Commentary Magazine


The Bond Between Christian and Jew:
Their Common Ethic

In December 1953, Jacob Taubes argued in the pages of this journal that the currency of such phrases and conceptions as “the Judeo-Christian tradition” obscured the very real, fundamental, and unresolvable issue between Judaism and Christianity. This issue is Halachah or the Law. The Torah is the essence and foundation of Judaism, according to Mr. Taubes, whereas Christianity claims that the Law has been overthrown and superseded by the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus, faith in whom is necessary for salvation; this issue, Mr. Taubes contended, cannot be compromised without the one religion or the other surrendering its identity. In the present article, Robert E. Fitch, Dean of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, and Professor of Christian Ethics, seeks to vindicate, against Mr. Taubes, the reality and significance of an ethico-religious tradition common to the two faiths.

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Certainly it is a vital question whether the relations between Jews and Christians are to be determined chiefly by what divides them, or by what unites them. In COMMENTARY for December 1953, in an article which commands respect for its scholarship and for its forthright statement of the issues, Mr. Jacob Taubes has argued that the divisions over the Torah and over Christology are central. If I choose to offer another way of viewing the affair, it is because I believe that some essentials have been omitted from Mr. Taubes’s presentation, and because the whole matter seems to me to be of the utmost practical importance.

Let me try to find common ground with Mr. Taubes by agreeing that the basic issue is theological. But I am in radical disagreement as to the nature of the theology involved. The real question, for the purposes of this discussion, is whether we are to begin by focusing attention on the character of God, or on the manifestations of God in the Torah or in Jesus Christ. It is also a question of whether we believe that the genius of a Judeo-Christian theology is expressed in a pure monotheism or in an ethical monotheism. If an ethical monotheism is the essential, then the primary belief is a belief in a God of justice, of righteousness, and of love. Also, since this is God and not man of whom we speak, he is seen as the Creator, Judge, and Redeemer of the World, and as the Lord of History. From the point of view of theology, all other questions must be subordinate to these basic affirmations.

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I

In terms of our contemporary world outlook, perhaps it is not surprising that Mr. Taubes should deny that history decides anything, or that his God can be the Lord of History. Certainly he can find plenty of support from secular historians and philosophers of history, from distinguished Protestant theologians, and I suppose from Jewish thinkers. This view is simply a part of the radical relativism of our times. Today we are unsure that there are any objective standards in morals, any valid principles in politics or in aesthetics, or any kind of law that operates with coercive efficacy in the course of human events.

Nevertheless, it is especially surprising that a Jew should repudiate the appeal to history. For it was the Jews who first gave the world our sense of the reality and significance of the historical process. Both for philosophy as well as for religion, here lies the genius of the Jewish insight—that it broke away from the stupid cyclical determinism of the Greek, the Hindu, and the Confucian, and saw history in terms of dynamic intention. Whatever else Jehovah may be, he is a God who manifests himself by mighty acts in human history.

It should be equally scandalous that Christians today tend to belittle this doctrine. For at this point the Jewish and the Christian heritage are indissolubly bound together. A principal part of the practical appeal of Christianity in the Hellenistic period lay just here. The gods of the mystery cults like the gods of Mount Olympus might be dismissed eventually as pure myth. But the God who had chosen for himself a specific people, who had brought them up out of slavery in the land of Egypt and guided them to a promised land, who had chastised them in exile but rewarded them in repentance, who had revealed himself in the prophets and in Jesus—persons who really lived in time, and had their dates of birth and of death, of translation to heaven or of resurrection: such a God was a reality to be reckoned with! To deny this God who is the Lord of History is to cut out the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

However, there is no adequate reason why anyone should think that the Lord of History has vindicated the Christian over the Jew. For the past several years, when I have been discussing this bit of doctrine with my students in a Protestant school of theology, I have found it most natural to lend it support by appealing, not to the “Christian success,” but to the “Jewish success” in history. The story of a small and obscure people, always inferior as a nation to its neighbors, in technology, in military power, in economic resources, in political prestige; defeated and enslaved by every imperial power within reach—the Egyptian, the Syrian, the Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, the Roman—and yet outlasting them all; scattered to the four corners of the earth and usually persecuted by its masters of an alien faith, yet retaining throughout its ethnic and religious integrity and continuity; and, finally, in spite of all odds against them, rising to a place of eminence in science, the arts, letters, statesmanship, finance, and philosophy: surely this is the great miracle of all history, a tale that would be dismissed as incredible fable were we not confronted by the evidence. Nor do I know anything that can match it in dignity and in spiritual splendor.

As for the “Christian success” in history, it was of another sort. It was a success in helping to shape the institutions, both social and technical, of our Western civilization. But while none of this is to be dismissed lightly, the truly significant success of the Christian in history was—like that of the Jew—under the duress of persecution. The miracle here lies in the first three centuries of the Christian era. How a religious community that had arrayed against it all the political, military, economic, and social power of the Roman Empire could rise to take over that empire and supersede it in the scope and duration of its sway: that is what is fabulous.

Nor can it be accounted for by any naive hypothesis of a “failure of nerve.” If there was a “failure of nerve,” it was in the old pagan culture: read the Skeptics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Neo-Platonists. The difference between the élan vital of the new faith and the spiritual corruption of the old is symbolized in the Christian martyr who goes triumphantly to his death in the confidence of an ultimate victory both in this world and in the next, and the weary Roman philosopher who, expecting nothing either here or in the life to come, can only commit suicide gracefully.

At any rate, respect for the evidence as well as loyalty to tradition require both the Jew and the Christian to adhere faithfully to the belief in a God who is the Lord of History. The great Deuteronomic passages that link together the God of Justice with the God of Law and with the God of History are still normative at this point. We may have refined and spiritualized our conception of the laws and processes of history, but the essential insight has been there from the beginning.

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II

More specifically, the God who is the Lord of History is an ethical God. He is no blank Brahma, no mere three-letter word spelled G-o-d. He is the God of justice, of righteousness, and of love, and he acts accordingly.

At this point it is necessary to discard a sacred tenet of popular piety. This is the belief that all the great religions of the world concur in teaching a common morality. They do not. The most inane expression of this faith is the attempt to gather all such teachings around the principle of the golden rule. Obviously the golden rule in a Hebrew-Christian context is going to work out to something quite different from what it yields in a Hindu, or a Shinto, or a Confucian context. Only a resolute contempt for the data of comparative religions makes it possible to affirm a fundamental identity. One can of course scout around and find a text here and a text there, and put them all together in some sort of mosaic of moral edification. But an isolated text is quite a different thing from a dominant tradition of persons and of principles and of practices. To say that all the world religions are the same in their ethical teachings is about as sensible as to declare that all political systems—democracy, totalitarianism, old-fashioned despotism, constitutional monarchy—are the same in their ethical teachings.

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The fact is that the great ethical religions all come from the Near East, and are continuous with each other in a common ethnic and cultural evolution. They are Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All four of these faiths interpenetrate and, to some degree, build on one another. And let us not be afraid to arrange them in a hierarchy of value. Zoroastrianism gives us the most primitive expression of the ethical impulse in its sharp and militant dualism between light and darkness, between good and evil. Except in isolated spots it is no longer a force in our world. The heights of ethical insight are reached in the Hebrew-Christian tradition. Islam, which pretends to build on Moses and on Jesus, actually marks a decline in moral genius. To speak metaphorically—Islam loses the “feminine” qualities of love, tenderness, and sacrifice, and focuses on the more obviously “masculine” qualities.

Here let me suggest that if Mr. Taubes is an apostle of pure monotheism, he is right in stressing the Christian heresy of the Incarnation. But if he is an apostle of ethical monotheism, he will be more concerned to point to the apostasy of Islam in falling below the level of moral aspiration which preceeded it.

The content of the Hebrew-Christian ethical insight is expressed quite simply in the words justice, righteousness, and love. Righteousness is the quality of a person who is resolute to do the will of God as revealed in his law and in the word of his prophets. It marks that “strictness of conscience” which Matthew Arnold declared to be the gift of the Hebrew genius, in contrast to the Greek “spontaneity of consciousness.” The justice of the Jew is distinguished from Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese conceptions of justice by its radical egalitarianism and by the way it tips the scales in favor of the underprivileged instead of the privileged. The love of persons, as exhibited in Jesus, is a love that cuts across barriers of race, religion, caste, and hygiene; and, unlike the gentle but tepid compassion of the Buddhist, it is creative, sacrificial, and redemptive.

While the Old Testament has its concern for the individual both in the Law and in the prophets, and while the New Testament has its social gospel in Luke and James and Revelation, it is well to recognize that the social emphasis is more explicit in the Old and the concern for individuals more explicit in the New. That is no reason to set off the Old and the New Testaments against one another, but it is a reason to recognize that both are indispensable for an adequate religious ethics.

Just what may be the meaning of a pure monotheism in contrast to an ethical monotheism, I am somewhat at a loss to say. Historically the passion for a pure monotheism usually converts God into some kind of monster who bears a closer resemblance to a devil than to a deity. Perhaps the best modern expression of this tendency is found in Otto’s Idea of the Holy. Otto stresses in God the qualities of awefulness, transcendence, overpoweringness—the mysterium tremendum. If it is amazing that a Protestant theologian could write a treatise on God without mentioning a single one of the moral attributes usually given him in the Biblical tradition, it is no less amazing that liberal Protestantism should at that time have reached the point of fatuity where it could acclaim such a treatise as epoch-making in its field. But it is not amazing that, in the country where Christian theology had exalted this Moloch of brute purity and power, men should soon find the awefulness of its mysterium tremendum best incarnate in an Adolf Hitler.

There is, of course, a dialectical problem in any valid ethical monotheism. God may say through the mouth of one prophet that “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” He may say through the mouth of another prophet, “My thoughts are not as your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” So the goodness of God may be explicit in his commandments for man, while in its higher judgments it may contradict our human understanding. Nevertheless, both in the degree to which we apprehend him by sight, and in the degree to which we apprehend him only by faith, he is still, for the Jew as for the Christian, the God of justice, of righteousness, and of love.

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III

Now that we have made straight the way in theology, let us confront our two “stumbling blocks”—the Torah, and the Christ. I shall deal first with the Torah.

What astonished me most in my initial reading of Mr. Taubes’s article—and after some months of reflection my astonishment is unabated—is that he could discuss the whole question of Judaism and Christianity, and mention not once an Amos, a Micah, a Hosea, an Isaiah, a Jeremiah, an Ezekiel. There were plenty of erudition, plenty of sound doctrine, plenty of keen insight—everything except the prophets! But how does one discuss the genius of Judaism, or the relation between Judaism and Christianity, without the prophets?

We have arrived at a fundamental question : what is primary and what is secondary in religious authority? Is it the church and the synagogue, the law and the code, the ritual and the sacrament, the creed and the “wisdom,” the priest, or the Scriptures, or the prophet? In terms of an ethical monotheism the answer must be clear: authority and preeminence go to that area where the direct experience of the God of justice, righteousness, and love has its most fresh and creative impact. They go to the prophets, the saint, and the mystic. This does not mean that we can dispense with the code, the ritual, the creed, the priesthood, and the ecclesiastical organization. But it does mean that these other things are secondary, derivative, and instrumental in character. To give first place to these other things is like saying that a philosophy of art, or ritual attendance at art galleries, or a mastery of the technics of art, may be an adequate substitute for the essential artistic experience either in creation or in appreciation. It must be insisted, moreover, that the problem of a Torah is by no means peculiar to Judaism. Every great religious tradition has its equivalent of a Torah—the amalgam of law, custom, ceremony, and tradition which forms the heart of its way of life. Both the Puritan Calvinist and the Puritan Methodist illustrate it in Protestantism. The true-blue Calvinist, or primitive Presbyterian, had a reverence for the minutiae of the “law of the Lord,” and the devout Methodist still has a piety toward his “discipline,” which not only duplicate the attitude of the Jew to his Torah but are in some respects its lineal descendant. The Anglican finds his Torah in the Book of Common Prayer, in the Apostolic succession, and in the observance of feasts and seasons which are anathema to his sectarian brother in Christ. Even the Baptist, who likes to boast that he is not a ritualist like the Episcopalian, merely concentrates his Halachah on what he regards as the essentials: freedom of conscience, the separation of church and state, faithful attendance at divine service, and the sometimes orgiastic ceremony of adult baptism.

Now I believe it may be argued—on objective, historical grounds—that the Torah of the Jew has unique and distinctive qualities which entitle him to take a special pride in it and to feel a special loyalty to it. The evidence to which one would point would be not merely the antiquity of the Torah, but its incredible detail, its extraordinary continuity, the fact that it was subjected to experimental testing under the most diverse circumstances all over the world, and the fact that it has entered intimately into the moral and intellectual discipline and creativity of a “peculiar people.” But it may not be argued that Christianity is primarily inward and otherworldly in its emphasis—although Mr. Taubes can find some Protestant support at this point—or that Christianity does not share with Judaism the conviction that “the intention of man’s heart and soul has to be presented and represented in his daily life.”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount may stress motives as the springs of conduct, but it is most emphatic in its teaching that the test lies in the “fruits.” Even the antinomian Paul, in his discussion of the Spirit and the Gifts—I Corinthians (12-14)—took pains to specify the faith, the hope, and the love which are the externally recognizable marks of the Christian. Moreover, in his analysis of love he actually goes into behavioristic detail as to how love functions in the conduct of the individual.

Mr. Taubes will agree, of course, that only a sterile and rigorous absolutism in religion will insist that there be one Torah for all peoples. These several patterns—the Torah of the Jew, the law of the Calvinist, the discipline of the Methodist, the tradition of the Anglican—all make for enrichment through diversification. Yet it would be unfortunate if what enriches were also allowed to divide. But this is what inevitably happens when we focus on our Torahs rather than on our common heritage of ethical monotheism. We then divide not merely the Jew from the Christian, but Christians from Christians, and Jews—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—from Jews!

Our final judgment in this affair may be expressed in a great text from Jeremiah (9:23-24)—and I trust that I am being faithful to the basic prophetic insight if I paraphrase the first verse, and quote verbatim only the second verse. Let not the wise man glory in his doctrine, neither let the just man glory in his law, and let not the pious man glory in his rites: “But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.”

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IV

As the Torah is a stumbling block to the . Christian, so the Christ is a stumbling block to the Jew.

Here, in spite of my liberal Congregationalist affiliations, I do not propose to dilute my Christology any more than Mr. Taubes proposes to emasculate his Torah. It is Christian teaching that Jesus the Christ was the Son of God, that he lived, died, and rose again, both to show us the Way and to be himself the Way. Moreover, the Christian is so powerfully convinced that everything precious comes to a focus in the figure of the Christ that he is unwilling to suffer any belittling of this rock of his salvation.

Now I do not propose here to convert the Jew to Christianity. But I shall argue that, of all non-Christians, the Jew is in the best position to entertain a sympathetic appreciation of the Christian faith. Once more the distinction between pure monotheism and ethical monotheism is crucial. If the emphasis is on the purity of the monotheism, then naturally the doctrine of the Incarnation is blasphemous. But if the emphasis is on the ethical aspect of God, then the Christian doctrine is scarcely a heresy. Because what Jesus the Christ signifies—a God who loves mankind, who is willing to share redemptively in man’s sin and suffering, who is rigorous in his prescription of the alternatives between good and evil but plenteous in mercy toward the repentant—this is sound Old Testament theology. It has its origins specifically in Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the poet of the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Not only is it deeply rooted in the whole Jewish religious tradition which preceded it, but it is quite inconceivable that such a figure as Jesus should have arisen in any other cultural context.

On the other hand, it is the most shameful blot on the record of Christianity that Christians should have exploited the Jewish rejection of Jesus to minister to Christian self-righteousness. What great prophet is not rejected by his people? Differences here are differences only in degree. Historically, of course, the rejection of Jesus by Palestine, like the eventual ejection of Gotama by India, was a precondition to the universal diffusion of the faith. Nevertheless, Jesus himself was a Jew, his twelve disciples and the apostle Paul were Jews; and Jesus consciously directed his ministry to the Jews. It is true, as Mr. Taubes notes, that the Fourth Gospel gives the whole affair an anti-Semitic slant. But if this is noted in the teaching of Protestant seminaries today, it is only to reject at this point the doctrine of John and to turn to the more generous doctrine of Paul.

Moreover, there is an element in the Christian theological-ethical heritage which speaks of those who “crucify Christ again.” And the contrite Christian knows that if it was “the Jews” who crucified Christ the first time, then over the long years it is Christians who have crucified Christ again and again. They have done this every time that, claiming his name, they have flouted his will. And they have done it to the greatest scandal when they have made their own Hebrew-inherited faith a pretext for anti-Semitism.

Now if I ask the Jew to be faithful to the logic of an ethical monotheism at a critical point—Christology—I am willing to ask the same thing of the Christian at the same point. The situation I have in mind is the recurrent one in our American culture where so often the Jew and the Protestant are aligned together against the Roman Catholic on grave questions of social ethics. To the formalist in theology the situation is an impossible one. If Protestants and Roman Catholics both believe in Christ, then they ought to side together against the Jews who do not believe in Christ. But an ethical theology will ask, not just who “believes in” Christ, but where is the spirit of Christ to be found. Jesus’ own teaching at this point is explicit: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

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V

Finally, it may be well to remind our: selves that, in our society, the problem of the relation of the Jew to the Christian is set in the larger context of the problem of the relation of the religious to the secular.

At this point the doctrine of God as Creator is fundamental. For if this world is truly his creation, we are constrained to believe that somehow or other he is made manifest in all his works. His glory is revealed in nature, his power and his justice in history, his mercy and his righteousness toward persons, and his judgment and his truth in those who know him not as well as in those who do know him. There is, in brief, no monopoly on the power and glory of God in any person, or in any place, or in any church or synagogue.

This does not mean that one may not claim that his religious heritage contains a unique, or the best, revelation of God. Indeed, I am confident that such judgments must be made in every area of life. It is no more pretentious to claim that the highest genius of an ethical religion arose in Palestine, than to assert that the Hellenic Greeks were a chosen people for philosophy, or the island of England a chosen place for great literature, or the continent of Europe a chosen place for music. These judgments of value, as even Nietzsche recognized, are a part of the fundamental business of living. If we do not know what is the best, then we have no criterion to rule out the bad, the worse, and the worst. What is heinous is to use the best to pour contempt on the comparatively better and on the merely good. It is at this point that every faith, secular or religious, is tempted to an intolerable spiritual pride,

Now the recurrent dilemma between the religionist and the secularist, as I see it, is somewhat as follows. The religionist may be giving better attention to the root of the matter—religious faith, while the secularist may be giving better attention to the fruit—the moral life. The irony of the picture is that the one who cherishes the faith may be deficient in the practice of the precepts, while the practitioner of the precepts may be busy trying to root up the very growth of which his morals are the fruit. I do not say whether it is always or frequently this way. But I do say that it is this way often enough for each party to be invited to some humility about himself and to some respect for the other fellow. At any rate, the devout ought to remember that the God of the Bible often chose to reveal himself through other means than those that were officially included among the spiritually elect.

The relation between the Jew and the Christian is not identical with that between the religionist and the secularist, but there are instructive analogies here. What is inexcusable is that the difference between the two should become an occasion for the denial of human brotherhood. Here I am sure Mr. Taubes is in agreement with me. Certainty Christians have practiced an unchristian exclusiveness against the Jew, and have even carried this over into cruelty and into persecution. In a free society like ours it is possible for the Jew to exercise the same spirit of exclusion against the Christian. I remember well my surprise the first time I discovered that a Jew can look down on a Christian as well as a Christian look down on a Jew. And I remember vividly the first time when sincere overtures of friendliness on my part came up against a barrier of Jewish exclusiveness, which slowly conveyed to me with subtlety but with firmness that here was a human fellowship to which I could never in reality “belong.”

I hasten to add that this was a most wholesome experience for me as a Christian. And by any ordinary principle of justice the Jew is certainly entitled to get in his licks in return. Yet the rendering of evil for evil is an abomination on the part of any man. Particularly between the Jew and the Christian is any self-righteous exclusiveness an affront to both the prophets and Jesus. It is a repudiation of the common religious heritage in which both share; a denial of the God of justice, of righteousness, and of love, in whom both believe; and a betrayal of those grave social responsibilities of which it is the peculiar destiny of both peoples to bear a large part of the burden.

This is not a plea that the one or the other should slight the Torah or the Christ. It is a plea that in all the desires of our heart, and in all the doings of our hands and our feet and our lips, we should not be recreant to the requirement of the Lord as it was made known through the mouth of the prophet Micah—”to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

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