Baker Academic

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Peril of Jewish-Christian Friendship

The following is an excerpt from my recently published, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God. I wrote this book before the resurgence of neo-Nazism in American public discourse. Just a year ago, I had no idea how important Jewish-Christian friendship would become for our political discourse. I am more convinced than ever that inter-religious dialogue (especially with those who collectively remember what the early stages of Christian-baptized Nazism looks like) has a great deal to teach us as we fumble through a new political phase.

In this section, which occupies the troubled heart of the project, I interface with Richard Rubenstein. While I never met him in person, his writings have had a profound impact on me.

. . . .
I write these personal paragraphs in this chapter to explain how philo-Semitism has become integral to my faith. In keeping with my discussion of peril, I know that allowing anything to become entangled with my faith is dangerous. As odd as it might sound, my commitment to philo-Semitism has made me aware of a tendency that comes dangerously close to a personal crisis for me.

Richard Rubenstein’s book After Auschwitz is still as devastating today as it was when it was first published in 1966. When I first read it, After Auschwitz stopped me in my tracks for about a month. I could think of almost nothing else. Rubenstein explains how very dangerous Christian theology can be. I ultimately part ways with Rubenstein’s abandonment. He feels he must leave behind myth and the belief in a personal God. And I will ultimately want to nuance his portrait of Christianity. I must acknowledge, however, my debt to his book. It has given me vocabulary and definition that I did not have before. Rubenstein, in light of the Holocaust, believes that Jews must reinvent Judaism without the myth of Israel’s special status.

[He writes] "After the experiences of our times, we can neither affirm the myth of the omnipotent God of History nor can we maintain its corollary, the election of Israel. After the death camps, the doctrine of Israel’s election is in any event a thoroughly distasteful pill to swallow. Jews do not need these doctrines to remain a religious community."

Rubenstein observes that after the death camps, Jews (I do not think he can speak for all Jews) embrace a renewed dignity, strength, and vitality and live within the pain and joy of the present. He seeks no “pathetic compensations” in hope for a future life beyond the grave. “It is either this or return to an ideology which must end by praising God for the death of six million Jews. This we will never do.” Rubenstein nods to the place of lament within Judaism. The lament psalms, for example, have given Israel sacred space to accuse God and to protest God’s lack of action in the face of catastrophe. Almost all of the lament psalms, however, end in praise. Rubenstein, in referring to and then rejecting an “ideology which must end by praising God,” refuses to live within that mythology. “We will never again regard ourselves in the old mythic perspectives.”

It is possible that Rubenstein is voicing his vision for the future of all Jews. It is also possible that he refers to himself when he says “we” (as he seems to do elsewhere in the book). Whatever the case, it should go without saying that Rubenstein does not speak for all Jews. Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust are many and varied. [. . . .]

Where Rubenstein’s commentary becomes most challenging for me as a Christian is in his indictment of philo-Semitism. After expressing his abandonment for Israel’s special relationship with God, Rubenstein observes that Israel’s doctrine of election seems to be indispensable for Christians. He pinpoints an almost certain truth about Christian identity in this observation. “Unless Israel is the vessel of God’s revelation to mankind [sic], it makes no sense to proclaim the Christ as the fulfillment and climax of that revelation.” Christianity, in his view, requires Israel’s mythology more than Judaism does. “I see no way in which the believing Christian can demythologize Israel’s special relation to God without radically altering the meaning of Christian existence.” He then laments that as long as Christians require Israel’s doctrine of election, the Judeo-Chrisitan encounter will continue to be tragic. Because the consequence is that the Christians will continue to encounter Jews and Judaism as myth and abstraction. If so, we Christians will not be able to encounter the humanity of our closest neighbors.

His statement is so close to the mark that it is worth feeling its impact even without nuance. How much of Christian philo-Judaism is informed by a “mythological Jew” narrative? And if we cannot encounter the humanity of our closest neighbors, don’t we risk losing a crucial element of our own humanity?

. . . .

In the remainder of this chapter, I part ways to a degree with Rubenstein. But I post this as a singular unit to underscore the complexity of the problem. It could be that I move too quickly to a solution in the book. We Christians have a long history of dehumanizing our religious neighbors because we think our theology demands it. I remain convinced that Christians are (in large part) good people who mean well. At the same time, good people who lack self-awareness in times of crisis can become complicit in great moral failures.

I remain committed to a faith informed by Jewish-Christian friendship. But (as with all things related to my faith) I do so with a great deal of fear and trembling. I get the sense that I am tinkering with delicate things that are of enormous importance all too inadequately.


1 comment:

  1. I recall at about age 9 in the early '50s seeing a newsreel in the movie theatre of the discoveries after the war. It's a vague recollection. Last night I saw the play The Children's Republic at the Belfry theatre a few blocks away from us. The lead parts were all played by children except for the doctor and the matron who ran the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto until its destruction. A solo violinist accompanies the play from beginning to end. Props are as sparse as bread was for the hundreds of children in that orphanage. The timing and dialogue were also sparse and very effective. The violinist was a recent Syrian refugee to Canada who trained at the Damascus conservatory. The play is about the holocaust, the lead musician in this case played by a Muslim. We cannot go on without real dialogue that goes past our worst fears.