keeping the faith 88.
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I recently participated in a high-level conference between Christians and Jews discussing our relationships and especially focusing on the question of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel and what it means to Jews and Judaism.
I was struck once again by the importance of such dialogues, by the need to make certain that they do not become mere exchanges of platitudes and by the difficulties that such meetings entail. I was reminded of the saying about America and England - that we are two peoples divided by a common language. Similarly, Jews and Christians are two peoples divided by a common heritage - our Bible - that we call the Tanach and they call the Old Testament. This common heritage does not always bring us together. Sometimes a common heritage can divide rather than unite.
For Christians, our Bible is important as a proof of the validity of their claims concerning Jesus' messiah-ship and divinity. They read the Tanach through the eyes of the Christian Bible. We read it through the eyes of rabbinic tradition and it comes out like a very different book.
Furthermore, they read it at the most as a basis for a new covenant - that is what new testament means - and at the worst as a book whose teachings and commandments were made void through that new covenant.
Thus there are certain problems that are inherent in Jewish-Christian relations due to Christian belief. Although the problems differ from church to church, they also have much in common. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, it has always had to justify its break with the mother religion and usually has done so by positing that Judaism was superseded by the new belief and that the new belief was somehow superior to the old. Christianity has also had to deal with Judaism's refusal to acknowledge either the messiah-ship or the godhood of Jesus, to say nothing of Christian scripture's negative depiction of the Pharisees and of the Jewish role in the death of Jesus.
Furthermore, Christianity has always had a tendency to spiritualize the Bible, and that includes the land - as if the promises to Abraham were not about a specific land in a specific place for a specific people but about some heavenly domain in the far-off future. There has also been a tendency to posit a discontinuity between ancient and modern Israel, as if the Jews of today are not a continuation of the people of Israel talked about in the Bible. Promises made to them do not apply to today and the State of Israel therefore has no relationship to the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Part of the problem has been the Christian view of Jewish dispersion from the Land of Israel as a punishment. James Carroll, a Catholic author, recently wrote about this. "...Christian theology... required the exile of Jews from the Holy Land precisely as a proof of religious claims." Augustine, he continues, argued that Jews must be scattered throughout the world to give witness that Jesus fulfilled the ancient promises. This evolved into an understanding of exile as punishment for Jewish rejection of Christian claims. Carroll points out that Pope Pius X replied to Herzl, who asked for support for Zionism, that "If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you."
How different this is from the Church's recent actions and statements, as demonstrated by the visit of John Paul II to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. Nevertheless, Carroll concludes with this warning, "Contempt for Jews and Judaism is ancient. Such impossible threads weave invisibly through attempts to reckon with Israel's dilemma, forming a rope that trips up the well-intentioned and the unaware, even as others use it, as so often before, to fashion a noose."
Ironically, the churches that have the most positive attitude toward Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel are the fundamentalist evangelical churches. But their attitude is based upon the belief that the return of the Jews to Israel is a prerequisite to the "second coming," which in the end will result in the conversion of the Jews. Their attitude also results in their support for the most radical right-wing elements in Israel, frequently in opposition to the position of the Israel government itself.
The Catholic Church seems to have found a way to reconcile itself in a more positive way to Jewish sovereignty in Israel. It remains to be seen if mainline Protestant churches can do the same.
It is always wise to attempt to understand one another and to speak to one another. But in so doing we must never be afraid to speak the truth and to voice our true convictions. As we read in Pirke Avot in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: The universe stands firm because of three things: justice, truth and peace. We must pursue justice and speak the truth - only then will there be peace.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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