A decisive hour for Jewish, Christian hope

Redemption will only come when we can trust each other enough to invite each other in and return to our shared texts.

By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI
November 29, 2012 15:29
4 minute read.
Christians in Jerusalem

Christians in Jerusalem 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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This is a decisive hour for Jews and Christians. As religiously based fundamentalism and violence flood many parts of the world, Jews and Christians have an even more urgent role to play, if we can find a way to continue to work together.

Recently 15 major Christian leaders representing major Presbyterian, Methodist, Evangelical, Lutheran and Baptist institutions sent a letter to the United States Congress demanding an investigation of Israel’s alleged misuse of US military aid. Needless to say, such an act by Christian leaders caused shock and anger in the organized American Jewish community. In its wake major interfaith events have been canceled and the relationship between the Jewish community and large sectors of the Christian community has broken down.

While the close partnership with nearly every other Christian leader and denomination continues, the interreligious and international political implications are extremely troubling and should cause much soul searching on all sides. But at this decisive hour we should also carefully consider the spiritual and ethical significance of what we share and what is at stake.

Some of my colleagues believe we should end all communication with the leaders who wrote the letter because it is an unforgivable act of betrayal. I believe that such a crisis should instead signal the urgent need to redouble our efforts in the area of interfaith dialogue. If we want these leaders, let alone the millions of Christians who agree with them, to better understand our pain and our fury, we must sit down together immediately. We must relearn shared texts about hope and ethics; we must bring these leaders to Israel and learn together more about the conflict and more about our ethical and religious responsibilities to the other, and to ourselves.

But maybe we should have known that despite all the good works and good intentions our core differences and the multicultural crucible of global politics would ultimately threaten once again to drive a wedge between us and parts of the Christian world. We may have wanted, like the Biblical Jacob and Esau, to accept each other and even love each other despite our deep differences, but perhaps we are destined to struggle.

The struggle is as old as Christianity itself. For ancient Jewish sages, Christianity represents the “other,” religiously, spiritually, culturally and ethically. This otherness originates ironically from a profound closeness – like the closeness of two fetuses in their mother’s womb.

Already in utero, Jacob and Esau began to struggle, and became two separate nations (Genesis 25:23). In later rabbinic literature Esau comes to represent the ultimate other: Esau is Edom, which represents Rome, and ultimately Christianity itself, which hates Judaism at its very core.



(Babylonian Talmud Megila 6a) But in recent years, thanks to the tremendous organizational, clerical and theological efforts to mend our historically broken relationship, American Jews and Christians were living, in many ways, in a Golden Age of mutual trust and partnership.

So for many Jews and Israelis, the Christian leaders’ letter and other major attempts to organize a wide-ranging boycott, divestment from and sanctioning of Israel represent a Christian betrayal of the Jewish people by appearing to deny our right to defend ourselves against the threats of Palestinian terrorists who seek our destruction.

What happened to the absolute post-Holocaust Christian commitment to protect Jews when others seek their destruction? This attempt at renewing trust after centuries of much Christian violence or silence in the face of our suffering was a core focus of the interfaith theological work of the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim (1916- 2003). Ultimately, without a clear Christian commitment to help ensure Jewish survival, interfaith dialogue will be nearly impossible.

In a 1930 paper Martin Buber (1875-1965), a Jewish philosopher and educator, highlighted the spiritual differences between Judaism and Christianity. But what have we in common? “A book and an expectation.” While for Christians the book is “a forecourt; [and] to us [Jews] it is a sanctuary,” in it we can nevertheless “dwell together, and... together we can redeem the imprisoned living word.”

The second difference between Judaism and Christianity that Buber spoke about is the idea of the coming of the Messiah. While Christians await a second coming and Jews a first, “there are moments when we may prepare the way before him together.”

Even though studying and working together may necessitate working to understand or transcend political differences, there are times when the capacity to work together to redeem the word and the world might be even more important.

Through the text we can relearn our shared love for God and for the good.

Remarkably, Buber held onto these sensibilities even after the Shoah and saw in the world many opportunities even for enemies to redeem the world, even the Land of Israel. There are also numerous examples of the ways in which Christians and Jews continue today to work tirelessly together to heal the ills of society and the devastation of natural disasters, healing a broken world. So much good is lost when instead we threaten and work against each other.

In this decisive hour it will be up to those who want to continue to be the trusted partners of the Jewish people to speak even more loudly for our mutual right to exist, and to help us find the way toward a redemptive peace for all. But redemption will only come when we can trust each other enough to invite each other in and return to our shared texts, to our shared truths and to our shared mission.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her column appears monthly.

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