Commentary Magazine


A Religious Bridge between Jew and Christian:
Shall We Recognize Two Covenants?

In most of the various attempts to secure interfaith understanding, social, political, and public relations linkages have been sought and one important question is usually slighted: How on religious grounds can a religious Christian regard the Jew, and how can a religious Jew regard the Christian, in such a way as to gain mutual respect? This is the question Hans Joachim Schoeps here tries to answer, endeavoring, while recognizing and honoring distinctivenesses and differences, to throw a theological bridge across the present gulf.

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There are, today, many weighty reasons for supposing that the Jewish and Christian communities that have traveled side by side through history for almost nineteen hundred years should wish to understand each other. Indeed, there has been no lack of such “interfaith” attempts, but most of them have failed because they were without a proper basis in religious faith itself, because they were not grounded in religious truth. Any genuine dialogue between church and synagogue calls for an honest inquiry into the real basis for an understanding between Judaism and Christianity, as well as the inevitable limitations on such an understanding.

It is quite clear that the attack upon Judaism in the past twenty years was also an attack upon the Christian church, that when the synagogue was assaulted the Jewish element in Christianity was assaulted with it. It is impossible to forget that the founder of Christianity was, in flesh and blood, a Jew, that the first Apostles who brought his teachings to the Gentiles were Jews. The attacks (by, for instance, Alfred Rosenberg) directed against the Old Testament as an essential component of the Christian message point to the ever widening realization that Christianity is closely bound up with Israel. This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago; indeed it is especially true today, since historical destiny is forcing the two faiths into a common front. For Judaism and Christianity have a common enemy, the general godlessness which denies the existence of a transcendental realm. Thus the question of a mutual understanding between the two faiths has become particularly timely.

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My own thinking on this subject reached a critical point some years ago when Karl Barth asked me in a letter whether a systematic theology of Judaism must not, in our time—and particularly in our time—culminate in the proof that Jesus Christ had to be crucified, and that, accordingly, a Jew must today still accept responsibility for his crucifixion. Lavater had put the same question to Moses Mendelssohn, who answered: “How do I know what just or unjust judgments were pronounced seventeen hundred or eighteen hundred years ago by my ancestors?”; and he added that he could not even accept responsibility for the sentences of the Prussian law courts of his time.

Now I do not believe that this question—impugning Israel’s very right to existence in the Christian era—can be answered by such Mendelssohnian evasions. Actually, every Jew today, as in the past, must reject Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The truth, and with it the possibility of a Jewish-Christian interrelation and understanding, is not served by any veiling of the facts; for we Jews—and this we must frankly state—can in no event accept the idea that the Messiah has already come, that we are living in an era between the Resurrection and the Second Coming. The Jewish objection to the claim that the Messiah has come must be stated with the same—naive, if you will—clarity as nineteen hundred years ago: a redeemed world would have to look different. We cannot admit that the prophetic promises concerning the character of the “last days” have been fulfilled—either literally or figuratively. We profoundly feel the unredeemed condition of the world.

Martin Buber expresses the Jewish feeling as follows: “For us the redemption of the world is one with the fulfillment of Creation, with the establishment of a unity, no longer marred by anything, no longer suffering contradiction, realized throughout the multiplicity of the world; it is one with the fulfilled kingdom of God. A partial anticipation of world redemption, as for example a redemption of the soul, is something we cannot comprehend, even though, in our mortal hours, we too experience a sense of redemption and being redeemed. We do not see a caesura in history. We know in history no middle, but only an end. The end of the path of God, who does not stop along the way.”

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This absence of any caesura in its history certainly applies to Israel; but this does not mean that it also applies to all the other peoples of the world. We Jews cannot deny that mankind assumes a different aspect before and after Jesus, that at this point a distinct caesura did take place. What can this mean from a Jewish point of view?

According to Jewish religious law, non-Jews fall into two classes: idolaters and Noachides. The Noachides are heathens who have taken upon themselves the seven injunctions already known to Noah: the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, unchastity, bloodshed, robbery, eating the flesh of living animals, and the injunction to seek justice. In the Talmud such “sons of Noah” are called also “proselytes of justice”; they enjoy equal rank with the Israelites. Today as in former centuries, it is obvious that the tide of Noachide can be accorded to only a relatively small section of mankind—but every true Christian is recognized as a Noachide to whom shittuf (the worship of a second divine being) is expressly permitted. Even in periods when the Jews could expect little good of the church, the Jewish tradition went so far as to distinguish sharply between Christian worship and any form of avoda zara (idolatry) and to recognize a transformation of the face of mankind through Christianity as a Noachide possibility.

Hence it cannot be a matter of indifference to Jews whether a man is a Christian or a non-Christian. With Franz Rosenzweig, I would even go so far as to declare that perhaps no Gentile can come to God the Father otherwise than through Jesus Christ. In thus recognizing that the revelation of the church of Jesus Christ has its sphere of validity, from which only Israel is excepted by virtue of its direct election by the Father, I do not believe that I offend against Jewish tradition. For even if we go to great lengths in recognizing covenants of God with non-Israelitic mankind, the absolute validity of the revelation of the Torah to Israel remains unimpaired.

According to Jewish tradition of the centuries, Israel was chosen, however undeserving, to be the bearer of God’s covenant. The covenant concluded with the patriarch Abraham was sealed on Mount Sinai by the promulgation of the Torah, and confirmed through the mouths of the Prophets. This covenant, concluded with the seed of Abraham and extended to cover the ger tzedek (full proselytes) who joined with Israel, by no means excludes the possibility that outside Israel’s sacred sphere God may have concluded other covenants beyond the scope of Jewish knowledge and judgment. In any event, the modern Jew need face no fundamental contradiction in regarding the “new covenant” professed by the Christian church as in no way prejudicial to him and his own certitude of salvation. The Christian who, according to his belief, comes to the Father through Jesus Christ—or who, through the church in which Jesus Christ lives, participates by belief in the coming-to-the-Father of Jesus Christ—stands before the same God in whom we Jews believe, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of Moses our teacher, to whom Jesus also said “Father.”

This fundamental fact, which we can acknowledge at all times, guarantees Judaism’s inner bond with Christianity and opens up the possibility of a Jewish-Christian rapprochement The limit to such an understanding is that we cannot recognize Yeshuah ha-Nozri as the Christ, i.e., as the Messiah for Israel. We are, however, prepared to recognize that, in some way which we do not understand, a Messianic significance for non Jewish mankind is attached to the figure of this man. We can go this far without transgressing against the absoluteness of the revelation on Mount Sinai (valid only for Israel); we can go this far and still remain wholly and authentically rooted in the revealed truth of Judaism, which neither needs, nor is susceptible to, any completion.

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But is there also on the Christian side a possibility of recognizing the truth of the Jewish knowledge of God and his covenant, of discovering the work of God not only in the Old Testament—that is, in the past—but also in the post—Biblical synagogue, in Israel up to our own day?

This question must be left to Christian theologians to answer with any finality. It is obvious that a great difficulty stands in the way of an affirmative response: the Christian church would have to abandon a belief which it has held throughout the centuries—its belief in the obduracy of the Jews. But I am inclined to regard this attitude, based on Romans 9-11, as no “church dogma of the dominant group” (as Franz Rosenzweig put it), but rather as a subjective judgment on the part of the Apostle Paul. For the church to revise this judgment, which would imply abandonment by the church of its mission among the Jews, seems more than justified by historical experience. The existence of Israel two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, its undiminished consciousness of being the people of God’s covenant, argue that the old covenant has not been annulled. The facts of history, it seems to me, argue that the synagogue has preserved a special knowledge of truth, which has held its own throughout the centuries beside the revealed truth of the Christians.

What is proposed here is a view of history which, though reposing undivided truth in God, assumes more than one revelation, and more than one covenant of God with men. And these are reported in Torah and Gospel, in Old and New Testament, if we recognize them as records of God’s dealings with mankind and read them without prejudice. The Old Testament signifies for both Jews and Christians an external bond with the eternal God, even though for the Jew these books represent God’s word in a profound sense that is inaccessible to the Christian who reads them, and even though for the Christian the New Testament represents, in a sense inaccessible to the Jew, “good tidings” addressed to the world of the Gentiles and attested by the many churches of Christ

There is no doubt that this conception of the “economy of salvation” is sharply opposed to the historical formula of the Apostle Paul. To the thesis of the annulled “old” and fulfilled “new” covenant, is opposed the fact of the two eternal covenants of Sinai and Golgotha, both absolutely valid, one for Israel and one for Christianity, each relevant to that aspect of God revealed to Israel on Mount Sinai and to the world on Golgotha. For the God who named himself to Moses as “I will be who I will be,” is in all the diversity of his revelations and covenants the eternally same God; he is absolute for the Jews as the God who is and will be, just as, by a different form of mediation, he has become God for the Christians. Hence Jews and Christians cannot and must not deviate from the absoluteness of their different testimonies of truth. And consequently, they will go their separate ways through history according to the will of providence, up to that point in the future where the parallels intersect

The end of the two covenants will come to pass in the days of the Messiah, when “old” and “new” covenant become one covenant, when all mankind assembles under a single covenant to worship only God, The Messianism of Israel aims at that which is to come, the eschatology of the Gentile church at the return of him who has come. Both elective covenants confront the ebb and flow of the finite world in the shared expectation that the decisive event is still to come—the goal of the ways of God that he travels with mankind in Israel and in the Church.

The church of Jesus Christ has preserved no portrait of its lord and savior. If Jesus were to come again tomorrow, no Christian would know his face. But it might well be that he who is coming at the end of days, he who is awaited by the synagogue as by the church, is one, with one and the same face.

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