Forget the cookies and tea, the polite mutual admiration societies, the committee draftsmanship of pious theses that plague the academic industry known as Jewish-Christian dialogue. Here we pour high-proof schnaps, straight from the barrel. 

The Christian-Jewish engagement is nothing, if it is not a matter of mutual Unheimlichkeit —a marvelous word that in the case of Freud’s essay is translated as “the uncanny,” but implies a kind of creepiness for which there is no real English cognate. If you step onto your morning train into the office, and someone gets out and walks by you who looks exactly like you, that is unheimlich. Meeting a Doppelgänger is unheimlich. God is the jealous (better translation: impassioned) bridegroom of Israel. When Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah, makes eye contact with Israel, the People of God in the self-conception of the Christian Church (using Barth’s upper-case), it is unheimlich.

Because of the terrible history of Jew-hatred, Christians tread lightly around Jewish sensibilities. There was a reason for that, and there still is a reason for that, but the extreme of courtesy probably has outlived its usefulness. The truth is that we are siblings who cause each other anguish, and that the anguish is productive, for the anguish leads to passion.

Before going further into the matter of anguish, permit me to look forward to the conclusion, which depends on a brilliant insight of Michael Wyschogrod into a world-shaking insight of Kierkegaard: passion has ontological reality. That does not of course mean that the tantrum of every toddler and the hormone-boosted affections of every adolescent rank with the portrayal of Saints by El Greco or the verse of Yehuda Halevi. The problem is the existence of God. The famous dictum of Martin Buber that we cannot conceive of God in the third person, but only in the second person, is an ontological statement. In the January issue of First Things, Alan Mittleman of Jewish Theological Seminary offered an eloquent restatement of this idea. As Prof. Mittleman wrote,

God, Buber felt, could not be discussed but only addressed—and that in the second person as “you.” To speak of God as if one were speaking of a thing, however recondite and mysterious, or of a distant person, was to speak of nothing more than a fictive character. For Buber, it seems, the word God named nothing real. Rather, the use of the word God, in the context of address, absorbs one in a way of life that touches on the real. All that we can really say of God is what we can say to God.


Kierkegaard is the first major theologian to pose the problem this way, Wsychogrod shows. If we attempt to prove the existence of God, we are stating that there exists an entity, “God,” which has the predicate of being. God is the Lord of Being (as Barth quotes Schelling), the source of Being, which makes the exercise absurd to begin wit. Besides, being is not a predicate. But we know God not as an entity but as a person, and we know that person through prayer. Knowledge of God is open to the broken and contrite heart, not to the merely analytical mind; analysis is shunted onto the side-track of the via negativa. That’s the scenic route, but not the one we want to take today.

God is a personal God or nothing at all. Impersonal Gods always are idols, abominations of wood or clay, or Gnostic constructs of the overheated mind. It is the God to whom we pray with an impassioned heart that we know, and since God is the Lord of Being, our knowledge of Being begins with passion. That is Kierkegaard’s ontology expounded while standing on one foot, with apologies to Prof. Wyschogrod, who wrote his book on this subject in such a way as to discourage facile and homilectic sound-bites of this sort.

Thankfully, we have Prof. Wyschogrod to provide a rigorous exposition of this concept. My job is to rush in where angels fear to tread. The above outburst was occasioned by a March 2009 statement by the “Discussion Group of Jews and Christians” sponsored by the Central Committee of German Catholics. It reads, in part (my translation),

Dialogue represents a method for discovering out the truth, in the form of the dialectic in Greek thinking . . . In the philosophical “Dialogic” of the 20th century the word Dialogue takes on an additional meaning, not least due to the influence of Jewish thinkers. The “new thinking” of Franz Rosenzweig rests on the ethical obligation to enter into dialogue, to which the dialogic partner only can come in free agreement. . . . The influence of dialogic thinking on contemporary Christian theology is not to be underestimated . . . today one correctly speaks of ecumenical Jewish-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. It proceeds from the principal of the plurality of lived religious experience, is conducted eye to eye, and is characterized b the mutual recognition among partners...”


Pfui! Weak tea! Stale cookies! An important response to this document was published by the leading Catholic ethicist Robert Spaemann,  in a widely-circulated essay April 20 in the German newspaper of record, the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung. It’s not a matter of dialogue, but of the intolerable pain of the division of Israel. “God is not a bigamist,” Spaemann insists: he cannot be the bridegroom of the People of God if this People is not one, but two. This would represent “a break with the Church’s self-understanding since the days of the Apostles. For my part, I no longer could belong to this church.”There can be only one people of God, Spaemann insists.

Quoting John Paul II’s characterization of the Jewish people as “our older brother,” Spaemann cites the parable of the Prodigal Son:

[The Jews] are our “older brother” who, as in Jesus’ parable, “always remained with the Father,” and now has a problem, because the father has arranged a feast for the return of his lost son. But the festive meal will only be realized if he takes part in it. If the returning, lost son were to say to him, “Don’t worry, stay where you are, the feast is just fine without you,” the Father would not have taken him in again. The thought that the problem might be solved by the formation of a second family has nothing to do with the New Testament. The People of the Covenant are portrayed as a bride in the Old Testament, and God as a jealous bridegroom. The bride is not supposed to stray. But God is no bigamist who is satisfied if the two families “are in dialogue.”


Spaemann wants to rejoice at the Father’s feast, but knows he cannot do so in fullness of heart in the absence of the older brother. He wishes that all Jews were like Edith Stein, who went to martyrdom in Auschwitz as a Catholic convert from Judaism. At the outset of his essay he quotes Stein’s declaration in her will that she would give her life “as  expiation for the disbelief [in Christ] of the Jewish people.” As with the late Cardinal Lustiger, adds Spaemann, “avowal of Jesus Christ was for her the fulfillment of her Jewish character. There cannot be two Peoples of God. Israel can only be one People, argues Spaemann. Anguish must arise from the apparent division of Israel into what appears to be separate Peoples.

Between the weak tea of the Committee document and the impassioned remonstration of a Christian critic, I feel closer to the Christian Robert Spaemann—even though he wants to convert me, and I don’t want to convert him. What is wanting in the Committee document is just this sense of anguish, the emotion with which we who live in the temporal world gaze from afar towards the eschaton. Spaemann longs for the unity of Israel, the day on which (he believes) all Israel will come into the sheepfold of Christ. I long for the day prophecied by Zechariah in which all the world will call on YHWH by his unique name.

Patience, patience, Prof. Spaemann. As Cardinal Walter Kasper insists, the pro judaeis prayer in the revised Latin Easter liturgy reflects an eschatological hope for the unity of Israel. But that is not enough for the Jewish side of the German dialogue. The Jewish members of the committee write:

It would signify a fundamental relaxation of tensions [between Jews and Catholics] if the Church were to postpone its hope [for the conversion of the Jews] until the End Times and link this to a clear renunciation of a mission to the Jews, as Cardinal Walter Kasper interpreted the new prayer [pro judaeis] in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung of March 20, 2008. Nonetheless there remains an impression that Judaism is not an entirely valid path to salvation. This fear threatens the preconditions of as well as the impartiality of dialogue.


It is absurd for Jews to ask Christians to abandon an eschatological hope for the unity of Israel, that the older and younger brother will sit down together at the same feast. Spaemann cites Rabbi Jacob Neusner, who in a 2008 article entitled “Catholics Have a Right to Pray for Us,” observes that Jews pray daily for God “to enlighten the nations and bring them into his kingdom.” But Spaemann incorrectly cites Neusner as saying that Jews pray for the conversion of the world to Judaism; never is it anticipated that the Gentiles would take on the full practice of Judaism, nor do Jews think this is necessary or desirable. Spaemann’s presentation would be more credible if his understanding of Judaism was subtler.

The Jewish complaint that a Christian hope for their conversion in the End Times suggests that “Judaism is not an entirely valid path to salvation” involves more than a dash of chutzpah. What Jew believes that Christianity is an “entirely valid path to salvation”? The working-group participants quote Franz Rosenzweig as an exemplar of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the same Rosenzweig who warned that without the physical, living presence of the Jewish people, Christianity itself would sink back into paganism, for it is the Jew who converts the inner pagan inside each Christian. Rosenzweig did not believe that Christianity is “an entirely valid path to salvation” in the absence of Jews. It is chutzpah for Jews to quote Rosenzweig and then complain that Christians believe that Judaism is a less-than-perfect path to salvation.

Spaemann’s objections to the Discussion Group’s document are valid; the committee drafters left a gap through which he could, and did, drive a coach and horses. But his position leads in a direction that I would advise him to avoid at all costs.

Christians and Jews have an argument over impassioned differences, but it is an argument that neither of us should hope to win. Joseph Bottum, First Things’ editor, spoke at a conference some years ago at the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy some years ago at which a Jewish speaker insisted that Christians were inherently anti-Semitic. “Have you considered the consequences of winning this argument?,” Jody asked. “Do you really want to convince Christians that they really are anti-Semitic?” I hope that shut them up. More subtle are the reasons why Christians should not want to win the argument with Jews, not, at least, until the End Times.

I would say to Prof. Spaemann and to other Christians who might wish to convert us: “Have you considered the consequences of winning this argument?” The Vatican did at the Second Council. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said at the time that the wise old men who direct the Vatican know that the Jewish people is so holy that if we were to disappear, the Catholic Church would disappear not too long thereafter. It is the Jew that converts the inner pagan inside the Christian.

I elaborated on Franz Rosenzweig’s argument to this effect in a First Things essay published under the pseudonym “David Shushon.” In the absence of the Jews, the various ethnicities who remain encysted inside the Church will hanker after election, that is, immortality in their own tribal skin. I wrote,

Despite the thousand-year reign of Christian ­universal empire, the ethnocentric impulses of the ­converted tribes never disappeared. Indeed, Christianity gave them a new and in some ways more pernicious morphology. As Franz Rosenzweig observed, once the Gentile nations embraced Christianity, they abandoned their ancient fatalism regarding the inevitable extinction of their tribe. It is the God of Israel who first offers ­eternal life to humankind, and Christianity extended Israel’s promise to all. But the nations that adhered to Christendom as tribes rather than as individuals never forswore their love for their own ethnicity. On the ­contrary, they longed for eternal life in their own ­Gentile skin rather than in the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus Christ. After Christianity taught them the election of Israel, the Gentiles coveted election for themselves and desired their own people to be the chosen people. That set ethnocentric nationalism in conflict both with the Jews—the descendents of Abraham in the flesh—and with the Church, which holds itself to be the new People of God.


Just for this reason, the Catholic Church should want the Jewish people to flourish, and to live in security in their ancient divinely-assigned homeland:

All the more reason, then, that theologians should draw a sharp distinction between ethnic identity and membership in the People of God; the living Jewish commonwealth in the modern State of Israel establishes this distinction as an existential matter rather than as a mere point of doctrine.


It is a bit unfair of me to take Prof. Spaemann to task for wanting to convert me. I have the advantage in the debate, and doubly so. First of all, I have no doubt as to his salvation, for he is a good man who has devoted his life to the cause of life, and as a bio-ethicist has made prominent contributions to this cause. Secondly, my perception of eschatological time is different than his, and my patience is correspondingly greater. That is a long discussion (a reasonably good treatment of it is to be found in Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption.) Standing on one foot: Judaism embeds eschatological time in the present through Shabbat, a forecast of the End Time that is actually lived in the temporal world. From a Jewish standpoint “time is the mask of eternity” (Heschel), which is to say that time in a sense is illusory: all Jews stand before Mount Sinai when the Torah is read in synagogue, and all generations are present with us at the Passover table when “we” go out from Egypt. Our anticipation of the Messiah is hard to distinguish from our longing for the courts of the lost Temple, the well of salvation from which once we drew water in joy. We break into the world of time as a physical, living people—Rosenzweig overstated the case—but our perception of time is very different.

Christians are on a journey to salvation through a fallen world in which the promise of the Resurrection will be requited by the Messianic return of Jesus Christ. Just as Jews look at the six working days from the vantage-point of Shabbat, Christians look at earthly existence from the vantage-point of the Second Coming. Our supposed, eventual embrace of Jesus Christ is an eschatological event, and Prof. Spaemann’s desire to push us in this direction express his impassioned longing for the eschaton. I feel his pain, but not enough to encourage him.

The difference is that although the eschaton, in Christian terms, breaks into the temporal world through the Incarnation, this is the only beginning of the world’s journey to redemption. At least during Shabbat, the Jew is already outside of time. A few Christians seek to trump time by adopting a monastic life, but that is an alternative available only to a few. The end lies at the end of an indeterminate period.

The Jewish perception of eschatological time as actually existing in the here and now, in the form of the Sabbath, fosters patience. But that is a long story, for another occasion.

Articles by David P. Goldman

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