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Jewish Perspectives on Christianity
edited by Franz A. Rothschild
Crossroad, 363 pages, $29.50

The interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews has become such a familiar feature of contemporary religious life that it is hard to imagine a time when it was virtually unheard of. Yet this dialogue has existed in self-conscious form only since the end of World War II. Jewish Perspectives on Christianity, edited by Fritz A. Rothschild, presents essays and excerpts from larger works by five Jewish thinkers who were early participants in the dialogue—in some cases forerunners or precursors of the dialogue, in that their writings preceded institutional contact between the faiths. In any case, these five provided much of the intellectual basis (at least from the Jewish side) that ultimately made extensive interfaith discussion possible.

The selections here are taken from the writings of Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Will Herberg, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Editor Rothschild has chosen well, and his introductory essay provides coherence and context to the volume. The collection as a whole has something of the feel of dialogue in that each of these Jewish thinkers is introduced in an essay written by a Christian theologian (J. Louis Martyn on Baeck, Ekkehard W. Stegemann on Buber, Bernhard Casper on Rosenzweig, Bernhard W. Anderson on Herberg, and John C. Merkle on Heschel). If this book does not keep pace with all the latest developments in Jewish thought on Christianity, it certainly has the virtue of bringing together in one volume some of the essential writings on the subject from an earlier era, without which current and future dialogue might easily become shallow and uninformed. Even a cursory review of these sources indicates their enduring power and value.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956), a liberal German Jew of the Kantian stripe, is famous for his distinction between Christianity as a “romantic” religion, emphasizing feeling and introspection, and Judaism as a “classical” religion, stressing rationality and ethics. Christianity is depicted by Baeck as an emanation of Judaism that lost sight of Judaism’s purer and more universalistic truth. The comparison of Christianity and Judaism reads more as disputation than dialogue, and there is, as Louis Martyn points out, “a considerable amount of anger” beneath the surface of Baeck’s writing, motivated by the misrepresentation of Judaism by German Christians in the academy and by the discrimination against Jews in Christian Europe.

But if Baeck is correct in defending Judaism against Christian misinterpretation, his own writings frequently misunderstand and misrepresent Christianity (though with less serious consequences for Christians than their misrepresentations have had for Jews). Baeck can certainly be accused of misreading particular historical manifestations of Christianity as its timeless and immutable essence. Nevertheless, his writings represent an early attempt in the modern period to put the two faiths on speaking terms, and even in some of his unbalanced formulations there is often more than a little truth. If his theoretical account of Christianity is less sympathetic and well-balanced than that of some other Jewish thinkers, he is not alone in making historical judgments on Christianity for its ethical failures. Martyn’s tactful commentary on Baeck’s thought blends sympathy with respectful criticism.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), another German and a contemporary of Baeck’s, has a better understanding and more favorable view of Christianity (though he too criticizes it for its failure to bear more fully the ethical fruit of its religious promise). Rosenzweig himself nearly converted to Christianity, but decided against it after going through something like a revelatory experience while attending Yom Kippur services in 1913.

Rosenzweig is, in a sense, the key figure for the interfaith dialogue and special relationship that emerged years after his untimely death at age forty-three. Relying heavily on certain New Testament passages (in Romans 9-11), Rosenzweig worked out a theory of the “dual covenant” according to which God uses both the Christian church and the Jewish people as part of his plan to redeem the world. Christians are called to bring “the nations” into the divine covenant while the Jews are to remain faithful to their original covenant and vocation as witnesses. The title of Rosenzweig’s opus, The Star of Redemption, expresses the relation of the two faiths: Judaism is the core that keeps the star hot and brilliant, while Christianity is represented by the rays that spread out to all peoples.

No one imagines that this conception is fully worked out or unproblematic, but believers from both faiths have found Rosenzweig’s thought extremely fertile, with much promise as a basis for future dialogue. It has the obvious attraction of allowing Jewish affirmation of Christianity not merely as an aberrant form of Judaism but as a part of salvation history; Christians, on the other hand, can recognize the continuing religious validity of Judaism without sacrificing their own faith claims.

Rosenzweig’s writing is complex, highly allusive, and generally difficult. And yet even in the short selections reprinted here, one cannot but be impressed by the author’s vast learning and his penetrating mind. Rosenzweig is perhaps one of the great under-appreciated thinkers in modem philosophy and theology.

Martin Buber (1878-1965) is probably less celebrated for giving perspectives on Christianity than providing perspectives for Christians seeking to recover the Jewish roots of their own faith. The “Hebrew humanism” expressed in his writings enabled many non-Jews to penetrate to the heart of Jewish piety and spirituality as never before in the modem era. Not since Moses Mendelssohn (in the eighteenth century) had a Jew” as a Jew, not just a philosopher who happened to be of Jewish origin—had such an effect on the spiritual consciousness of the Christian world. Though Buber never fully accepted the practice of Jewish law and ritual (halakhah), his writings emphasize the “hallowing of the everyday” and the personal (as opposed to abstract intellectual) encounter with God and other persons. There are no excerpts here from Buber’s most famous work, I and Thou, but there are good, representative essays, including “Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,” “Two Types of Faith,” and “Church, State, Nation, Jewry.”

Strangely, the section on Buber is presented before the section on Rosenzweig, presumably because Buber’s birth precedes Rosenzweig’s by eight years. But of course, Rosenzweig’s writings come before Buber’s, and had a formative influence on Buber’s thought—particularly in the bias against a philosophical idealism that would deny the particular historical importance of the chosen people Israel (or the Christian church, for that matter).

 Buber acknowledges an unresolvable difference between Christianity and Judaism in that Jews cannot see in Jesus the beginning of the Messianic era, maintaining instead an acute apprehension of “the unredeemedness of the world.” It is impossible for the Jew to equate the Incarnation with the initiation of God’s kingdom, since “universal history has not been rent to its foundations” and “the world has not yet been redeemed.” Nevertheless, the spread of Christianity seems to Buber to be part of God’s redemptive plan for bringing all peoples into the divine covenant. He argues for Christian acceptance of the religious legitimacy of Judaism as a mystery beyond normal philosophical and theological categories. Jews and Christians are united in serving God’s single purpose, even as they are separated by fundamental contradictions, which Buber holds will ultimately be overcome. “We serve thus, till one day we may be united in common service, till we shall all become, as the Jewish prayer on the festival of the New Year puts it: ‘a single fellowship for doing his will’” And: “The gates of God are open to all. The Christian need not go via Judaism, nor the Jew via Christianity, in order to enter into God.”

Will Herberg (1901-1977), a native-born American philosopher-theologian and sociologist, stands in the Rosenzweigian dual-covenant tradition—though in his view the Jews still have an important role in history, whereas Rosenzweig had declared the Jews to be a people largely outside of history. A disillusioned Communist, Herberg was inspired by the philosophical approach of religious existentialism, in particular by the Protestant neo-orthodox theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Like Rosenzweig, Herberg nearly converted to Christianity but was dissuaded from such a move by Niebuhr himself, in order that he might truly become a Jew before he considered Christianity.

The two selections in this volume are must reading for anyone interested in interfaith relations. In “A Jew Looks at Jesus,” Herberg, like Buber, seeks to place Jesus in his Jewish context. “Judaism and Christianity: Their Unity and Difference” is a little masterpiece that has been out of print for many years. It provides an astute and lucid identification of corresponding elements in the two faiths, such that no one can doubt the character of their special relationship (despite enduring and perhaps insurmountable differences). Herberg remained, throughout his life, distant from institutionalized Judaism and ritual practice, far more so even than Buber. Though Herberg never became a Christian, some Jews regard his thought as, in the end, more Christian than Jewish.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (19071972), unlike Will Herberg, was very much established within the Jewish community and its institutions, traditions, and practices. A conservative rabbi descended from a long line of rabbis and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Heschel emerged as a major figure in the postwar flurry of ecumenical activity, playing a key role in negotiating on behalf of Jewish organizations with the Catholic hierarchy before and during the Second Vatican Council. His books—including The Sabbath, Man’s Quest for God, Man Is Not Aloneand God in Search of Manwere addressed to Jews but also won a large Christian readership. As John C. Merkle explains in his introductory essay, “To read Heschel is to feel the spiritual vitality and grandeur of Judaism; it is to be persuaded that the Jewish people are still covenanted to God and have an indispensable part to play in the divinely inspired drama of redemption.”

In the articles reprinted here Heschel discusses the Jewish religious ideal of achieving both external conformity to moral law and inner appropriation of its spirit. Christianity, he thinks, often falls into an unbalanced emphasis on inner appropriation. Heschel welcomes the Christian recovery of Jewish roots in the Hebrew Scripture, warning against the recurring tendency to the heresy of Marcionism that denied Christianity’s Jewish lineage. He is eager to praise all genuine Christian renewal—both for the sake of Christians, in that it brings them into the divine covenant (however different it is from God’s covenant with Israel), and for the sake of Jews, who cannot help but be affected by the general spiritual climate of the culture.

In his moving essay “No Religion Is an Island,” Heschel defends the uniqueness and special mission of the Jews as God’s “chosen people” while at the same time acknowledging the benefit, even the providence, of religious diversity. The writings of Judah Halevi and Maimonides are cited as precedent for the idea that other religions, and Christianity in particular, are part of God’s plan to prepare the world for the Messiah. It is possible, Heschel thinks, to overcome mutual contempt and establish mutual esteem and reverence. Such concord, however, can be achieved only by preserving and speaking from within distinct communities of faith. Heschel’s motto, often quoted in ecumenical discussions, is that “interfaith dialogue must begin with faith.”

Whatever may separate Jew and Christian, they are united against the creeping nihilism of modem culture and in their common hope for a redemption of the world. According to Heschel: “The supreme issue is today not the halakhah for the Jew or the Church for the Christian—but the premise underlying both religions, namely, whether there is a pathos, a divine reality concerned with the destiny of man which mysteriously impinges upon history; the supreme issue is whether we are alive or dead to the challenge and the expectation of the living God. The crisis engulfs all of us. The misery and fear of alienation from God make Jew and Christian cry together.” In the pages of Fritz Rothschild’s admirable anthology, one can hear that cry—and also the hope of overcoming alienation from God and one another.

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things .