Jews & Christians
To the Editor:
. . . Arthur A. Cohen’s article, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” [November 1969], . . . distorts rather than clarifies the recent history of Jewish-Christian relations. Unfortunately, it provides political comfort to those in the Jewish community whose stance toward dialogue is exactly contrary to the position that Arthur Cohen has himself consistently maintained.
As the author recognizes, the concept of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” was invoked shortly before and after World War II in order to confront a Christianity that in denying a shared heritage with Jews had lent its resources to the murder of Jews or had remained passively silent. This effort on the part of Jewish community agencies, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was not without merit or success. In fact, those Christians in the Middle East who deny a “Judeo-Christian tradition” are the ones who remain enemies to Jews and Judaism, while those who affirm that tradition are numbered among our friends. . . .
Not paradoxically at all, Christians who regard Judaism “as a religion so distinctly other than Christianity that it should be reckoned merely as one of the non-Christian religions, with a historical significance, of course, in relation to the origins of Christianity but not in any way to be regarded as a necessary participant in the theological dialogue” . . . are joined politically, howbeit without conscious intent, by Jewish theologians who insist that Judaism is so different a religion, so unique a phenomenon, and Jews so insecure, that the theological discussion ought to be prohibited. This position, taken by the Lubavitcher Rabbi and supporters of Orthodoxy’s revered Rabbi Soloveitchik, has strengthened and justified the “enemies” of the Jews. Both reactionary Christians and ghettoized Jews have agreed: we have nothing to say to each other; each of us is uniquely superior; confusion or anger is the inevitable consequence of dialogue. But . . . Jewish-Christian understanding, to the degree that it exists at all, has been a product of the dialogue. . . .
Arthur Cohen agrees that we share “affirmations respecting the creation, the covenant of God with His elected people-servant, the revelation of His teaching, and the promise of redemption,” but he makes much too light of this. Defining the word “tradition” in his own way, Cohen insists that “Jews and Christians have conspired together to promote a tradition of common experience and belief” in an effort to ward off the disaster of secularism. . . . Having participated in countless interreligious exchanges, I can testify that never did Jewish scholars, theologians, or rabbis, nor did the Christian participants, believe or pretend that our archetypal affirmations were without “irrationality, passion, intensity, sharp disagreement, fissure, and the abyss of historical enmity” (Cohen’s words). What we did affirm was that there was enough of a shared language and ethical commitment to make dialogue possible. . . .
It is important to realize that a consequence of the polarization within each religious community, resulting from our varying responses to secularism, the new theology, student disorders, and social action, has been to drive certain liberal Jews, Protestants, and Catholics closer to one another than to the traditionalists within their separate ranks. A revolution in updating the “tradition” has created a new, revitalized living Judeo-Christian tradition. . . .
Rabbi Arthur Gilbert
Mr. Cohen writes:
Arthur Gilbert’s letter on my article deflects the thrust of my position but does not blunt it. The issue is not the political advantages of the myth, but its truth I have no doubt that there are conservative theologians within Christianity and Judaism who so radicalize their intellectual isolation as to undermine any possibility of natural fraternity. This is a misfortune, but as I have indicated in the concluding essay of my book, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, the transposition of theological enmity into human animus is a critical distortion against which we must all guard. The question remains, however, whether the substance of my argument is true or false. Rabbi Gilbert does not take on that challenge and remains content with a political rhetoric in which the sole criterion is natural justice and political utility. I have no interest in such manipulative employment of truth.