The theological contacts between Jews and Christians during much of the premodern period are best characterized as disputations. Even when not engaged in face-to-face argumentation, Jews and Christians spoke about each other in essentially disputational terms. Disputational thinking took two forms: one that might be called rejectionist; the other that might be called accommodationist. In rejectionist-type disputation, each religion regarded the other as something to be totally delegitimized. For Christians, as is well known, this meant that the Jews were in fact impostors, people claiming still to be the elect nation of Cod, Israel, when in truth the Church had superseded the Jews in that role. The very existence of the Jewish people as a religious community separate from Christianity was regarded as a fundamental affront to the new religious community with whom Cod had now made his permanent covenant. The legitimacy of the Jews qua Jews was something that belonged only to history. It was the nature of the affront that those properly relegated to the past were insisting on being present and extending themselves into the future, all the while denying the Christian view of both present (kairos) and future (parousia). The social, economic, political, and legal ramifications of this rejectionist view of Jews and Judaism were enormous, considering that so much of premodern Western civilization was indeed Christendom, where Christians held political power and justified their power in Christian terms. Because Jews did not wield power over Christians, Jewish rejectionism as regards Christianity did not find political expression. Nevertheless, that rejectionism certainly existed (and still does exist in some Jewish circles), and it influenced Jewish attitudes toward Christians and Christianity from the beginning. The sources upon which this Jewish rejectionism drew bear close examination because they admit of more than one interpretation and more than one application. We can begin with the rejectionist charge of idolatry. It can be well demonstrated that, as far as Jewish biblical teaching goes, idolatry is proscribed only for Jews. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there any explicit prohibition of idolatry for gentiles. This distinction appears to he based on the fact that idolatry is a sin only subsequent to Israel’s becoming covenanted with Cod. The essence of the biblical prohibition of idolatry is “You shall have no other gods in My presence” (Exodus 20:3). In biblical teaching, God’s omnipresence is not something inferred from the experience of nature. Rather, it is something declared by revelation. Once Cod has appeared to his people and covenanted with them, no other god is thereafter acceptable for them. That is why idolatry is so often compared to adultery. Adultery can only occur in the context of a marriage. So (in this view anyway) with idolatry: there is only a sin after Israel is in the covenant. Those outside the covenant lack the very precondition for culpability for the sin of idolatry. Only Israel can be guilty of it. And although the Bible recognizes the existence of individual non-Jewish monotheists, they are regarded in one way or another as “invisible” extensions of the covenanted people of Israel. On the level of peoples, monotheistic Israel (at least in principle) was on one side and all the polytheistic gentile nations were on the other. “Our Cod is in heaven, doing whatever he wants; but their idols are silver and gold, the works of human hands” (Psalms 115:3-4). The idea of a monotheistic community of gentiles was simply inconceivable. In the rabbinic period, beginning just before the onset of the Common Era, this neat division between Jews and gentiles radically changed. During this period there emerged the doctrine of the Noahide laws, which are seven categories of commandments considered binding on all humankind (i.e., the descendants of Noah after the Flood). While various disputes occurred among the rabbis about the precise nature of these laws, and even whether they are more or less than seven in number, in every version of them the prohibition of idolatry for gentiles is prominently featured. The proscription of idolatry is no longer a corollary of the covenant with Israel. Rather, it both antedates it (the Noahide laws predate the Sinaitic laws) and it reaches beyond it (humankind extends farther than the boundaries of Israel). This doctrine radically changed the way Jews looked at the non-Jewish world. Whereas in the biblical view the non-Jewish world was regarded as one idolatrous monolith. varying only in terms of the moral quality of their ethical practices, in the rabbinic view the non-Jewish world was now rent in two: one part idolatrous; the other part monotheistic. The doctrine of Noahide law, in particular the doctrine of the universal prohibition of idolatry, gave Jewish thinkers the criterion they needed to judge the two religions among whose adherents they bad to live from late antiquity on: Christianity and Islam. Generally, Islam, because of its strict monotheism and its absolute prohibition of images, received a more positive judgment than did Christianity, with its trinitarianism and its use of images even in connection with worship. Because of this, in a number of areas of Jewish law that govern contacts between Jews and non-Jews, Muslims were judged more favorably than Christians. At this level, then, the Jewish rejection of Christianity was every bit as harsh as the Christian rejection of Judaism. Whether, given the opportunity, this harsh Jewish judgment of Christianity would have translated itself into the same congeries of restrictions that Christians in fact imposed on Jews is, like all historical speculation, unanswerable. One certainly cannot say it would have been impossible. It is worth mentioning this in light of the tendency of some well-meaning Christians, sincerely committed to improving the Christian relationship with Judaism, to assume that all malevolent obstacles to that improvement come from the Christian side and that from the Jewish side flows only benevolence. Christian malevolence, to be sure, bad more of an opportunity to assert itself in history than did Jewish malevolence. But the purposes of theological dialogue are much better served by the assumption of two active and responsible partners than of one who is active (and guilt-ridden) and the other passive (and self-righteous). It is fortunate for those committed to the improvement of the Jewish-Christian relationship that the rejectionist interpretation of the classical Jewish sources as they apply to Christianity is not the only option available. In the later Middle Ages, there emerged in the Jewish community a more positive view of Christianity, one that could be termed accommodationist. In this view, Christianity is not judged to be idolatrous. The reasons for this new judgment were basically two”one strictly theological, the other more juridical. On the theological level, it was now assumed that despite Christian worship of the Trinity, the ultimate object of Christian worship and allegiance is the God who is creator of heaven and earth. In other words, Christians and Jews are really bound to the same God, albeit in different ways. The difference between Judaism and Christianity, in the rejectionist view a difference in kind, is in the accommodationist view one of degree. In the latter view, the difference between Jews and Christians is that Jews in the covenant have a direct, unmediated relationship with God, whereas Christians through Jesus have an indirect, mediated relationship with this same God. Moreover, the Northern European Jewish thinkers who advocated this view (unlike their contemporary counterparts in Spain) were in no wise adherents of Aristotelian philosophy and its natural theology, which argued that God’s existence could be demonstrated outside of historical revelation. That being the case, it can only be assumed that they extended this theological approval of Christianity on the grounds that Christianity accepted the creator God as he bas revealed himself in the Hebrew Bible. On the juridical level, it was now recognized by many Jewish thinkers that Christianity had explicitly accepted the moral teaching of the Hebrew Bible as normative. And, unlike Islam, it accepted that source of its moral teaching precisely because it is God’s revelation to his people Israel, and it is as Israel has preserved it in Scripture. Thus, Christianity was now regarded by many”though by no means all”Jewish thinkers as a lesser version of Judaism for gentiles. This type of accommodationist theology is still very much part of the thinking of those traditional Jews who have a generally positive view of Christianity as a gentile religion. Indeed, the basic logic of this position bas easily recognizable analogues in that Christian thinking about Jews that maintains a generally positive view of Judaism. For the accommodationist, the body of Israel (or the body of the Church) extends, in a descending sense to be sure, beyond the range of its literal adherents. For all the attractiveness of this accommodationist approach”certainly when contrasted with its rejectionist alternative”it is still inadequate on both historical and philosophical grounds. On historical grounds, it is inadequate because it takes what is essentially a late medieval view and catapults it into contemporary discussion, in effect ignoring the intervening critique of modernity. But modernity must be first understood and then overcome if the Jewish-Christian relationship is to establish firm contemporary grounding; it cannot simply be skirted. On philosophical grounds, this form of accommodationism is inadequate for purposes of dialogue because its portrayal of the other faith (whether by Jews of Christianity or by Christians of Judaism) is one that the other faith”in good faith”cannot possibly accept about itself. There can be no true dialogue when each side is relating to a phantom of its own projection, however benevolent that projection might be, rather than to a view of the other side that the other side can truly accept about itself. Christians cannot be genuinely faithful to their covenantal commitment by regarding themselves as essentially Jewish derivatives. And Jews cannot remain genuinely faithful to their covenantal commitment by regarding themselves as essentially proto-Christians. The view of accommodationism is one that is only theological, taking theology in the strictest sense, namely, without the incorporation of philosophical and historical perspectives. And it is cogent in precisely those areas where there is no real interrelationship between Jews and Christians and where there neither can nor should be one. At this interior theological level, what might be termed the sacramental life of each respective community, each community must regard its own truth as superior to all others. At best, these other truths can only be regarded as fragmentary versions of it in some way or another. Nevertheless, although this interior level is where the heart of each religious community must be recognized and guarded, it is not wholly sufficient for the full life of that community in the world. This was less apparent before the Enlightenment than it bas been since. Before the Enlightenment, religious communities could live in far greater isolation than they could in its aftermath. The growing interaction between religious communities in the post-Enlightenment world requires all of them to engage in self-critical reflection, which in order to be fully theologically informed must extend beyond theology proper into the areas of philosophy and history.
IIThe coming of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, with its subsequent political emancipation of the Jews in Western Europe, radically changed the context of all social and cultural relationships. The relationship between Jews and Christians can be seen as a prime example of that radical historical change. Until that time, the relationship between Jews and Christians, viewed from either side, was one whose ultimate meaning could be located only within the overall covenantal relationship between God and his people. The relationship between God and his people was always the one having absolute primacy, the one that had basically to determine all human relationships, whether those within the covenanted community itself or those between the covenanted community and the outside world. With the Enlightenment, all that changed within Western European (and, by extension, American) culture. Where God had been the measure of all things, man now occupied that central role. The Enlightenment emphasis was on the primacy of man as a rationally autonomous ethical being, fully capable of constructing a meaningful world for himself. In this view, every human being is to be considered as an end-in-itself, as Kant most famously put it. The structure of all human relationships is to be philosophically worked up from that intuition. Under the new dispensation, theology bad to justify itself ethically by means of various forms of philosophical argumentation. The relationship between God and man, with which theology (Jewish or Christian) is primarily concerned, could now only be postulated if it contributed to the elaboration of ethical theory Moreover, the only divine-human relationship that this new anthropocentrism would tolerate was between a postulated deity and the human individual. As for the more historically grounded covenantal relationships between God and peoples, the only role left for them and the patterns of ritualized culture they had produced was that there be selected from among them those practices that could be justified as contributing to the overall functioning of the ethically autonomous individual. It was now widely assumed that complications of theology, whether with regard to Protestant-Catholic relations or to Christian-Jewish relations, needed to be bracketed, if not set aside altogether. For Christians and Jews, acceptance of the Enlightenment project could be seen as that which enabled them to relate to one another in the foreground as ahistorical individuals while relegating to the background historical baggage they still carried with them as members of covenanted communities. Secularism now offered what seemed to many Christians”and to even more Jews”a simple solution to what had been a complex and tortured situation, one entailing much intolerance and suffering. John Courtney Murray wrote sympathetically of the attraction of secularism for many modern Jews:
There is the ancient resentment of the Jew, who has for centuries been dependent for his existence on the good will, often not forthcoming, of a Christian community. Now in America, where be has acquired social power, his distrust of the Christian community leads him to align himself with the secularizing forces whose dominance, he thinks, will afford him a security he has never known.
IIIBut modernity has problems of its own. The inadequacy of the modern, secularist alternative to medieval disputationism (whether of the rejectionist or accommodationist type) is that it assumes that humans can transcend their traditions and simply reconstitute themselves in an ahistorical realm, one whose simplicity and transparent rationality will overcome the complexities of the past. But as Alasdair MacIntyre has recently argued, this Enlightenment project is a failure by its own criterion of the transcendence of historical limitations. MacIntyre (along with others) has shown that the Enlightenment itself is as much a product of its own particular culture as that which it proclaimed to have successfully overcome. If all thinking, then, is conducted within the context of a cultural tradition, it would seem to be done more consistently and more fruitfully when it is explicit about its own contextual limitations and does not pretend to be what it is not and cannot be. This historical contextualization has even been shown, as in the work of Thomas Kuhn, to be applicable to the thinking of the natural sciences. If the notion of the transcendence of history will not work in thinking about the natural sciences, how much more vulnerable is it in thinking about something like the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, where historical considerations must always be kept in play? Jews and Christians in the postmodern era can establish an authentic relationship only when they attempt to discover where their respective traditions overlap, where they form a common border before the world. No such authentic relationship can arise out of the positing of some new neutral position that will allow both sides to transcend restrictive and commonly resented traditions. At this stage of history, Jews should realize that the Enlightenment project took much more from them than it gave. The Enlightenment project asked Jews to divest themselves of everything that made them unique and to become part of a new social order where a similar divestment was to be made by everyone else as well. The fact was, however, that these “others,” namely the Christian majority, were not required to do anything so radical. They were merely required to translate their tradition into terms that could be taken in a more rational and a more anthropocentric sense than previously. But at the end of the day, virtually all of the traditional Christian symbols remained intact, however much they might be recontextualized. From the fact of this unequal demand, it was clear that under Enlightenment terms Jewish-Christian mutuality was essentially illusionary. The illusion was not cost-free. Secularized Jews, having already divested themselves of just about everything that made them singularly Jewish, puzzled over the failure of Christians to do the same. When these secularized Jews became impatient with what they took to be Christian recalcitrance in this secularizing project, when they demanded that it be speeded up, many Christians turned resentful. Jews came to be seen as the enemies of Christian tradition, indeed of all tradition. This negative impression was not helped by the fact that, for the most part, those Jews most conspicuous in the politics of secular society were those least Jewish in terms of their religious commitment. Meanwhile, the vast majority of religiously committed Jews tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, carefully guarding the ethnic isolation that a secularized and secularizing society has been willing, at least to date, to humor as the product of a quaint tribal enclave.
IVToday, when the pretensions of the whole Enlightenment project are becoming ever more apparent. those Jews and Christians who still believe that their respective religious traditions can speak to them and to the world beyond them have an important opportunity to speak to each other in a new way. If thoughtful members of both communities become adequately aware of the moment they now occupy in history, and are prepared to reexamine their respective traditions for the resources there to be developed, then the Jewish-Christian relationship has a significant chance of becoming something more enriching than it has ever been before. Here is where the theological challenge lies, understanding “theology” now in its wider rather than its stricter sense. The pretensions of the Enlightenment project have been nowhere more apparent than in the very area where it claimed to have staked out fundamental new ground: ethics. The notion of the human individual as a rational, self-legislating being has been challenged as an affront to the human connection both with history and with nature. In either case, the connection is violated when the essence of humanness is posited to be homo faber, man as self-sufficient creator. On the historical level, it has been shown that ethics primarily functions as the norm for humans-in-community. The voluntary associations of human beings characterized by contractual arrangements (as in the “social contract” so persistently advocated by Enlightenment thinkers from John Locke in the seventeenth century to John Rawls today) are clearly subsequent to and dependent on the anterior ways humans are related to each other through communal bonds. These bonds are prior to human invention and stipulation. For this reason, much of traditional ethics has been concerned with familial relationships. This reality is one to which the Enlightenment is simply unprepared to address itself because it fits neither within the domain of the individual, at the one end of the ethical spectrum, or within that of the state at the other. These are the only two domains which the Enlightenment can recognize and constitute. In our age, when there is so much confusion over issues of ethics that are family issues in one way or another, the Enlightenment and its adherents have little to say. In the Enlightenment view of the world, ethical issues regularly get reduced to issues of civil liberties, which is increasingly being shown to be a far too simplistic category to guide society in dealing with such complex moral problems as incest, abortion, divorce, and substance abuse. Although new challenges in this area call for fresh thinking on the part of all members of society, Jews and Christians are better prepared than most to deal with them, at least insofar as they have not severed their links with tradition. Since the family is the prime unit in the transmission of tradition (indeed, tradition itself has little meaning for those uprooted from family), it stands to reason that the grave familial problems our society faces can be effectively approached only within the context of tradition. On the level of nature, it is becoming ever more evident that the pretensions of homo faber as the essential definition of humanness are the prime source of the worsening ecological crisis we face. We suffer from technological programs based on the assumption that the earth is an infinite resource at our disposal, something that belongs to us and is to be used for whatever project we happen to be creating in our own image. It is not just that we need a more intelligent technology, one more sensitive to the long-range effects of our own projects than has been the case heretofore. Rather, technology itself is now the issue in the sense that we are being required to rethink our mutual relationship with our fellow inhabitants of the earth, both human and nonhuman, and with what lies beyond the surface of this planet. This latter point is most immediately impressed upon us of late by issues pertaining to the atmosphere and extraterrestrial projection. Here again, without arguing a fundamentalist claim to have a ready-made answer for every question that might arise, Jews and Christians are in an advantageous position to face grave issues in relation to nature because they have been nurtured by the doctrine of creation. That doctrine has taught us that not only are we humans not the works of our own hands”“he made us and not we ourselves” (Psalms 100:3)”but that the earth itself “is given to humankind” (Psalms 115:16) not for its own disposal but only “to work for it and care for it” (Genesis 2:15). The exalted place of man and woman in the order of creation, precisely because it is not of their own making but a ministry to which they are appointed, is what makes the commandment to them to be responsible for the rest of earthly creation intelligible. Thus Jews and Christians, both informed by what they have learned about the integrity of creation from the Hebrew Bible, need not try to invent ecological ethics de novo. Indeed, that project itself is trapped in a paradox: How does one invent a criterion for containing invention? Rather, Jews and Christians have a resource for developing approaches to ecology that respect both the integrity of creation and the integrity of the unique human creature therein, one who is in some ways part of it and in some ways is not. The question, then, is how can Jews and Christians bring these considerable resources to the world at large. The first point is that neither Jews nor Christians can do it alone, not at least in a society like ours. For in America today, the usual secularist reaction in dealing with any message brought to society by a particular community is automatically to assume that the message is from a “special interest group,” one whose motives are those of self-interest, even when hidden behind a rhetoric of altruism. In this view, the task of secular society is to balance the message of any one community against those of other communities and to try to work up some sort of consensus among all of them. And if the secularists doing the balancing are old-fashioned Enlightenment rationalists, the development of this consensus will become one where the rights of the individual remain the ultimate criterion for judging the often conflicting claims of various particular communities. Jews and Christians in our society have all too readily fallen into this secularist trap and been naively willing to constitute their message to the world under the rubric of special interest. They have reasoned that such an adjustment is necessary to their survival”or at least their effectiveness”in a secular world. But by so doing, Jews and Christians have lost sight of who they are and what their message to the world really is. For the true claims of Jews and Christians are based on the doctrine of revelation, which means that they are essentially the recipients of a message about the world, one given to them from the only source who can see the world from the perspective of transcendence” sub specie divinitatis. They claim to be recipients of the word of God, the God who created the world and who promises to redeem it. When, however, such a message is proclaimed exclusively by one community, especially one making triumphalistic claims about itself whose net effect is to delegitimize all other communal claims, the public credibility of the message becomes highly suspect. For the claims of the community for itself seem more emphatic than the message proclaimed to and for the world, and so appear to be just another case of special pleading by yet another special interest group in society. By setting itself up to be so categorized and characterized, any religious community negates the very intent of its message. When, on the other hand, Jews and Christians discover their common border that faces onto the world and devise means for the joint proclamation of certain truths they hold in common, the public credibility of their message increases enormously. It increases most of all because the animosity which, unfortunately but truly, characterized so much of their relationship throughout history is now seen to be overcome by the two communities themselves. It has been the secularist assumption that the only way to overcome interreligious animosity is essentially to remove religion from public influence altogether. However, the religious communities themselves are beginning to accomplish for themselves and for the world what secularism could not do because it demanded what is culturally impossible. When Jews and Christians have something in common to say to the world, especially when that message is not one that simply promotes some issue of immediate benefit to the communities themselves, secularist stereotypes about the necessarily antagonistic character of religious public discourse fall by the wayside. Moreover, it stands to reason that if something is true for the world at large, that truth should surely have been discovered by more than one community in isolation. This joint proclamation of certain truths about the nature of the human person and human community as created historical realities cannot be accomplished, however, in a didactic way. It cannot be done in a way that basically says to the world. We already have the truth, and you must now accept it from us. Such a method of relating to the moral issues of the world cannot suffice for two reasons. In the first place, Judaism and Christianity do not operate from the same basis of authority. In both communities, it is not the unmediated voice from Scripture that is in itself normative, but rather it is the voice of Scripture as interpreted by the traditional community and its structure of authority. At this level, Judaism and Christianity cannot speak with the same voice; they cannot and dare not jointly proclaim “thus saith the Lord.” The word of God for each community is materially inseparable from the communal medium that proclaims it. Christians cannot in good faith look to Jewish authorities for the normative meaning of the word of God any more than Jews can in good faith look for it to Christian authorities. The only way this could be accomplished without total surrender of one religious community to the other would be through some sort of syncretism, and the dominant authorities of both traditions have been rightly suspicious of any such syncretism and have carefully proscribed those practices that seem to express it. They have been properly suspicious of syncretizing tendencies because those tendencies imply that human creation can ultimately overcome what God has originally ordained and revealed. The way that Judaism and Christianity can jointly proclaim certain normative truths about the human condition without lapsing into the surrender demanded by proselytism, syncretism, or secularism is to affirm what Jewish tradition and Christian tradition have taught about general revelation. General revelation is historically antecedent to the special revelation that each community respectively claims as its own basic norm. Moreover, it still functions even after that special revelation has occurred. For Jews, this is the affirmation of the revelation to the children of Noah as being something that extends beyond the revelation to the children of Israel at Sinai. For Roman Catholics and some Anglicans, this is the affirmation of natural law as something that extends beyond the divine law. For some Protestants, surely for many from Lutheran or Reformed backgrounds, this is the affirmation of the orders of creation as something that extends beyond the Gospel. In all these traditions, it needs to be added, what is “beyond” is certainly not what is “higher” on any scale of value. Quite the contrary, what is more general is lower on that scale of value, a point that Jews who affirm the divine election of Israel and Christians who affirm the Incarnation can readily understand. Nevertheless, what is more general and lower on that scale of value is not therefore without any value at all. This general revelation, which makes itself manifest in certain universal moral principles, is one that is most immediately accessible to human reason. It does not require a covenantal experience wherefrom the religious community proclaims it to the world. It can be discovered within ordinary human experience. It must be seen from within that experience as encompassing those conditions necessary for authentic human community to be sustained. Yet the religious communities do not in affirming these moral principles dissolve into some general human community. For they must insist all along that these principles are only necessary for authentic human community. They are not in themselves sufficient for authentic human fulfillment. That can only be appropriated through revelation and consummated by salvation: the ultimate redemption of the world by its creator God. Although the religious communities of Judaism and Christianity cannot legislate this minimal human morality (indeed, when they attempt to do so they most often retard its social impact, especially in a democratic setting), they can provide it with an overall ontological context, a continuing vision of its original grounds and its ultimate horizon. Without that continuing vision, the very operation of human moral reason, indeed all human reason itself, flounders. Reason cannot flourish for long in an ontological vacuum, that is, in an otherwise absurd universe and in an Otherwise aimless trajectory of human history. The constitution of the relation between God’s revealed law and universal moral law is an intellectual operation that will be conducted differently not only by the respective religious communities themselves, but by adherents of particular theological and philosophical tendencies within those communities. Nevertheless, the recognition of the similarity of the problematic, coming as it does out of that which both communities accept as Sacred Scripture”the Hebrew Bible”can lead to a new mutuality. This new mutuality is one that allows each community to maintain its own faith integrity in relationship with God, with the members of its own covenant, with the members of the most proximate religion (which I hold is, for Jews, Christianity), and with the world beyond. Finally, this new mutuality requires that both communities respect the integrity of the secular order, and do so with theological cogency. In America, that means respect for the novus ordo seclorum, carefully distinguishing its legitimate moral claims from the illegitimate philosophical claims of those who would insist that secularism can be its only sufficient foundation. This respect for the integrity of the secular order requires Jews and Christians to repudiate those ultra-traditionalist elements in either community who wish simply to annul modernity in toto and return to their nostalgic vision of some form of theocratic polity. Both Jews and Christians should have learned enough from modern history to know that the only means available for restoration of any such ancien regime come from Fascism in its various guises”the most hideous caricature of the Kingdom of God. Whether the possibility of this new Jewish-Christian relationship will be realized in and for our time will depend in large measure on the theological ingenuity, philosophical perspicacity, and historical insight of leading thinkers in each community. For the most part, their work, both separately and in concert, still lies before them.
David Novak is the Edgar N. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Jewish- Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification. A version of this essay will appear in Leon Klenicki and Helga Croner, eds.. In the Midst of Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christianity, to be published in April under the imprint of Paulist Press-Stimulus Foundation.