Commentary Magazine


Jews for Jesus—and Vice Versa

Imagine the following: it is the year 150 C.E. or thereabouts. After a prolonged conflict within the Jewish community of Palestine and its many offshoots around the Mediterranean, the believers in Jesus have triumphed. Mainstream Judaism, even while continuing to develop along the rabbinic lines that were already well-established in Jesus' time, has accepted the contention that he was sent by God to redeem the world and will return in glory to complete the task in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, however, the Jewish people adheres to its separate ways, insisting on the strict distinction between Jew and Gentile, sacred and profane, ritually permitted and ritually forbidden—even though it believes that the messiah has come in the person of a carpenter's son from Nazareth who was crucified by the Romans.

So much for the Jews. But what would have happened, in such an eventuality, to the non-Jews? This question is asked by the author and columnist David Klinghoffer in his newly published Why the Jews Rejected Jesus1—a book that seeks to justify Judaism's dismissal of the Christian savior while arguing at the same time that the world should be grateful for that dismissal.

Klinghoffer does this by means of a historical hypothesis. Had Judaism accepted Jesus' messianic claims, he contends, Christianity would never have arisen. The pagan society of the era would not have been attracted to a redeemer who could only be acknowledged by becoming a Jew. Paganism would have remained the dominant religion of the Roman Empire—at least until Islam, another child of Judaism, brought monotheism to Europe at sword point, overrunning a continent whose decadent civilization would have been unable to resist its onslaught.

In that case, Klinghoffer argues, there would have been no Catholic Church, no Chartres or Notre Dame, no Sorbonne or Oxford, no Thomas Aquinas, Dante, or Michelangelo, no Renaissance, no Shakespeare or Newton, no Western science, art, literature, music, or democracy. There might have been great mosques in London and great schools of Arabic learning in Paris, but, today, life in those cities might well resemble medieval life in Cairo and Baghdad. This is why, Klinghoffer writes, “the Jewish rejection of Jesus was the founding act of Western civilization.”

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As a historical defense of Judaism, this is, one might say, having one's cake and eating it, too. On the one hand, Klinghoffer maintains, Jesus' Jewish contemporaries had every reason to scoff at his pretensions, since he did not live up to their minimal criteria for what a messiah was supposed to be or do—which was first and foremost to liberate the land and people of Israel from foreign oppression. Even if he actually performed all the wonders attributed to him by his followers, he failed to meet Judaism's evidentiary standards.

But on the other hand, Klinghoffer writes, because Jesus was a loyal Jew whose teachings, on the whole and despite certain differences of emphasis, were consistent with Jewish tradition, their dissemination among non-Jews meant the spread of Jewish beliefs and values throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. While Christianity broke permanently with Judaism under the influence of Paul (on whom Klinghoffer is harsh, going so far as to suggest that he faked his Jewish credentials), the conceptual gap between the two religions was never as great as later Christian and Jewish polemicists made it out to be. Indeed, many of the Christian doctrines that have seemed most outlandish to Jews, such as the divinity of Jesus or the saving power of faith, have Jewish roots.

Klinghoffer is quick to admit that this is hardly a novel way of viewing the Christian-Jewish relationship. It is, in fact, the point of view of Christianity itself, which always considered Judaism to be a parent whose limitations it had cast off and whose promise it fulfilled. Nor, as he points out in an interesting chapter of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, is the notion of Christianity as an extension of Judaism, rather than a falsification of it, totally foreign to Jewish sources. Hinted at in Yehuda Halevi's 12th-century philosophical book Kuzari, the idea was more fully developed somewhat later by Maimonides, who declared that Jesus of Nazareth, though obviously not the messiah, “served to clear the way for the king messiah [and] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord.” In subsequent ages, too, there were rabbis who conceived of Christianity not as the enemy of Judaism but as a diluted version of it, a monotheistic burden light enough to be borne by the masses until they were ready for the heavier yoke of the Torah.

Moreover, there is yet another strand of Western thought that stresses the closeness of the two religions—while being hostile to them both. This started with Enlightenment intellectuals like Voltaire and Gibbon; took an anti-Enlightenment turn in Nietzsche (who had a grudging admiration for Judaism that he never accorded Christianity); was adopted by the ideology of the Nazis; and remains perceptible not only among doctrinaire secularists but in some of the New Age philosophies of our times. That the proverbial Martian observer descending to earth might initially have trouble in telling Judaism and Christianity apart, as did the 1st-century Romans, is thus an intellectual commonplace.

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In articulately restating this commonplace in Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, Klinghoffer seeks to explain why it is important for contemporary Jews and Christians to internalize it. Rather than thinking of their respective faiths as related but rival systems, he believes that the time has come for them to realize they are in the same boat; whatever their doctrinal differences, they are engaged in promoting the same truths, defending the same values, and worshiping the same God. Himself an observant Jew who came to Jewish practice as an adult, he concludes with a metaphor, borrowed from the 19th-century Italian rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, that reflects, as he puts it, “God's perspective”:

Being a “kingdom of priests” [as the Bible commands Israel to be] means ministering to others in a priestly role, for who can claim to be a priest if he has no congregation? God's instruction to the Jews at the moment of the revelation of the Torah was to serve the congregation of humanity, bringing the knowledge of the Lord to them. It would seem that the Christian church now plays the role of congregation . . . with the Jews serving in the ministerial position. Christians and Muslims alike know of the God of Abraham only because they met him in the Bible. . . . It served God's purposes that there be a unique religion [Christianity], acknowledging Him, for the people who spread out from Europe. It was not Judaism. It departs from Judaism in many ways. But in revering the God of Israel it contains the seeds for an ultimate reunification of the people [of the earth] in God's service.

Of course, judged in the context of today's ecumenism, there is nothing particularly remarkable about such a profession, either. Klinghoffer's way of putting the point may violate the “politically correct” norms of interfaith dialogue by naming Judaism as the senior partner in a spiritual coalition in which it plays the more demanding role, but Christian ecumenicists tend to do the same in reverse, depicting Christianity as a pivotal revolution in human development and Judaism as the “old regime” that legitimately but conservatively chose to stay behind. The existence of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition that deserves to be promoted by interfaith cooperation has been a cliché of American life for decades.

What is new, then, is not so much what Klinghoffer is saying as how and to whom he is saying it. In the past, ecumenism in America has been the province of the more “progressive” sectors of the Jewish and Christian communities; these have made the case for it in terms of their liberal social agendas, for which they have cited religious sanction. And because they have generally taken political and social issues more seriously than theological ones, it has been relatively easy for them to find common ground. Those not represented by them—Orthodox Jews, conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants—have been excluded from interfaith conversation as much by its subject matter as by their inward-looking perspective, which sees religious truth as exclusively in their own possession.

It is these latter groups that Klinghoffer, a political conservative, is now primarily addressing. To fundamentalist Christians, he has sought to explain why Jews who believe, like evangelicals, that the “Old Testament” is literally God's word have had good reason to cling to Judaism; to fundamentalist Jews, why Christianity, seen from their standpoint, should be viewed in a positive light. He has made an appeal for ecumenism to the least ecumenically disposed.

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Here, too, he is not a sole trailblazer. A handful of other Orthodox Jewish intellectuals have, in recent years, explored the same path. One thinks of figures like Michael Wyschogrod,2 who has made the case for Christianity being less theologically alien to Jewish tradition than is commonly assumed, or Irving Greenberg,3 who has called for viewing Christianity as a parallel track along which the God of Israel chose to reveal Himself to mankind. Greenberg has coined the term “covenantal pluralism” for his approach, according to which a Jew can hold that Mosaic law remains binding while also acknowledging that “it was God's purpose that the stalk of Abraham be grafted onto the root of the Gentiles” in the form of a new religion that, though springing from “the bosom of Judaism and profoundly marked by Jewish interpretation,” had to “take on the coloration of the people that it reach[ed].”

Neither Wyschogrod, Greenberg, nor Klinghoffer deals with contemporary politics in his latest book. Nevertheless, political developments have surely helped spur their thinking. The liberal voting patterns of most American Jews, even those who care deeply about Israel, have led them to dissociate their fierce dislike of the Bush administration and the Christian Right from the remarkable support both have given to Israel. Orthodox Jews, by contrast, have become increasingly conservative in their political behavior; in many matters of public policy they now find themselves closer to conservative Catholics and evangelicals than they do to the Jewish establishment. And yet for them, too, there remains a psychological barrier to building alliances with believing Christians, one deriving from an age-old Jewish fear of Christianity's persecutions and an age-old Jewish disdain for Christianity's doctrines. In seeking to redress this situation as Orthodox Jews speaking to their fellows, writers like Klinghoffer, Wyschogrod, and (to some extent) Greenberg are thus operating in a political dimension even if it remains unexpressed.

It would take an Orthodox reader to judge their success. Yet even if I were such a reader, arguments formulated in terms of God's “purpose” or “perspective” would leave me, I suspect, uneasy. This is not because Orthodox Jews are barred from speculating about divine intentions but because such speculations, whatever their heuristic value for religious debate, are ultimately of limited persuasiveness.

The God of Judaism, after all, is portrayed as all-knowing and all-powerful; any theory of His hidden motives based on what we take to be the constraints of human history is therefore bound to founder on our constraining of Him. Was it God's plan to enlist another religion in spreading His message to Europe? Well, suppose it was. But why then did He not enlist a faith (like Islam) that, while abandoning the ritual rigors of Judaism, respected its ban on idols and its clear separation of the human from the divine, rather than one that taught its followers to kneel to statues of a god-man? What purpose of His was served by Christianity's turning viciously on His own chosen people? What kept Him, for that matter, from devising a different Judaism in the first place, one that would not have needed the mediation of other faiths for its promulgation?

As the Talmud is fond of saying about disputes that have no resolution, “teyku”—a word parsed by the rabbis as an acronym meaning, “Elijah the prophet [when he returns as a forerunner of the messiah] will solve all puzzles and conundrums.” In the meantime, pretending to possess Elijah's knowledge is unlikely to convince the unconvinced.

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Beyond this, there is also something psychologically problematic about the “two-track” metaphor for Jewish-Christian relations that Klinghoffer, Greenberg, and Wyschogrod put forth. After all, although it is certainly possible to believe that certain principles or commitments are obligatory for oneself and not for another, it is sociologically questionable whether religious communities can function at any pitch of intensity with a “your religion is as good as mine” outlook.

It is also questionable whether treating the religion of others as good enough for them intrinsically reflects benevolence toward them. It is certainly the case that Jews—at least since Judaism ceased to be a missionary religion in the early Christian era—never sought to convert Christians as Christians sought to convert them; even in those places, rare until the modern period, in which conversion was possible, Jews did not expect, or even particularly wish, that Gentiles would find Judaism attractive. Yet as anyone raised in the Jewish tradition knows, this attitude did not exactly reflect a respect for Christianity. On the contrary: if Christianity was Judaism for the Gentiles, this was never meant by Jews as a compliment; the Gentiles, as far as most Jews were concerned, had merely gotten what they deserved.

Indeed, to ask either believing Jews or Christians to acknowledge that God does not care which of the two they are as long as they are one or the other is subtly to demean both Judaism and Christianity in the eyes of their adherents. It may be high-minded to say, as Greenberg does, that “pluralism is not relativism, for we hold on to our absolutes; however, we make room for others' as well.” But what does this actually mean? If I say, “The earth's orbiting the sun is an absolute for me, but I accept the sun's orbiting the earth as an absolute for you,” how seriously am I taking either you, myself, or the solar system? The “two-track” metaphor makes sense only when its vantage point is situated above both tracks. At ground level, as it were, it involves an almost impossible bifurcation of vision.

Nor, if I were an evangelical Christian, would I be pleased with David Klinghoffer's reassurance that, even though my faith is based on a misunderstanding of God's word, it's a lucky thing, historically, that it is. In the first place I might retort, “What is history compared with everlasting life?” To which, if I knew some history, I might play the devil's advocate by adding:

“You say that the Jewish rejection of Jesus led to the development of Western civilization? I say that it impeded Western civilization, which would have developed more quickly, more prosperously, more peacefully, and with less injury to the Jews themselves had Christianity never existed.

“It may be true that Judaism was too arduous and exclusivist a religion to have become the dominant faith of Europe. But the choice in antiquity was not between Christianity and a crude or decadent paganism. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., paganism had developed religiously and intellectually sophisticated forms of worship that were not only moving rapidly toward a syncretistic, quasi-monotheistic theology but were doing so with a tolerance for diversity that Christianity lacked and an appreciation for the classical art and philosophy that Christianity was determined to suppress.

“In Christianity's absence, one or another of the pagan mystery cults that successfully competed with it until the reign of Constantine, such as that of Mithra or Isis, would have blossomed into a universal religion; become the dominant faith of Europe; inspired works of art and intellect no less sublime than the Christian ones; continued the classical intellectual tradition and thus, by encouraging the growth of ancient science, propelled the West into modernity far sooner; and so stopped the march of Islam not in Spain and at the gates of Vienna but in Egypt, Syria, and North Africa. There would have been no Dark Ages, no Crusades, no Inquisition, no Thirty Years' war, no anti-Semitism, no Holocaust, . . . and no salvation for my soul, whose eternal happiness is the only justification for Christianity's existence.”

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Go argue! Counterfactual history is a game without rules, which means it can be neither won nor lost. Every version of it has its counter-counterfactual rebuttal, to which Klinghoffer's is no exception. It is hardly a structure solid enough to support a Jewish-Christian rapprochement.

But perhaps such structures are unnecessary. Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians in America today indeed share much in common, from a belief in the Hebrew Bible and its account of the world to opposition to abortion on demand and gay marriage. They may not need grandly unifying theological or historiosophical bridges in order to build political alliances. They can agree on the desirability of state support for religious schools without seeing eye to eye on the compatibility of monotheism with the Incarnation; can rally behind President Bush's backing of Israel while continuing to argue whether the New Testament is a distortion of the Old.

Other Jews do not require such structures, either, but for a different reason. Unlike the Orthodox, who derive their social policies from their religious beliefs, most American Jews derive their religious beliefs, if they have any, from their social policies. With them, the argument that believing Christians are still, 2,000 years after the advent of Christianity, spreading faith in the God of Israel to the far corners of Africa and Asia will fall on deaf ears as long as the values preached in this God's name do not correspond with those of liberal America; and the plea to join hands with Christians in support of an American government that has shown unprecedented friendship for a Jewish state will move them only if they cease thinking of that state as illiberal, too. The language in which such Jews need to be talked to has perhaps yet to be found, but it is not the language of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus.

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Footnotes

1 Doubleday, 256 pp., $24.95.

2 Abraham's Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. This book was reviewed in the January COMMENTARY by David Hazony.

3 For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity. Jewish Publication Society, 274 pp., $20.00.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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