By now it is obvious that in the past twenty-five years or so there has been considerable progress in the Jewish-Christian relationship. Overcoming centuries of mutual hostility or indifference, some Jews and Christians are now able to engage in honest and fruitful dialogue and, as religious communities struggling in a larger secular society and culture, they are now able to recognize a number of overlapping interests. For Christians, this progress has required overcoming triumphalist attempts to delegitimize postbiblical Judaism. For Jews, this progress has required overcoming the assumption that Christianity is incorrigibly anti-Jewish and that all Christians are ultimately, if not immediately, anti-Semites. Progress has grown out of a healthy balance between otherness and commonality. Some Jews and Christians are now able to recognize the otherness of the other community as something to be respected rather than feared. And they are now able to recognize enough commonality in terms of common past origins, common present concerns, and common hopes for the future to enable a genuinely mutual relationship to take root and grow.
Despite this progress, a problem lies just beneath the surface. It is a problem that must be discussed if the progress we have experienced in the Jewish-Christian relationship is not to regress. The problem concerns a new type of Jewish convert to Christianity, who has of late become more visible and more vocal.
It has always been inevitable that, living as a small minority among a Christian majority, some Jews would convert to Christianity. At certain times of great persecution, like the Inquisition, some feigned conversion, becoming “secret Jews” (e.g., the so-called “Maranos”). Faced with the alternative of death or exile, they would adopt some kind of pseudo-Christianity, which might be abandoned at the first opportunity. By a grisly irony, the Inquisition correctly assumed that such Jewish converts were not really Christians and never had been. Other Jews converted to Christianity and remained in the Church because they saw it as socially or economically advantageous. Finally, still others converted to Christianity because they sincerely believed that Christianity is the true faith. Although by Christian standards Jews who convert to Christianity for opportunistic reasons are clearly “bad” Christians, and Jews who convert to Christianity for religious reasons are clearly “good” Christians, the one thing they had in common was that they both believed themselves to be Christians and no longer Jews. Both kinds of converts believed that they had made a decisive leap from one community to another.
As far as Christianity was concerned, they had, like any other converts, indeed become members of the Church. Following Paul’s assertion that “there is no such thing as Jew and Greek . . . in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), the Church refused to recognize any special status for Christians of Jewish origin in its ranks. For their part, the Jewish authorities considered converts to Christianity to be apostates (meshumadim) whose return to Judaism was a hope never to be abandoned, however unlikely that return might in fact be. And the Jewish converts to Christianity themselves almost always accepted the Church’s definition of their new status. They no longer regarded themselves as Jews and were often quite vehement in repudiating their former identity.
Now, however, there is a new kind of Jewish Christian, one who poses an altogether new problem for both the Jewish and the Christian communities. These Jewish converts to Christianity not only claim still to be Jews, they also claim still to be practicing Judaism. Some of them insist that they are indeed practicing the true Judaism, implying that all other Jews are practicing a false Judaism. Others merely insist that they are practicing a true Judaism, thus implying if not actually demanding that their practice be accepted as a legitimate form of Judaism. The vast majority of Jews refuse to accept either what might be termed the maximalist claim or even the minimalist claim of the Jewish Christians.
In relation to the Christians, the new Jewish Christians claim a special role for themselves within the Church, offering themselves as a kind of personal link between the now gentile Church and its Jewish origins. This claim often includes a demand for recognition of their right, or even obligation, to perform the ritual commandments of the Torah, from which all other Christians have been exempted by Christ (see Matthew 12:8). Some of them go so far as to refuse the name “Christian” altogether, preferring to call themselves “Messianic Jews.” For even though the Greek Christos is no more than a translation of the Hebrew Mashiah, the connotation of the word has come during the course of history to mean something quite different.
The various branches of the Church have reacted variously to this new type of Jewish Christian. Yet it would seem that any formal conferral of a unique status upon them would mark the acceptance of a permanent division of Christians de jure into a Jewish and a gentile branch. This would, theologically speaking, pose a far greater threat to Christian ecumenism than the present de facto divisions within the Church”divisions, after all, that can be seen as merely temporary obstacles for Christians to overcome.
Beyond posing a special kind of problem both to the Jewish community and the Christian community, these Jewish Christians also constitute a problem to the new Jewish-Christian relationship. For the acceptance of their unique status by some Christians strongly suggests to many Jews—very much including those most favorably disposed to the new Jewish-Christian relationship—that the Jewish Christians are being held up to the rest of the Jews as exemplars. In other words, Christian recognition of their unique status strongly suggests a new form of proselytizing, specifically directed at Jews, that is quite different from a general Christian proclamation of the Gospel to the entire world. In as much as the Gospel is in essence similar to the Jewish proclamation that “it shall come to pass in the end of days . . . from Zion shall the Torah go forth and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:1-2), most Jews can live with it. But proselytizing efforts that are specifically directed at Jews must be abandoned by Christians who wish to engage in any dialogical relationship with Jews. For we Jews cannot be expected to allow ourselves to be the objects of efforts designed specifically to lure us eventually, if not immediately, away from what we believe is our own true covenantal identity. In fact, those of us in the Jewish community who favor dialogue and cooperation with Christians have had to contend against certain of our fellow Jews who see the new Jewish-Christian relationship as a clever ruse designed by sophisticated Christians to take in gullible Jews. Thus Christian acceptance of the self-proclaimed Judaism of the new Jewish Christians, as opposed to accepting them simply as any converts are accepted, can only undermine the position of the pro-dialogue and cooperation party within the Jewish community.
Jewish rejection of the claim of the Jewish Christians that they remain part of the life and faith of the people of Israel has taken legal form in several important decisions of the State of Israel’s Supreme Court. The most recent decision of the Court on that issue, in 1989, involved two Jewish Christians, Jerry and Shirley Beresford, who petitioned for Israeli citizenship as Jews under the Law of Return, which guarantees immediate Israeli citizenship to every Jew. The Court rejected their petition on the grounds that the Law of Return specifically precludes from the right it confers any Jew who has affiliated with another, non-Jewish, religious community. In this decision, the Court essentially followed the precedent of the 1962 rejection of a similar petition by Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew who had become a Roman Catholic monk under the name of Brother Daniel. (The only basic difference between these two cases is that Rufeisen was clearly a member of a discernible non-Jewish community, the Roman Catholic Church, whereas it was somewhat unclear just what Christian community the Beresfords are members of.)
The Court’s rejection of this petition, which is wholly consistent with the attitude of virtually all of world Jewry, has angered a number of Christians, even some who are otherwise favorably disposed to the new Jewish-Christian relationship. For does it not seem to single out Jewish Christians for rejection? Why, some of them have asked me and other Jewish friends, are Jewish Christians any less Jewish than Jewish atheists? These questions are quite understandable, and they must be addressed by thoughtful Jews, especially Jewish theologians who have been able to communicate with Christians theologically.
Being, on the whole, biblical literalists, the Jewish Christians assume that they can simply pick up where the Jewish Christians in the earliest Church left off. The Jewish Christians, especially when they designate themselves as “messianic,” assume that they are that branch of the Jewish people who have accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. In their opinion, it is merely that the rest of the Jewish people have not yet done so. Thus they see the messiahhood of Jesus as the sole point of difference between themselves and their fellow Jews. Like most biblical literalists, they choose to ignore the testimony of intervening history. But that intervening history also counts as an indispensable factor for the normative judgments of both Judaism and Christianity.
And it is intervening history that has made any simple division between messianic and non-messianic Jews inappropriate. The question of which Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah and which do not is no longer applicable. The fact is that neither Jews nor gentiles relate to Jesus as the Messiah now. Messiahhood is a political designation for a divinely restored (or, at least, divinely sanctioned) Jewish king in Jerusalem, who will gather in the exiles, establish a state governed by the Torah, and rebuild the Temple. For Christians, Jesus is different from, and a good deal more than, that; he is also believed to be divine. He is mainly acknowledged as the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. His messiahhood, for Christians, has now been postponed to the Second Coming, when Christians believe he will rule on earth as Christ the King (see John 18:36). In Jewish belief, on the other hand, Jesus was not the Messiah precisely because he did not bring about the full restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and God’s universal reign of peace.
The real issue that now separates Jews and Christians is not messiahhood but the incarnation and the Trinity. Unlike the issue of messiahhood, which arose when Jews and Christians were members of the same religio-political community and spoke the same conceptual language, the issues of the incarnation and the Trinity divide people who are no longer members of the same community and who no longer speak the same language. There is no longer any common criterion of truth available for debating, much less resolving, the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity.
Once the Church decided that gentile converts no longer had to undergo halakhic conversion to Judaism first (see Acts 15:8-11), it was inevitable that Jews and Christians would separate into two distinct communities. Eventually the Church condemned as “judaizing” any suggestion that Christians could practice Jewish rites in good faith, and contemporary Jewish authorities were equally disapproving of this type of syncretism. Although Christians, in their rejection of the Marcionite heresy (which attempted to sever Christianity from its roots in Judaism), still consider themselves part of the Jewish story (aggadah), they do not consider themselves to be subject to Jewish law (halakhah). In place of the Jewish commandments (mitzvot) came the sacraments, which are like the Jewish commandments in that they are structured by their own law (what became the Canon law of the Church). This legal separation enabled the Church to evolve from a Jewish sect into a fully independent religious community. Gradually, many Jewish authorities came to look upon the now independent Christian Church as an essentially gentile community, but one uniquely related to Judaism because of its acceptance of Jewish Scripture as authoritative in some basic matters of faith and morals.
Today’s Jewish Christians, then, are not a simple throwback to the first Jewish Christians. They can, rather, be more closely compared to the Jewish Christian syncretists of the second and third centuries. But neither normative Judaism nor normative Christianity has been willing to tolerate such syncretism. Both communities have seen it as a type of error that is inconsistent with the independence of each of them.
The important thing to remember when dealing with the issue of the Jewish Christians is that according to normative Judaism, they are still Jews. Jewish status is defined by the divine election of Israel and his descendants. One does not become a Jew by one’s own volition. Even in the case of converts to Judaism (whose number is increasing today), they are not “Jews by choice,” as some would erroneously call them. A gentile’s choice to become a Jew is a necessary but not sufficient condition of conversion. No conversion is valid without the express consent of the convert, to be sure, but the convert’s choice is not sufficient to make him or her a Jew: it only makes one a candidate for conversion. The actual conversion itself is the act of an authoritative Jewish Tribunal who, in effect, elect the candidate before them, as God elects Israel and his descendants. Like God, the tribunal is under no compulsion to elect, which is to say convert, anyone.
Since Jews are elected by God, there is absolutely nothing any Jew can do to remove himself or herself from the Covenant. The rule concerning individual apostates is based on a Talmudic judgment about the Jewish people as a whole: “Even when it has sinned, Israel is still Israel” (Sanhedrin 44a). No one who accepts the authority of normative Judaism can rule that Jewish Christians are not Jews. What they can and do rule, however, is that the Christhood (incarnation/trinitarian status) of Jesus of Nazareth is not an option within God’s everlasting Covenant with the people of Israel. Jewish Christians are still Jews, but they are no longer practicing a religion Jews regard as part of Judaism.
Why is Christianity not a legitimate covenantal option for Jews? There are two ways to answer the’ question.
One way might be termed exegetical. This had a complex development in ancient and medieval times, and it frequently reappears in modern times in encounters between Jewish fundamentalists and their Christian counterparts. Here Jews invoke Jewish Scripture because it is accepted as authoritative by Christians too as their “Old Testament.” Through exegesis of commonly acknowledged Scripture, Jews have tried to show that the messiahhood of Jesus is invalid according to scriptural criteria, and that the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity have no true foundation in Scripture at all. Of course, through their own exegesis, Christians have tried to show that the contrary position is validated by Scripture. Frequently, the most intense exegetical disputations between Jews and Christians have involved the very same scriptural passages. Just think of how much ink has been spilled over the issue whether Isaiah 7:14 should be interpreted “behold the young woman ( ha’almah ) shall conceive and bear a son” (the Jewish version), or “behold the virgin ( he parthenos ) shall conceive and bear a son” (the Christian version). Nevertheless, one can conclude from studying the long history of these Jewish-Christian exegetical disputations that they have largely been exercises in futility, convincing only the already convinced.
The reason for the inconclusiveness of this exegetical method of argumentation is not difficult to find. Modern Jewish and Christian scholars have alike come to the understanding that scriptural exegesis is much more a process whereby the teachings of the tradition of a religious community (what Jews call Oral Torah and Catholics call the magisterium) are connected to Scripture than it is one in which these teachings are simply derived from Scripture in some unproblematic fashion. Thus it is that Jews and Christians can read a common text so differently and therefore cannot resolve their differences by appealing to the authority of Scripture. The commonality between Judaism and Christianity can be affirmed and developed only in those areas where our respective traditions do indeed overlap. But on the whole question of who Jesus is, they do not overlap. All our divergences pale in comparison to this one fundamental difference. Many Jews—I among —and many Christians now believe that this fundamental difference will remain until God’s final redemption of the world at the end of history.
Since Jews and Christians are still within history rather than at its end, the best approach to the question as to why Christianity is not a legitimate covenantal option for Jews is historical rather than exegetical.
From the fact that the first generation of Christians were mostly Jewish (“according to the flesh,” as Paul put it in Romans 4:1), one could argue that Christianity was at that time a form of Judaism, perhaps even a heterodox form of pharisaic Judaism. (There is a voluminous scholarly literature on this subject by both Christian and Jewish scholars.) However, it is clear from the historical record that in the succeeding generations, the Church became a predominantly gentile community. This was because gentile converts to Christianity were no longer required to convert to Judaism by following the halakhic prescriptions of circumcision and acceptance of all the commandments of the Torah and Jewish tradition. (The halakhic requirement of immersion was adapted by the Church into the requirement of baptism.) The descendants of the original Jewish Christians quickly became gentiles themselves through intermarriage with gentile Christians in the Church.
Had the Church decided otherwise, that is, had it chosen what might be called the “halakhic” Christianity of the “pharisaic Christians” mentioned in Acts 15:5, it is conceivable that the whole Jewish-Christian relationship might well have developed altogether differently than it did. However, history cannot be erased (not, at least, by human creatures). The choice of the Church has been to be a gentile community according to the flesh—even though it sincerely claims to be grafted onto Israel according to the spirit (Romans 11:21), a point with which many Jews could basically agree. This historical choice led Jews subsequently to identify the different doctrines and practices of this now gentile community as doctrines and practices prohibited to Jews.
The refusal of the Supreme Court of the State of Israel in 1989 to grant Jerry and Shirley Beresford Israeli citizenship as Jews, and its insistence that they could become Israeli citizens only as Christians (who are eligible for Israeli citizenship, too), is the decision of a secular court in a secular state. Nevertheless, there were two opinions in the case. In practice, both opinions ruled against the petition of the Beresfords as the Court had ruled against the petition of Brother Daniel in 1962. But in theory, the two opinions are quite distinct. This distinction has important theological implications.
The minority opinion based its conclusion on what might be called “ordinary language” criteria, that is, the theory that says that the meaning of terms is determined by the way they are currently used in ordinary conversation, not by the way they are defined in learned texts. By this criterion, the minority opinion based itself on the fact that in ordinary language Jews and Christians are considered to be two separate groups, that one cannot simultaneously be a member of both communities. If one were to ask the proverbial “man in the street” if a Christian could also be a Jew, or a Jew also a Christian, the answer would surely be a simple “no.”
The Court’s majority opinion, on the other hand, did base itself on Jewish tradition, “following the language of the Torah, not the ordinary language of humans,” as the Talmud puts it. The exclusion of the Beresfords from Jewish status in the State of Israel is based on the traditional power of the authorities of the Jewish community to exclude those considered apostates from many of the privileges of the community. Thus, for example, apostates are to be excluded from the privilege of being called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, or even to be counted in the quorum of ten ( minyan ) required for a full synagogue service to be conducted. The apostate is still a Jew; no human court can change that fact. But the apostate is excluded from communion with the normative Jewish community ( knesset yisrael ).
I purposely use the term “communion” because Christians, especially Catholic Christians, can recognize the same process in “excommunication.” Since Catholics regard baptism to be indelible, no one is ever totally removed from the body of the Church. Excommunication means that because of serious mortal sin—such as apostasy—someone is not allowed the privilege of receiving communion, that is, participating in the eucharist. Proper repentance can lead to the removal of the ban of excommunication. No doubt a Catholic who converted to Judaism would be subject to such excommunication. This does not mean that the Church is denying its roots in Judaism. It simply means that it does not regard Judaism to be a legitimate type of Christianity, a point with which very few Jews would disagree. Similarly, by regarding the Jewish convert to Christianity as an apostate Judaism is not denying that Christianity is uniquely connected to it. It simply is saying that it does not regard Christianity as a legitimate type of Judaism, but rather regards it as an independent religious community in its own right, a point with which very few Christians would disagree.
The question of why Jewish authorities are harder on Jewish Christians than on Jewish atheists is one that Jewish theologians must answer. Christian anger about what might appear to be a double standard would otherwise be entirely understandable.
In a purely religious context, such as a synagogue service, for example, a professed Jewish atheist has no more right to be a participant than a professed Christian. By “participant” I mean one capable of being counted in the quorum of ten and being called to the reading of the Torah. Anyone, of course, may attend a synagogue service. Similarly, anyone may attend a church service, but not everyone may receive communion. Practically speaking, there is little likelihood that a professed Jewish atheist of any moral integrity would want to participate in a religious service. Until quite recently, there was equally little likelihood that a professed Christian, of whatever origins, would want to participate in a Jewish religious service. At present, however, there are certain Jewish Christians who regard themselves as Jews—even religious Jews—who do want to participate in Jewish religious services. Whereas Jewish atheists do not regard their atheism as a Jewish religious option, some Jewish Christians do regard their Christianity as such an option. Since there is a greater possibility for confusion regarding Jewish Christians than Jewish atheists, Jewish authorities have to be harder on Jewish Christians. Considering the claim of many Christians throughout history to be the “true Israel” (verus Israel) —a claim made by no other religious community—strong Jewish reaction to Jewish Christians who seem to be repeating that claim, one so offensive to Jews, should come as no real surprise.
Another reason why Jewish Christians are to be treated more severely than Jewish atheists is that, despite all their protestations to the contrary, Jewish Christians have joined another, non-Jewish, community, and Jewish atheists have not. (A distinction has to be made here between doctrinaire Jewish atheists and the many secularized Jews who may not act on, but nevertheless have not explicitly renounced, Jewish religious belief and practice.) This basic point was an integral part of the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to deny the Beresfords citizenship as Jews. Here again, historical experience as much as theological-legal definition played a key role. For non-fundamentalists, moreover, history and theology and law are integrally related.
Jewish Christians, then, pose unique problems of one kind for Judaism and unique problems of another for the Church. In addition, they pose problems for the cause of a new, improved Jewish-Christian relationship. I am not asking Christians to reject them, or even to question the sincerity of their belief that their form of Jewish Christianity is not a figment of their imaginations. (For this reason, I did not see it to be my business as a Jew to join some other Jews who protested Pope John Paul II’s beatification of the Jewish Christian Edith Stein. When the Church accepted Edith Stein as a convert, she became a member of its religious community. I mourn her death along with the deaths of all the victims of Nazi idolatry, Jewish or gentile.) But as one who has worked long and hard for the progress of this new, improved relationship—especially on the theological level—I do ask Christians to regard the Jewish Christians who claim to be practicing Judaism as an exception rather than the rule. To see them as a unique link between the Jewish people and the Church, and to expect faithful Jews to concur in that judgment, asks too much of us.
In our open society, there are going to be Jews who become Christians for religious reasons just as there are going to be Christians who become Jews for religious reasons. But these great existential decisions are not meant to be cost-free. In any religious conversion, something is gained and something lost (see Yevamot 47a-b; Matthew 10:34-39). I believe at the end of time God will show each one of us whether the gain or the loss is greater in the ways we chose to listen to His voice.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as Professor of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto since 1997, and is author of Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification.