To the Editor:
In his review of my book, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, David Hazony concludes that it “presents a skewed and deeply misleading understanding of the Jewish tradition” and that “the ‘promise’ of its title does not just remain unfulfilled but is very nearly betrayed” [Books in Review, January]. Mr. Hazony is wrong and uninformed in every criticism he hurls.
Mr. Hazony objects to my claim that the Christian doctrine of the trinity is a problem for Judaism but not a complete break with it. If the latter were the case (as Mr. Hazony thinks), the medieval Jewish authorities would have declared Christianity a form of idolatry. But the consensus of Jewish rabbinic opinion is that, at least for Gentiles, Christianity is a monotheistic faith.
Maimonides went so far as to assert that Christianity and Islam “serve to clear the way for king messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord” (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 11:4, uncensored version). Christianity is even ahead of Islam in one respect: “It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to draw them close to our religion . . . because they believe in the text of the Torah . . . though they frequently interpret it differently” (Responsa, no. 149). The trinity is certainly a serious problem for Judaism, but it does not warrant the severing of Jewish-Christian relations.
When I was asked several years ago to sign Dabru Emet, a statement about Jewish-Christian relations signed by rabbis and Jewish theologians, almost all non-Orthodox, I refused. As I explained in a letter to Commentary (April 2002), readers of Dabru Emet
could easily be misled into concluding that there are no really difficult theological differences between [the two] faiths. Two of the most intractable of these are the divinity of Jesus and Christianity’s abrogation of Mosaic law—neither of which is mentioned in Dabru Emet.
It is ironic that in view of such a published statement and many others, I should now be accused of crypto-Christianity.
Mr. Hazony rejects my claim that “no interpretation of Judaism which is unable to construct a plausible platform for Jewish unity is a viable interpretation of Judaism.” He points out that “throughout the ages, Baalists, Sadducees, early Christians, Karaites, Sabbateans, and others were rejected by mainstream Judaism precisely because of their ideological commitments.” But Mr. Hazony refuses to face up to the fact that no matter how false the ideology adopted by any Jew may be, he or she remains a Jew. If before Passover I sold my leavened bread to Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris, I would be prohibited from consuming it after Passover because it was always in the possession of a Jew. Ideological differences among Jews are important, but a Reform Jew born to a Jewish mother remains a Jew, regardless of how deeply I disagree with his interpretation of Judaism. That may not appeal to Jewish rationalists, but it is authentic Judaism.
Contrary to Mr. Hazony’s claim, I do not maintain that Jewish theology needs Christian theology in order to advance. Jewish theology marches to its own drummer. But this does not mean that Jewish theology cannot learn from Christian, Muslim, and other theologies. Once again, we need to listen to Maimonides, who, as he wrote, gleaned some of his ideas “from the words of the philosophers, ancient and recent, and also from the works of various authors, as one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds” (Foreword, Eight Chapters, emphasis added).
In addition to my Torah education, which is at the center of my religious identity, I have learned much from thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, not least when I had to formulate a Jewish response to their ideas—just as Maimonides learned from Muslim theologians. I am sorry if this makes Mr. Hazony suspect the purity of my Judaism. A self-confident Judaism—like the Judaism of Maimonides—should not fear interaction with a daughter religion.
New York City
David Hazony writes:
Michael Wyschogrod claims that my review of his book is “wrong and uninformed in every criticism,” yet he neglects to address my main argument—that in his effort to promote a Judaism that can best interact with Christianity, he distorts central tenets of Jewish faith. His letter also manages to misrepresent both my opinions and his own.
I never claimed, for example, that Jewish-Christian relations should be “severed,” or anything similar. On the contrary, I believe that Jews and Christians have a great deal to gain from dialogue and cooperation. Yet it seems intuitive that a theological dialogue can be fruitful only if the interlocutors are unembarrassed about what distinguishes the two religions. To downplay the classic Jewish aversion to notions like the multiplicity of God or His incarnation in flesh can only deprive a dialogue of any honest representation of the very tradition it purports to include.
As for his own views, Mr. Wyschogrod claims he does “not maintain that Jewish theology needs Christian theology in order to advance.” But that is exactly what he does claim, repeatedly, in Abraham’s Promise. To cite just one example, his essay on the Protestant theologian Karl Barth begins with a sustained account of how his own theology depends on Christian thought: “Christianity,” he writes “is heir to an exceedingly rich theological tradition. . . . The result is that a dialogue with Christianity advances Judaism theologically and compels it to examine problems it might not otherwise have done.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with choosing to study other traditions in order to sharpen or deepen one’s understanding. But Mr. Wyschogrod takes this a radical step further. As I noted in my review, his central theological proposition—that the Jewish people is not fully distinct from God but possesses “incarnational elements” that are “very real”—is, quite simply, alien to Judaism. It contradicts the straightforward reading of pretty much anything that qualifies as a source of classical Jewish thought.
To all appearances, the Bible, Talmud, midrash, and medieval philosophical sources reject the idea of an incarnate God. To suggest that Israel—depicted in the Bible as the paradigm of human fallibility—is in fact a form of God is to upset the biblical scheme of creation, responsibility, and redemption. For this reason, Maimonides, whom Mr. Wyschogrod tries to enlist in his defense, explicitly posits the non-corporeality of God as one of the thirteen core principles of Jewish faith. This was my central criticism of Mr. Wyschogrod’s theology, and it is one he leaves unchallenged.
So bound is Mr. Wy-schogrod’s conception of Judaism to the idea of God’s incarnation in the Jewish people that it is no surprise he should view Christianity as fertile ground for Jewish theology. To my claim, for example, that Judaism is built not only on peoplehood but also on important ideas about God and man—such as the unity of the divine, the strict separation between God and creation, the moral underpinnings of the law, and so forth—Mr. Wyschogrod responds lamely that Cardinal Lustiger is still Jewish enough to make Mr. Wyschogrod’s leavened bread forbidden after Passover. In his view, it would seem, Judaism has very few core ideas of its own. This is evident not only in his insistence that Christianity “advances Judaism theologically” but also in his insistence that Jewish law is devoid of important moral principles or ideals. (“Do I really understand why God wants me not to murder? . . . The moment I refrain from murder on other grounds than that God forbids it, I have embarked on a slippery slope.”) It is similarly evident in his assertion that any interpretation of Judaism, regardless of its content, must be considered a part of the religion—a position that has no resonance in either Jewish history or Jewish classical philosophy.
I agree fully with Mr. Wyschogrod’s statement that “a self-confident Judaism should not fear interaction with a daughter religion.” But which is more likely to foster such confidence: a radical distortion of Judaism, embracing the belief that God became flesh, downplaying rejection of trinity, and denying that Jewish law has any meaning other than obedience, or a straightforward reading of the biblical and talmudic sources that suggests a more robust, independent tradition of Jewish theological and moral thinking?