To the Editor:
In his article, “The Problem of Christian Anti-Semitism” [April], Norman Ravitch suggests that Christian orthodoxy and “particularism” tend to lead to anti-Semitism and that, conversely, the liberal approach represented, for example, by Rosemary Ruether and Gregory Baum does the opposite. However, as Mr. Ravitch also notes, liberal Christianity has had its problems with Judaism, especially over the status of Israel. It seems appropriate to suggest that the approach represented by Rosemary Ruether in the long run undermines authentic Judaism. Consider, for example, her remarks in the book Journeys, edited by Baum (Paulist Press, 1975):
. . . “Ba’al” was a symbol of a false god and some kind of “dirty doings,” not a real god. When the prophet knocked down the altars and smashed the symbols of other people’s religions, we were all supposed to let out a bloodthirsty cheer. I did not cheer. Having dwelt in the households of the suppressed faiths for a time, I felt I was on more sympathetic terms with the Ba’al worshipers. I knew that Ba’al was a real god, the revelation of the mystery of life. . . . On the other hand, Yahweh had deplorably violent ways, and a lot of evil had been done in the name of Christ. . . . As for the defects of Ba’al, were they more spectacular than the defects of the biblical God or Messiah, or perhaps less so? No crusades or pogroms had been sent in the name of Ba’al, Isis, or Apollo.
Rosemary Ruether’s attitude seems less one of “atonement” for Christian anti-Semitism than an animus against all definitive claims to religious truth, including those of Judaism. To understand her position fully (Baum’s seems quite similar), it would also be necessary to explore its relationship to her extreme feminism and her leftist politics.
St. Louis, Missouri
To the Editor:
Norman Ravitch’s “The Problem of Christian Anti-Semitism” is perhaps the best article of its kind I have read. His convincing blend of pessimism and optimism, his constructive conclusion that “Despite its tragic consequences and historical ambiguities, the Christian-Jewish nexus probably protects Christians and Jews from mutual hatred and self-hatred better than any secular ideology currently available” surely merits a positive Jewish response.
To be sure, Mr. Ravitch does not emphasize historical evidence that the Church preserved the Jewish people in Europe, that when the Church declined, Jewish communities found themselves not only increasingly isolated and exposed to the ravages of anti-Semitism but without that last line of traditional Christian defense.
But that could be because he finds difficulty reconciling the idea of the Church as preserver of the Jewish people with that of the Church as the main source of anti-Jewish sentiment. He does try to resolve this baffling contradiction by arguing that a “close family relationship of Christianity to Judaism . . . is . . . responsible au fond for the negative reading of Jewish history.” . . . Yet this explanation does not take account of the political factor at the core of both Jewish and Christian tradition. . . . And without an acknowledgment of the deep political commitment of Jewish tradition to its land . . . and the Christian attempt to universalize away this commitment, without identifying the political side of the Christian tradition, . . . it is not possible to understand the complicated network of Christian-Jewish relations. . . .
Negative readings of Jewish history echo Roman sentiment during the struggle to overcome Jewish messianic insurgency; traditional Christian opposition to Jewish Sabbath observance, to dietary customs, handwashing, circumcision, and numerous other Jewish practices are a précis of the Roman position at a time when Jewish dietary practices hindered the absorption of Jews into the Roman military forces; Jewish commitment to the Torah amounted to an incentive to rebellion (as in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes); circumcision had a military connotation; and Sabbath observance appeared likely to bring financial ruin upon the Roman empire. Indeed, Mr. Ravitch concedes that “the marriage of Christian denigration of the Jewish people with imperial authority finally brought the Jewish people and Judaism low.” . . .
The fall of Bar Kokhba, however, brought upon the Church a crisis of redundancy. Because Jews no longer seemed to the Roman authorities as great a political and military danger as in the past, Roman disinterest in the Church increased. At this point a scripture of justification became necessary for the Church, and the canon emerged. . . .
The Church’s main task had been to combat not only Jewish insurgency but Jewish national identity. . . . Now, having to argue its own right to survival, it cited texts proving loyalty in the past. Above all, it propounded the thesis of the continuing Jewish menace, and made sure that the Jews did not disappear. The Church now carefully insured the survival of the Jews in order to buttress its teaching that the world had to be protected against “ubiquitous” and “dangerous” Judaism.
Such a framework of analysis explains why Nazi anti-Semitism emerged as the Church declined, the Church having lost the power to control the prejudices it had fostered. It explains, also, the survival of Jews in the shtetlakh of the Pale, without armies or weapons, in terms of the Church’s need to insure the presence of its traditional focus. It makes intelligible the notion that the Jews are thought of as the “secret center” of the world. It correlates with the ascertainable fact that great movements, religions, historical attitudes are closely linked with major human conflicts in war or politics.
Above all, it holds out hope that a more rewarding Christian-Jewish nexus than the present anti-Semitic one is possible at a time when there is a deep need for it.
Institute of Contemporary Life and Thought
Johannesburg, South Africa
To the Editor:
On the whole, I found Norman Ravitch’s article, “The Problem of Christian Anti-Semitism,” valid, informative, and important in that it examines an issue that has been conspicuously avoided.
However, Mr. Ravitch makes one claim that, in the light of its implications, seems almost ludicrous. After suggesting that the 18th-century philosophers of the Enlightenment were villains because they sought to undermine the biblical tradition, he goes on to assert that “modern anti-Semitism owes at least as much to secularism and the destruction of reverence for the biblical tradition as it does to orthodox belief.”
Do the claims of the Old Testament authors transcend the urgencies of reason and evidence? . . . As long as critics resort to evidence, it is obscurantist to label criticism as biased or prejudicial. . . .
Morton D. Kogut
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . In light of Norman Ravitch’s documentation of Christianity’s 2,000 year commitment to Jewish destruction, his conclusions are puzzling, even contradictory. Claiming that the reevaluation of the Jews by a few ivory-tower Christians “is a work of charity and atonement,” he then concludes that Jews and Christians should be linked even closer—for their own good! How? Why?
Radical Christians have focused on Christianity’s responsibility for the Holocaust. This is a relatively easy subject since the evidence is overwhelming and the Jews are safely—and quite properly, according to Christian theology—dead. It is the living Jews, residing in their historic homeland, finally possessing resources to deter their enemies, who remain a problem for these radical theologians. . . .
Anti-Jewishness, thinly disguised as anti-Zionism and/or anti-Beginism, flourishes in the Christian world, including its academic community. . . . Christian academic smugness against Israel constantly escalates. A new Jewish monster has emerged in the Christian consciousness—the evil Israeli Jew suppressing and oppressing the righteous non-Jew, only now it is an Arab.
A companion article examining this phenomenon, “The Problem of Christian Anti-Zionism,” is needed. . . .
Ethel C. Fenig
New York City
Norman Ravitch writes:
I am gratified by favorable views of my article on Christian anti-Semitism, both in letters sent to COMMENTARY and in private communications. Of course, any religious discussion also encourages solitary cranks, and both COMMENTARY and I have received some of their scribblings.
James Hitchcock certainly treats me fairly. Whether he treats Rosemary Ruether and Father Gregory Baum fairly I leave to others. I only regret that his effort is not directed to the central themes of my article. To Niel Hirschson I can only recommend Marcel Simon’s Verus Israel, the most reliable study of Christian-Jewish relations in the Roman empire, a book I understand will be published in an English translation by Robert Kraft of the University of Pennsylvania.
Morton D. Kogut is not quite accurate in claiming I called the 18th-century philosophers “villains.” I was merely underscoring their ambiguous legacy. I am personally bothered the most by Ethel C. Fenig’s remarks. I did not offer a “documentation of Christianity’s 2,000 year commitment to Jewish destruction.” I sought, rather, to explore why Jews are a problem for Christians. “Destruction” has been Christendom’s most horrible “solution,” but not the only one. Her rapid jump to the anti-Semitic roots of “anti-Zionism and/or anti-Beginism” leaves me, alas, far behind. Christian concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people and opposition to certain Israeli policies in the West Bank may or may not be valid, but there is a perfectly good Jewish and Christian foundation for compassion toward the Arab victims of war and revolution: the prophets of Israel and the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the “most Jewish” of the Gospels. Anti-Semites do oppose Israel and do dislike Menachem Begin, but to accuse all critics of Begin and of Israeli policy toward the Arabs indiscriminately of anti-Semitism is a contemptible, if understandable, defense mechanism.
Finally, I should like to thank Seymour Yellin for informing me in a private communication that my acceptance of the conclusions of Charles Glock and Rodney Stark about orthodox belief among Christians and its anti-Semitic consequences was too one-sided. I did not sufficiently realize that sociologists were less than enthusiastic about Glock and Stark’s research methods and conclusions.