No one, save a prophet, could have predicted the radical change in the relationship between Jews and Christians since Western civilization narrowly escaped physical and moral annihilation in the Second World War. Having narrowly escaped physical annihilation, Jews have had to look at the world surrounding us anew. There some of us have discovered Christians facing us on the immediate horizon in a new and favorable way. Having narrowly escaped moral annihilation, Christians have also had to look at the surrounding world anew. There some Christians have discovered Jews on the immediate horizon in a new and favorable way. This mutual discovery of each other in new ways can be located on three levels.
First, mutual discovery has occurred on the theological level. Through sound historical scholarship, more Christians than ever before have learned how close Christianity has always been to its Judaic roots. The current Christian retrieval of Christianity's true origins has looked not only to the Hebrew Bible but also to the Second Temple Judaism out of which Judaism until this very day has been emerging. That is why Judaism can no longer be dismissed as an historical relic, as mere proto-Christianity. Through the very same type of scholarship, Jews have discovered that Christianity is not a one-time deviation from Judaism. Rather, Christianity has been developing in a trajectory continually parallel to that of Judaism. Jews need to see how much Christianity has had to be similar to Judaism in order to continually differ from it. From this some Jews have learned that we can discuss the Torah with Christians in a way we cannot discuss it with any other gentile people. Thus Jews and Christians today have found a way to talk to and with each other that is mutually affirming and that need no longer be either offensive or defensive, as interaction so often was in the theological disputations of the Middle Ages and the ideological polemics of earlier modernity.
Second, mutual discovery has occurred on the political level. Until quite recently, the political relationship of Jews and Christians in modernity had been almost totally hostile and suspicious. Jews had been seen by many Christians as being in the vanguard of the atheistic trajectory of modernity. Truth be told, some of the most prominent atheistic theorists have been Jews, and some of the most effective public atheism has been promoted by certain Jewish organizations. By “public” or de facto atheism, I mean public policies that advocate “don't ask, don't tell” when it comes to mentioning God in political discourse—even when used by a religiously observant Jew running for the office of Vice President of the United States. Because of this sad fact, Jews have been seen by many Christians as leading the attempt to keep religion—which for the vast majority of Americans is some form of Christianity—out of the public square. Indeed, many Christians have assumed that Judaism itself is identical with the modern progressive ideal that requires the public square to include only those “naked” Christians who have divested themselves of anything Christian at all. What most Christians do not realize, however, is that the public atheism of some prominent Jews, individually or collectively, has been even more injurious to Judaism than it has been to Christianity, inasmuch as naked Jews are still more vulnerable to public disappearance than are naked Christians.
Christians, on the other hand, have been seen by many Jews as resisting an ideal of modern progress that promises political and cultural equality to the Jews. To be sure, there are Christians who still long for the premodern world they think they once controlled—a world in which Jews were inevitably political outsiders and cultural pariahs. Nevertheless, many Christians now realize that the notion that Christianity truly controlled premodern European and American civil society is in many ways a romantic fantasy. Moreover, many Christians have come to the conclusion that, even where such religious control of civil society did in fact obtain, it was as disastrous for Christian witness of the Kingdom of God as it was for justice in civil society. Thus George Weigel, when speaking of the political theory and practice of Pope John Paul II, has forcefully stated that “the ‘Constantinian arrangement' has been quietly buried” (see “Papacy and Power,” FT, February 2001). Indeed, more and more Christians now do not regard modern political secularity as something to be overcome, but rather as another new challenge to Christian survival and witness in a still unredeemed world.
It is now less common than it once was for Jews to eagerly embrace the secularist ideologies of modernity. That embrace too was a romantic fantasy—in this case about an ideal, utopian future. Fewer Jews today see the earthly Messiah in modern political secularity. In its place is a more sober and less enthusiastic relation to the modern secular political situation—neither overly negative nor overly positive. Many of us, both Jews and Christians, want the public square to be pluralistic, which is neither partisan nor naked. Theoretically, at least, this has led to the discovery of some important new political commonalities between Christians and Jews. These political commonalities should not only be noted, but encouraged. The political playing field between us is more level than it has ever been before.
We have reached a point in history, at least in North America, when Jews and Christians can recognize each other as each other's closest neighbor rather than our most threatening enemy. The power of contemporary secularism, with its enmity against religion, has forced this recognition on both of us. There is nothing like a new common enemy to force us out of old isolations. Those who still affirm that “the earth is the Lord's” (Psalm 24:1) are becoming more and more aware that we are “strangers on earth” (Psalm 119:19).
The theological and political encounter between Jews and Christians has only just begun, but it promises to provide each of our communities with innumerable opportunities for original and fruitful discussion. Yet each topic—theology and politics—carries with it so many burdens that I wonder whether it is wise to separate them in our thinking.
The shortcoming of purely theological discourse between us, even when it is informed by sound historical scholarship, is that in the end it has to conclude that our great difference is greater than all of our commonalities. Our difference, of course, concerns Jesus. Truth be told, it is precisely when we both eschew the kind of rhetoric that assumes the other can be argued into our own faith position—be that argument exegetical, historical, or philosophical—that the difference actually becomes more pronounced. Eschewing polemical confrontations in theology means that we can live better together in spite of our overriding theological difference. But after all is said and done in theological dialogue between us, theology remains a conceptualization of the language of revelation and the worship it commands, and our central institutions of worship necessarily exclude each other. Jews cannot and should not receive communion in church; Christians cannot and should not be called to the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue. That divide outweighs even the most genuine experiences of dialogical intimacy.
The shortcoming of purely political discourse between Christians and Jews arises from the fact that it is largely built upon the perception of a common enemy. For a long time now we have confronted the militant secularism that permeates so much of the culture, and which now enjoys great political power. By secularism I mean the ideological matrix that regards human-made law not only as necessary for modern life—a point which Jews and Christians who have not retreated to sectarian enclaves can readily accept—but also as sufficient for human fulfillment. It is the modern embrace of the view of the ancient sophists that “man is the measure of all things.”
This belief in secularism as a value goes far beyond the acceptance of the fact of modern secularity. All modern secularity requires is that our public norms and the arguments for them not presuppose common acceptance of Jewish or Christian revelation, even if these public norms are consistent with a particular community's revelation and the authoritative teachings it derives from that revelation. Thus Jews and Christians can only make public moral arguments that are based on ideas of the general human condition rather than on the singular experience of God speaking directly to one's traditional community. But it is ideological secularism, not the affirmation of secularity per se, that largely defines the culture of the universities, the media, the foundations, and the courts—that is, the most powerful elite culture in our society. It is what inspires them all. This culture, which is often quite self-consciously the heir of the Enlightenment, regards both Judaism and Christianity as obstacles in its quest for radical egalitarianism, which is as old as the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent that they too can become “like God” (Genesis 3:5) and thus replace God altogether. We can live in peace with secularity; we cannot live in peace with secularism as an ideal commanding its own realization in history.
Furthermore, recent terrible atrocities, especially those committed against the United States of America in the great cities of New York and Washington, have presented to Jews and Christians a very real enemy in militant Islam. This enemy despises Judaism and Christianity precisely because they both have accepted political secularity in the form of modern democracy and economic secularity in the form of capitalism.
We can, of course, find much commonality in our struggle against our common enemies. Yet this commonality could easily turn out to be one more ephemeral political alliance within modern political secularity itself. Enemies, after all, come and go, even as we remain. Current political anxiety often propels us into desperate political ventures, where we blindly embrace or are embraced by political ideologies that need no justification from Judaism or Christianity, even if they are not explicitly hostile to our traditions. When this happens, it is often impossible to discern just who is using whom. Jews and Christians should be wary of allowing Judaism or Christianity or even the commonality between them—what is best called “biblical religion”—to become the religious frosting on somebody else's ideological cake. If opposition to a common enemy is all we have in common politically, we risk slipping into all the usual political paranoia—that is, the need for a common enemy. Because of that temptation, we need to discover a commonality between us that is more positive and more enduring. For me, that commonality must come out of our concern with what Baruch Spinoza rightly called—even if he wrongly perceived it—the theological-political question, which is the third level of mutual discovery by Jews and Christians.
The theological-political question is not primarily the theological question of how we respectively affirm God, nor is it primarily the political question of how we prosecute the various wars we have to fight. Instead, it is the question of how faithful Jews and faithful Christians can enter into civil society together and survive there intact, let alone flourish there, without, however, either conquering civil society or being conquered by it. It is the question of how those who worship the Lord God of Israel, and who derive their law from this God's Torah, can in good faith join modern civil societies—which we have seen are inherently secular—and actively “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And it is the question of whether or not we need each other for that entrance into civil society.
The important thing to remember here is that although Jews and Christians participate in various societies, as Jews or Christians they are each members of one community above all others. The one is always prior to the many. These fundamental, constituting communities are even prior to political associations. There is, one might say, a profound difference between being a participant in something and being a part of something. Many Jews and many Christians are theologically and politically confused because they do not understand this essential difference and what follows from it. As Jews or Christians, we are parts of but one community—a true “body politic”—founded and sustained by God. As citizens of modern nation-states, by contrast, we are participants in civil societies and their institutions.
We Jews are part of the Jewish people, and that is our primary identity. Christians are part of the Church—the body of Christ—and that is their primary identity. Only subsequently do Jews and Christians participate in various associations, and we can only participate in these associations in good faith when we justify that participation by reference to the ends for which our own communities live and thrive. Furthermore, unlike totalitarian regimes that regard those under their political control to be dispensable and disposable parts, the Jewish people and the Church regard themselves as covenanted communities elected by God, both collectively and individually. Since God's election creates an everlasting covenant with all the members of His people, every one of us is, therefore, indispensable and nondisposable—at least in this world. We are all elected in our communities and we are all promised ultimate redemption with them—if we remain faithful with them to our God. Covenantal election, either by birth or by conversion, means that we can never be fully excluded from the people of God—at least in this world. The most that can happen to us here is that we need to be subjected at times to communal disapproval, even to the point of social isolation. But that is never permanent expulsion. The promise of reacceptance makes repentance possible and desirable. That explains why we can be loyal to our primary communities in a way we can never be loyal to any other human association of the world.
For these reasons, Jews and Christians can never regard any civil society, even that of liberal nation-states where they have thrived, as a comprehensive whole of which they are parts. No matter how much we love our current political associations, no matter how patriotic we might become when our state promotes God's law of universal justice, no matter how much we might be willing to risk our lives for the liberty of our own society, no Jew and no Christian should ever regard any other human group in which he or she participates to be the Chosen People. Only Israel is chosen, whether defined by Jews or by Christians. I do not see how any Jew can say he is practicing Judaism—or how any Christian can say he is practicing Christianity—while thinking of himself as a part of something larger, more inclusive, and thus more important than the people of God. That is the case with any worldly society, no matter how beneficent it is to us, no matter how just it is to others, no matter how noble.
To be a Jew, essentially and not just accidentally, is to regard the Jewish people as one's sole primal community. Election by the unique God requires total and unconditional loyalty to one people. All other social bonds are partial, however long-standing, however just, however lovable. No human society in which we participate can ask us to subordinate our membership in God's people to that society's ultimacy. A person can have multiple temporal locations in this world, but he or she can only be part of one body forever. Whatever other societies a Jew is connected to, he or she is only a participant therein, never a part thereof. As Augustine has taught Christians (a teaching, incidentally, that Jews can recognize as prophetic in origin), there is always a tension between the city of God and the city of man, even when it is a tension that benefits both the city of God and the city of man.
No authentic Judaism or Christianity can look to a human society for its primary orientation in the world. This theological-political fact provides a broader and firmer foundation for Jewish and Christian dialogue than any theological fact or any political fact taken separately. That is because Judaism and Christianity are religions that originate in God's election, are constituted by God's covenant, and anticipate God's redemption. Thus, when Thomas More was willing to suffer death as a martyr at the hands of Henry VIII because he insisted on being “the king's good servant, but God's first,” he did not mean that his service to God was that of the Englishman, Thomas More. Rather, he meant that his service to God was that of Thomas More the Catholic, who is a part of the Catholic Church, which, in turn, is linked directly to God. To reverse the priority of the Church to the State, as More judged King Henry to be doing, is to substitute a humanly ordained society for the divinely ordained “congregation of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:8). But God's people and human authority can only coexist when human authority takes itself to be conditional, not absolute. As the Talmud puts it about abuses of human authority becoming absolute, “To whom do we listen, to the words of the master or to the words of the pupil?”
This great difference, this great ordering of our priorities as Jews and Christians, was brought home to me several years ago by an eloquent Christian woman at a conference held at the University of Toronto. This woman was born and raised in Barbados. Her ancestors were brought there as slaves from Africa. She had originally come to Canada as a domestic servant, and then became a high school teacher in Toronto. At this conference, one of the main speakers was an African-American political activist, and the main point of his remarks was to claim that the primary definition of who we are derives from race. Following these remarks, the woman stood up and with consummate dignity made the following remarks. “Sir, I must differ with you. Of course, I am black, and being black I have suffered the persecution and discrimination that has been the lot of most blacks in Western societies. Nevertheless, I will not allow you to define me as a person by the color of my skin. I am a Christian first and foremost. I am a black Christian like I am a Canadian Christian. Both ‘black' and ‘Canadian' modify the name ‘Christian,' not vice-versa. What I ask of society is the freedom to be a good Christian and that society enable all people to be treated with just respect.”
Following this statement there was a moment of stunned silence, during which I was quite jealous that this great soul wasn't a Jew speaking for us Jews. But she did speak for at least this Jew. What she was saying is that our identity does not come from definitions like race—definitions in which, as Jean-Paul Sartre rightly noted about anti-Semitism, our persecutors are allowed to tell us and the world who we are. This woman was saying that we must not allow our persecutors to define our primary community. Jews and Christians are defined by God's relationship with us, by our election into the covenant, and how we respond to that covenantal election. In hearing this authentically Christian voice, I heard an echo of the voice of Jonah, who when asked who his god was, finally declared, “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, God of the heavens” (Jonah 1:9). Only after this admission could he go to the pagan city of Nineveh and have anything at all to say there.
This moving story illustrates two important points about the theological-political situation in which we Jews and Christians find ourselves at the moment. The first point involves something Christians can learn from Jews, and the second point something Jews can learn from Christians.
Christians can learn from Jews that to be a Christian—to be one of the two peoples in the world who are covenanted by the Lord God of Israel—is also to be but one of many peoples in the as-yet-unredeemed world. Although Christians are convinced—as are Jews about themselves—that the Church is in the vanguard of the Kingdom of God on earth, they also believe that the Kingdom of God on earth will not be brought any nearer by assuming that the Church can or should claim to rule others in the world as it is presently constituted politically. The task of any people of God is to survive in the world, and to work in the world to ensure that the political order allows for our survival and the flourishing of our faith. That means working not only for a political order in which religious liberty is the most important right, but also one in which enhancing the dignity of human life in its various forms serves as the raison d'être of the society, especially the state created by that society.
Indeed, the protection of religious liberty, which is the political right to respond to or turn away from the God who elects us, is the right on which all other rights are grounded. In theological terms, it means that humans are made in the image of God, and that they are capable of a relationship with God. In political terms, it means that civil society must be seen as subsequent in authority to this supreme relationship. Civil society must respect the prior human freedom to either accept or reject any historical revelation that purports to realize the relationship between God and humans. And revelation is in the world, not of it. This recognition that we are not ultimately beholden to the political orders of the world, that they do not own our souls, is a Jewish point best appreciated by black Christians, who have suffered great persecution and see their redemption as Christians coming from God and not from any human power. That is why black Christians more than most other Christians have so identified with the initiation of God's redemption of His people Israel in the Exodus from Egypt.
What we Jews can learn from Christians is that (regardless of whatever else we might be) we are first and foremost a religion. Now, unfortunately, many Jews and many Christians have been deluded by Jewish secularists to think that Judaism—or “Jewishness”—is not a religion because even nonreligious Jews are considered to be part of the Jewish people. Therefore, it is argued that Jews are an “ethnic group” for whom Jewish religion is an arbitrary form of identification. But this is backward. Even nonreligious Jews, even atheistic Jews, are part of the Jewish people because to be a Jew is to be a member of a community elected by God. That is fundamentally different both from choosing one's own society and the mere accident of birth. It is God who makes a Jew a Jew. It is not a human choice—neither our own, nor that of our ancestors, nor that of our enemies. Election is a fundamentally religious event initiated by God, not man. Thus those who repudiate their obligation to keep the commandments of the Torah—that is, Judaism—may have left Judaism in practice, but they are still part of Judaism by their very existence. Speaking figuratively, they have gone AWOL, but they may not be court-martialed. Of course, we practicing Jews hope and pray that these sons and daughters who have strayed from the covenantal home will return, but neither our souls nor theirs would be well served if we attempted to coerce them back into the fold.
For most Jews, election begins at birth; it thus precedes any choice on the part of the Jew. As for those who convert to Judaism, their decision must be conceived as a compulsion that originally comes from God alone. Their free consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of their being accepted as Jews. The same is true for Christians. If baptism is indelible, and if most Christians are baptized as infants, then most Christians become Christians like most Jews become Jews. This is so even in the cases of Christians who are “born again” and who are baptized as adults. Birth is, after all, the most involuntary event possible. (Incidentally, the term “born again” appears in Greek in the New Testament and in Hebrew in the Talmud.) It is only a modern, voluntaristic view of the covenant as a social contract that supposes that being a Jew or being a Christian is an individual option that is initiated or terminated by human will.
Of course, some Jewish secularists have conceived of Jewish identity along racial, even racist, lines. In the end, though, this means that it is the persecutors of the Jews who define who we are. But election into the covenant must not be taken as a matter of blind fate, as an accident of birth. If Jewish identity is conceived along racial lines, then to be a Jew today means little more than to be someone who escaped Hitler's genocide. But victimhood is not election. In the end, victimhood can only be cursed. Election, conversely, is a blessing, even if it sometimes means being more vulnerable than others in the world.
For these reasons, everything that is associated with Jewish ethnicity, including our Jewish attachment to the land of Israel and support of the Jewish state, is seen in the proper light only when it is defined in essentially religious categories. That should be our Jewish sense of self-identity, both to ourselves, to Christians, and to the various secular polities in which we now live. Neither racist definitions of Jewishness, which require no free acceptance or rejection of one's fate, nor voluntaristic definitions of Jewishness, which are based on the illusion of self-creation, can represent a coherent picture of who is a Jew. Being a Jew is neither fatal nor auto nomous. It is only covenantal. Christians who truly appreciate the covenantal character of Christianity are in the best position to understand who Jews essentially are because they understand who they themselves are.
Because some modern nation-states have demanded the total subordination of their citizens, with horrendous historical results, many thoughtful people in our society have re-embraced the idea of the social contract along liberal, Lockean lines. Like any contract, the Lockean social contract is conditional and therefore limited. Like any contract, it does not create its parties; rather, its parties create it for the sake of their own prior interests. We exist both before and after the agreement itself. We come from somewhere else, and we transcend the agreement by our insistence on a right to return whence we came.
But where is that “somewhere else”? Indeed, those secularists who think that the democratic polity itself is their true home often weaken democracy by denying the legitimacy of any place beyond it. They have “nowhere else” to return to at the end of the political day. As such, they cannot coherently limit the power of the state and the civil society it makes possible. They can only hope to capture that power in order to realize their own partisan interests. Unlike the philosophers of Plato's ideal republic, these doctrinaire secularists do not strive for a vision of a transpolitical good, one beyond all human procedures. For them, what you see now is all you ever get. No wonder they are so impatient with Jews and Christians, who do have such meta-political, even metaphysical, commitments.
Secularists, whether self-identified or not, can be either liberals or conservatives. Despite their apparent differences, most of those who now call themselves liberals and conservatives accept the idea of the social contract and its corollary of the moral necessity of a limited state. They differ only on what should limit the power of the state. Moreover, contemporary liberals and conservatives each accept the most basic liberal idea that individual persons are fundamentally possessive in nature. The specific difference between them seems to be that conservatives emphasize the possession of material property, whereas liberals emphasize self-possession—that is, the possession of their own bodies. As the Talmud once noted, some people prefer their property over their bodies; other people prefer their bodies over their property. (But the Talmud assumes that we are to love God more than either our property or our bodies.) Both liberals and conservatives seem to want to be able to look forward to long weekends away from their political world, when and where they can enjoy either their property or their bodies. So much for keeping the Sabbath holy.
Because the idea of bodily self-possession is used by most liberals to justify such biblically prohibited practices as abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual unions, many thoughtful Christians and Jews have been gravitating in a more conservative political direction of late. The conservative—or, perhaps, “libertarian”—idea of possession of material property is less likely to be used as a warrant for biblically prohibited practices than the liberal idea of self-possession. Only when it comes to a perceived indifference to or rejection of biblically mandated concern for the poor do some conservatives seem to be religiously objectionable. Furthermore, whereas most liberals today seem to explicitly derive their morality from their secular political commitments, more conservatives seem to explicitly derive their morality from such pre-political commitments as biblical religion. The drift of Jews and Christians toward conservatism is thus understandable.
Nevertheless, Jews and Christians, as distinct from either liberals or conservatives today, come to the social contract not as individuals but as fully communal beings. The covenant characterizes a divinely chartered human community which, although not perfect in itself, testifies to the perfect Kingdom of God. As such, we can make the promises any contract presupposes because we are already bound by the covenantal promise of God, the initial part of which has already been fulfilled. We live in the city of God, however weak it now appears. We are only passing through the city of man, however strong it now appears. We do not look to the city of man for our salvation, now or ever. Indeed, those who look to the city of man for their salvation are inevitably disappointed and thus often become tempted by a dangerous cynicism.
This is precisely how Jews in medieval Europe were able to live with integrity in Christian polities. It was because the Christian monarchs with whom they could contract did not require the ultimate existential commitment of the Jews. In other words, they offered the Jews a secular modus vivendi. In contrast, when the ultimate existential commitment of the Jews was required by Christian monarchs—as it was in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in their demand for conversion or expulsion—faithful Jews had to remove themselves from such societies.
Jews and Christians must be wary of any social contract that has a beginning but no final limit. Being a human device, such a contract can only be a rival to the covenant made by God with His people, which also has a beginning but no final limit. Hence any contract Jews and Christians enter must be both humanly initiated and humanly terminable. Only then can the covenant truly transcend this political arrangement. Civil society must be our challenge, not our temptation. Fortunately for us, the type of democratic polity that has emerged in the West does not require the absolute commitment required by God and His covenanted community. Only secularist totalitarianisms have attempted to replace the covenant with their own absolute claims on our total existential commitments. That is why Jews and Christians have such a stake in the success of the democratic polity. And, indeed, because our entrance into the social contract comes out of our covenantal commitments, we Jews and Christians can enjoy a far greater personal attachment to our social contract with a democratic polity than we could to any private contract negotiated between merely individual parties.
The entrance of Jews and Christians into the social contract as communal beings, already socialized elsewhere, means that we bring forms of human community to civil society that need to be officially recognized by civil society and the state for the sake of our own communal interests. We also bring these forms of human community to civil society for the benefit of all its citizens, even those who are secularists. These two purposes function in tandem. It is in our communal interest to live in societies that affirm in law and public policy what we consider to be universally just. Only in such a political order can Jews and Christians live our own communal life in a way that does not make us, in the deepest sense, outlaws.
Moreover, the forms of human community we bring to civil society, such as marriage, are so socially beneficial that most of us would not object to their being appropriated even by those members of civil society who do not want to have any religious affiliation at all. Indeed, our desire should be to give more to civil society than we take from it. That too makes the social contract more like a biblical covenant, especially more like “the covenant between the king and the people” (2 Kings 11:17). Indeed, it can be shown historically that even Lockean notions of the social contract were very much influenced by the covenantal political theology of the English Puritans.
Now, of course, our common Jewish and Christian definition of marriage is currently under siege. It is very important that serious Jews and serious Christians stand up and take notice of what is happening and what is at stake. We are witnessing a concerted attack on the traditional idea that marriage is a heterosexual union. Many secularists now argue that marriage should be understood as a publicly sanctioned “relationship,” and that the sex of the participants, even the number of participants, in that relationship is irrelevant. In other words, their view of marriage is essentially contractual. All that is required of the participants in such a relationship is that they be consenting adults.
That is quite different from the biblical idea of marriage in which man and woman “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). That is, in our idea of marriage, only “a man and a woman” can be parts of one flesh in the same sense that Jews are truly parts of the Jewish people, and Christians are truly parts of the Church. Only a man and a woman can work with God in the creation of one flesh. That is not only a point made in biblical revelation; it is a matter of natural justice. That is why we can argue for it in the context of civil society and the law of the state. It is not something that is confined to our religious preserve. Carefully thinking out the best rational defense of this now vulnerable social institution by Jews and Christians will bring about more theological-political unity than a more narrowly “political” strategy ever could.
Jewish and Christian interests are thus parallel in many matters. But do we have something more than just parallels going for us? Is there some point at which we truly intersect?
On the theological level, as we have seen, we do intersect in the sense that both Judaism and Christianity are the traditions of two separate communities who are still emerging out of the same Hebrew Bible and the same Second Temple Judaism. The recovery of that reality has been an exercise of fruitful commonality between Jews and Christians of late, especially among our scholars. And that scholarship has had an effect on our broader communities, too. Nevertheless, theological intersection is limited by the agreement of both sides in the Jewish-Christian dialogue to avoid proselytizing. That necessarily means that we cannot make our full truth claims to each other theologically and expect the other side to sit still and listen to what could only be perceived as conversionist rhetoric. As such, theological dialogue between Jews and Christians can only work when these ultimate claims are consciously bracketed. That is why many Jews and Christians have stayed away from the dialogue. But today, truth be happily told, many Jewish and Christian theologians have begun to speak to each other under this constraint in good faith and with good results. Yet, at this point, our lines are still more parallel than perpendicular. Our theological intersection is little more than the affirmation of our common beginning.
On the political level, however, we can intersect with each other in the present and do so with less caution and restraint. But as we have seen, political intersection commonly ends up taking the form of ephemeral political alliances in the secular world. Here, too, our present political lines are more parallel than perpendicular. It is thus on the theological-political level that a deeper and more enduring intersection can and should be found and nurtured.
One of the greatest Jewish political theologians is the third century (Christian era) Babylonian rabbi, Mar Samuel of Nehardea. One of his most important aphorisms reads: “The only difference between the days of the Messiah and this world is the rule of the earthly kingdoms.” The Messiah is an essentially theological-political reality. On this messianic level, one can see the greatest Jewish-Christian difference. Christians think the Messiah has already come; we Jews think the Messiah is yet to come. Yet the contrast with the world of modern secularism is far more dramatic. For secularists, there is no Messiah. Only those who wait for the Messiah's arrival or return can hope for a truly transcendent future and steel themselves against the allure of a fantastic, and impossible, utopia. So our greatest commonality, our most lasting intersection in this world, takes place when we understand each other to be waiting for the Kingdom of God—the coming-world—and refuse to settle for anything in this world as a substitute.
It is on this matter that we perpetually intersect, as we continually pass by, one another. We appear to collide at various oases in the wilderness because we are both travelers who can only temporarily rest before the end of the journey. And that restlessness includes—or ought to include—our refusal to be satisfied with whatever power we have in this world. We must refuse to see the Kingdom of God as an imperious extension of our own, rather pitiful, earthly power. The intersection of our mutually hopeful anticipation of the end is more positive and more profound than our current, ephemerally political alliances against common enemies, and this intersection surpasses our various theological conflicts in this world. As T. S. Eliot put it, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
It is when we better understand how and why we both need to carefully pass through the earthly kingdoms, whichever ones they might be, and when we refuse to take short cuts around them into a global future or flee away from them into a sectarian past, that we have the most in common. It is this journey itself that is common to us both, even when at any fixed point it is traveled separately and alone. Recognizing that might well enable each of us and both of us to transverse this world, this vale of tears, with more hope, more compassion, more care, perhaps even with more joy. “Let them go from strength to strength; let each one of them appear before God in Zion” (Psalm 84:8).
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. This article is based on the fifteenth annual Erasmus Lecture of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which was delivered on November 26, 2001, in New York City.