Earlier this month a collection of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis published a manifesto of sorts “toward a partnership between Jews and Christians,” as the document’s subtitle states, on the website of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. In doing so they were, they say, “accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters.”
Now I’m all in favor increased mutual understanding, and indeed of partnership toward shared goals, such as peace. But I found the document disheartening, and in one place misleading. I thought I would discuss it here, and through it, how Christians might best serve their Jewish neighbors in Christ-like love.
There is certainly a long history of hostility between Jews and Christians, with neither community doing a very good job, in general, of fulfilling Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). While in the earliest decades of Christianity, the Jewish leaders of Palestine had the upper hand over “the Way,” by the fourth century that dynamic had reversed in most places, with the result that when hostility has erupted into violence, it has been the Jewish population which has tended to suffer more. What Jews call the Shoah and gentiles the Holocaust is the most extreme form of this violence and suffering, and we all need to be vigilant against the kind of thinking that justifies such mass-murder. To the degree that a Christian tradition of antisemitism developed in western Europe (and uniquely there, as Mark Cohen has argued, since in the Middle East Christians and Muslims were rather more concerned with arguing against each other than with arguing against Jews), we Christians of western European extraction must repent of the irrationality of blaming contemporary Jews with the sins of their ancestors dozens of generations back. Since Jesus is God, killing him is deicide, but those guilty of that crime died over nineteen centuries ago. Jews today are just as responsible for Christ’s death on the cross as I am, and in the same way: all have sinned, and Christ died for the sins of the world.
Yet it’s in the document’s Article 2 that I start to cringe. I have no trouble with the assertion that the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites was eternal, but I believe that every variety of Judaism which we know today has rejected that covenant. I am afraid I do not see a unique relationship between Christians and Jews, compared to other groups that reject Jesus as the Christ. Just as it is irrational to blame Jewish people today for the crimes of their ancestors, it is equally irrational to credit Jewish people today with being “our elder brothers” or “our fathers in faith,” as this statement of the Orthodox rabbis quotes two recent popes. At best, Jewish people today are very distant cousins; there have been a lot of generations since then, and even Jewish historians speak of how the “Rabbinic revolution” changed Judaism fundamentally since Christianity and Judaism diverged. To the degree that, as the document celebrates, “the official teachings of the Catholic Church about Judaism have changed fundamentally and irrevocably,” not only the irrationally negative doctrines have changed, but also an honest appraisal of Judaism from a Christian theological perspective centered on the person of Jesus.
It is the document’s third, and longest, article which I find most distressing however. It begins by citing two twelfth-century Jewish thinkers as predecessors for these rabbis’ notion that Christianity is God’s gift for the gentiles. I looked up the two passages cited, and neither says anything like that. Maimonides did say that Jesus was the fulfillment of a prophecy of Daniel, namely “The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble” (evidently a citation of Daniel 11:14). That seems to say that Maimonides considered Jesus to be someone not sent by God, rather instead a commoner who put himself forward and failed. Maimonides continued in the passage cited by the Orthodox rabbis (which I found on an Orthodox website in English and Hebrew):
Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity? All the prophets spoke of Mashiach as the redeemer of Israel and their savior who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their observance of the mitzvot. In contrast, Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.
וכי יש מכשול גדול מזה שכל הנביאים דברו שמשיח גואל ישראל ומושיעם ומקבץ נדחיהם ומחזק מצוותן וזה גרם לאבד ישראל בחרב ולפזר שאריתם ולהשפילם ולהחליף התורה ולהטעות רוב העולם לעבוד אלוה מבלעדי ה’.
In other words, for Maimonides, Christianity is idolatry and error, despite what today’s Orthodox rabbis claim. By contrast, Maimonides believed it was allowed for Jews to pray in mosques and even outwardly convert to Islam, because in his view it did not involve idolatry. These rabbis also cited Yehudah Halevi’s Kuzari, which says nearly nothing about Christianity. The passage cited by the rabbis does not say that Christianity was “neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations,” as the recent document asserts. Instead, it is a passage placed in the mouth of the Khazar ruler, not the rabbi who represents the author’s mouthpiece, and it merely observes that lowliness is close to godliness, as even Christians and Muslims both revere the early people of their religion who suffered for their faith (the apostles and martyrs for Christians, the muhajirun for Muslims) more than the rich and powerful (4:22 in English, and the Judeo-Arabic original). This is an interesting observation, but hardly a positive evaluation of the religion as a whole by the author, whose views are not represented by the Khazar khagan. Earlier (1:5 in English and Judeo-Arabic) the same speaker had asserted that most of Christianity was illogical, while the fictional rabbi who represents the author’s views lumps the followers of Jesus in with the Sadducees and Karaites whom the author rejects as heretics (3:65 in English and Judeo-Arabic). No “gift to the nations,” Christianity for Yehudah Halevi was illogical and sectarian, while for Maimonides it was error and idolatry. I have not bothered to verify the rest of the citations in the document. While I applaud the Orthodox rabbis’ view that Christianity was the divine will for the nations, their citation of Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi is misleading at best.
Section 3 of the document continues: “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.” The paragraph ends with the strong statement, “Neither of us can achieve G-d’s mission in this world alone.” In other words, these Jewish leaders are saying that they can only cooperate with Christians who are not trying to convert them, but that neither gentile Christianity nor Judaism can accomplish redemption alone. While I recognize that some previous generations of European Christians have given Jews the choice of conversion or death, which (to put it far too mildly) is not conducive to partnership, I do not believe there is any redemption found apart from Jesus the Messiah. Other humans can participate in the redemption wrought by the God-man only to the degree that they are used by him. It is true that some people who have declared themselves enemies of Christ are nevertheless used by him for his glory (such as Pharaoh), the Apostle Paul drew the distinction between God’s pottery destined for wrath and God’s pottery destined for mercy (Romans 9:22-24). The latter God called “not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” As Paul proceeded to make clear in that chapter and the following two chapters (which are Paul’s most extended reflection on the relationship between Jews and Christians), only some Jews benefit from Christ’s redemption (e.g. 9:27). The criterion, for Jews as well as gentiles, is Jesus (e.g. 10:9-13). So while I think we Christians need to reject and abhor the violence perpetrated by previous generations of Christians against Jews, to give up hoping for the salvation of Jews is to condemn them to hell. Paul earnestly hoped for the salvation of his Jewish people (Romans 10:1). God preserve us from hating Jews so much as to stop praying for their salvation through faith in Jesus the Christ!
Christians are called to love their Jewish neighbors as Jesus did. How did Jesus love his Jewish neighbors? He did not kill them. He did not threaten them. He taught them the truth. He provided miraculous healing and food for thousands. He served them, not the other way around. He endured their misunderstandings with patience, although nothing angered him more than religious leaders misleading the people to their own destruction. Even when certain Jewish leaders had conspired with the Roman overlords to put Jesus to death, he prayed for their forgiveness. He even loved them enough to become one of them and live as they did, to know them and become known by them, even to give up the exercise of his privileges as God the Son, in order to become incarnate among the Jews and bring them first to salvation. As spiritual children of God the Father, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ, and filled with his Holy Spirit, we are enabled to love the Jews of our generation in the same way, by serving their physical needs and sharing with them the gracious truth which we have received, even giving up our privileges in order to share in their situation, praying to God on their behalf for the forgiveness of their sins in the same way as ours have been forgiven, through the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.