is, in a way, surprising to me.

Now just to cover this briefly: In the middle ages, Christianity was initially defined by Judaism as a religion of paganism, and as such, there were limits placed on Jewish dealings with Christians. Paganism meant idolatry. Christianity was considered idolatry because of the trinity and so forth, so Jews couldn’t do business with Christians on any level. This came to be redefined in the fourteenth century primarily for social and economic reasons, but the decision itself shows the ambivalence in the Jewish mind. The decision was like this: the idolaters who are in our midst are not idolaters. Well, are they or aren’t they? So the ambivalence was retained, even as it was then made permissible for Jews to do business with Christians.

In the middle ages, there was a series of disputations that took place, formal disputations between Jews and Christians. These had to do with doctrinal issues. The figure of Jesus, himself, was not a very important topic for Jewish thinkers in the middle ages. In general, we could say that there were two basic tendencies when Jesus even came up. One was to declare that Jesus himself was a pious Jew. And the other was to declare that Jesus was a complete fraud. There is an interesting and important text for understanding the Jewish imagination. It’s called the Toldot Yeshua, The Life Of Jesus. It circulated in a variety of revisions, beginning probably around the sixth or seventh century, in Hebrew and in Aramaic. It tells you something about the Jewish popular imagination, the imagination of the uneducated, not the philosophers. Basically the argument of the Toldot Yeshua is that Jesus was a fraud. He didn’t actually perform miracles. He learned various healing techniques from the Egyptians, who were famous in antiquity for knowing magic. Then he used these secret healing techniques, and people thought they were miracles.

The story goes on and says that he wasn’t actually crucified. He was taken down from the cross and continued to live and actually posed somewhat of a threat to the Jewish community. He was confusing people, and there were uneducated Jews who became his followers. So the rabbis got together and decided that they had to separate the followers of Jesus from the Jewish community. They infiltrated the movement and encouraged the early Jesus movement to become involved in proselytizing in the Greco-Roman world in order to move them away from the Jewish community. It’s a very interesting story. I’ve only given you a little taste of it, but it gives you a sense that these miracles did happen. They didn’t happen for miraculous reasons, but they did happen. And the reason there is Christianity is thanks to Judaism. Thanks to the rabbis. They created it by encouraging the early Christians to move into the Greco-Roman world. So, in a sense, the Jews are responsible for the production of Christianity. It was in order to save our Jewish people from going down the wrong path that the rabbis created this religion. It’s a very interesting text, and I think it deserves greater analysis. It’s not very well known now, but in the Middle Ages it was widely known among Jews.

In the modern period, the fascination with Jesus on the part of Jewish thinkers is remarkable. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Jews are writing about Jesus constantly. It’s an interesting question why. I’m not sure we can come up with a simple explanation, but what do we see? Primarily, the motif is that Jesus was a pious Jew who taught Judaism, who wanted Jews to become better Jews, and it was Paul who took the message out to the Greco-Roman world and mixed up Jewish monotheism with all kinds of pagan ideas. That’s why you have all these doctrines of virgin birth and incarnation that have no background in Judaism itself. What’s implied by this? This is the argument, by the way, of Abraham Geiger. What’s implied here? What’s implied is that Jesus belongs to Judaism, not to Christianity. Jesus was a Jew. Christianity is a mistake. It’s a misunderstanding. They thought that Jesus was teaching another religion. No, he wasn’t. He was teaching Judaism.

Now why is this idea pungent in the nineteenth century? Because we have the rise of liberal Protestantism starting in the late eighteenth century, if not earlier, that argues what Christians want is to follow the faith of Jesus. Liberal Protestants do not want the religion about Jesus, with all the dogma. I’m talking now about Germany. A good liberal Protestant wants the faith of Jesus. These Jewish thinkers, such as Geiger, picked up on this. You want the faith of Jesus? What’s the faith of Jesus? It’s Judaism. Jesus never said he was a Christian. It’s Judaism. And what kind of a Judaism was it? It was the faith of the Pharisees, the Judaism of the Pharisees, who were, according to the nineteenth century, the liberalizers of the Jewish tradition. The liberalizers.

This, of course, is a radical thing to say. To call Jesus a Pharisee in nineteenth century Germany was scandalous. But if you want to follow the faith of Jesus, you have to be Jewish, and you should be a Pharisaic Jew, not one of the Sadducees or the Essenes. Where do you find Pharisaic Judaism? It’s the liberalizing tendency of the rabbis that was lost in the middle ages, Geiger goes on to say. It was lost in the middle ages because Christian persecution made Jews so narrow-minded and legalistic. Now comes Reformed Judaism, the liberal Judaism of the nineteenth century, and it is restoring the initial liberalizing tendency of rabbinical Judaism begin with the Pharisees. So if Christians want to find the faith of Jesus, namely Pharisaic Judaism, where are you going to find it? Reformed Judaism. If you want to follow Jesus, become a Reformed Jew.

Now, this was a problematic argument because liberal Protestants wanted the historical figure of Jesus. What’s the historical figure of Jesus? It’s a Jew. Right? He’s Jewish. If he is Jewish, and if his faith is Pharisaic Judaism, and if there is Reformed Judaism claiming to be Pharisaic Judaism, it makes them very nervous. Where are the boundaries? What identity is left for a Christian if Jesus is simply a Jew preaching Judaism? What’s the point of Christianity if you don’t want the dogma, and you don’t want all of that Catholic stuff? If you want to get back to the faith of Jesus, what are you going to do? It’s a problem.

Of course no liberal protestant theologian could go along with the Jewish argument that the faith of Jesus was Judaism that you could find today in the Reformed Jewish community. They wouldn’t accept that. But the problem of boundaries won’t go away. What are the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity? What’s the difference? What makes Jesus different from Judaism? If he’s not different, then why have his faith and not the faith of any number of rabbis who lived in the first century and who taught ideas similar to those you find in the Gospels? What’s the Christian identity?

This was a problem. In my forthcoming book, which is about the Arian Jesus, I argue that protestant theologians toward the end of the nineteenth century turned to racial theory to argue that the difference of Jesus lies not in his religious ideas – because you can find those also in Jewish teaching – but rather in his racial difference from Judaism. Religiously his faith may have been Judaism, but racially he was not a Jew. This argument, I find, began long before Hitler came to power. Of course it has a particular significance after 1933. There was an effort on the part of Protestants in Germany to de-Judaize Christianity entirely, and that’s what I’m writing about in this book. I’m simply trying to point out to you that once Protestants in Germany rejected aspects of high Christology and wanted a historical figure of Jesus and his faith, the question of the distinction between Jesus and Judaism came to the forefront and became a very tense question, highly problematic. The result of trying to answer that problem was that many liberal Protestants developed a negation and a denigration of Judaism in order to make Jesus somehow different, to highlight him against the background of first century Judaism. There is, in many ways, a stronger tendency to denigrate Judaism in liberal protestant theology than in the more conservative protestant theology that is unconcerned with the historical Jesus and more concerned with high Christology.

Now the Jewish response to all this is a rebellion on the part of Jewish thinkers against the colonization of Judaism by Christianity; a rebellion that begins in the second half of the nineteenth century and continues into the twentieth century. I find it not only among figures such as Geiger and the German Jewish community, but also in Eastern Europe. I’ll just give you some sense of what goes on.

We find an increasing tendency on the part of Jews to identify Jewish experience using Christian symbols. So, for instance, there is a short story by a famous Yiddish writer by the name of Sholem Asch. It’s called, “In a Carnival Night”, written in 1909. It describes a Papal procession in sixteenth century Rome that includes the beating of eight Jews. Then Jesus, in the story, climbs down from the cross at St. Peter’s Cathedral to become one of the martyrs, one of the Jews being beaten. The Virgin Mary joins Mother Rachel in sewing the shrouds for those killed. Jesus has remembered his Jewish roots. In other words, Jesus has joined the Jews, even if Christians have forgotten their Jewish roots. A 1920 Yiddish poem, Golgotha, which was printed in the shape of a cross, was written by a very distinguished poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg. He writes, “You’ve become inanimate, brother Jesus. For two thousand years you’ve been tranquil on the cross. All around you the world expires. Damn it! You’ve forgotten everything! Your petrified brain can’t grasp a star of David at your heart, over the star, hands in a priestly blessing. I swear by the sun, the worship of those millions is a lie. Beyth lechem (Bethlehem) is a Jewish town. Ben Yosef (son of Joseph) is a Jewish son.”

It is Jesus on the cross who comes to serve as the representative figure, especially in East European Jewish life, to express the Jewish historical condition. I dream of the Jews hanging on crosses, Uri Zvi Greenberg wrote in 1923. Jesus is the symbol for catastrophe for the Russian pogroms, and later, for the Holocaust. But what’s interesting here is that Jesus is identified as a Jewish victim and also as a Christian perpetrator.

Marc Chagall, as you may know, frequently painted crucifixion scenes. His most famous one is called, “White Crucifixion”, which was painted in 1938. It uses the motif of Jesus on the cross as an icon of Jewish catastrophe. In the painting, Jesus is nailed to the cross wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl. All around him there are small figures and scenes of destruction. For instance, Communist revolutionaries are attacking Jews. A synagogue is burning. Jews flee by foot and boat. There’s a Torah scroll in flames. There’s an old Jew weeping. A mother is clutching her baby. In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion not only does not bring an end to the suffering, but is responsible for generating it. Chagall indicates that in his notes on the painting. There is a powerless son and an absent father God. In 1944, Chagall painted “The Crucified”, which depicts a village with fully clothed Jews hanging from a series of crosses. The Holocaust is the Crucifixion, and the Crucifixion is a mass murder.

Chagall’s depiction differs in important ways from post-Holocaust Jewish writing. For example, there is the claim by Steven Katz, among others, that the Holocaust is a unique event in world history. It is unique in the sense of six million Jews versus the one Jew; unique in the sense of this one-time event that supercedes the Crucifixion. Elie Wiesel has a famous book called, Night. In that book there is a scene at Auschwitz of three Jews hanging on the gallows. In the middle is a young child who is so light that his neck doesn’t break, and so he dies very slowly in agony. There at that scene with everyone gathered, Wiesel writes, “There is an anonymous voice that asks, ‘Where is God now?’ And another voice answers, ‘Where is he? He is here hanging on this gallows.'”

Now what I see here in the ways in which Christianity is used by Jews to talk about the Holocaust is a kind of Christ envy. The suffering of the Jews is explained by appeal to Christianity and in some way claiming supercession. The Jews are the greatest victims and Jesus is a poor imitation. It’s neither Jesus nor Christianity that is the crucifier in Wiesel’s work, in contrast to Chagall. Instead Wiesel writes, “That day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary I felt very strong. I was the accuser and God the accused.” So what we see here in Night is that Judaism is crucified by the Jew. The observation is confirmed by the book’s preface, which was written by the French Catholic, Francois Mauriac, who states in his preface that what was, “worst of all about the death of six million Jews was the death of God in the soul of a child.” Moreau says that his own faith is not disturbed, that “the stumbling block of Wiesel’s faith was the cornerstone of mine.” That I find extraordinarily vulgar: that the worst thing about the death of six million Jews is the death of God in the soul of a child. No, that’s not true. At any rate, in Night, Wiesel has redirected his complaints against the Jewish God, while the Christian God remains unscathed.

The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has argued that anti-Semitism functions by fantasizing the Jew as the barrier to ultimate satisfaction. He writes, “Society doesn’t exist, and the Jew is its symptom.” That is, there are fantasies about what a perfect world would be like, and the barrier to it is the Jew, whether it’s on the social level or on the theological level. The more Jews dressed Jesus as a rabbi, the more liberal protestant theologians intensified their negative depiction of Judaism, especially of the first century Pharisees, and insisted upon the opposition between Jesus and Judaism. Protestant theologians from Luther to Schleiermacher and beyond speak about the death of Judaism. The death of Judaism. Why? Perhaps because it would overcome so many of the inconsistencies in their own religious claims or at least force us to look away from what they’re saying about Christianity and worry instead about the death of Judaism.

One of the questions is: why then do Jews write so much about Christianity and about Jesus in particular? In part this has to do with reversing the position of the observer. That is, in a colonized situation, it’s turning the tables. In a colonized situation, it’s the colonizer who looks at the colonized and evaluates and criticizes, and says, “This is the inferior one.” But here we see the tables are turned. So instead of Christians writing about Judaism, we have Jews writing about Christianity. The power of relations between the viewer and the viewed are reversed, transforming Christianity into simply one aspect of the story of Judaism, a branch that went off in that direction.

Geiger and other Jewish scholars, in telling the story of Jesus, capture the power of the story for themselves, for Judaism, and attempt to destabilize Christianity, to pull the rug from under its feet in some way. There is a kind of mimicry. Now what’s the problem here? On the one hand, it’s a rebellion. Turn the tables. Let the colonized look at the colonizer. On the other hand, the problem can be one of counter-dependence. That is, after a while Jews come to depend on Christianity in some way to express their Judaism. Sometimes when the colonized looks at the colonizer, there is yet another relationship of dependence that’s formed. The peril is the dissolution of Judaism into Christian symbols. It’s not only Christians who don’t know where to draw the line of distinction, but Jews as well. The result is a modern tradition in which Jewish identity is read through Christian symbols and in some cases is rendered dependent upon them. Jesus still remains the central point of reference for Jews, even about the Holocaust. Why? What for?

Now, I’m going to turn with those questions to some contemporary issues that are related to these problems of Jewish dependence on Christianity, even as Judaism is undergoing a kind of rebellion against the colonizer. How does Judaism maintain itself as a minority religion in a non-Jewish world? There are three settings: the Catholic, the Muslim, the Protestant. Throughout the course of history, most Jews, numerically speaking, lived under Muslim rule. Yet, what’s interesting is that Jews never developed the kind of theological fascination with Islam that they developed with Christianity. There is a fascination with Christianity. You see it all over. Just as an example, I’m sure everybody knows that on the anniversary of the death of someone in your family, a Jew lights a candle. It’s called a Yarhzeit candle. This was developed in the thirteenth century by Jews living in Spain under Catholic influence. I can go on like this. The figure of the Sheckinah, the feminine aspect of God that’s so prominent in Jewish mysticism, was taken over from Mary, not simply as an idea but in many of the specific descriptions. There is a fascination with Christianity.

Catholics and Jews seem to have an affinity. They have a sense of mutuality, of similar problems, of law, authority, ritual, tradition. It’s the Protestant-Jewish relationship that’s been the most fraught – not only before the Second World War, not only during the Second World War, but even since the Second World War. As evidence, I would indicate the state of New Testament scholarship post-World War II, and the way it represents Judaism, but I’ll leave that aside as a footnote.

Today, the situation of Jews in the United States is characterized by one important distinction from all previous periods of Jewish history: there no longer exists a Jewish language that all Jews know. There once was. Jews knew Hebrew, first of all. They said prayers in Hebrew, and if they didn’t speak Hebrew, they had another Jewish vernacular language that they spoke. At the basic minimum, they all could read Hebrew prayers, but that’s lost. That’s over. A few Jews today in America know Hebrew, but it’s a tiny minority. There used to be Yiddish. There used to be Ladino, even Aramaic once upon a time.

When Jews first started arriving in the United States in large numbers in the middle of the nineteenth century, they saw an equivalence for Judaism with Christianity. American democratic ideals, it was proclaimed over and over again, came from the Hebrew Bible, so we Jews should feel proud. We gave America its democratic notions. After the Second World War, Jewish thinkers and Jews in America turned away from that. It was more a feeling of not caring so much about an equivalence with Christianity. The sense about America was more a sense that America had lost itself, had betrayed itself, needed to be rescued from itself. Maybe the sense was that Judaism had something to offer America, to rescue it, to rescue itself from itself and to rescue the rest of the world from American power.

After the Second World War, there was also a great, deep feeling of loss of Jewish identity on the part of American Jews. Around the 1960’s and 70’s there was a turn back to Europe, especially to Eastern Europe, to find a model of Jewishness and Judaism that Jews in America could somehow take over. On the most banal level it was “Fiddler on The Roof”, on a more sophisticated level, the figure of Shlomo Carlebach, who inspired so many college students, and the work of Chabad Lubavitch. There was a turning to orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy, even in the Reform movement, a turning back to more traditional music that was derived from Eastern Europe. There was a rejection of some forms of Jewish worship that had developed in Western Europe and in the United States, such as choirs and organs. The problem is, when you turn to Eastern Europe after World War II for a model of Jewishness, of course, it’s gone. It was destroyed. There was nothing left. So how can you model yourself on something that doesn’t exist? Of course you can do it if you have an imagination and if you have a sense of nostalgia, but what happens is that it has an artificial quality. There’s a sense of in-authenticity, of imitating something, of being Jewish as a kind of costume party. It’s not authentic. You’re imitating something from another world that doesn’t exist, that developed one hundred years ago, that you never knew first-hand. What does that mean? It was a way of putting on Jewishness, a kind of Jew-face.

That artificiality leaves a hole for many Jews. What does it mean to be Jewish in America? The forms of Jewishness are not intrinsic to America. They didn’t develop here. They’re taken over from somewhere else that doesn’t exist. In addition to that, another problem: nowadays, everybody has a Jewish relative. Everybody seems kind of Jewish somehow. I meet a lot of people. The other day, one of my colleagues in the philosophy department told me that her professor in graduate school, whom I had met, was Jewish. I didn’t know that she was Jewish. She didn’t seem Jewish, but my colleague who is not Jewish seemed very Jewish. You have that feeling sometimes. People who aren’t Jewish seem really Jewish, and the Jews somehow have lost it. What does that mean? I don’t know.

Nowadays, families celebrate both Christmas and Passover. And that’s just now. Think of what its going to be in the next generation, and the generation after that. There are no clear boundaries. What’s the difference? What’s conversion? Is there such a thing as conversion? Conversion was a new concept in antiquity. It’s a mere formality nowadays. How do you become Jewish? Jewishness is a kind of attitude. It’s a way of being in the world. It’s a kind of humor. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of talking. It’s certain politics. It’s a certain inflection in the voice. Somehow it’s Brooklyn. It’s Seinfeld. What is Judaism? Jews don’t even know anymore.

What about differences? We recognize each other. We should recognize each other not only in our sameness – what we have in common as Jews and Christians – but also in some level of difference. Ask a Jew, “What’s the difference between your Judaism and so-and-so’s Christianity?” It’s a very difficult question for them to answer. They really have no idea. “What do you believe?” They don’t know what they believe. “What are Jewish beliefs? Is there anything distinctive about them? One thing that’s distinctive? And I don’t mean observing Passover. I mean in terms of an idea, a belief. What do you stand for?” The inability to answer is not unusual. This, in a way, was to be expected.

It goes back, to a great extent, to Moses Mendelssohn, the great eighteenth century Jewish philosopher who argued that in Judaism there are no dogmas, just actions, rituals, things that you do. There are no beliefs that are prescribed. Judaism is unlike Christianity, he argued, where there are certain things that you have to believe, and you better believe them or you’re no longer a Christian. That’s why, he said, Jews are better suited to the modern world than Christians. In the modern world you’re supposed to have free thought, free ideas. Think freely. Be open-minded. Jews can think anything they want, whereas Christians cannot.

Part of this again is the revolt of the colonized. Our religion is superior, but it’s a problem. It set a pattern for Jews. The thinking is that we all have the same beliefs, certainly moral beliefs. We just differ in our practices. We have Passover; they have Christmas. That’s it. What’s left? What do Jews believe these days? It’s not clear what we believe and what we should believe. This is a big problem for American Jews today. By the way, I’m giving you only negative things, partly because of my personality and partly because I’m Jewish.

To my mind, the biggest problem facing Jews today is not secularism. It’s religious fanaticism, and we have failed to address that issue in the Jewish community. We tend to look at movements such as Lubavitch or of the ultra-orthodox as sweet, as doing a nice job, providing some Friday night Sabbath dinners for college students, and preserving some tradition when the rest of us really don’t want to. At least they’re keeping it going, so we’ll write them a check and keep them going in that way. It’s almost like having a little lap-dog – Lubavitch, the ultra-orthodox – and it’s cute, a little teacup poodle, but what happens when they gain power and the teacup poodle is a pit bull? We have failed to address that issue.

We don’t have a dialog with members of our own religion who are fundamentalists. It’s easier for liberal Jews and liberal Protestants to talk than for liberal Jews and right-wing Jews. We can’t talk. We can’t talk because, for example, the right-wing Jews won’t come on a panel with a woman, and they won’t address an audience where men and women are sitting together. How do you begin to have a conversation?

On the other hand, I have to say something else. Beware, because it turns out that some groups within the ultra-orthodox community, such as the movement known as Shass in Israel, may be more liberal in certain respects than some that they call modern orthodox as opposed to ultra-orthodox. They may be more liberal than some ultra-orthodox Jews. For example, I find utterly repugnant a statement by Ruth Wise, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University: “I would sooner pray among Jews who did not love God than I would among Jews who did not love Israel.” To love Israel, I hope you understand means to support AIPAC (American-Israel Political Action Committee), to take a right-wing position.

It’s very difficult for Jews to discuss this with Christians. On the one hand, there’s a lack of information in the United States about Middle East politics. There’s a tendency that we all have, for some reason, to reduce Middle East politics to a kind of simple-minded morality play, where there’s a good guy and a bad guy. We all know that it’s far more complex than that. There is good and evil in both sides. On the other hand, I must come to you with the plea that Jews are too narrow and too right wing, and we have to do something about it. You have to support the Jews who are trying to do something about it.

Why is it, when Jewish groups 0f adults or young people go on pilgrimages to Israel, they meet Jews, and they never meet Palestinians? Why is it when Christian groups go, they meet Jews and Palestinians? How can we begin to make peace with that kind of a situation? “Operation Birthright”, which is taking Jewish college students on free trips to Israel, never has them meet the Palestinians.

Now, what about Israel? Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. The Berlin Wall fell down. Those are great events that we’ve seen. We never expected them. There are no symbolic gestures like that in the Middle East. There are no heroes. There is no moral leadership. There is no one who inspires the heart. There is no simple situation. It is complicated. It is difficult. We can address the injustices one by one, but it’s very hard to look at the larger question of justice. You must know that there are many Jewish groups and many Jewish organizations who are working hard to change the situation. You must give us your support and strength.

Finally, what do Jews want from Christianity? Of course we want a repudiation of Christian anti-Judaism as it exists in theological literature. We want Christians to affirm Christ without negating Judaism. We want an end to what Mark Ellis has called, “The Dialog Deal”, where it’s okay for Jews and Christians to have dialog, but only if Israel is not criticized. That’s the standard point of the Jewish side. We want you to be careful with your biblical scholarship, which historically has been very biased. It’s been very Lutheran. It’s been very Gospel vs. Law. We want you to see something positive in the concept of a mitzvah. It’s not law; it’s mitzvah. I remember when I first read Bultman as a freshman in college, how appalled I was. We want you to treasure the Hebrew Bible as much as the New Testament. They’re both in your scripture, despite the efforts of certain Protestants in Nazi Germany, who eliminated the Hebrew Bible from the Christian scripture. It’s painful to me when I go into a hotel and see the Gideon Bible. It’s only the New Testament. Why? Be faithful to your roots in Judaism. Remember that Jesus treasured Judaism. At the same time, you know there are some churches that celebrate the Passover Seder. It’s fine, but don’t do it just for ecumenical reasons. Do it for your adherence to the Bible.

The reasons for the split between Judaism and Christianity are complex. They’re not entirely clear. You can’t simply blame Judaism for being so degenerate that God had to send Jesus to Palestine. Look at the complexities of the situation, of Roman rule, of political and social conditions. Most important, there should be no efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. There must be a realization, fundamentally, that without Judaism there would be no Christianity. If Judaism ceased to exist, Christianity would be morally bankrupt and couldn’t hold up its head in the world. At that point, it would be finished. Theologically, how can you speak of the God of Israel without Judaism? So the purpose of interreligious cooperation is not refutation but helping one another share insight and learning. What should Christians demand of Jews? First of all, there are all too many Jews who look at a cross and see a swastika. I mean this metaphorically. They don’t understand the difference. Hitler is a Catholic. Nazism is a Christian movement. That’s it. Jews need to distinguish between Christian anti-Judaism and Nazi genocide. I’m not saying that modern anti-Semitism had nothing to do with Christian anti-Judaism. That would be ridiculous. Of course it does. But there are also distinctions that have to be made, and Christians should demand of Jews the respect for Christianity that it deserves, and the distinction that’s required.

Christians should demand that Jews consider what responsibility we have as the mother of Christianity for the offspring. If there are things in Christianity that Jews don’t like, perhaps Jews and Judaism have something to do with it. Think about it, Jews. What failure in the spiritual climate of first century Judaism took place that contributed to the birth of Christianity? Can Jews ask themselves what was going on in their own religious community? There is mutual indebtedness.

Christians should ask Jews to remember that the church preserved the Septuagint, the works of Philo and Josephus, the apocrypha, and the pseudepigrapha. Modern scholarship on Hellenistic Judaism comes from Christians. The techniques of biblical scholarship come from Christians. If liberal protestant Christians define themselves theologically, as many nowadays do, as a midrash on Judaism – a midrash on the divine revelation to Abraham — can Jews accept that formulation? While Judaism is generally tolerant of other religions, will it tolerate Christianity grafting itself onto its tree? What happens to the tree in such circumstances? Does it get whittled away? Does it get deformed? We need to work together on this problem. We need common projects, constructive work that helps both of us. We need a faith encounter. We need to experience the other person as someone reflecting divine presence. That divine presence doesn’t go away just because the other person is of a different faith.

We should meet on the level that includes a little fear and trembling and not just confrontation and refutation and disputation. Jews need to acknowledge the religious validity of Christianity; its role in the divine plan for redemption, a positive role that’s part of the Jewish understanding of redemption. Remember that no word is God’s last word and no word is God’s ultimate word. In Exodus the people say to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear. Let not God speak to us lest we die.” The word is mediated and the word is not ultimate. That’s true for Jews and for Christians.

There should be reverence and gratitude for Christianity, and you Christians should help make us better Jews. You should force us to consider our theological tenets. What do we believe as Jews? Make us think about it. Too many Jews say there is no such thing as Jewish theology. Absurd. Encourage us to overcome the embarrassment that a lot of Jews feel over public expressions of religiosity.

When I lived for three years in Dallas, I often saw in restaurants Christians praying at the table before they ate. I thought, if only I could bring all of those sophisticated, assimilated, New York Jews down to Dallas to see this, they wouldn’t feel embarrassment. It would help them so much. Make us value our observance of Jewish Law and our sense of community as Jews. Make us realize how important it is, not only for ourselves but for the world, that there is such a thing as Jewish Law, and that it’s alive and observed, observed in a beautiful way, an inspiring way. Tell us that it means something to you too.

Finally, help us find the modern language to express our faith. I went to a discussion at a synagogue with a rabbi. A woman said, “Rabbi, I work at a place with many evangelical Christians who speak often about God, and they ask me, ‘What do you believe about God?’ Rabbi, I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the language.” Do you know what the Rabbi said to her? He said, “For seven years I went to rabbinical school, and we never once talked about God. I don’t know either.”

You have something important to give us. A friend of mine who is a rabbi was working as a chaplain in a hospital. She had a very difficult and painful case, someone’s death. She was back in her office, and she was very upset. The protestant chaplain said to her, “And where is God’s grace for you?” She said, “I was so overwhelmed at that moment. That was just what I needed to hear, but I didn’t have the Jewish language to say it. She gave it to me. She gave me the words. Grace is chesed.” What’s the problem? We’ve lost our language. And you Christians can give it back to us.

Resource Types: Articles.

Review & Commentary