Jewish Religious Polemic.
by Oliver Shaw Rankin.
Edinburgh University Press. 256 pp. $4.50.
Disputatiousness has often been regarded as a singular characteristic of the Jewish mind: “Tell me something and I will refute it.” Yet Socrates in the Platonic dialogues is hardly a less fiery debater than the Rabbis of the Talmud and many other philosophers, including Fichte, Schelling, and even Kant—not to mention several Fathers of the Church—were the authors of extremely embittered and aggressive polemics. Plato himself found “dialectics” to be in the very bloodstream of the philosopher and even of the religious thinker. Thus there is no cause for surprise, embarrassment, or invidious comment in regard to what is, after all, a comparatively small body of Jewish religious polemic, a few specimens of which, hitherto mostly unavailable in English, are here presented by the late Christian theologian Oliver Shaw Rankin of Edinburgh University.
The first of these pieces, indeed, the Midrash Divre ha-yamim shel Moshe, is so subdued in tone that it hardly seems a polemic. Rankin interprets Pharaoh’s remark to Moses and Aaron in the Midrash (“There is no deity of any of the lands can do as I do. Mine is my Nile and I created myself”) as a veiled reference to Caligula’s boasts about his own divinity to Philo of Alexandria when in 40 A.D. the philosopher tried to persuade him to exempt the Jews from the religious obligations of the Emperor cult. The Chronicle of Moses, according to this view, was intended to remind Jews who were commanded during the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. to adore their imperial Roman rulers as gods that the once mighty Pharaoh perished despite his claims of divinity.
Considerably more marked in its polemic, or rather self-defensive, character is a poem Zichron Sefer Nitzachon D’Rabbi Lipmann (“A Memoir of Rabbi Lipmann’s Victory”), which dates from the 15th century, though some parts of it were probably written earlier. This poem challenges the perennial Christian charge that the Jewish refusal to believe in the Trinity and in the doctrine of original sin is a sign of perverse “obstinacy.” According to a widespread Christian tradition (preserved to some extent in our own day, as Rankin points out, by Karl Barth), belief in the Trinity is sanctioned in the very first verse of the Bible, where God is called by the apparently plural designation Elohim. The Jewish author of the Zichron does not enter into any discussion of the refinements which the Christian dogma of a three-personed God underwent in philosophical speculation; and a dispute of this kind would certainly have been out of place in dealing with the great majority of pugnacious Christian missionaries or hostile Jewish proselytes. He simply contents himself with the sober observation that, though the word Elohim seems indeed to be a plural, it is grammatically treated in the first verse of Genesis and elsewhere strictly as a singular. But beneath this cool grammatical analysis, there is a tone of unique Jewish fervor in defense of the Shema, that higher rational devotion of Judaism to a deity who is one and only one, one indivisible beyond and above any non-rational dialectical subtleties.
As for original sin, from which, according to Christian dogma, man can be cleansed only by faith in the Son of God as his Redeemer, Rankin rightly observes that there is in the Zichron “something of the scorn which the theological speculation of the Church must have raised in the minds of Jews, to whom it was represented that their revered forefathers had been detained in Hades as though they were the ‘seed of evil-doers’ awaiting liberation through the atoning death of Jesus.”
The weariness of political and moral struggle, the thirst for unconditioned all-forgiveness and immediate salvation, were among the principal motives which drove the Roman world into the arms of Christianity, away from the moral stubbornness of Stoicism and the challenge to moral effort in Judaism. All the more heroic, then, is the vigor with which Judaism remained unyielding and uncompromising in its primary demand of moral effort without reliance on redemption by any other power which itself confesses that it represents only “a son of man.”
These and similar ideas and feelings also appear in the other pieces assembled by Rankin, especially in the famous debate that took place in July 1263 at Barcelona, Spain, in the presence of King Jayme (James) and his nobles—a public discussion between Moses ben Nach man (also called Nachmanides or the Ramban) and the Dominican monk Fra Paulo (known also as Pablo Christiani), a baptized Jew.1
And again, similar tensions between Jewish and Christian beliefs press to the fore four hundred years later, about 1642, in an exchange of letters between an anonymous Jew of Amsterdam and the baptized Jew, Johann Stephen Rittangel, Lutheran Professor-extraor-dinarius of Oriental languages in the University of Königsberg, translator of and commentator on the Cabbalistic work Sefer Yetsirah, and immediate forerunner of the best-known Christian Cabbalist Christian Knoor von Rosenroth. In this correspondence and in the grand dispute at Barcelona, the principal topic is, once more, the question of whether hard moral labor is necessary for the betterment of mankind and the coming of the Messiah, or whether man hopelessly laden with original sin can be redeemed only by faith in a divine savior, the son of God who has already appeared on earth as the all-redeeming Messiah.
Certainly many details of the argument on either side seem antiquated today, but, allowing for medieval techniques of thought, the Jew generally appears in these discussions as considerably more open-minded and emotionally more flexible than his opponent. Nachmanides in particular showed an unusual measure of diplomatic skill and self-control coupled with great audacity and firmness when, before the King of Aragon, he dared to argue that the day of the Messiah could not as yet have come since the world was still full of violence and war. Citing Isaiah’s prophesy that swords would be beaten into ploughshares in the Messianic age, he went so far as to say, “And how hard it would be for you, my lord the King, and for those knights of yours, if they should learn war no more.” True, he had been granted freedom of speech by his monarch so long as he did not speak “disrespectfully” of Christian teachings. Yet when he published an account of his discussions with the Dominicans and the king, he was banished for two years “from the scene of his labors” and in 1267, at the age of seventy, he had to leave Spain for good and emigrate to Palestine.
Rankin’s commentaries on these four pieces of Jewish polemic are lucid and instructive in hacking through the vast piles of learned linguistic and exegetic lumber which often (even in his own notes) can obscure the lasting vitality of the issues at stake. In his remarks on the Zohar and other mystical Jewish literature, the late Scottish scholar, unfortunately, was unable to take account of the extended research in this field by Gershom Scholem and other Israeli scholars. But Rankin’s reflections on Jewish apologetics are animated by a quiet, warm, and amiable sympathy with the difficulties faced by these defenders of Judaism, and the dignity and courage with which they performed a hazardous assignment often very crudely imposed upon them. This volume indeed offers—in the words of its editor, Norman W. Porteous—“an example of fair-mindedness and charity which . . . will do something to promote that mutual understanding between two great faiths which was a concern very near” the author’s “heart.”
A study of the documents presented by Rankin might well serve to erase the widespread prejudice—which has been so largely fostered by Heinrich Heine’s poem “Disputation”—that the old religious controversies between Jews and Christians amounted to nothing more than meaningless quibbling and ridiculous overzealousness on both sides.
1 See “A Debate at Barcelona” in “Cedars of Lebanon,” October 1956.