Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

A Rabbi Walks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner

Excerpted from chapter 4 of “The Root and the Branch”, Rabbi Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.

We have seen that the ideal of religious liberty has deep roots within the Jewish tradition. It is an even more pronounced feature of the spiritual landscape of American life. It is noteworthy that the First Amendment to the Constitution is dedicated to safeguarding freedom of religion, even before all other rights are set forth.

This emphasis upon religious liberty, imbedded deeply in the law of the land, has developed the unique American doctrine of the separation of church and state. It informs and complicates every discussion of the status of religion in society and of the extent and limits of the rights of organized religion in such fields as education and public morals.

Upon this platform of religious freedom, the American people has sought to build a structure of religious understanding and mutual respect. No phenomenon on the social scene is more characteristic of the optimism and basic good will of the American people than the “interfaith movement.” Thirty years have elapsed since the interfaith movement was launched with genuine idealism and high hopes, and in the interim it has grown in prestige, program, and personnel.

Yet, today, one seems to detect a widespread recognition that much more needs to be done, that there has been too much concern with the shadow rather than with the substance of intergroup relations. It will not do to content ourselves with affirmations of good will and mutual admiration. It is not enough to stress “the things that unite us,” genuine though they be, unless we also come to grips with the controversial issues – which is to say, the live issues – that divide Americans of various religious persuasions and of none. If our religious and ethical tradition is to prove a blessing and not a curse, we cannot evade the problems, both ideological and practical, that bedevil intergroup relations in twentieth-century America.

The conviction that a new approach is needed is now widespread. Some of the leading agencies in the area of interfaith work are therefore reaching for new goals and new techniques. From all sides, the American people is being called upon to cease repeating avowals of brotherhood and to begin practicing it in the field of ethnic relations, both at home and in our relations with other nations abroad. In the area of religious differences, a Christian theologian has expressed the growing recognition “that Christians need to reopen discussions with the ancient people of God as well as with the other great faiths of the world.”

There undoubtedly exists a genuine need for a fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, the two religions of the Western world that are linked together in a unique embrace of kinship and difference. It has been repeated time without number – and yet it remains true – that there are substantial areas of agreement between these two faiths, which share a common historical background and revere the same Scriptures as the Word of God. No theological subtlety should obscure the similarity of outlook between Judaism and Christianity with regard to the nature of God, the duty of man, and many other aspects of their respective world views.

It is, however, necessary to recognize that similarity is not identity. As we have already noted, each tradition possesses a varying emphasis, a difference in timbre that gives even to the elements they have in common a well-marked individuality. Hence what is dominant in one religion is frequently recessive in the other, and biblical texts of unassailable sanctity in both traditions occupy widely different positions in the hierarchy of values in each.

There is no need to add further examples. The Christian-Jewish dialogue, if it is to be fruitful, must reckon with the elements of similarity and of difference – and with the subtler and more significant aspects that partake of both. The enterprise therefore requires high resources of mutual sympathy, insight, learning, and candor.

It is this last-named quality that suggests the importance of some ground rules, if we are to have a true dialogue between the participants and not merely a monologue moving in one direction. In order to advance this significant enterprise, it is essential to keep in mind five principles that should be self-evident but all too often are ignored.
1. The time is overdue for abandoning the well-worn contrast constantly being drawn between “the Old Testament God of Justice” and the “God of Love of the New Testament.” Every competent scholar, Christian and Jewish alike, knows that the Old Testament conceived of God in terms of love as well as of justice, just as Jesus’ God manifested himself in justice as well as in love, for justice without love is cruelty, and love without justice is caprice. Professor J. Philip Hyatt of Vanderbilt University has been particularly articulate in emphasizing the attribute of love in the Old Testament conception of God.

It is, of course, not enough to use a biblical concordance to find the word “love” and to use the statistics of its occurrence as a proof. Often it is necessary to penetrate beneath the vocabulary to the meaning. Thus, in pleading with God for the wicked Sodomites, Abraham calls out, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). The term that is used as “justice,” not “love,” but the God who is prepared to spare the sinful city of Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men is manifestly a God of love.

In the Decalogue itself, God is similarly described as punishing evildoers to the fourth generation but as showing mercy to his loved ones to the thousandth (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10). Central in the Hebrew tradition is the theophany which follows upon God’s forgiving the Israelites for the grievous sin of the Golden Calf. In phrases echoed throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is praised as “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” and the same distinction is drawn: “He keeps mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and not destroying utterly, though He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

When we move from the Mosaic age to the period of the later prophets, the emphasis is even stronger. The prophet Hosea had suffered a deep personal tragedy; his affection for his wife and trust in her were cruelly betrayed by her unfaithfulness. But his love triumphed over his indignation, and he saw in his relationship to his erring wife a prototype of God’s love for his people, which he expressed in the language of the marriage covenant:

And I will betroth thee unto Me forever,
Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and justice,
In loving-kindness and compassion.
And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness;
And thou shalt know the Lord [Hosea 2:21-22].

God’s love for his wayward children finds expression both in his affection as well as in his exasperation:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son….
I drew them with cords of a man,
With bands of love….
And I fed them gently [Hosea II: 1-4]

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee?
O Judah, what shall I do unto thee?
For your goodness is as a morning cloud,
And as the early morning dew [Hosea 6:4].

Amos is conventionally described as the stern prophet of the God of justice. That he stresses divine justice is true, but that he ignores divine love is not. One has only to penetrate beneath the surface of his prophetic soul to sense the love that he knows God feels for his sinful children:

Hate evil and love good,
And establish justice in the gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of hosts,
Will have compassion on the remnant of Joseph [Amos 5:15]

O Lord God, forgive, I beseech Thee;
Now shall Jacob stand, for he is small?
The Lord repented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” saith the Lord [Amos 7:2, 51.

That same spirit lives in Amos’ vision of national forgiveness and restoration:

In that day will I raise up
The tabernacle of David that is fallen,
And close up the breaches thereof,
And I will raise up his ruins.
And I will build it as in the days of old [Amos 9:11]

And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel,
And they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them;
And they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine;
They shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit [Amos 9-14].
To cite one more instance, the Book of Jonah reaches its poignant climax in God’s own words to the Hebrew prophet, spoken with reference to the capital city of the archenemy of Israel, the Assyrians:

And the Lord said: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” [Jonah 4:10-11].
Finally, the Hebrew word for “righteousness,” zedakah, is frequently joined in the Old Testament to that most tender of all divine and human virtues, hesed, the full depth of which eludes the most skillful translator. Even the renderings “loving-kindness” and “steadfast love” seek in vain to transmit its meaning. No wonder that zedakah, “righteousness,” became the Hebrew term for “charity” as well.

In order that the dialogue be genuine, let it be remembered that the God of both components of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the God of justice and of love.
2. Closely related to this unwarranted distinction is the widespread practice of contrasting the primitivism, tribalism and formalism of the Old Testament with the spirituality, universalism, and freedom of the New, to the manifest disadvantage of the former.

This contrast between the Testaments is achieved by placing the lower elements of the Old Testament by the side of the higher aspects of the New, but the process is as misleading as would be the results of the opposite procedure. Thus, one of the most sympathetic and appreciative students of the New Testament, Claude G. Montefiore, writes in an eloquent passage in his Synoptic Gospels (11, 326):
Such passages as Matt. XXV: 41 should make theologians excessively careful of drawing beloved contrasts between Old Testament and New. We find even the liberal theologian Dr. Fosdick saying: “From Sinai to Calvary – was ever a record of progressive revelation more plain or more convincing? The development begins with Jehovah disclosed in a thunder storm on a desert mountain, and it ends with Christ saying: ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth’; it begins with a war-god leading his partisans to victory, and it ends with men saying ‘God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him’; it begins with a provincial Deity, loving his tribe and hating his enemies, and it ends with the God of the whole earth worshipped by a ‘great multitude, which no man could number, out ot every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues’; it begins with a God who commands the slaying of the Amalekites, ‘both man and woman, infant and suckling,’ and it ends with a Father whose will it is that ‘not one of these little ones should perish’; it begins with God’s people standing afar off from His lightnings and praying that He might not speak to them lest they die, and it ends with men going into their chambers, and, having shut the door, praying to their Father who is in secret.” (Christianity and Progress, p. 209.)

Very good. No doubt such a series can be arranged. Let me now arrange a similar series.

“From Old Testament to New Testament – was ever a record of retrogression more plain or more convincing? It begins with, ‘Have I any pleasure at all in the death of him that dieth,’ and it ends with, ‘Begone from me, ye doers of wickedness.’ It begins with ‘The Lord is slow to anger and plenteous in mercy’; it ends with, ‘Fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.’ It begins with, ‘I dwell with him that is of a contrite spirit to revive it’; it ends with ‘Narrow is the wav which leads to life, and few there be who find it.’ It begins with, ‘I will not contend for ever; I will not be always wroth’; it ends with ‘Depart, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire.’ It begins with, ‘Should not I have pity upon Nineveh, the great city?’; it ends with, ‘It will be more endurable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for that city.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord is good to all, and near to all who call upon him’; it ends with, ‘Whosoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, there is no forgiveness for him whether in this world or the next.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord will wipe away tears from off all faces; he will destroy death for ever’; it ends with, ‘They will throw them into the furnace of fire; there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”‘

And the one series would be as misleading as the other.

3. Another practice which should be surrendered is that of referring to Old Testament verses quoted in the New as original New Testament passages. Many years ago, Bertrand Russell, whose religious orthodoxy is something less than total, described the Golden Rule “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as New Testament teaching. When the Old Testament source (Leviticus 19:18) was called to his attention, he blandly refused to recognize his error. This, in spite of the fact that both the Gospels and the Epistles are explicit in citing the Golden Rule as the accepted Scripture. Jesus refers to it as “the first and great commandment written in the law” (Matthew 22:38; Luke 10:27), and Paul describes it as “a commandment comprehended in this saying” (Romans 13:9).

In an excellently written tract (“I Believe in the Bible,” published by the Congregational Christian Churches, p.7), the author contrasts the God who “orders Agag hewn to pieces before the altar” with the God “who taught through St. Paul, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’ (Romans 12:20).” If Paul were citing chapter and verse in his labors, would he have failed to point out that he was quoting Proverbs 25:21 verbatim?
4. Moreover, the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity can be mutually fruitful only if it is always kept in mind that Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament, though obviously rooted in it. To describe Judaism within the framework of the Old Testament is as misleading as constructing a picture of American life in terms of the Constitution, which is, to be sure, the basic law of the land but far from coextensive with our present legal and social system. Modem Judaism is the product of a long and rich development of biblical thought. It possesses a normative tradition embodied in the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as the Responsa and the Codes of the post-talmudic period. By the side of this dominant strand are the aberrant tendencies, sectarian and heretical, that were never without influence and cannot be ignored. These include the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, recently enriched – and complicated – by the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Middle Ages, building upon their biblical and talmudic antecedents, created the strands of philosophy, mysticism, legalism, and messianism, all of which contributed to the character of modern Judaism.

In the modern era, as every informed observer knows, the various schools, conventionally subsumed under the headings of Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform, do not begin to exhaust the variety of religious experience and approach which are competing for attention in the market place of ideas in the Jewish community.
5. Finally, it is necessary for modern Jews to rise above the heavy burden of historical memories which have made it difficult for them to achieve any real understanding, let alone an appreciation, of Christianity. It is not easy to wipe out the memories of centuries of persecution and massacre, all too often dedicated to the advancement of the cause of the Prince of Peace.

Theological discussions inevitably raise the ghosts of the compulsory religious disputations so beloved of the medieval church. In these debates, the Christian defender was often a convert from Judaism, deeply hostile to his ancestral faith, and generally ignorant of its contents. Eager to display the proverbial zeal of the neophyte, he attacked Judaism with all the weapons of malice and ignorance at his disposal. The Jewish protagonists, on the other hand, were often rewarded with exile or other punishment for statements that could be construed as critical of Christianity.

More than medieval memories enter into this heritage. The extermination of six million out of the seven million Jews living on the European continent was actively carried out by Hitler, but the process was not actively opposed by the free nations of the world who fought him in the name of Christianity and the ideals of Western civilization. Moreover, there are cynics who maintain that anti-Semitism is not yet totally dead in the free world almost two decades after Hitler. It is therefore no easy task for Jews to divest themselves of the heavy burden of group memories from the past, which are unfortunately reinforced all too often by personal experiences in the present.

Nevertheless, the effort must be made, if men are to emerge from the dark heritage of religious hatred which has embittered their mutual relationships for twenty centuries. There is need for Jews to surrender the stereotype of Christianity as being monolithic and unchanging and to recognize the ramifications of viewpoint and emphasis that constitute the multicolored spectrum of contemporary Christianity.

Christian dogmatics are perhaps at the furthest possible remove from the viewpoint of Jewish tradition and are totally unacceptable to the committed devotee of Judaism. Yet the Jew should see in Christian doctrine an effort to apprehend the nature of the divine that is worthy of respect and understanding. Moreover, he should recognize that the dogmas of the Christian church have expressed this vision of God in terms that have proved meaningful to Christian believers through the centuries. These have ranged from the most simple-minded to the most profound, and each has found it possible to find his spiritual home within the framework of Christian thought.

The Jew will not surrender the conviction that the emphasis upon the Unity and Incorporeality of God which is basic to Judaism must ultimately prevail. At the same time, he should seek to understand the complexities of life and human destiny which have led Christianity to evolve such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection. The Jewish alternatives cannot fairly be presented to the world unless the Christian understanding of the human situation is fairly grasped. It should be added that the full Christian tradition, like its Jewish counterpart, includes those whom the church stigmatizes as heretics and not merely those who are glorified as its heroes.

Moreover, there are basic emphases in Christianity that can perform a highly useful function for Judaism. For they compel a perpetual re-examination of the content of Judaism and an unending vigilance against the perils that are inherent in its world view, as in any other. The dialogue between the two faiths might well address itself to the tension between law and freedom, the relationship of the material and the spiritual, or the dichotomy between the letter and the spirit, issues with regard to which there is a difference of emphasis in Judaism and in Christianity.

The Christian doctrine of Original Sin, particularly as reinterpreted by such contemporary thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr, has already influenced the thought of many exponents of Judaism. It has served to reveal the dark depths within the human soul, which an easy and superficial optimism has tended to overlook. In the area of human relationships, the Christian stress upon universalism vis-a-vis particularism, or the ethics of self-abnegation as against the ethics of self-fulfilment, which will be discussed below, can contribute significantly to the spiritual health of Judaism by helping to guard it against the exaggerations which threaten every valid human insight. Contrariwise, the Jewish approach to these issues, as the present work seeks to make clear, can be of inestimable value to the Western world, the roots of which are Christian and, by that token, Hebraic in substantial degree.

Thus a rational dialogue conducted on the basis of knowledge and mutual respect between the two components of the religio-ethical tradition of the Western world can prove a blessing to our age.

But the dialogue can be fruitful only if it is fair. It is true that if we reckon with the full dimensions of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of the dialogue between the two faiths is immeasurably complicated. Yet without such an understanding the enterprise is stultifying. Men were not promised that the truth would be simple – only that the truth would make them free.

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